USDA celebrates Maine Farms that are sustainably cultivating the future

TO CELEBRATE …

Earth Day is Monday, April 22, 2024

Leading up to Earth Day, Director Hampson visited farms to learn about their environmentally friendly practices. At Nettie Fox Farm in Newburgh, co-owners Molly Crouse and Everett Ottinger take a holistic approach to sustainability. (Thanks photo)

BANGOR, Maine – Earth Day is a global event recognized every April since 1970. Rhiannon Hampson, state director of USDA Rural Development Maine, toured several farms this year to honor the occasion. The farms, all participants in USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), are using a variety of strategies to reduce their use of fossil fuels and petroleum products. Using biodegradable materials, reducing single-use plastics, packaging in compostable containers and tapping into renewable energy are among their efforts. Maine farms play an important role in mitigating climate change, modeling sustainable practices and shortening the supply chain for residents.

“Fighting climate change and creating economic prosperity go hand in hand,” Director Hampson said during a visit to a farm in Newburgh earlier this month. “As a farmer, I know how much small, consistent steps matter, such as limiting the use of single-use plastics or switching to LED lighting. Some companies can make even bigger changes, such as switching to solar energy or electrically powered equipment. We recognize that these changes will take time, work and financial investment, and I applaud all farmers who are making this commitment.”

Leading up to Earth Day, Director Hampson visited farms to learn about their environmentally friendly practices. At Newburgh Nettie Fox Farm, co-owners Molly Crouse and Everett Ottinger take a holistic approach to sustainability. While they cannot eliminate all petroleum-based products from the certified organic vegetable farm, they strive to minimize the farm’s carbon footprint. The couple converted their home for heat pumps, replaced their propane heater with induction, purchased an electric vehicle and have plans to purchase an electric tractor. They have begun converting the entire farm to clean energy, installing an 8 kW roof-mounted solar panel on their pole barn in 2021 (funded in part by a REAP grant) and plan to increase their solar capacity in the future enlarge.

Jesse Jimerson and Molly Livingston, co-owners of Piper Mountain Christmas Tree Farm, with Rhiannon Hampson, Director of USDA Rural Development Maine State. (Thanks photo)

Just a few kilometers away Piper Mountain Christmas Tree Farm, co-owners Molly Livingston and Jesse Jimerson are in the process of modernizing the farm they bought two years ago. They enrolled in the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Journeyperson program and began implementing more sustainable practices for the operation, including:

  • Working to improve the farm’s soil health using cover crops and other methods.
  • Moving away from Styrofoam products, removing foam cups from their cider and donut stand and forgoing floral foam. (The farm now uses biodegradable Agrawool in its holiday packages.)
  • Replaced a large part of the lighting with energy-efficient LED lamps.
  • Converting the farm to solar energy. With a USDA REAP grant to cover a portion of the project costs and financing from Coastal Enterprises Inc. to cover this, they started the transition to solar energy in 2023. The farm now runs almost entirely on solar energy, which offsets nearly 19,000 pounds of coal per year.
At Replenova Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Durham, founder Gary Goodrich has used compostable, plant-based packaging. (Thanks photo)

The theme of this year’s Earth Day is ‘Planet vs. Plastics’, with organizers emphasizing the need to ‘build a plastic-free world’ using innovative technologies and materials. Such materials are central Replenova farm, an organic vegetable farm in Durham. Founder Gary Goodrich has used only compostable, plant-based packaging since opening the farm’s farm store and commercial kitchen in 2019. The farm’s organic mixed vegetables and value-added foods are all packaged in bio-based materials. The business also relies on clean energy, with solar panels on the roof of the barn (partly paid for by a REAP grant) providing at least 80% of the energy needed to run the farm, including the shop and fully electric kitchen.

Consumers can also play an active role in reducing the prevalence of single-use plastics. Watley Farm in Topsham tries to make this an easy option for its customers. Bulk produce is regularly offered at farmers’ markets, but even there, salad greens are often pre-packed in bags. In 2022, Whatley Farm began offering salad greens in bulk at its markets, allowing shoppers to use tongs to place the vegetables into their own containers. This practice has not eliminated plastic from the Whatley market display, but allows customers to choose to bring their own bags and not take new plastic home. In terms of energy consumption, the farm’s greenhouses and cold storage have been solar-powered since 2017, when the farm received a REAP grant that helped pay for roof-mounted solar panels.

“The farms we visited have all taken the big step: the switch to solar energy,” said director Hampson after the site visits. “But each of them has adopted multiple approaches to protect the environment and climate. It’s a good reminder that we can all make a difference if we pay attention to the little things. And while using climate-smart strategies can be good for the bottom line, it fundamentally benefits all Mainers as we fight climate change.”

Whatley Farm offers bulk salads at its markets, allowing shoppers to use tongs to place the vegetables into their own containers. (Thanks photo)

About the farms:

  • Nettie Fox Farm, 2348 Kennebec Rd. in Newburgh, is currently accepting registrations for a 13-week vegetable CSA, with pick-up in Newburgh and drop-off points in Bangor. (Register online at the farm’s website: https://www.nettiefoxfarm.com/.) They attend the Bangor Farmers’ Market starting in April or May, on Sundays from 11am to 1.30pm in Harlow St. opposite the Bangor Public Library. Selected products can be found seasonally at the Natural Living Center in Bangor.

“Our premise from the start was to generate clean energy on site, pay for loans to pay for solar installations instead of a utility bill and put gas in a car. Environmentally we try to give back more than we take, but this was also a good business decision and a win-win situation for the farm.” -Molly Crouse and Everett Ottinger, co-owners of Nettie Fox Farm.

  • Piper Mountain Christmas Tree Farm, 27 Trundy Road in Newburgh, is open seasonally and offers Christmas trees, wreaths, arrangements, gift hampers and more. Learn more online at https://pipermtn.com/

“Moving to solar was the biggest project we had to tackle on our list of goals, but it was the most important. Moving away from fossil fuels is a personal belief we wanted to reflect in our business, and our customers love it too.” Molly Livingston, co-owner of Piper Mountain Christmas Tree Farm

  • Watley Farm, 3 Whatley Farm Rd. in Topsham, will open its greenhouse to sell organic seedlings in May. The farm also sells at farmers markets throughout the year. The last Brunswick Winter Market is Saturday, April 27 and our outdoor markets start in May: the Brunswick Farmers Market Tuesday/Friday starts on May 3 and the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust Farmers Market starts on May 4. More information can be found online at http://whatleyfarm.com/.

“Agriculture can also be an energy-intensive business, and solar energy is one of the best ways we can generate our own electricity to run all the necessary elements of a resilient farm: greenhouses, cold storage and value-added processing. I would also like to say that it is important for us to do what we can to ensure that our activities have a positive impact on the world. There’s one thing the world doesn’t need more of: single-use plastic. This has prompted us to try to reduce these on our farm and in our packaging. I estimate that we have saved more than 10,000 bags since we started offering bulk vegetables in 2021.” -Ben Whatley, co-owner of Whatley Farm

  • Replenova farm, 1252 Royalsborough Rd. in Durham, features a year-round farm shop, including coolers, a freezer and a commercial kitchen. The store offers organic vegetables and prepared and ready-made dishes prepared on site. Also available are meat, dairy products, baked goods, drinks and other artisanal food products from local producers. Read more online at https://replenova.com/.

“Using solar energy is a big step towards making a farm financially sustainable. Without that, the other aspects of sustainability don’t matter. This can be especially important for smaller companies.” Gary Goodrich, owner of Replenova Farm.

–USDA NRCS Maine