Tag Archive | organic farming

Common Ground Fair


On the train to the Fair!

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.DSC08724.JPG

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.dsc08713

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.DSC08736.JPG

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.dsc08747

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.DSC08735.JPG

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.dsc08741

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.dsc08730dsc08725

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.dsc08718

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.



Save the Monarch Butterflies

The monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, is a highly threatened species, nearing the brink of extinction.  Hard to believe of a beloved insect that has brightened our yards and fields for generations.  And before Europeans arrived in the Americas, monarch butterflies were here, in the millions and hundreds of millions.  Today they are teetering on collapse.

What has caused this disaster for the monarch butterfly?  Many factors contribute, making the problem difficult to deal with.  Part of the trouble is the specialized lifestyle of the insect and its dependence on a few plant species for survival.


Milkweed pod with seeds

DSC00162In the US, there are two monarch populations, one west of the Rocky Mountains and one east. The western butterflies winter on the California coast.  The eastern ones winter in Mexico, on a particular tree, the oyamel.  This fir tree occurs in the mountain cloud forest and is suspectible to climate change and lumbering.  In summer, the Eastern monarchs migrate north and depend on milkweed (primarily the common Asclepias syriaca) for food.  The larvae eat the leaves of only this particular plant.  Milkweed range, especially in the Midwest, has been reduced by over 50%, mostly due to the emergence of genetically modified corn and soybean crops.  These engineered crops are resistant to glyphosate, Roundup, herbicide.  Milkweed is not.  Where milkweed once flourished among the corn and soy, not to mention on what was once open, unfarmed land, now there is no milkweed.  It has been eradicated by plowing for cropland and herbicide.  A class of insecticides, neonicotinoids, also threaten pollinators such as bees and butterflies, yet the manufacturers agitate for its use on crops.

The push to produce corn (bio-engineered corn that is easy to farm due to the use of herbicides) mainly for making bio-diesel, has greatly reduced the plant monarch butterflies need to survive.  Hence, the monarchs are greatly reduced.  Last year saw the lowest number of recorded monarchs returning to the Mexican wintering grounds.

This alarming loss of a species spurred a request to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in August of this year to list the monarch butterfly as endangered.  Such a listing would necessitate protective steps.  Call me a cynic, but I fear this federal agency will bow to the overwhelming money of corporate giants like Monsato (producer of Roundup and genetically modified corn), and find that the butterflies are doing just fine.  This agency has till late November to make a decision.  I’m not holding my breath.  America is lousy with powerful politicians who care little for the measly monarch butterfly but care a lot about money.


Milkweeds seeds

I’ve introduced a new offering to my Etsy online store, aimed at helping the monarch in some small way.  Here at Phoenix Farm, where things are done organically, we have a healthy supply of milkweed.  This fall I sustainably harvested seeds from the wild plants growing along our fencelines and the edges of our fields and orchards.   The seeds are for sale at a nominal fee to encourage milkweed planting.  I am donating my time to gather and process these seeds for sale.

To further help the monarchs, and the earth in general,  I have decided to eliminate all genetically modified organisms–GMOs–from our diets and lives, as much as is humanly possible.  Humans create the bio-engineered products thinking mostly about profit.  The impact on the environment receives little attention.  What starts as a great idea in the lab becomes a monster once unleashed on the world.  I’ve decided to just say no to GMOs.

Eating and buying organic, mainly certified organic, is the best way to guarantee GMOs are not included.  Even then, minute traces of these inventions, what I think of as pollutants, are still present.  They have invaded the environment and are difficult to remove…like most chemicals and pollutants humans have devised.

Many voices decry the approaching food scarcity and point to it as an incentive for genetically modified organisms.  These bio-engineered wonders will increase food production, experts wail, to fuel an ever-growing human population.  I say we face not a food crisis, but an overpopulation crisis.  Humans are over-running the world and pushing out all other species.  The excessive numbers of our species is irresponsible.  Such lack of foresight and failure to conserve resources seems innate human behavior.   To continue enjoying a natural world containing creatures like the monarch butterfly, we must find a way to control ourselves.  I hold out scant hope for the butterfly.