Maine has a rich history of fairs and festivals celebrating agriculture. The state’s fair season kicks off in July, and wraps up in October. The grand finale of yearly agricultural fairs happens to be the Fryeburg Fair—fitting, since it’s the state’s largest, and the one many consider to be the showcase Ag fair—it runs the first full week in October.
I know that for many, their fair experience favors the heat of mid-summer. For me, I’ve always liked the crispness associated with fall’s arrival. As a result, my fair-going is oriented towards the latter end of the fair calendar. On Saturday, Mary and I were off to the fair.
Now in its 39th year, the three-day Common Ground Country Fair in Unity is considered the state’s pre-eminent fair celebrating organic farming, and a self-reliant rural lifestyle. In many ways, the fair, and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA)—the fair’s sponsoring organization—were seeded by back-to-landers who descended on the state in the early-1970s.
The Common Ground Fair began with the intent of bringing back the old-time country fair. That means no midway for rides that you’ll find at many other Maine fairs. Also, there’s no horseracing, alcohol sales, and a dearth of booths selling mass-produced trinkets.
Founders began the fair at the Litchfield Fairgrounds with a goal of drawing 10,000 people and finishing with a net of $10,000. They accomplished both goals that first year, back in 1977. Much of that original vision continues, nearly four decades later.
Of course, times change and nothing stays the same. There are those who grouse about the fair having “sold out.” Now, upwards of 60,000 people descend on tiny Unity, Maine over three days. While rural life and local agriculture are still celebrated, the fair is now more of an “event” than ever before. The “hippy,” or counter-cultural flavor, while still present, isn’t as prevalent.
Mary and I have been attending the fair since the days when it used to be held in Windsor (where it moved after outgrowing the Litchfield site), at the Windsor Fairgrounds. That would have been in the late 1980s, just after we moved back to Maine.
The past few years, I’ve been less enamored about going and have skipped it occasionally. Last year I thought about it being my final time.
Mary, on the other hand, continues enjoying the Common Ground experience. She loves to go and get her garlic for fall planting from The Little Garlic Girl Farm, in Morrill. Why from that vendor? Mary says because “they are a small farm, and their garlic is good quality.” Mary also appreciated receiving instructions from them the very first time she bought garlic from them for planting, five years ago. She’s remained loyal to Little Garlic Girl Farm, as a result.
We set out very early on Saturday morning on our 75-mile trek. I was hoping to avoid the traffic tie-ups we experienced last year. We arrived in Unity around 8:30, ½ hour before the gates opened, yet traffic was already backing up. Once we got into town, we crawled along for about 15 minutes before making our way down Crosby Brook Road where we parked in one of the large fields serving as vehicle lots. This was better than the previous year—we also were quite a bit closer to the fair entrance. While fair organizers stress alternative transportation—there’s a park and bike lot, as well as a train option—most fair-goers choose to drive to the fair.
Rather than setting the bar unrealistically high this year, I decided to just go and experience whatever came my way. I enjoyed spending time with Mary, doing our vegetable shopping, which she usually completes every Saturday at the Brunswick farmers’ market, when we’re at home. In past years, I’ve neglected the farmers’ market area that is immediately on your left upon entering the fairgrounds at the Rose Gate. Apparently I should have been more attentive to my local farmers. Perhaps that’s one reason why my fair experience had been less than expected.
The brilliant fall sun, and temperatures just above 60 were perfect fair weather for my tastes. I spent part of the morning just walking around, observing various elements of the fair, watching people, and appreciating the celebration of all things local and Ag-related.
Most years when I go to Unity for the Common Ground Fair, I select at least one speaker or workshop to attend. I remember going to hear Sandor Katz back in 1997 or 1998, talk about fermented foods, including making sauerkraut. This was a time when I’d lost my way with fermenting vegetables; it seemed exotic and mystical. Actually, I grew up with sauerkraut, but had gotten out of the ‘kraut groove. Katz piqued my interest and it wasn’t long before I was back making my own sauerkraut, just like my Opa used to.
I finally tackled kimchi (using Katz’s recipe from his book, Wild Fermentation: The Flavors, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, a fair purchase from back when I heard him speak) on Sunday. The ingredients all came from Maine farmers who were at the fair.
When my friend Emily learned we were going to the fair on Saturday, she mentioned that Marada Cook was speaking. She asked if I could catch her talk, and perhaps, “take some notes.”
Well, I’m a fan of Marada and what she’s accomplished at Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative, the business that her late father, Jim Cook, began 20 years ago. I actually met Jim back in 2006, when I was contemplating a book about local Ag.
Marada is one of two sisters who now run Crown O’ Maine. She and Leah came home to run the business after their Dad died in 2008. You can find stories around the webz that touch on that narrative. It’s an interesting one, but not one I’m going to include in this post. If you’re interested in that backstory, here’s an article that does a decent job of capturing the highlights.
I met Marada back in 2011 (I think) at a talk she gave at Colby College. I recall that it was on farming, entrepreneurship, and touching down on her own experiences coming home and taking over running a local food distribution business. She was also very pregnant with her third child at the time.
Emily told me Marada was talking about local food again, with a provocative title of, “Local Food Has Moved: What Is the New Address.” I knew I needed to hang around ‘til 1:00 at least, to catch her talk.
Cook is a disarming speaker. By that I mean that she’s very humble and genuine. She doesn’t propose knowing everything about farming and local foods, and she’s the antithesis of “slick” in presentation. She carries an authority that others couldn’t pull off—mainly because she’s taken a business of her Dad’s that was in the red, and along with her sister, has created an important distribution hub for a host of Maine’s small farmers, and they’re turning a profit. When you’ve managed to get the attention of a demanding customer like Whole Foods, which purchases a weekly supply of beets and a roasting medley of vegetables from Cook’s newest venture, Northern Girl, people that know food and distribution tend to pay attention. As a result, her experiential vibe resonates with the reality-based types that turn out to hear her speak.
Some highlights from Cook’s talk:
- The “tempo” of local food is changing.
By that, she intimated that the pace of growth has accelerated. She mentioned that her Maine customers are requesting more and more local products, and a greater variety.
- Crown O’ Maine currently does an annual volume of $2.4 million.
- Local Ag is complex
Cook indicated that after being in the business of local foods for 20 years, her understanding of the “complexity” of local food is increasing.
That’s actually a theme that’s come up several times in my own project at-present with a local group in Lewiston-Auburn, looking at the redevelopment of Bates Mill No. 5. In fact, a consultant I’ve been working with mentioned that “people comment about agriculture as a business without really knowing what it takes to run that kind of business. “ I think he was touching on the element of complexity Cook was referring to.
Cook said that she’s observed that many newer farmers in Maine (she mentioned the Amish) have a much better understanding of wholesaling vegetable. Other changes she’s noticed is the shift that’s occurred in how “local” is being defined. .
Local food in Maine is now becoming an industry. And while “industrial food” is a dirty word for many with ties to MOFGA, Cook wonders if there aren’t lessons for Maine’s organic farmers in that industrial model in terms of scaling up, and other areas.
What impressed me the most about the talk was Cook’s “systems” understanding of Maine food and the local component. It’s not enough to just talk about local food in the abstract. There are all sorts of logistics related to getting food from a local farm to a wholesale distribution hub. Then, when you’re dealing with a buyer like Whole Foods, there’s another level of complexity and logistics.
Cook is cautiously optimistic that Maine can become as big and as diversified as it wants to be relative to local food. At the same time, she recognizes that growing demand and new markets for locally-grown food will continue to be an on-going challenge.
So, what was different for me this year at the Common Ground Fair? It’s hard to say. I recognize that I have a tendency to overthink things. I know it’s a problem for me and I’m trying to be less cerebral about things when I don’t need to be. Living in the present isn’t a bad thing. Saturday’s Common Ground Fair experience demonstrated again that just being in the moment—seeing, listening, observing—is a great way to live and interact with my world.
An added bonus to the day was stopping for a visit with our friends who live 30 minutes south of Unity, on our way home. Like we did last year, Mary and I visited with the aforementioned Emily and her husband, Bob. We sat out on their deck, and I delivered my “report” on Marada’s talk. Emily works with local farmers and “agripreneurs,” and has been directly involved in community-based lending initiatives supporting local Ag projects.
This was the perfect capstone to a beautiful fall day in late September.