Excerpt from the New Back-to-the-Land Project: Maia and Jacob of After the Fall Farm, Montville, Maine by Arielle Greenberg and Rob Morris
There are a number of reasons Rob and I embarked on this project, reasons personal, political and scholarly. First, there is our deep connection to the Belfast community and area: we got married here, homebirthed two children here, and have long admired the region's mix of arts and culture, working class folks, independent shops, green values, friendliness and natural beauty. Belfast is a pretty unusual little town, and has been a hub for rural back-to-the-landers for two generations now, and being here helps us connect more deeply to the seasons and the land, and to live our values more fully than we feel we can in a big city. We have been inspired by getting to know young farmers and homesteaders here, and feel it's important to document how they are living and how they feel about their choices, both in order to preserve the living history of a dynamic and progressive contemporary subculture and because of the way the Waldo County phenomenon speaks to larger national concerns around farming, organics, local food, self-sufficiency and voluntary simplicity. Finally, Rob and I have long-standing interests in American cultures and countercultures, and this project is a way for us to pay homage to a place we love and to capture and celebrate a movement that inspires us.
We have almost finished conducting our interviews and I'm at work on the stories and a book proposal. The goal right now is a book with four chapters: one of stories from the previous back-to-the-land movement here, the one from the 60s and 70s; one of stories from homesteaders who are trying to be self-sufficient; one of stories of small farmers; and one of stories of folks who are engaged in various intentional living experiments aimed at greater sustainability. The working title is The Next Good Life: New, True Stories from a Hard-Won, Hand-built, Deeply-Rooted County.
Maia, age 28, and Jacob, age 29, both grew up in the affluent suburbs of New York City and graduated from Colby College. They now live and farm on thirty acres in Montville with their two year old daughter, Osa. They have been there for four years, and run a winter CSA (Community Supported Agriculture program) and sell food at markets and to restaurants.
Jacob: Radicalization at college was a gradual process for me. First I thought I’d be a lawyer like my dad. Then I thought, OK, maybe I’ll be an environmental lawyer. Then I thought, maybe I’ll work for an environmental non-profit. And then I was like, no, I’m just going to go work for a farm.
I graduated a year before Maia. I went and worked on this farm in New Hampshire, partially because it was closer to Colby and Maia: it was pretty cool, a permaculture demonstration site, and I helped build a barn, the first time I’d ever done any carpentry. I was there for a couple months, and I still had this ski bum attitude. That was my fantasy: I thought I’d go out West and be a ski bum, but I was getting disenchanted with the mountain resort culture, so I ended up working at the Sugarloaf ski area in Maine, again, to be closer to Maia, but also because I was involved in some activist campaigns around here. But I got the ski bum thing out of my system pretty quickly, too.
So then I went to this place in Oregon called Aprovecho that has an internship program in organic gardening, sustainable forestry and alternative building. It was a few months’ program. I did horse logging and learned to garden and did some natural building projects. That was in the spring while Maia was still in school. Maia and I decided we’d work on a farm together the following summer: she really wanted to do a farm apprenticeship, but I felt like I’d gotten that experience, so she got an apprenticeship in Washington State and I just lived there and got a job and saved some money and helped out a little on the farm. That was our first real growing season on a farm, spring to fall. And that’s when we decided that’s what we’re gonna do, and started dreaming about having our own farm someday.
Maia: Except that summer on the farm was also when we were, like, we will never farm for profit. We just wanted to grow food and not charge money for it.
Jacob: We decided to come back to Maine and dreamed up this project, getting really into the idea of growing and storing food for the winter to provide to people in the winter when there wasn’t such an abundance. We rented a house in Portland and found a farm right outside of Portland that was interested in letting us trade labor for a bunch of space to grow food. We started the Winter Cache Project: we grew food with as many people as possible, and we built a little root cellar in the city, and we distributed food all winter to the people who were involved. Kind of like a CSA but you needed to come help in some way to get a share.
Maia: The cool thing is that the farm it’s on, Pleasant Valley Acres, the main farmer there was a woman named Betty Weir who was 82 years old (she just passed away last year). That was a really cool relationship, being young people and working with an elder farmer. Betty helped start MOFGA [the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association]. She was this matriarch farmer. And it was awesome to see people from Portland come out and be so engaged with farming. It was all about teaching skills to be more sustainable and self-sufficient and moving away from other systems, so we did a lot of popular education around things like preserving food and building root cellars but also around hard political issues like agriculture and food policy and stuff like that.
That project was our baby. And it still exists: it’s going into its sixth year.
Jacob: We were living in the city but we were farmers. That was the first summer we really did a garden by ourselves. Betty gave us advice but she was already not very mobile and we did everything ourselves, and had an amazing year. Her soil is amazing and her farm is awesome. We had this pickup truck and we’d drive back and forth to the city with tons of huge vegetables—
Maia: --and, like, compost! It was such a weird scene at our house. We were also living with so many people, a big collective house—
Jacob: --with big gardens all over our yard. We wanted to be farming but we wanted to be living in the city and we kind of combined them and it was pretty crazy.
Maia: And pretty amazing. But after a couple years we burned out a little bit. We had so many people coming through, staying at our house, and there’d always be, like, twenty bicycles. It was a high-energy lifestyle: we were moving moving moving and creating, bringing in tons of food to the city. It was fairly utopic, but for us, for our mental health, it wasn’t a sustainable way to keep going.
Jacob: And I think we also were getting more and more inspired by farming and living off the land, and it was getting hard not to live where that was happening, to have to drive there and not sleep or wake up there. We were dreaming about having a place of our own, and we wanted it to be close to Portland so we could continue to provide food and support to people living in the city, but when we started looking for land, it is so expensive in that area that it was not possible for us.
Maia: We have friends who grew up in Midcoast Maine, but we had never heard of Montville before. We ended up here mostly because we were connected peripherally to this organization called FarmLink, a connector for people who want to sell their farms as working farms and people looking for farms. But most of the farms were unaffordable to us, big dairy farms. We were finding that we were either gonna buy a piece of woods, and it was going to take many years to create infrastructure, a living space or one greenhouse or whatever, or there were semi-affordable old farms that were pretty decrepit, with lead in the house and lots of renovation work to do. It’s so difficult to find affordable farms and land.
This piece of land just happened to show up in FarmLink and Uncle Henry’s [a popular Maine swap sheet], and it was an incredible mesh between the two extremes: old, set-up farm and woods. There were a couple cabins on the land, five hoop houses, a tractor that was two years old, all the farm equipment. This couple had been farming here for five years. When they came, it was all woods, and they cleared a lot of it. It was an extremely affordable piece of land for what it was. The barn, we’ve had to do, but there was enough already in place to come here and start living immediately and also farming immediately.
Jacob: We had been driving around up here looking for land, and we drove through Liberty and we thought, Woah, this is a cool town. There was a random piece of land up on a mountain that was for sale that was not good for farming but we thought, Oh, wouldn’t it be cool to live here. And that’s about two miles from this property. We still didn’t know about Montville, which turned out to be an awesome town, but we had decided we want to be here: close to the coast but in the hills, in Waldo Country. We were about two miles from here when we had that realization. And when we first came to see this place, we thought, Woah, this is where we just were two weeks ago when we thought about living here.
Maia: But we didn’t know then what we know now about the culture of Waldo County, and Montville as a town. It wasn’t like we knew, whereas some people know who are looking for land know about the subculture and the culture of this area. This was pretty much the only piece of land we looked at.
Jacob: Right when we pulled up here we were like, Woah. This is awesome.