Every year for the last forty years the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assoc. (MOFGA) has held the Common Ground Country Fair. It occurs on the third weekend after Labor Day in Unity, Maine. I have attended several times, most recently with my daughter and two grandchildren.
This fair attracts over 20,000 people per day on its three-day, long weekend run. The place can get quite crowded, especially the food areas at lunchtime. Organic growers from all over the state attend to compete, display and sell their produce, livestock and wares.
Compared to most fairs, the Common Ground is more like a very old-time agricultural fair. There are no loud rides, carnies, sideshows, horse races, professional tractor or horse pulling competitions and NO cotton candy (sigh.) The trash is guarded by garbage police and separated into cans for regular waste, composting and recycling. There is no litter.
Arriving at the fair is an adventure in itself, as you may take an old-fashioned train with brightly painted cars to reach the fairground. The train runs regularly all day, shuttling people back and forth from parking areas to the fair. Even with the train service, the road leading to the fair is backed up for miles in traffic jams. The crowd seems to take the highway authorities by surprise every year, leading to very slow going if you try to travel anywhere near the fair.
You can find wonderful displays of organically grown vegetables and fruit in the competition barn, several sheds of draft horses, oxen, dairy cattle and goats, pigs, sheep, llamas and alpacas. The draft animals do compete in amateur pulling contests. One barn is devoted to rabbits and another to poultry. The fiber people have a tent full of their produce arrayed for the salivating droves of spinners and weavers moving through. There is always a woman demonstrating the use of a spinning wheel by taking the fiber directly from an angora rabbit resting in her lap.
Other large sales tents house arts and crafts with basket weavers, jewelers, wood, glass, stone and metal workers, paper making and hand-operated printing presses, cloth and clothing making, beading, leather work, etc, etc. Several tents are dedicated to fresh produce and seeds, and several more to representatives from various political factions, movements and technology companies important to organic farmers. A few tents are set aside for daily talks put on by authorities on the many facets of organic living and farming. There is even a display of working equipment operated with direct solar power to cook food.
The aspects that stand out most for me are the general quiet atmosphere, the wide, grassy spaces that are available for people to use, and the sorts of people who attend. Dozens of fair-goers sprawl on lawns and in open areas, eating, drinking, talking, listening to speakers and even playing musical instruments and singing. Some of these people are barefoot or clothed in brightly colored wraps of cloth and other bohemian outfits and hairstyles. Amish people mingle with the crowd, denizens of the large Amish community that has sprung up around the Unity area in the last decade or so.
The grounds are furnished with several permanent gardens to display organic farming methods. You can walk through small fields of corn, squash, beans, root vegetables, cruciferous and leaf crops and herb and flower gardens. On one side of the fairgrounds is a large amphitheater for live music and performances with high earthen sides for seating. Dozens of children grab pieces of discarded cardboard boxes from vendors and slide down the steep slopes.
The attractions are eclectic. One may take a walk through a quiet forest into a glade set aside for poetry reading by Maine’s poet laureate. Farther into the woods, children who are members of a local wilderness group display their resourcefulness with outdoor skills, camping and fire-starting for any to watch. Near the amphitheater is an old-fashioned strength competition using a heavy hammer to try and ring the bell at the top of a pole.
Unusual foods are vended. Offerings such as lamb, falafal, curries, tofu just-about-anything-you-can-imagine, vegetarian foods, whole wheat pizza, teas, hot cider, pie cones, and fresh seafood bring lines of diners. Not the usual fair fare! There is a bow to regular American tastes with stands serving hamburgers and fries, popcorn, Italian sausage and ice cream. The longest line was at the fresh roast coffee vendor’s stand.
Many love the sheep dog demonstrations. Several dogs perform their tasks using a small flock of sheep and even a gaggle of geese, to the delight of a large audience. The children are drawn to the livestock pens because most farms in attendance allow people to talk to and pet the animals.
The young ones also have a large area all to themselves filled with delightful activities. Twice a day any child may don a costume and participate in the Children’s Parade around the fairgrounds. In addition to children, the parade features Morris dancers, stilt-walkers and mummers wearing large papier-mache animal head masks.
The day always flies by with so much to see and do. Soon it is time to rush and catch the train for the ride back to the car. With any luck the shuttle is running close to schedule. Everyone leaves tired but happy. This year’s fair hosted over 60,000 visitors in one long weekend. I hope this extravaganza of folk and country fun continues for many years to come.