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August 4, 2010
Article

Chebeague explores economics of farming

by Anna Maine

If you haven't visited Chebeague in the last 10 years, you might not recognize certain parts of the Island. Near the school's baseball field are the newly-built raised beds for the students' garden, crowded with ripening tomatoes, carrots and beets.  At the crest of tree-lined Roy Hill Road sits a wooden farm stand, its shelves waiting for the coming crops of potatoes, beans, squash and corn-all grown at nearby Second Wind Farm. And if you made the trek down John Wilson's long driveway, you'd be greeted by a bare-looking patch of land that he hopes will one day produce grapes-perhaps the future Chateau Chebeague.

Chebeague is changing. But these changes aren't revolutionary. In fact, they are returning the island to its appearance a hundred years ago.  At that time, farming was almost as much a part of daily life as fishing.

Maine has a rich farming history, and that's what organizations like the 1772 Foundation and the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association (MOFGA) are hoping to revive. The 1772 Foundation is a historical preservation group that gave the Island Institute a two-year $20,000 grant to promote agriculture on the Maine islands.

The grant-now in its final year-has permitted the Institute to partner with MOFGA to "provide technical assistance and regional workshops about farming techniques," according to Shey [cq] Conover, senior program director at the Island Institute.

Thanks to this new partnership, MOFGA has played a vital role in discussions about farming and local agriculture at the Institute's Sustainable Island Living Conference, held in Rockland each year. MOFGA staff have also been able to travel to islands like North Haven, Vinalhaven and now Chebeague to see new and ongoing agricultural projects, like Chebeague's school garden. Island Institute grants funded by the 1772 Foundation have also been provided to help support island agriculture projects.

In June, two MOFGA staff members, Eric Sideman and Andrew Marshall, visited Chebeague Island to discuss strategies for increasing farming and discussed the role of farming in the island economy and how agriculture might lure young families to the islands.  Sideman and Marshall met with islanders Bob Earnest, John Wilson, David Wiston, Beth Howe and Leila Bisharat. Earnest, Wilson, Wiston and Howe are all members of the Chebeague Island Community Association (CICA). The meeting was organized by Earnest, who is also a member of MOFGA. Earnest and his wife, Nancy, have filled much of their property with organic gardens.

"They were helpful in identifying details in a strategy for moving forward," Earnest said of the visit. He and other members of CICA and the Comprehensive Plan Committee hope that Chebeague can establish more small farms to boost the economy. They hope that young families attracted to independent island living  and an escape from the city will settle on these farms and raise their children, keeping the island schools open and businesses running. 

 "Chebeague has a lot of potential. It has a rich agricultural history," MOFGA Educational Programs Director Andrew Marshall said. He also noted that Chebeague is the exception among many other Maine islands because of its deep, rich soil and freshwater resources. But the natural features aren't the only asset. The vision of CICA and Comprehensive Plan Committee members is "impressive and interesting," he says.

Photos of Chebeague a century ago show an island nearly devoid of trees, with tilled fields stretching to the waterline.  That's no longer the case. Replacing the fields are acres of trees. The abundance of mature forests is an obstacle to re-establishing successful farms.  Land will have to be cleared, according to Marshall.  In Chebeague's case, however, the timing is fortuitous-many of the trees are getting old and need to come down.

"Harvesting the forest is vital," says Leila Bisharat, an islander and comprehensive plan committee member. "The trees have reached the limits of their growth." It's costly to clear land for farming-but not if the wood is considered a crop itself. If the wood is harvested for on-island use, such as fuel for the Chebeague Island School, everyone benefits.

That, however, may be the easiest problem to solve when it comes to restoring agriculture on an island like Chebeague.  Acquiring the land itself will be a challenge, Marshall cautions, because "land values (on islands) tend to reflect real estate values and not agricultural potential."

Finding people to work the land will be another issue, islanders and MOFGA agree. CICA's interest in farming, Earnest explains, lies in the economic possibilities and the hope that small-scale farms will attract families (hopefully with children) to help sustain the island community. When asked about the likelihood of getting young families to relocate to farm on an island, Marshall agreed it would be difficult. "It would be really attractive to the right people, but it's a challenge everywhere."

What's essential to make it work, adds Marshall, is building relationships and establishing lines of communication between farmers and community members. "It's all about personal relationships."

For his part, Earnest hopes to build support for more farming on Chebeague by working with landowners and educating islanders about the importance of agriculture and its role in a sustainable community. Marshall will continue to work with the Island Institute to investigate agricultural potential on other islands, realizing there is no common denominator to re-establishing thriving farms. "Each island is unique," he said, "with its own social context and its own resources."

Anna Maine is a Chebeague Island resident.

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