Maine Farmland Trust and Aldermere Farm Collaborate to Preserve Farmland
— by Georgeanne Davis
The traffic light at the junction of Routes 90 and 1 on a hot April afternoon is one of those modern nightmares: Drivers sit captive as tractor trailer trucks are funneled onto the coastal route from Route 90, tourists try to continue on their way to Camden and locals to make their way out of Rockport village.
Less that a mile away from the light, on the south side of Route 90, sits the Erickson Farm, with over 90 acres of pasture land and hay fields. For generations, says Marieta Erickson Wheaton, her family worked the land and milked cows, until it was no longer possible for them to do so. As recently as the 1980s she still crossed the family’s cows from the southside pasture to the barn on the north side of the road, often waiting until a polite tractor trailer would stop and hold up the traffic so she could drive the herd across the road. In addition to operating a milking farm, the Ericksons raised much of the food they ate, including many varieties of apples and grapes, which still grow on the property today. Marieta recalls that, growing up, her family, whom many residents remember from the time when they delivered milk and butter to their homes, needed to purchase only sugar and coffee from the local store.
Aldermere Farm, in contrast, lies on a scenic back road that winds its way from Rockport to Camden along the coast. Since 1953 Aldermere has been home to a herd of 100 well-loved Belted Galloway beef cattle, purchased by the farm’s former owners, the Chatfield family, who bequeathed the property to Maine Coast Heritage Trust in 1999. Three agricultural easements protect the agricultural, scenic and ecological values of Aldermere. The farm has 61 acres of grazing fields, 64 acres of mixed woodlands and scenic frontage on Penobscot Bay and is operated as a working farm, managed by Ron Howard, whose father managed the property under the Chatfields. Aldermere sells it grass-fed beef to area restaurants such as Primo in Rockland and The Edge in Lincolnville, as well as to area co-ops and individuals. In addition, Aldermere has a mission to educate the community and encourage sustainable agriculture with programs such as Farm Hands, which allows young participants to work with the Beltie calves, as well as workshops on land conservation, gardening, pasture management and raising beef cattle. Seasonal recreational events include moonlight cross-country ski tours, sap-to-syrup days, the annual calf unveiling and an art show and sale.
The future of these two farms, one a former family farm, the other the former estate of a gentleman farmer, is intimately intertwined. While the Erickson family no longer has its miking herd, under a handshake agreement with the family, Aldermere has been grazing some of its Belties in the Route 90 pastures. In addition, they have been cutting and baling hay for winter feed for their own cattle and also supplying hay to area farms that raise cattle, horses, sheep and alpacas. “It’s become nice niche for us, to provide local hay,” says Howard. But about a year ago, the Erickson family decided they had to put the land up for sale. The sign at the side of the road read “90+ Acres, zoned commercial or residential,” and the property could easily have become the latest piece of farmland to be gridded into house lots. Instead, a collaboration between Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) and Aldermere resulted in the purchase of the land last July, with the goal of permanently protecting all of the open farmland and a good portion of the woodland through an agricultural easement. MFT borrowed the money to secure the farm, and once the loan is repaid the land will be conveyed to Maine Coast Heritage Trust to ensure that the fields will forever be available to Aldermere Farm.
Beyond retaining working hayfields and pasturage as well as scenic vistas out over the Camden hills, the Erickson property also will provide many opportunities for creative community involvement. On a recent afternoon Howard pointed out some of the features of the land. From the top of the pasture, the sound of traffic from Route 90 is a hum as subdued as that of foraging bumblebees. It’s easy to envision students and teachers from the nearby Rockport Elementary School, Ashwood School and Camden Hills Regional High School (CHRHS) hiking and exploring in the fields and woodlands, or crosscountry ski trails made accessible in winter. Howard points out a beautiful five-acre field that slopes down to the road that will be available for community gardens and for some kind of gardening projects that will involve the students in growing their own food. Susan Boivin, assistant director of food-service at CHRHS, has already agreed to purchasing produce from local growers that would equal the amount of any produce raised on the farm’s fields. Howard says he is “cautiously moving forward” with a plan to involve a group of students in logging and cutting cedar at Aldermere to be used in raised beds on the field. A local Master Gardener has volunteered to help grow vegetables this summer.
The partnership of Aldermere and MFT has already raised $600,000 of the $1,100,000 total acquisition costs, which included purchase, appraisal, survey, taxes and debt service. The $600,000 came from early pledges and a federal grant. This week a capital campaign was launched to involve the community in raising the the rest of the money needed to repay MFT’s loan — $500, 000 — by July. Brochures were mailed to 7,000 homes in the Five Town school area detailing the unique opportunity the community has to keep a large tract of productive farmland working and be engaged in supporting sustainable agriculture in the area. As an informational brochure put out by MFT states, “In the last 15 years, we have lost more than 800,000 acres of rural land to development, the highest percentage of any state except Virginia.” However, contrary to popular opinion, farming in Maine is not dead, or even dying. In the last few years, “great and growing opportunities for smaller farms” have developed with local markets, with the result that “the numbers of farmers and acres in production are now both increasing.” The purchase of the Erickson property could revitalize farming in the coastal region and preserve a piece of the landscape to be enjoyed for generations.
Gifts to the Erickson Farm campaign can be made payable to Maine Farmland Trust
97 Main Street
Belfast, ME 04915