Back to the Land 2.0

60 years after Helen and Scott Nearing came to live “the good life,” Brooksville is sprouting farms and a fertile food culture.

By Kim Ridley  Photographed by Alan Lavallee

On a cool and cloudy morning, Deborah Evans’s pigs are snacking on seaweed and mussels in a small pasture overlooking the tidal Bagaduce River in the Blue Hill Peninsula town of Brooksville. “I name them all for women who have made their mark on the world,” Evans says as she introduces Hedy Lamarr and Marilyn Monroe, two sprightly, curly-haired Mangalitza gilts, and Madonna, Rosa Parks, and Isadora Duncan, a trio of large, brown-black sows.

Isadora grunts nervously as Madonna sidles closer to investigate her six piglets snuggled in a straw-filled shelter behind her. Evans soothes Isadora and gives her an affectionate scratch on the back. “This is Isadora’s first time as a mother, but she’s doing a great job,” Evans says.

After decades behind a desk in Illinois and elsewhere, Evans, who was raised on a farm, has found her true calling here at Bagaduce Farm, an antique saltwater farm that her husband Spencer’s parents bought in 1934. Her knowledge of the heritage breed pigs she raises is impressive, as is her passion for protecting small-scale farming and local food traditions. She uses a diagram to illustrate the intricate web of relationships between her small farm and nearly a dozen others on the Blue Hill Peninsula. “Farming is complex and wonderful and ever-changing,” Evans says, “and it’s the ties between us — borrowed equipment, leads on extra hay, help with lost piglets  — that make us a village of farmers.”

A village of farmers, yes, but Brooksville, where Helen and Scott Nearing ignited the back-to-the-land movement more than sixty years ago, is also a village of bakers and oyster growers, artists and authors, summer people and retirees, many of whom share a passion for locally produced food.  More than twenty farmers and entrepreneurs in and around this community of 934 people are raising organic produce, livestock, oysters, and more, and making everything from preserves and goat cheese to bread and wine. Students at the Brooksville Elementary School are growing vegetables in a greenhouse for the school cafeteria. In March, Brooksville became the ninth Maine town — and the fourth on the Blue Hill Peninsula — to pass a food sovereignty ordinance, which attempts to exempt small farmers and food processors from state or federal licensure or inspection as long as they sell their food directly to customers.

There’s no tidy explanation for what has taken root in Brooksville, where the soil isn’t great and real estate prices are beyond small farmers’ budgets. But visit a few farmers and chat with locals and transplants alike, and it soon becomes clear that what’s flourishing here has a lot to do with the people — and the growing connections between them. “I think that you could reproduce what’s going on here in other places in Maine, but there’s a definite strategy to it,” observes John Altman, who, with his wife Emma Simanton, revived David’s Folly, one of Brooksville’s oldest farms, two years ago. “As farmers, we raise animals and grow vegetables, but we also have to cultivate the community.”

Surrounded by the Bagaduce River, Penobscot Bay, and Eggemoggin Reach, Brooksville is practically an island. Two narrow bands of land tether it to the rest of the Blue Hill Peninsula, but it still feels like a place apart. One sees few other cars driving along Routes 175 and 176, which swerve past nineteenth-century farmhouses surrounded by fields laced with tidal creeks and forest-framed glimpses of river and sea.

There is no downtown Brooksville, but Buck’s Harbor, one of five small but distinct villages, serves as the de facto town center. Here one finds the 108-year-old Buck’s Harbor Yacht Club and Condon’s Garage, looking much the way Robert McClosky depicted it sixty years ago in his beloved children’s book, One Morning in Maine. Here, too, is what many regard as the social center of Brooksville, Buck’s Harbor Market, where residents meet, mingle, and catch up on gossip. “The clientele is pretty eclectic,” says chef Jonathan Chase, who runs the market and the adjacent Buck’s Restaurant. “At seven in the morning, it’s usually people driving pickup trucks. By 4 p.m., it’s mostly Volvos and Saabs. People seem to get along pretty well. Summer residents relish the chance to connect with local people, and I’ve seen friendships form at the market.”

Just up the road is another gathering place, the Brooksville Farmers Market, where upwards of twenty farmers, food producers, artists, and craftspeople sell their wares every Tuesday from late May through September. It is a microcosm of Brooksville’s flourishing local food scene, and perhaps the community itself. “Not only do we have the back-to-the-land people who arrived in the Scott and Helen Nearing wave, but also people from families who never left the land,” says Jackie Pike, who helped launch the market in 2008. “It’s wonderful when these people find common ground in growing, appreciating, and sharing local food.”

Among those who are pleased with this roots revival is seventy-six-year-old Denis Blodgett, who remembers his grandfather’s stories of Brooksville’s once bustling wharf and grew up at a time when the town had at least six small dairies. “Growing up, we didn’t realize we were so lucky to live where we could grow stuff off the land and hunt for game in the woodlands or get shellfish and go fishing for mackerel,” says Blodgett, who returned to his family’s farm in Brooksville after a career with Ingersoll-Rand.  “It was all right here.”

After World War II, droves of Mainers left Brooksville and other rural communities for college and good-paying jobs, and over time many of the farms fell into disuse. It was just such a rundown farm in Harborside, Brooksville’s westernmost village on remote Cape Rosier, that caught the eyes of Helen and Scott Nearing in 1951. There they built a stone house by hand, grew their own food, and wrote Living the Good Life, the classic manual of homesteading that would draw thousands of disaffected young Americans to their homestead over the next two decades.

Some of those back-to-the-landers settled in Brooksville and nearby towns, where they became farmers and boat builders, artists and teachers, builders and entrepreneurs. Among them was Eliot Coleman, who bought land from the Nearings in 1968 and hewed a homestead and market garden from the dense spruce forest.

Coleman has gone on to become a well-known proponent for organic farming in his own right. Long before “locavore” became the Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year in 2007, he was championing what he calls “real food,” grown within a fifty-mile radius of where it’s sold. He has refined the techniques for organic gardening that he learned from the Nearings and shared his innovations in several books, including The New Organic Grower and The Four Season Harvest. He met his wife, fellow author and gardening guru Barbara Damrosch, in the Nearings’ greenhouse in 1990. Together, they have inspired legions of farmers and gardeners to grow organic food and raise cold-hardy crops in unheated greenhouses all winter long.

With its fruit trees and arbors, greenhouses, and lush vegetable and perennial beds, and elegant but unpretentious cedar-shingled farmhouse, Coleman and Damrosch’s Four Season Farm looks as though it has been plucked out of a village in France and plunked down in a spruce-rimmed field. Located next door to the Good Life Center, which preserves the Nearings’ homestead and legacy, the farm draws throngs of visitors who come to shop at the summer farm stand or to work as apprentices. Some have gone on to start their own organic farms, becomes chefs, or launch other enterprises in the area.

It makes sense that the national trend toward local food production would be embraced enthusiastically in Brooksville, whose population is seeded with the Nearings’ disciples. Not that it is one big happy family — rifts exist between those who choose to operate certified organic farms and those who do not, and between those who support the food sovereignty ordinances and those who have decided to get their small operations licensed.

Nevertheless, all of the farmers on the Blue Hill Peninsula are creating a healthy alternative to industrial agriculture, and the supportive web identified by Deborah Evans extends beyond the farms to organizations like the Healthy Peninsula Project, whose Magic Food Bus delivers fresh vegetables to area towns in the tradition of the ice cream truck, and the Greenhouse Project, which has helped 150 individuals and institutions build greenhouses in Hancock and Washington counties over the last four years.

“Brooksville is an example of what can be done,” Eliot Coleman says. “What’s happened here is because of the people who’ve had the drive to do it, plus a little serendipity.”

Anyone who spends a little time in Brooksville understands that the local food system that is growing here is feeding other creative endeavors. “I’m a maker, and I happen to make art at this time,” says sculptor Mark Kindschi. “In a community like this, hand work is appreciated and understood. This is where I want to live my life — where a maker is appreciated. I have plumbers who hang around here and say, ‘Hey, that stuff is cool.’ That is a great compliment.”

Intrigued by Helen and Scott Nearings’ work, Kindschi and his wife, Mia Kanazawa, a choreographer and sculptor, moved to Cape Rosier from New York City in 1989. The couple’s creative outpouring takes form in everything from Kindschi’s figurative steel sculptures exploring the tensions between people and nature to Kanazawa’s choreography, felt puppets, and, most recently, her Japanese foods, which are much sought after at farmers markets.

Both Kanazawa and Kindschi see no separation between growing healthy food, making art, or doing any work essential to helping a community thrive.  “All of my work, whether it is dance or visual art, has been tied to place,” Kanazawa says. “I don’t really separate one from the other, I just find the medium I need to use at the moment, which right now is food.” Using fresh vegetables from her garden and inspired by her mother’s Japanese recipes, Kanazawa makes spring rolls and sesame noodles, along with other dishes such as pumpkin-miso soup in fall and oshitashi, a traditional Japanese salad of wilted greens dressed with soy, rice wine, and sesame seeds. She also enjoys cooking with local weeds such as lamb’s quarters.

The couple has seen many changes over their twenty-five-plus years on Cape Rosier — and some of them have been for the better. “The recent phenomenon I enjoy the most is the returning of people’s kids,” Kindschi says. “That has a lot to do with the local food movement.”

Among the returnees is Tim Semler, twenty-nine, who moved back to Brooksville after a year of music school in Manhattan and various travels. “I felt like I could get to work here doing all the stuff people were talking about at school,” Semler says. “I was interested in community living, and my question was, why in America are people not living in community like they are in most of the world?”

Instead of looking elsewhere for answers, Semler found inspiration in his own backyard. Older neighbors told him about the days when Brooksville boasted eight general stores, four schools, three ferries, and several small mills, along with many farms and businesses. “I imagined how incredible it must have been here back then, compared to now, when it feels deserted, and it seems like every other house is empty except in summer,” Semler says. “I came back to Brooksville with a dream of making small steps toward reviving agriculture and local business.”

Semler has been growing that dream ever since. He and Lydia Moffet opened Tinder Hearth Bread at his mother’s Lake Larsson’s Valley of the Stars Farm in West Brooksville in 2006. Baked in “Svetlana,” a huge indoor brick oven built with the help of family and friends, Tinder Hearth’s breads and croissants, made with organic flour from Maine and Quebec, are delivered to nine shops and two restaurants twice a week and sold at the bakery and area farmers markets. Semler and Moffet, who married in 2012, work with four interns in the busy season and handle the baking with occasional help from family and friends in the winter.

Once a month in summer, Larsson’s barn is opened for Brooksville Open Mic, where musicians, from professional performers to students in Larsson’s ukulele classes to eleven-year-olds playing guitar, perform for as many as two hundred people. And Tuesday and Friday evenings, Tinder Hearth makes its wildly popular pizzas, which might feature Four Season Farm spinach, Emma Simanton’s goat cheese, or Tinder Hearth’s own sausage. Folks get their pizza and stroll next door to John Altman and Emma Simanton’s barn at David’s Folly farm for “Strawbale Theater,” featuring films on food and farming and a chance to meet local farmers and hear their stories.

“I’m excited about the possibilities,” Semler says, “and I consider everything we do as moving toward having a community that can handle whatever comes.”

Kim Ridley of Brooklin is the former editor of Hope magazine, and her articles on science, nature, culture, and food have appeared in publications including Ode, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times.

Food Sovereignty Ordinances

Since 2011, nine Maine towns, including four on the Blue Hill Peninsula, have adopted food sovereignty ordinances that exempt farmers from state food licensing and inspection laws if they sell their products directly to consumers — despite warnings from state agriculture officials who say the ordinances are not valid.

Proponents of the ordinances say state and federal regulations are inappropriate for small producers, requiring them to invest thousands of dollars in facilities and equipment. Moreover, they argue, not one of the food-related illnesses reported in Maine during the past twelve years was caused by locally grown food.

All of the towns that have passed food sovereignty ordinances have received letters from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Resources notifying them that residents “involved in food processing and sales activities which are subject to state licensing and inspection are not exempt from those requirements.”

And this past spring, the Hancock County Superior Court ordered Blue Hill farmer Dan Brown to stop selling raw milk from his unlicensed one-cow dairy. The state had filed suit against Brown, contending that he had broken Maine laws by selling milk without a license and by selling unpasteurized milk without labeling it as such.

Attempts to amend state law to increase towns’ right to regulate food systems with local ordinances have not been successful. One such bill, submitted by Representative Craig Hickman of Winthrop, was defeated by the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry in April.