NORWAY — With uncertainty threatening large-scale food producers during the coronovirus pandemic, communities like Norway are looking for ways to localize supply. The Alan Day Community Garden (ADCG), starting its 11th season of leasing out vegetable plots, recently began looking for ways to ramp up its own farmers’ market production. It did not have to look far or long.

Soon this bare field at Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway will grow vegetables for distribution through the Alan Day Community Garden’s Friday Farmers’ Market. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Across town at the Roberts Farm Preserve there is about an acre of improved ground ready to be tilled. For the past few years volunteers have over-seeded it with a rotation of clover and buckwheat with an eye toward eventual planting.

Western Foothills Land Trust Director Lee Dassler watched as food distribution buckled under the pressure of the pandemic and decided that this was the time to stop planning and start planting.

Dassler got together with ADCG Director Rocky Crockett and SAD 17’s Program Director Patrick Carson at Roberts Farm Preserve to devise a plan to bring students and volunteers together to feed the community. The project is ready to go, even if social distancing restrictions on public gatherings keep the stakeholders from knowing exactly how it will unfold over the next month or two.

Both ADCG and SAD 17 have summer youth programs that are up in the air. But in the absence of students to work and learn at both sites this summer, Crockett says they have enough adult volunteers to get the new garden off the ground, or more appropriately get new seeds in the ground.

“We have been able to call our volunteers in for the season,” Crockett said. “And we will start there. We’ve arranged for a landscape contractor to start preparing the ground as soon as it is dry and warm enough.”

“We have been working towards this for a few years,” said Dassler. “But with students out of school SAD 17 won’t be able to do it this summer. For now they will stick with the hoop houses and raised beds they already have in place.

“But we have everything Alan Day needs to do it. There is irrigation all set up, which was installed by students. There is also deer fencing on hand here that they can use against vegetable predators. We’ve secured a donation for $1,500 worth of manure.”

While it won’t start at 100% labor capacity, Dassler sees working with ADCG as a great way to add strength to the community now and bolster local food sources for the future. The food grown at Roberts Farm Preserve will be harvested and distributed through ADCG’s Friday farmer’s market, which starts in July.

“Our farmers’ market will be different this year,” said Crockett. “We normally have cooking demonstrations, food sampling and live music. This summer we won’t be able to expand the community atmosphere like we had planned, but we can still make more food available.

“Even though the market won’t be bigger, we’re adding squash and ground crops that will help us extend it into the fall.”

Expanding to the Roberts Farm Preserve will make it possible for more people to lease plots in the community garden, which will provide even more local food sources to Oxford Hills. The project is being underwritten by Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Foundation funds, which also supports ADCG’s volunteer program.

Crockett said this year the ADCG farmers’ market is introducing SNAP EBT benefits and is participating in the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets’ “Harvest Bucks” program to accompany it.

“Every dollar that a customer spends at the farmers’ market will be doubled for them by a match provided by the Federation,” said Crockett. “So if someone spends $15 on fresh produce they receive another $15 of Harvest Bucks to purchase more market food, essentially doubling what they get to spend with us.”

One thing that may be missing at both ADCG and Roberts Farm Preserve are students. SAD 17 runs educational programs throughout the summer at the farm and ADCG a youth leadership program at its Whitman Street gardens. It is possible that both sites will be able to welcome students during the second stage of Governor Janet Mills’  Rural Reopening Plan, but Crockett and Carson say those decisions have yet to be made.

Emmy Corbett, left, and Emily Eastman take a break from planting at Roberts Farm Preserve to bond with the flock of layer hens. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Currently, SAD 17 Health Program Coordinator Emily Eastman of Buckfield is planting the school district’s garden plots at Roberts Farm with the help of University of Maine Farmington intern (and Oxford Hills graduate) Emmy Corbett. With schools limited by distance learning, the women are doing the work usually carried out by students, in the hope that the kids will be able to return during the summer.

ADCG usually hires two high school students to mentor younger teenagers about the value of service and public engagement and representing the mission of the community garden. Normally, there are 30 or more students on any given day at either location. This year no one yet knows if it will be possible, and if it is what that capacity will be.

“We don’t know exactly how or when students will be able to participate,” said Dassler. “But the Land Trust is committed to help build a local, sustainable community food system. We will start where we can, and look forward to establishing a great three-way partnership with both Alan Day Community Garden and SAD 17 to get there.”


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