Most of us have never ridden a tractor. Maine Open Farm Day hopes to change that.
On Sunday, July 28, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and Get Real, Get Maine will celebrate the 30th annual Maine Open Farm Day. More than 130 farms from all 16 counties in Maine — the most ever in Open Farm Day’s history — will open their gates to the public for demonstrations, tastings and special events to celebrate the richness and diversity of Maine agriculture.
“It’s important for creating that relationship and connection,” said Anne Trenholm, Open Farm Day Coordinator at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “We have a rich heritage in that [in Maine]. This is going to be your introduction or your reminder to put a place and a face with the products that you enjoy across the state.”
The rising popularity of Open Farm Day among farmers reflects some of the recent shifts in Maine agriculture. Trenholm pointed out that the 2017 Census of Farms by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that there has been a more than 50 percent increase in the number of farms conducting sales directly to their customers — at farmers markets, farm stands and the like — since the previous Census of Farms in 2012.
Open Farm Day gives farmers another opportunity to show off — and sell — their products directly to customers new and old by offering them a “taste in place.”
“While we know people are interested in meeting their farmers, the farmers are really interested in meeting their customers,” Trenholm said.
Many of the farms participating are also small farms, which is another trend in Maine agriculture. The number of farms located on between 1 and 9 acres in Maine increased from 1,239 to 1,427.
Events like Open Farm Day give small farmers, particularly those who are new on the scene, an opportunity to get the word out about their farm.
“If I wanted to do this and get the same kind of exposure, it would cost me a fortune,” said Scott Huber, co-owner of Itty Bitty Farm in Columbia Falls, which is participating in Open Farm Day for the second time this year. “They send us out posters. They send us out a couple of banners. They put out the big flyer in the newspaper. They have advertising on Facebook all the time. They make it something that everybody hears about. I don’t know where I’d find the time to do it.”
Open Farm Day also allows the public to see and experience farm life in a way that they would not be able to otherwise.
“We are not open to the public otherwise,” Mary Margaret Ripley, co-owner of Ripley Farm in Dover-Foxcroft. “We don’t have a farm stand, so we don’t get that kind of visibility. Staffing a farm stand is something that we just can’t afford to do right now. That’s one of the reasons we do Open Farm Day, to at least have one day a year that everyone can come and check it out.”
Some farms see Open Farm Day as an opportunity to give back to their community. Kristin Beauchamp, owner of Lone Spruce Farm in Dedham, has participated in Open Farm Day since she arrived in Maine four years ago. Leading up to the day she opened her gates to the public, Beauchamp’s new neighbors in Maine had rallied to help her with her farm after a tree fell on her husband earlier that year. Beauchamp said that even before that, a Bangor Daily News article featuring her epileptic son, Wyatt, led to a neurologist reaching out to her personally to properly diagnose him and guide him toward proper treatment.
“Open Farm Day for us feels like a celebration of community,” Beauchamp said. “Year after year, we wind up making really outstanding connections with the participants. We even met another epilepsy family one year.”
Open Farm Day also provides an opportunity to celebrate the legacy of agriculture in Maine. The Good Life Center in Harborside, former home of famous homesteaders Scott and Helen Nearing, has participated in Open Farm Day for more than five years despite not being a traditional operating farm.
“From a historical point of view, I think it’s really important for the state of Maine,” said Warren Berkowitz, manager of the Good Life Center. “They were always very generous with keeping their place open to the public. That was one of Helen [Nearing]’s wishes when she died, that the place remain open to the public so future generations can be inspired.”
Last year, Trenholm and other farmers estimate that most farms saw between 30 and 100 visitors on Open Farm Day. With the increased number farms participating, the attendance this year (though largely dependent on the weather) is expected to increase as well.
This year, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is encouraging Open Farm Day attendees to fill out a visitor survey and participate in a social media photography contest using the hashtag #MaineOpenFarmDay. The digital presence also allows farmers to follow along with the festivities online.
“This is an exciting time in Maine agriculture,” Trenholm said. “We want to keep the momentum going.”