Lewiston farmer Jesse Tannenbaum, left, talks with Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque before the start of Thursday morning’s conference at the senior center in Auburn. Tannenbaum runs Eli’s Homestead where they sell produce to local restaurants and markets. Looking to expand to a larger farm, he was hoping to make some connections at the conference. (Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham)

AUBURN — Back home, farming wasn’t a business, it was how you fed your family, Muhidin Libah said.

Settling into a new village, you’d approach elders, pay dues and receive a free plot to build and farm.

“People are still thinking that (when they arrive in Maine), ‘Who should we talk to?'” said Libah, director of the Somali Bantu Community Association, whose group is connected with 135 families farming in Lewiston-Auburn.

The LA Region Farmland Access and Food Economy Conference on Thursday at the Auburn Senior Community Center highlighted challenges faced by new Mainers and by all farmers; listed opportunities; and set out to match would-be local growers with landowners.

The 100 conference spaces filled up quickly, according to Julia Harper, coordinator of the Good Food Council of Lewiston-Auburn, one of 10 groups that came together to host the event.

Good Food Council of LA Coordinator Julia Harper addresses the crowd gathered at the Auburn Senior Community Center Thursday morning at a free breakfast conference for local farmers and organizations interested in promoting local farming and healthy sources of food. (Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham)

She hoped it would result in expanded economic opportunities and more food- and farm-friendly policies in the Twin Cities.

Karen Bolduc, who with her husband, John, owns South Auburn Organic Farm, offered a Community Supported Agriculture/meal kit hybrid in 2017 that she said people loved, but “we had a really, really hard time making numbers work.”

That effort helped spark their new business idea, a high-end, culinary-focused treehouse glampground.

“One thing we ran into that we didn’t even anticipate was that a lot of the towns we were looking for land in, we would go to their planning boards and they’d say, ‘Well, we don’t have an ordinance for glamping, so you can’t do it, sorry,'” Bolduc said. “Like, wow, how would you have an ordinance for glamping? It’s only been around for a short period of time?

“If more municipalities framed their policies around certain general broad goals for their food system and not so much on specific ordinances, there’s real opportunity there to encourage economic development,” she said.

If the glampground takes off, it would help make the meal kits sustainable again, Bolduc said.

Stephanie Gilbert, a farm viability and farmland protection specialist at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said her work often involves hearing about how a multigenerational farm got its start, “stories about cows, trees and rocks that would not move.”

In 1992, she was hired by the Androscoggin Valley Soil and Water Conservation District to work with 30 dairy farmers who were using a lot of DeCoster chicken manure on their crops.

She had to convince them to use less, and importantly, that it wouldn’t affect their yields, Gilbert said.

After a dairy farmer told her, “It takes three years, at least, for a farmer to make a change,” she spent four-plus years testing nitrate in the soil in the summer and measuring crops in the fall. Slowly, they came on board.

“You don’t know who you’re going to meet, you don’t know if they’re going to like you, but if you work hard and use sweat equity and communication, you make friends,” Gilbert said, adding, “If city officials are not people who have not grown up on farms, they need to hear from people who are farming (about) what’s happening now, what’s needed now.”

Jesse Tannenbaum of Sabattus started Eli’s Homestead on a leased quarter-acre in Lewiston two years ago, growing greens and root vegetables on 25 raised beds. He came to the conference hoping to connect with a farmer who might be winding down in the next five years.

He’d eventually like to expand into microgreens, strawberries and blueberries.

“I lived a really unhealthy lifestyle for a long time,” Tannenbaum said. “I wanted to get healthy for my family. I wanted to be able to offer healthy food. I just wasn’t seeing that in the food system we have.”

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