Farming isn’t making a comeback on Whitefield’s Townhouse Road. It never went away.
By Virginia M. Wright
On May 1, 2013, Barry Tibbetts rose before dawn and milked the cows at Sheepscot Valley Farm, just as he had done every morning for more than 30 years and his father had done for 30 years before that. Twelve hours later, Mike Moody and Annie Watson milked those same cows, their first in what they hope will be a lifetime of milkings to come.
Photographed by Meredith Perdue
Just up the hill from what used to be his rambling white farmhouse and big red barn, Tibbetts, now 66, sits at his kitchen table and reflects on the day he sold his organic dairy farm to Moody, 43, and Watson, 32. “I’m not a churchgoing man,” he says, a smile lighting up his broad, friendly face, “but I believe in God, and I felt like it was God’s plan. It fit. I’ve known Mike from when he was a kid growing up in Lincolnville. Mike is cut out to be a farmer. He likes to work.”
A changing of the guard is underway on Townhouse Road, the agrarian backbone of the rural Lincoln County town of Whitefield, which is either in the middle of nowhere (if you don’t live here) or at the center of everything (if you do). Farmers with decades of experience are retiring or scaling down, and young farmers with new ideas are moving in. Yet Townhouse Road’s story is as much one of constancy as of change: here, on this pastoral four-mile stretch, Maine’s farming past and its much-celebrated small-farm resurgence are rolling over the pastures together.
“Whitefield is a vibrant agricultural and arts community, and a lot of young people are moving into town,” says Annie Watson, bouncing Oliver, her blond, blue-eyed 1-year-old, on her knee. Watson, who grew up in the Boston suburbs, met Mike Moody a decade ago in Camden, where she was enjoying a carefree summer before embarking on what she thought would be an acting career in either New York or LA. They spent their first date in the cab of a tractor, harvesting corn at Moody’s dairy farm in Lincolnville. “It was so different from any experience I’d ever had,” she recalls. “It was a breath of fresh air — stinky, but . . . ” She laughs. It was stinky, but she fell in love with the farmer and his way of life just the same.
Working Lincolnville’s only surviving dairy farm was a lonely business, however. Moody had done the twice-daily milkings without help for 10 years, and he was regularly fielding complaints from neighbors about the smell of manure. Discouraged, he sold his herd, but just seven years later, he and Watson found themselves making frequent drives into the countryside to look wishfully at farms. On one of those drives, they stopped to chat with Moody’s old friend Barry Tibbetts, and the conversation led unexpectedly to their overlapping interests: they wanted to farm, and Tibbetts wanted to retire, but his children weren’t interested in taking over his business. Over the next few weeks, they settled on a price that would ensure the farm’s future.
Townhouse Road is the address for several farms of varying sizes and with owners of varying ages. The veterans — all in their 60s or older — include Paula and Tom Benne, who milk a couple cows and make crafts at Merigold Farm; Robin and Patrick Chase, who have a small dairy and bakery at Chase Farm Bakery; and Barry Tibbetts’ uncle, Stanley Tibbetts, whose dairy farm is now being worked by his great-nephew. The newcomers, mostly in their 30s, include Josh and Laurel Banks, who tend a flock of 120 sheep at Shepherds Craft Farm; Jessie Dowling, who has revived a dormant farm to raise a few dozen sheep and goats and make her award-winning Fuzzy Udder Creamery cheese; and Taryn and Ben Marcus, who are working Uncas Farms and Sheepscot General Store, a business many around here credit as the catalyst for Whitefield’s latest agricultural wave.
A lot of us are trying to recreate what society has lost — a sense of community — with a pragmatic approach.
— Ben Marcus
Whitefield has seen something like this before. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the town was a magnet for back-to-the-landers, who sold garden vegetables and home-baked breads at farmers markets, but within a few years, most of them had moved or taken jobs with more reliable paychecks. “There wasn’t a market — who were they going to sell to?” says Ben Marcus, 32, whose parents were part of that brief movement. “Now that generation is so excited we’re here. They’re the backbone of our support.”
Ben came back home with Taryn in 2011, after a few post-college years working on small farms in France, Norway, South Africa, Israel, and Egypt. Uncas Farms was sitting idle, and its out-of-state owner was eager to find a tenant who could make a go of it and re-open its once-popular natural foods store. “It had just kind of fizzled out and left a hole in the community,” explains the slender and bearded Ben. “People were pushing us to do it. That’s a big part of its success: people really want it here. I’m biased, but I think Whitefield is an exceptional community.”
With no capital, the Marcuses started with a small inventory — Taryn jokes they offered only items she and Ben could eat if no one else bought them — and they gradually built Sheepscot General into a well-provisioned grocery and café that emphasizes local products, many made right here on Townhouse Road, like Chase Farm Bakery’s to-die-for hot and crispy doughnuts, Shepherds Craft Farm’s maple syrup, and Paula Benne’s colorful woolen hooked rugs. “It’s amazing how much money stays in our community because of the store,” Taryn says. “You see it cycle right back through.”
Meanwhile, the hole in the community has been filled. Sheepscot General is where the local ROMEOs (Retired Old Men Eating Out) reminisce and talk politics, preschoolers twirl and sway in creative movement class, homeowners take in a lecture on energy efficiency, and families challenge each other to games of Risk and Scrabble. Such neighborliness, Taryn believes, may be the most valuable harvest of Maine’s small-farm revival. “Food is important, but there’s also this other piece: your community, your neighbors. We’ve actually had people tell us that they didn’t move away from Whitefield because we were here,” she says. “We see this as our generation’s role: to come back to rural America and work.”
Their sense of purpose, combined with their farming experience and education, distinguishes Townhouse Road’s new back-to-the-landers from the hippies who were dropping out of society when they bought land here in the 1970s, says Austin Moore, who, as the original owner of Uncas Farms, placed an agricultural easement on the property when he sold it several years back. “This group today has different experience and different expectations,” says the longtime farmer, now 70. “They really want to be farmers. They’re not all going to make it, of course — to make a living at farming takes a lot of skill and a lot of risk — but they have the energy and the vision. It’s great, because Barry, his Uncle Stanley, and I are getting old, and if we didn’t have someone coming along behind us, we’d be in trouble.”
It can’t hurt that no one minds the smell of manure on Townhouse Road. On the contrary, says Barry Tibbetts, “I always struggled to keep the smell of the farm at the farm when I went to social gatherings like basketball games, but the last kid I had work for me down at the farm said, ‘You know what? That’s a cool smell now.’”