I spent a long weekend in Castine, Maine this summer. I do not need a particularly good reason to head to any part of Maine, and having a place to stay on the magnificent peninsula between the mid-coast and Mt. Desert Island would certainly have been enough to get me to pack my bags, but we went for a very specific reason: to have dinner.
This was not just any dinner. Outstanding in the Field is the creation of Jim Denevan, an artist and chef from the Santa Cruz, California area, who travels the country in a bus that may-or-may-not have belonged to Elvis, hosting dinners that are served, well, in a field. The objective is to eat wonderful local food cooked by chefs from the local area while also spotlighting interesting farmers. My best friend, Melodye, lives in Santa Cruz and has been urging my husband and me to attend one of these dinners for a couple of years now. She made it very easy — purchased the tickets and scouted out a rental house that we could all stay in — so it was difficult to say no.
This event was so full that I am going to break the evening into two parts: The Farm and The Dinner.
Part One: The Farm
Our dinner was held on Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. This gorgeous farm is owned by Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch, who are rock stars in the organic agriculture world. In order to get to Four Season Farm, we drove down a narrow road, around Cape Rosier, that eventually turned to dirt. At the moment the pavement ended, to our left we saw a small sign for The Good Life Center at Forest Farm. This was the Maine home of Helen and Scott Nearing. Helen and Scott built their Maine homestead in the early 1950’s, after leaving their first homestead in Vermont because it was becoming too crowded. Living the Good Life describes building their Vermont house, by hand, from stone, and was an important bible for those of us in the sixties and seventies who wanted to get back to the land. While their ascetic life choices never appealed to huge numbers of people, they were certainly important figures who advocated simplicity and closeness to the land. Having never made the pilgrimage to Forest Farm when I was younger, I was very excited to stop now. The stone house is not open to the public this summer as it is under repair, but a small group of mostly volunteer labor continues to keep the property open and we enjoyed wandering the grounds.
Then onward to Four Season Farm! This was an amazing place. There is a relatively small amount of land under cultivation, but Eliot and Barbara squeeze a huge amount of production out of the land by using intensive cultivation techniques and a system of unheated, plastic covered greenhouses that stretch the typically (very) short coastal Maine growing season. Eliot led a tour prior to dinner — he is justly proud of the place and the work they are doing!
The land, orginally carved out of the Nearing’s Forest Farm, is covered by the typical thin skinned soil of coastal Maine. Each square foot of cultivated soil has been practically hand-made from compost that starts out with old hay bales to which typical compostables are added and then the mixture is “seasoned” with crushed shells, seaweed and any other local delicacies that seem appropriate. Seeds are planted much more closely than is typical. Cold sensitive plants such as eggplant (eggplants!! in Maine!!) are sheltered in plastic greenhouses and trained up strings.
The greenhouses are particularly ingenious. They are metal hoops covered with two layers of plastic. When it is necessary, blowers are set up to keep the layers separated with an insulating blanket of air. Tender plants can also be covered inside the greenhouse if temperatures warrant. And the greenhouses are built to be moved — so that tender plants can be set out early in a protected environment, then the greenhouse moved along for successive plantings. The first moveable greenhouses were built on skids, which required a lot of muscle to move. The current version, however, is built on the kind of wheels used on fence gates so that they can be moved much more easily.
Eliot and Barbara sell their produce at the farm as well as local farmer’s markets. Their carrots, which they pick well into the winter, are particular favorites of local children because they are so sweet. If you want to learn more about getting fresh produce year round, check out The Winter Harvest Handbook, Coleman’s latest how-to farming guide.