FARMINGTON – Justus Hillebrand, 34, may be a long way from his hometown of Marsberg, Germany, a town in the scenic, rural Sauerland region, but western Maine’s forested hills and sweeping valleys make him feel at home. Recently hired as a food hub coordinator for the United Way of the Tri-Valley Area, Hillebrand in 2020 settled down with his family in Farmington after nine years of moving back and forth between there and his native Germany.

Justus Hillebrand shows off the latest snowfall in this photo he sent to his family in Germany. He said his family is surprised by how cold and snowy the Farmington area is in the winter. Submitted photo

Hillebrand received his doctorate in history last year from the University of Maine in co-tutelage with the University of Cologne, and dug deeper into the connections between Maine and Germany in his dissertation “To Know the Land with Hands and Minds.” For the dissertation, he explored how in the 19th century, agricultural knowledge and innovation traveled from Sauerland to western Maine.

The Sun Journal spoke with Hillebrand about the history of western Maine and how he hopes to use his research skills to fight food insecurity in the community.

What brought you to Maine? How does Maine life compare to Germany, and is there anything about living in Farmington that reminds you of home? My wife brought me to Maine. We met in Ireland on a semester abroad, started visiting each other and eventually got married in Maine – on the beach, in March. It is all quite a story. Over the years, I have learned that both Maine and Germany have their pros and cons, and I get homesick to both places.

My family in Germany is frequently amazed at how cold it gets and how much snow falls in just a day. I have gotten used to it and snowy winters are a welcome sight come December, but in February and March, the winters get too long. What reminds me of home is actually the landscape of western Maine. The winding roads through wooded hills make me feel at home.

You wrote your doctoral dissertation on a comparative history of agriculture between western Maine and Sauerland, an area located in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany. How did you come to this comparison? What connections – geographical, cultural or otherwise – do they have to each other? I am from the Sauerland and the dissertation, in a way, was a way for me to get to know my two homes from a new perspective. I started to dig into especially western Maine’s agricultural history during my graduate studies and just found more and more similarities to the farming history of the Sauerland. There is no direct connection between them, no substantial immigration, but they both have climates, soils and landscape more challenging for farming than their neighboring regions. So, 19th century railroad development lagged behind in most places there and thus market connections were also challenging for many farmers. In short, these were very challenging places to farm but they lay in what would become two of the most industrialized countries of the world – a fascinating contrast!

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Germany was the pinnacle of agricultural science in the late 19th century and a lot of German research came to the United States and Maine. Early agriculture students at the University of Maine learned German so they could read the latest research. However, agricultural science was developed for ideal farming conditions and that conflict drew my attention. How did farmers and scientists in the late 19th century reach agreement about useful innovations in farming when methods endorsed by scientists did not work in the challenging conditions of the Sauerland and western Maine?

By the way, the dissertation is available for free online at digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/etd/3409/.

If you had to choose, what were you most surprised or intrigued to learn when researching western Maine? My favorite find was a recipe for an ideal feed ration for cows which I found in the papers of the Robinson-Parsons farm in South Paris. Stephen Robinson Parsons had scribbled it down in the early 1890s. While farmers in Germany and the United States had talked about the best ways to feed their livestock for a long time before the 1800s, it only became a subject of concentrated reform in the 1830s and 1840s.

Agricultural chemistry was the craze of the day and German scientists began taking farmers’ feeding knowledge and systematized it through feeding experiments and chemical analysis of all kinds of feedstuff. They began publicizing precise recipes and ways to develop your own best feed mixes. The ideal ration recipe I found in the papers of Stephen Robinson Parsons let me draw a complex line from German laboratories in the 1840s to a farm in western Maine in the 1890s. I could show how agricultural knowledge, so bound to place, traveled an incredible distance.

You recently joined the United Way of the Tri-Valley Area as a food hub coordinator. There, you’ll lead the research effort into food insecurity in Greater Franklin County and how best to meet people’s needs. What can you tell me about this effort? Have you – or United Way – embarked on something like this before? The United Way of the Tri-Valley Area has addressed food insecurity in Greater Franklin County for quite some time now, especially with grant funding to programs providing food to those who need it. However, this is the first concentrated project to analyze, improve and connect at a systemic level the many efforts of providing food to those who need it free of charge. Given the recently released “Roadmap to End Hunger in Maine by 2030,” our work is more than timely.

We are just at the beginning of this three-year project, which is generously funded by the Betterment Fund, so I am currently talking to key stakeholders to learn more about how pantries, community meals and even holiday dinners are organized. We do not want to develop solutions nobody needs. Also, we are in the process of collecting all of these efforts in a comprehensive list as a resource to the public.

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Finally, we are planning a meeting of all these programs and related stakeholders in the summer to begin the process of connecting these important efforts. I invite community members to email me at foodhub@uwtva.org to tell me about any effort of providing food or meals for free to people in Franklin County and Livermore and Livermore Falls so it can get on our list and more people can take advantage of these vital programs.

When you began your doctorate, did you expect that your work would lead you to your current role at a community-based nonprofit organization? How do you envision your academic background will play a role in your work now? I began my doctoral studies with dreams of an academic position, but soon woke up to the grim reality that academia can be a very unhealthy working environment for humanists. The demands on young scholars certainly seem unreasonable to me. So, I leaned into other ways to use my research skills. I started my own consulting company for digital history (digitalhistoryconsulting.com) where I help historians and historical institutions use digital methods to learn new things about the past.

I also began exploring how I could make more of a direct impact through the nonprofit world, and thus my interest in Maine agriculture and my involvement in the Greater Franklin Food Council led to my position as Food Hub coordinator. My training in history included qualitative, quantitative and geographic research skills and how to tell a story with the results. These skills are transferable. I want to see a map of all food providers in greater Franklin County!

In my dissertation, I have tried to tell the story from different perspectives to understand how people came to a consensus in the past. Now, I want to learn the many perspectives of those addressing food insecurity to figure out how we can all come together to end hunger in Maine in the present.

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