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homesteading in maine

An A–Z Guide to Agrarian Self-Reliance in Maine

Ready for homesteading? Let these Maine-made tools and resources aid your search for simplicity.

By Brielle Hardy, Emily Silvia, and Brian Kevin | Illustrations by Kelsey Grass

From our April 2020 issue

For our back-to-the-land themed issue, we thought we’d take a page from the Whole Earth Catalog — the turn-of-the-’70s bible of countercultural self-sufficiency — and assemble our own little inventory of workshops, gear, organizations, and events for those who’ve occasionally daydreamed about living in an off-the-grid yurt in Maine, raising goats and brushing their teeth with baking soda. Little did we know how many people might be entertaining such fantasies by the time the issue hit mailboxes.

We’ve updated the list below to reflect changes, postponements, and cancellations we know about, but be sure to call the host organizations to verify details.

A Heard the buzz about apiculture? The Honey Exchange, in Portland, has all the supplies a backyard beekeeper needs to get hives to thrive (including some fine Russian queens), plus the shop offers classes for beginning and intermediate pollinator wranglers. Also, beeswax homegoods and honey by the gallon. Sweet!

B Learn the breadmaking secrets of the brioche bros, pumpernickel pundits, and sourdough samurais at Skowhegan’s Maine Artisan Bread Fair, July 25. Dozens of professional bakers and other vendors offer samples and lead demonstrations at the Maine Grain Alliance’s free annual carb fest.

C Talk about culture shock: the Maine Cheese Guild offers cheesemaking workshops and seminars year-round and hosts the Maine Cheese Festival in Union on September 13 (hello, tiny toothpick samples!) and Open Creamery Day on October 11 (hello, cheese crawl!).

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D Oh, you didn’t know Maine had the country’s longest-running compost school? For folks who are serious about using organic waste to make rich, healthy dirt, weeklong programs at Monmouth’s Maine Compost School, in June and October, delve into the details of decomposition, with lab exercises and site visits to community and farm composting sites around the state.

E Here are just a few of the edible wild plants you’ll learn to harvest and prepare in the Koviashuvik Local Living School’s Wild Greens for the Common Table class — along with a few words about each from the U.S. Army’s Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants.

  • Trout lily: a yellow-petaled perennial with corms that taste like cucumber
  • Chickweed: a spring perennial with edible leaves that have antiseptic properties when crushed and juiced
  • Dandelion: its roots can be roasted and ground as a coffee substitute
  • Burdock: a liquid made from its roots can help increase urination
  • Cattail: when it’s still green, you can boil the flowerhead and eat it like corn on the cob

The school, on 100 acres in Temple, will be offering its next Wild Greens for the Common Table class, originally scheduled for May, as a free web video tutorial.

Fermentation Workshop

F Portland’s Root Wild Kombucha (still doing curbside pickup of its fine fermented beverages) ordinarily hosts periodic fermentation workshops with instructors from the nonprofit Rewild Maine. Rewild is currently offering video tutorials via its Facebook and Patreon pages, but workshops — including on fermenting dandelion wine, sauerkraut, and kimchi — are on offer for later this summer. Students (eventually) get a jar or bottle of the finished product.

Goat School

G Prepare for successful goat husbandry — or just hang with a bunch of adorable ruminants — at the two-day Goat School at Monson’s Turning Page Farm. The no-experience-necessary course provides hands-on instruction in milking, hoof trimming, and more. The next session is scheduled for May 25–26.

H You can’t get serious about self-sufficiency without a good set of hand tools, like the artisan-quality specimens that Lie-Nielsen Toolworks has been making in Warren since 1981, many of them refined versions of generations-old designs. Try them in the showroom or sign up for workshops on everything from tool care to tricky woodworking techniques.

Lie-Nielsen
In plane view: Admire the full line of Lie-Nielsen tools in the company’s showroom.
Photograph courtesy of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks.

I Your garden needs friendly, helpful insects! The Maine Entomological Society postponed its early April workshp on beneficial bugs (they’re more than just pollinators!) but plans to reschedule and offers resources, links, and literature on its website.

J Local adult-ed courses are a low-cost, low-pressure way to master jellies and jams without making a mess in your own kitchen. The Maine Adult Education Association lists a handful of classes across the state in the coming months (and is a good resource for learning everything from sourdough skills to beekeeping to organic gardening).

K What to look for in a knife that’s versatile enough to cut roots in the garden, open stubborn Amazon packages, and maybe whittle the occasional stick? We asked Isaiah Washington, an intern at Auburn’s New England School of Metalwork and proprietor of Zay Knives, which turns out everyday-use blades, handsome kitchen knives, and fancy-pants collector’s pieces. “For a fixed-blade carry knife, I recommend high-carbon steel,” he says, “because it’s a harder material than most commercial stainless knives, so it holds a sharp edge for longer. It can rust, but simply keeping it clean and dry will prevent that.” Also, the bladesmith warns, don’t buy off the rack. “If you want a quality knife, get it from a maker,” Washington says. “You’ll be paying a premium, but they’re tools that, if taken care of, will last lifetimes.”

L When the nonprofit Greenhorns collective bought the old Odd Fellows Hall in Pembroke in 2017, the rural-revival advocacy group brought to its new HQ an 8,000-item Agrarian Library of books, periodicals, and pamphlets of interest to farmers — from manuals on how to raise rabbits to treatises on land reform. It’s a vast collection, open by appointment, and the group’s seeking volunteers to help catalog it.

M Maine has the country’s second-highest percentage of beginning farmers — and a bumper crop of rural-dwellers practicing sustainable horticulture, husbandry, and land management — thanks largely to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA. At their HQ in Unity and at venues around the state, year-round workshops focus on everything from tapping maples to grafting fruit trees to processing poultry. Farm & Homestead Day, June 20, is a jamboree of hands-on skill-swaps where a newbie can learn to care for an ax head, spin yarn, and build a tiny house in the same afternoon. The Common Ground Country Fair, September 25–27, is the Woodstock of agricultural fairs and the last place in America where Bernie voters and Trump voters sit shoulder-to-shoulder to enjoy the same sheep-shearing demonstration.

Woodcraft demos are just part of the fun at Common Ground.
Woodcraft demos are just part of the fun at Common Ground.
Photographed by Michael D. Wilson.

N Net-making is just one of the old-school Maine skills on offer at the Puckerbrush Primitive Gathering in Columbia, July 17–19, alongside blacksmithery, knot-tying, scythe-swinging, and more.

O Learn oenology at Bangor’s Central Street Farmhouse, where the purchase of a winemaking kit gets you a free class on how to use it (and you can bring up to nine friends). Your batch ferments there at the shop, and you come back eight weeks later to bottle it. The store’s doing online ordering and curbside pickup for its kits (and other goods) if you want to make some wine, beer, cheese, or cider while you’re homebound.

P MOFGA’s Maine Heritage Orchard offers pruning and grafting workshops, seed swaps, group planting days, and various other pomology goings-on around the state and on a 10-acre orchard in Unity, home to some 300 varieties of apple and pear trees traditionally grown in Maine.

Q Maine is cold. Quilting is a survival skill. Learn from award-winning quilt artists and pattern designers at the Maine Quilts show, July 23–25 in Augusta, offering demos and lectures on stitching techniques, patterns, and precision work.

R Plenty of Mainers are considering solar energy solutions thanks to last year’s legislation removing fees and restoring a credit system for residential solar customers who add energy to the grid. ReVision Energy isn’t Maine’s only solar installer, but the company regularly hosts free walk-in workshops and Q&A sessions statewide. They’re on hold during lockdown, but the company is hosting a series of webinars — some for students, some for adults — on everything from solar-battery storage to composting.

S The substantial slate of summer classes at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village draws on the traditions of this simple-living sect, including soapmaking, fiber arts, basket weaving, broom making, and woodworking. The world’s only active Shaker community attracts students from well outside Maine, thanks to the Shakers’ reputation as consummate craftsmen (although the workshops are led by guest instructors, rather than the two remaining Shakers themselves). Despite the rep, Sabbathday Lake director Michael Graham says the most valuable lesson to glean from Shaker heritage is that everyone has some skill to contribute. “Not all Shakers were furniture makers, and not all Shakers could weave,” Graham says. “Shakers emphasized doing things to the best of their ability.” Needless to say, beginners welcome.

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T Since 1974, Woolwich’s Shelter Institute, founded by a pair of back-to-the-landers, has taught tens of thousands of people the science of timber framing. In the classic post-and-beam workshop, students turn a pile of raw lumber into a standing timber frame inside of five days.

U There aren’t many skills you need to live a simple life in rural Maine that you can’t learn from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Beekeeping, maple sugaring, controlling greenhouse temperatures, canning and other types of food preservation — the Extension offers affordable workshops on all of these topics and more, at venues all around the state. The 200+ Extension videos on the UMaine YouTube channel are a real goldmine for would-be homesteaders.

V Sometimes country-living voyeurism beats actual country living. The second season of Welcome to My Farm is now airing on Maine and New Hampshire NBC affiliates (and streamable online), featuring the delightful backyard-chicken maven Lisa Steele dropping in on strawberry growers, lavender farmers, and duckling herders like a gentle, georgic Anthony Bourdain.

W Felt so good! Instructors at the Way of the Earth School lead a July 11 class on ancient felting techniques to turn raw wool into hats, mittens, and more — one of many workshops the Blue Hill traditional-skills school offers.

X Sam Schipani is one of the best things about Hello Homestead, the traditional-skills–themed website the Bangor Daily News launched in 2018. In her Sam Tries Things posts, she indulges her passions for sustainability, self-reliance, and eXperimentation (okay, we’re stretching that one), documenting her attempts to nurture sourdough starter or milk cows with cheeky enthusiasm and earnest insights (sometimes derived from failure). A few of her favorite “tries” so far: #3 “I still use the natural deodorant I made [out of coconut oil, baking soda, beeswax, cornstarch, and essential oils], which I didn’t expect to like.” #2 “I love my homemade dish soap. Making your own cleaners, beauty products, and the like is part chemistry experiment, part witchery.” #1 “Preparing a raised garden bed for winter has legs, considering how often I’ll use that knowledge.” Follow Schipani on Twitter

Y Mainer Bill Coperthwaite more or less introduced America to yurts, the circular Mongolian tent dwellings. He built some magnificent wooden ones on his property in Machiasport and led workshops around the country before his death in 2013. His highly readable A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity offers his meditations on yurt design and simple living.

GoGo Refill owner Laura Marston wants you to bring your empties.
GoGo Refill owner Laura Marston wants you to bring your empties. Photographed by Mat Trogner.

Z Embrace a zero-waste lifestyle (or, anyway, get a little closer to one) at South Portland’s GoGo Refill, a one-stop shop for refillable containers and vats of natural home- and body-care products. (Doing curbside service, in sanitized reused containers, during the pandemic closure!)

Buy this issue!

April 2020