You can just make out seaweed-encrusted beams when the salt waters of Whiting Bay are at low tide and before the fresh waters of Crane Mill Brook start rushing back to the sea.
Aaron Bell can point them out and, if you are lucky, talk about the history of those beams that go back eight generations.
His great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather Robert Bell used them to build a tidewater grist mill in the early 1800s on 10,000 acres he was granted as a Scottish immigrant in 1765.
Members of the Bell family have been living and farming on the land in what is now Washington County ever since, and today Tide Mill Farms supports an all-organic dairy, pork, poultry and vegetable business.
In 1998, Tide Mill Farms was named one of 30 National Bicentennial Farms in Maine by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — farms that have been in the same family since before the United States was a country. Efforts to track down how many of those remain in Maine were unsuccessful.
But for Tide Mill, it all began in 1765 — 22 years before the signing of the U.S. Constitution and 55 years before Maine became a state — when Robert Bell immigrated to Maine from Scotland, Aaron Bell said.
“He was only 14 when he came here,” Bell said. “He landed in Eastport and eventually, with the help of the Native Americans, ended up settling here.”
“Here” was a 10,000-acre parcel of land hugging Whiting Bay — salt waters that eventually flowed out to the Gulf of Maine — and covered in woods and grassland.
But it was the tidal action in the channel between the bay and Crane Mill Brook that gave the first Bell his start and the name the farm has today.
The mill used the power produced by the movement of tidal waters to spin the grinding stones to mill flour and other grains.
At 14 Robert Bell took part in the construction of, and worked in, the first grist mill, Aaron Bell said as he stood next to one of the original grinding stones. The mills operated from 1800 to 1900, he said.
The Bell mill was one of hundreds lining the Down East coast, grinding grain for local communities and for the sailing ships that docked in the bays.
There’s a bridge allowing cars to drive over the channel where that mill once stood and, according to Aaron Bell, a family right of passage is jumping from it into the waters below.
Just downstream are the seaweed-covered remnants of the old cribwork that held the stones that supported the mill. Some of those stones are also visible half buried in the shoreline.
The mill operated for around 100 years, Bell said, and ended its life as a lumber mill.
“What’s unique about it is that the same family is working here today that put that original structure together,” Bell said. “And that it is actually still farming.”
A farming family
Today Tide Mill Farms covers 1,600 of those original 10,000 acres and operates under the business name Tidemill Organic Farm. There have been changes over the past 200-plus years, but there has always been a Bell on the land.
Aaron Bell and his wife, Carly DelSignore, are the current owners, but daily operations are still very much an extended family affair.
Aaron’s parents, Robert and Jane Bell, work alongside their son and grandchildren running the farm business. His second cousin Inez Bell Furth, whose house is on the farm, runs Tide Mill Creamery, where she turns the dairy cows’ milk into cheese, yogurt and flavored drinks.
Outside Aaron Bell’s and DelSignore’s nearby house, a herd of Mangalitsa pigs happily roots around in a large fenced-in wooded and pasture area. Next to that is the large garden where DelSignore raises organic vegetables sold in the farm’s onsite store.
There are up to three generations of Bells hard at work on any given day.
Paige Bell, Aaron Bell DelSignore’s 20-year-old daughter, lives and works there full time, though she took a break this past summer to work on her boyfriend’s lobster boat. She is often found tending, feeding or milking the 50 dairy cows, along with her younger siblings Ruth and Henry.
She has also started a successful online store for the farm and Tide Mill ships frozen organic chicken nationwide.
Once a day she’s in the milking parlor, often with her father, younger siblings and her grandfather Robert Bell. It’s the same parlor that Aaron Bell’s grandfather, father and uncles built in 1965, just a few years before the farm ceased dairy production.
The Bells decided in 1977 that the dairy industry was tanking, Jane Bell said. State regulations around how milk was stored and that banned the use of smaller milk cans forced many dairies out of business, she said.
“When I married [Robert] there were the bulk tanks and we had a Holstein herd and a brown Swiss herd,” Jane Bell said. “But there was nothing organic about it.”
Economics forced the Bells to abandon dairy farming and sell off their herd in 1977. For a time, the farm focused on timber production selling to local lumber mills.
By the early 2000s economics had changed again, this time in favor of milk production and local farming. Around that time Aaron Bell and DelSignore moved to the farm, bringing with them a new organic dairy and farming model.
It does Robert Bell’s heart good to see the milking operation in full swing. He was the one who, with Jane Bell, had to make that painful decision to sell off the dairy herd four decades ago when the dairy industry was tanking.
He admits to being a bit skeptical when his son came home with the idea of growing and selling organic vegetables, given the amount of labor that would involve.
But organic dairy? That made some good sense given that Hood Dairy was looking for organic milk suppliers.
All it took was cleaning out the old milk parlor and bringing in some new updated milking equipment, Robert Bell said.
“Now we get 65 gallons of milk a day,” Aaron Bell said. “And pretty much we sell it all.”
What does not get sold as milk goes to Inez Bell for her creamery business.
By 2014, the farm business model looked very much as it does today with organic beef, chicken, pork and dairy products.
More than just a farm
As far as the Bells are concerned, farming is not just their livelihood. It’s a lifestyle that connects them with each other and the community.
“I think the fact our animals are handled by family puts some good energy into the food it produces,” Aaron Bell said. “Our products do not go to some massive processing facility.”
For the Bells, educating people about where their food comes from is as important as selling the product itself.
Jane Bell recalls an out-of-state visitor who had stopped by for milk who was shocked to learn how the milk was produced.
“We were in the process of selling off some calves when he showed up,” Jane Bell said. “He asked, ‘Why do we have calves if you don’t want them?’”
Jane Bell said she blinked a few times and then explained some basic barnyard birds and bees to the customer — that to produce milk, a cow needs to first produce a calf.
“He’s holding the milk and he’s on the doorstep out there,” Jane Bell said. “He froze, and he looked at the milk and then he said, ‘You mean a calf has to die so I can drink my milk?’”
Jane Bell prefers to look at it as a calf needs to be born for people to drink their milk.
“It looked like I had hit him between the eyes with a baseball bat,” she said. “He said, ‘I might just stop drinking milk.’”
It’s a funny story, but Aaron Bell said it holds an important message.
“I find when society loses touch with its life-nourishing traditions and practices you can start to see the downward spiral of that society,” he said. “Whether we are starting to see that now with real out of the earth food — if you look at America as a whole, people have lost that touch.”
But there is a glimmer of hope, Bell said, as more and more people are starting to recognize the value of organic food produced by small family farms.
There is no place any of the Bells would rather have grown up.
“Making bread on the big table here where they made rolls and cinnamon rolls [generations ago] every morning,” Robert Bell said. “Just the good memories of playing and working here.”
Having multiple generations living and working together is also some of the best on-the-job training.
At a very young age, Paige Bell was taught how and then trusted to set up the milking stations and milk the cows on her own.
“You couldn’t tell someone to do that if they hadn’t spent years just watching you do it,” Aaron Bell said. “To hire some random person and train them on all those steps would be a disaster.”
Of course, growing up on a farm was one thing. Making it one’s life? It’s not for everyone.
Aaron Bell’s older daughter Hailey lives and works in Boston, and other Bell family members have moved off the farm to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
Looking forward to the coming generations, Aaron Bell and his parents feel it’s in good hands with Paige, Ruth and Henry, who have a keen interest in the farming lifestyle. As for the 10th generation, that’s a bit further off.
“Growing up I wanted to get away,” Aaron Bell said. “It wasn’t until it hit me that I was trying to get slots to volunteer at the student-run farm at University of Maine — Let’s just go farm.”