Farms and organic farms, on the rise in Maine with more grants - like Winterberry Organic Farm
Young farmer, Sage Perry, 8, pets her heritage turkey on her family farm in Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx
Photos and article by Ramona du Houx
There is nothing like an organically farmed naturally raised heritage turkey on Thanksgiving, nothing. Add organic cranberry sauce made with Maine maple syrup and fresh organically grown vegetables with pumpkin pie for desert, and the celebration is complete. It would be an occasion for the family to remember for years— long after they forget who won the football game.
I know, in 2013 I prepared such a feast. The biggest thrill was watching everyone’s face turn to delight as they let the turkey melt in their mouths. The succulent breasts, with a dab of cranberry sauce, awoke what seemed to be dormant taste buds.
The taste difference between a factory farmed bird and a heritage turkey was phenomenal. Gil Perry raised the special heritage bird from a chick, with hard work and a lot of patience.
The feathers of a heritage turkey on Winterberry farm in Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx
A heritage turkey means the birds are raised in a natural range-based environment, they reproduce by natural mating and have fertility rates between 70 percent and 80 percent, and enjoy a long productive outdoor lifespan.
“These are pastured animals that can roam on fresh terrain, which makes them freer than free-range,” said Mary Perry, owner of Winterberry Farm. “The industry term, ‘free-range,’ can also apply to birds kept in a warehouse.”
To be certified organic by the USDA, turkeys must be raised with no antibiotics, no growth enhancers and only organic feed, and they must be given access to the outdoors. The animals can be a heritage breed or the more common Broadbreasted White. Their heritage genetics allow them to withstand the weather conditions of being raised outdoors. They can also fly where as industrial turkey raised factory birds can’t. Factory birds are very genetically distant from a heritage bird, having been engineered mainly to produce huge white-meat breasts. Many can barely walk and cannot reproduce at all except through artificial insemination.
Mary Perry, in her shop on her "Forever Farm," Winterberry in Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx
To raise a heritage bird is a huge responsible undertaking.
“It’s a lot of work,” admitted Gil, the young farmer of 14, who is educated at home on the family “Forever Farm” by his mother, Mary.
Winterberry Farm is a small, diversified certified organic farm set on forty acres of open fields, pastures and woodland.
“It’s still an amazing feeling to know that I’m now an owner of a farm that will be here for future generations,” said Mary. “Winterberry was a 1870 homestead farm. We have pastures and vegetable fields that stretch back to Great Pond. For us this has been an important piece of our farming system to give back to this farm what is has given to my children and I— a life support system.”
Mary Perry, making wreaths at Winterberry in Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx
The farm was designated a “Forever Farm” in the fall of 2012, under a Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) program when they placed an agricultural easement on the property with the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance (BRCA), protecting it as a “Forever Farm.” MFT and BRCA, the local easement holder, donated money and time to create the easement. The trust gave $15,000 towards the easement and the alliance gave around $10,000.
Farms are given a green and white “Forever Farm” sign for the property and can be listed on MFT’s website. So far there are 68 “Forever Farms” designated in Maine.
“The farm is its own life force; and we are here and keeping it safe and enjoying the benefits and making a life out of it,” said Mary. “Long after I’m gone this farm will continue to live.”
Mary, 49, bought the farm 14 years ago and has worked it with her children, Gil, Kenya, 18, and Sage, 8. All the children have been home schooled and are well versed in farming. Mary said Kenya helps with doing a lot of everything. Gil also works his steers each morning, bringing wood from the forest, as well as taking care of all the animals. Sage, who has an amazing vocabulary, helps out around the farm too.
Young farmer, Gil Perry, 14, raised the Heritage Thanksgiving turkeys on his own from chicks on his family farm in Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx
“I grow arugula, beets… really anything. I start by tilling the soil, compositing, planting… and then harvesting. I help with the animals and birds too. I also make cookies and pies,” said Sage. “But I love riding the horses best.”
The farm has over 50 members in its community supported agriculture (CSA) program, in which people pay for a steady supply of fresh veggies, during the summer and fall.
“We grow 60 varieties of certified organic vegetables. The fall harvest is storage crops: onions, carrots, potatoes, leeks, and sweet potatoes. In the fall we also sell whole chickens and turkeys,” said Mary.
At her farm stand she sells vegetables, fruit pies pot pies, cookies, soups, canned vegetables, preserves, frozen chickens, pies, soup, holiday garlands and wreaths.
Growing local and being a part of the community is important to the Perry’s.
“Our mission is to create a sense of community and belonging by offering our wholesome food and flowers with our neighbors and to restore old-fashioned values by inviting people to come and experience life the way it used to be, on our animal powered farm,” said Mary. “I knew from the second I pulled into the driveway that this was where I needed to be.”
Mary admits it’s a challenge to run a farm as a mother. He faith, love of the land, her family, and community keep her going and make it all worthwhile. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said.
In Maine, the number of female farmers as the principal operators increased by over 50 percent from 2002 to 2007. Across the country, they increased only by 30 percent during that same time.
Jams and preserves for sale in the Winterberry Farm's shop in Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx
In 2007 organic products generated $23.3 million in sales in Maine, by 2012 that number had increased to $36.4 million.
“You can see Maine people take high quality local food and farming seriously,” said Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. “Just look at the growth of organic farming, which increased by over 50 percent in five years.”
Pingree, owns an organic farm on the island of North Haven that supplies her Inn’s renown restaurant. The congresswoman wrote and introduced the Local Farm, Food and Jobs Act, which included dozens of provisions to promote local, sustainable agriculture. Many of Pingree’s proposals were adopted as part of the Farm Bill, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama earlier this year.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that farming in Maine is on the increase, with Maine leading New England in the number of farms in operation. According to Gary Keough, a statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agriculture sales increased by 24 percent from 2007 to 2012. The average age for Maine farmers is 1.3 years younger than the national average, and 29 percent of Maine farmers are women, compared to just 17 percent nationally.
Sage with her favorite horse on Winterberry Farm. Photo by Ramona du Houx