Maine Open Farm Day

The view from Beech Hill Farm and Bison Ranch, Waterford, Maine

This past Sunday was Maine Open Farm Day.  Participating farms throughout Maine literally open their (barn) doors to the public, with tours of their farms, products, and demonstrations of farming techniques.

There are many different types of small farms in my area.  There are small self-sustaining farms which do not sell what they grow to the public, and grow only enough for their own consumption.  There are highly specialized farms, all within 10 miles or less of me:  Pietree Orchard with hundreds of apple trees and blueberry bushes; Kezar River Farm, an alpaca farm which markets their wool; Twin Mountain Farm, a dairy goat farm; North Country Draft Horses, a farm that breeds and raises draft horses; Beech Hill Farm and Bison Ranch, a farm that breeds and raises bison for their meat and hides, and grows vegetables as well; and Deerwood Farm and Gardens, which raises vegetables, perennials and herbs.

So many farms; so little time.  I decided to visit Beech Hill Farm and Bison Ranch, as well as Deerwood Farm and Gardens.  I was not disappointed.

Beech Hill Bison is located at the top of a very steep hill in Waterford, Maine.  It offers dramatic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, which this time of year are a verdant green under deep blue skies.  The current proprietor, a man in his 60s,  is a great-grandson of the original owner, who used the property as a dairy farm back in the day.  When he died, he bequeathed the land to his sons but not his daughters.  So the current owner, whose grandmother was one of those overlooked daughters, had to buy the land off of his cousin.  He was only able to afford 80 acres out of the 400 total  acres (the cousin was unwilling to sell to anyone outside of the family), but at least it was the section that included the barn and farmhouse.  (The rest of the land just went up for sale, since the great-uncle is going to a nursing home and the cousin’s family no longer has interest in keeping the land:  313 divisible, fertile acres with killer views for $832,000.)

Views from Beech Hill Farm and Bison Ranch in Waterford, Maine:

Looking from the vegetable garden towards the pasture and beyond.

Currently they have 15 – 17 bison at any given time.  Slaughter is usually in November, and they cull about 5 – 7 bison annually.  They usually have 5 – 7 new calves each Spring but this year they had only 3.  Their giant bull bison is getting up in years, and apparently his studly prowess ain’t what it used to be.  He’s 17 now, and the typical lifespan is 15 – 20 years.

Bison calf

The bull used for breeding

Home, Home On The Range

The owner sells the meat to the public (he ships) as well as to gourmet restaurants.  He also sells the buffalo hides for rugs, upholstery and wall decorations (these run +/- $1,500).  I asked him if it would be possible to slaughter the bison according to kosher standards, but he was not interested since he has more than enough business as it is.  I do buy his bison bones for my dog, though!

Besides the bison, he has a very large vegetable patch as well as free-roam chickens, and he sells eggs and vegetables from his farmhouse.  The day I was there he had some wonderful just-picked beet greens, garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash for sale.

I remember several years ago, my husband and I ate bison meat fairly frequently.  Then there was some sort of disagreement between the suppliers and the kashrus agencies, and the supply dried up.  What a pity!  Bison meat is a free-range animal that isn’t plied with hormones or antibiotics.  It’s lower in fat than beef and its cholesterol is less than chicken!  The trick is knowing how to cook such a lean piece of meat so it doesn’t resemble shoe leather.  The secret is to put a tablespoon of oil in a frying pan and sear the meat all around until the edges are brown.  This technique locks in the flavor.  Then you can season and prepare it however you would normally cook roast beef, albeit at a lower temperature.  Bison is much easier to digest than beef, not to mention healthier.  Too bad my local bison ranch is not kosher, but at least it’s a fun place to visit when the grandchildren come to Maine.

Next I went to Deer Wood Farm and Gardens.  The owner’s vegetable gardens comprise many acres, and she hires apprentices who do a lot of hard labor for the privilege of learning farming techniques.  Eventually many of them go on to start their own farms and nurseries.  This is an all-organic farm, with no electric or machine tools used in cultivation.  A lot of time is spent pulling weeds!  The vegetables were huge:  deeply colored red tomatoes, inky dark purple eggplant, rich maroon beets, and many shades and types of green lettuces.  Although the owner does not have a cow, she does have poultry, and the eggs and free range  chickens and fruits and vegetables that she grows are enough to ensure she’s self-sufficient.  Her main income is derived from her perennial gardens.  She has 200 types of daylilies which she sells to the public as well as  nurseries across the country, as well as other shrubs, flowers and trees that are used in a part-time landscaping business.  She also sells herbs – I bought some chocolate mint (a type of mint that has its green leaves tinged with brown, and really does smell like a combination of chocolate and mint), and the largest, tallest oregano plant I’ve ever seen.

All of this inspired me with the big idea to further develop my property (husband is rolling his eyes about now).  Self-sustaining gardening is really a full-time job and though it’s good exercise, it is extremely hard physical labor and more than I can realistically handle (which, my husband knows, means that he will get stuck with work he doesn’t want to do).  Additionally, I’m usually back in my hometown during the months of May and June, which are the most important growing months in Maine.  I can’t maintain a garden if I won’t be there to work it.  Without use of an excavator or heavy-duty rototiller ($$$), I simply cannot prepare the ground sufficiently and remove all the rocks, roots and other impediments to create smooth, rich soil good for tilling.   So I cheated:  as an experiment I bought a 3′ square planter bed (a 4-sided wood box that is 1′ high) for $30 and filled it with MooDoo.

After some research, I found out that there are a few plants that can be planted later than springtime:  kale and spinach in July and garlic in the Fall.  So today I ordered my garlic (it’s coming by mail after Sukkos, in October, from the Fedco seed company here in Maine); and I filled the planter bed with five rows of kale seeds.  I covered the bed with dead grass which will act as mulch and hopefully prevent a lot of weeds from growing in between the kale.  The dead piled grass will also keep the soil moist and prevent it from drying out.  I especially appreciated HaShem making a rainstorm a few minutes after I was done, so that I didn’t even have to irrigate (my hose isn’t long enough, so I end up having to haul multiple 5-gallon buckets of water which weigh 41+ lbs per load).  I am going to buy some more of these planter beds the next time I venture into town.

The planter box, filled with MooDoo, seeded with kale, and covered with dead grasses for mulch

Then, today when I took our trash to the town dump,  I started scavenging in the demolition bins (I’m not proud).  I came up with 3 old, discarded windows that will make a perfect “greenhouse” when placed over the planter box and will protect the kale from October – November frost.  This is called a “cold frame.”  You can see an example of a cold frame here:  http://www.instructables.com/id/Build-a-Cold-Frame-Using-Old-Windows/

or a video version here:  How to Make a Cold Frame
Lately it’s gotten dangerous for me to go to the town dump (Okay, how weird is this:  my town dump just created a Facebook page.  I am supposed to “friend” a dump?  I’m not that lonely!)  My car is fuller after visiting the dump than before I get rid of my trash.  I’ve been coming home with more “treasures” (other people’s discarded junk) than the garbage I bring there.  Sometimes I force myself to use restraint, but it didn’t stop me from bringing home some musty old books from the 1930s and a pair of ancient cross-country skis (the skis will have to be returned to the dump, because the boot mounts are the old-fashioned style that isn’t currently manufactured for the newer style boots.   Who knew?)   It killed me to not take a perfectly good Nordic Track ski exercise machine, but at least I got the old windows for my cold frame greenhouse.  My husband is shaking his head and mumbling to himself when I come home with my newest finds.  If my dumpster diving gets any worse, maybe he’ll just have to be the one to go to the dump instead of me! (Are you listening, dear?)

Old windows from the garbage dump

I’ve placed the windows on my planter box . . . the cold frame will look something like this.

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