AUBURN — A statewide group is working to organize a veteran-owned farming collective in New Auburn.
Jerry Ireland, president of United Farmer Veterans of Maine, said Thursday he sees amazing potential.
“We have an opportunity in Lewiston and Auburn to really build a model of how the future of our economy around agriculture could look,” Ireland told the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce during a monthly breakfast talk that ended with a rare standing ovation.
The plan is ambitious: Organize veterans-turned-farmers on 1,000 acres around the area of Fox Ridge Golf Club, setting them up to share resources, grow crops and raise livestock in consultation with each other and bring value-added goods to market.
“It’s a really old agricultural community that isn’t really being farmed,” Ireland said. “A lot of it is being hayed. What we want to do is bring back actual agriculture. There’s a long-term plan of probably putting two massive farms inside that 1,000 acres back into full operation and production that could house and employ up to 100 veterans at a time.”
Six veteran-owned farms, and one or two others owned by veterans’ family members, already are on board with a combined 400 acres, he said.
Ireland, 42, grew up in Lincoln and served 13 years in the U.S. Army. He started his own farm in Swanville five years ago with a single dairy cow named Baby Doll and a family full of skeptics.
“Because people say I can’t do it, I can,” Ireland said. “It took me an hour and 10 minutes the first time to milk Baby Doll.” Five months later, he was down to 10 minutes and says, “I could do it at midnight with my eyes closed.”
Today his farm includes four beef cows, 60 hogs, 5 acres of low-bush blueberries and 2,000 maple syrup taps.
Farming can tap into veterans’ drive, he said.
“As I looked and struggled and transitioned coming out of the military, personally, purpose was a big thing that I lost,” Ireland said. “I think part of (the draw of agriculture), part of it is setting your own schedule, the hard work, all the things you’re trained in the military to do really well don’t always fit in a cubicle. Agriculture provides an opportunity. It provides something outdoors, it provides creating life. It’s bringing good, healthy food back to the community.”
According to Ireland, Maine has 265 veteran-owned farms, a number that grows every week.
Outside the Auburn project, United Farmer Veterans of Maine has been involved in the purchase of the Windham Butcher Shop and a campaign to raise $1.5 million to build 300 cottages on farms around Maine for homeless veterans to live and learn.
Auburn’s current agricultural zone wouldn’t allow for buildings like those cottages or other infrastructure to get the farming cooperative off the ground, Ireland said.
“One of the biggest hampering pieces in the last 20 years is you can’t build anything, even a shed, new,” he said. “The way the ag zone, to me, has been developed is it’s really more about green space than agriculture. We need that redevelopment of that ag zone to be able to put houses in there, to put projects in there that are actually bringing farming back to that agricultural district.”
City leaders are listening.
Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, who was at the breakfast Thursday, heard Ireland’s pitch for the project last month.
“It was just great timing,” LaBonte said. “We have wanted to look citywide at how to support this sector of our economy, given how much other attention has gone to commercial/mall area, industrial parks and downtown, we needed to ensure we understood how city policies and programs help or hinder this sector.
“I’ve been most interested in learning from these business owners about challenges to securing a workforce, access to capital, and what city ordinances or zoning might limit flexibility in growing their businesses or entering new markets,” LaBonte said. “The collective is one approach that might help us understand how to become flexible in support of farm businesses.”
The city hired consultant Crossroads Resource Center to start meeting with a citizen committee next week to study the city’s agriculture and natural resource business and to look at ways to help them grow, he said.
RitaMae Morin, a member of that new committee, works on the 150-acre family farm in New Auburn. She and her father, Phillippe Morin, have restarted the farm this year after years of growing hay and they support the cooperative idea.
“I think it embodies everything that we are trying to accomplish,” Morin said. “Because my father is a veteran, it means so much more and gives us a larger direction to do it in. I don’t think we were thinking as big as we could have been before we met Jerry. Farming is hard, distribution is hard. He’s got ideas on how we can make some of these things happen.”
Jerry Ireland stands on his farm in Swanville with Baby Doll, his first — and only — dairy cow. Ireland, president of the United Farmer Veterans of Maine, is trying to build support for a veteran farmers cooperative in New Auburn. (Portland Press Herald file photo)
Jerry Ireland (submitted photo)