In a normal year, Robin Pratt would see close to 60,000 visitors in her yard starting this weekend.
Pratt’s Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm is smack in the middle of the parking area for the annual Common Ground Fair, which for the second year in a row has been canceled due to COVID-19.
Instead of sitting back and wishing things were different, Pratt and some fellow longtime Common Ground participants banded together to organize smaller events at venues scattered throughout Unity where vendors and fair-goers can safely connect. They are calling it the Fall for Saturdays Tour and it’s this Saturday, rain or shine.
Pratt is not second guessing the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s tough call in canceling the fair, saying there is no way 60,000 people could safely gather at this point in the pandemic. But the loss of Common Ground comes with economic consequences for the vendors, many of whom rely on the fair to sell their products and find new customers.
Colleen Maguire, co-owner of TradeHers Market, said she and a number of other farms and businesses were ready with products, staffing, volunteers and equipment when the word came that the fair was canceled, leaving them with no obvious alternatives.
“There are folks who plan two years out for it and now have a lot of products they are struggling to sell,” MacGuire said.
Susan Koch fears this second consecutive year without the fair could be a devastating and final blow to some of those farmers and vendors.
“I have reached out to some of the farms that sell goods I otherwise would have bought from them at the fair,” said Koch, who raises sheep and rabbits in Swanville. “For the people who are the vendors and exhibitors, Common Ground is a make or break event for their year and one that let them reach the most people.”
MOFGA, Maguire said, is doing what it can to help connect vendors to buyers, but she said people in Unity wanted to try to get that face-to-face atmosphere of the fair.
Six farms and businesses are participating in the tour on Saturday as both destinations and hosts for other vendors, exhibits, demonstrations and music.
This would have been past Common Ground volunteer Marc Cavatorta’s first year as a vendor. On Thursday he was busy arranging a display of fresh vegetables and gourds for his spot at TradeHers Farm and happy to have the alternative.
“I definitely would have been at Common Ground,” said Cavatorta, who runs his organic Foxfire Farm in Palermo. “But what they are doing in Unity is a really good opportunity by putting together as many local producers as they can.”
MOFGA is providing events normally held at the fair by hosting them online or at less crowded venues. Frinklepod Farms in Arundel will host several activities that would have been at Common Ground, according to MOFGA Executive Director Sarah Alexander. There is also a harvest celebration planned at Mindful Folk Farm in New Gloucester on Saturday with a Sunday rain date.
Educational videos will launch on MOFGA’s website starting Friday, there will be a Facebook Live question and answer session at noon Saturday with MOFGA and University of Maine Cooperative Extension experts, and WERU-Radio will broadcast keynote MOFGA Common Ground speeches starting at 10 a.m. Sunday.
“These events that have popped up will be a lot smaller than Common Ground,” Koch said. “But hopefully it will help some of thes small farmers and some of the people who want to buy locally grown goods.”
The host sites and small event locations for the Fall for Saturdays Tour are Maine TradeHers Market, Stone Tree Farm & Cidery, Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm, Holler Soap Co. Outland Farm Brewery, Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad and Unity Pond Pottery.
For a lot of people, Pratt said, it’s not fall in Maine without the fair.
“People sort of have this internal clock that tells them it’s Common Ground weekend,” Pratt said. “Things are always bustling at all the farms and honestly, anyone who does not get out this weekend is missing the boat.”