Tuesday, May 21, 2013
VASSALBORO -- Jim and Susan Lowell declined an invitation to lunch at the Blaine House. Instead, they invited Gov. John Baldacci to visit them at their new project: Sunset Meadow Farm on Dunham Road, formerly Old Route 201.
Gov. John Baldacci and Sunset Meadow Farm manager Peter Victor chat in front of a small herd of cows Monday morning during a tour of the farm in Vassalboro.
Staff photo by Joe Phelan
So Monday morning, the governor and first lady Karen Baldacci toured the central part of the 260-acre spread, admiring what's already there and talking about what's to come.
"I'm very proud to be part of what you're doing," the governor, dressed comfortably casually in slacks and a University of Maine polo shirt, told Lowell.
The farm is run by manager Peter Victor on behalf of Maine Farmlands LLC, an investment company. Maine Farmlands investors provide bridge financing to help preserve farmland from development and support sustainable local agriculture.
"Maine's greatest economic resource is this land, to grow food for itself and, eventually, as in the days before the Civil War, for export," Lowell said.
The eyecatchers at Sunset Meadow are the three tall blue silos, left over from farmer Fred Rancourt's days.
They're not useful anymore, Lowell said, but they're "kind of a signature."
Behind the adjacent barn is a big cement slab that will be the base for planned greenhouses. Lowell talked of remodeling the barn loft as a potential study center, perhaps for young farmers-in-training, perhaps for community music and art lovers of all ages.
In the field sloping toward the Kennebec River, seven off-white Charolais beef cattle grazed, eying the governor's party moodily before ambling down the hill.
About 30 Angus are in a field between Dunham Road and Riverside Drive. The farm extends eastward across Riverside Drive, where hay is raised for winter cattle feed.
Between the two roads is an acre set aside for community farming, where students from Vassalboro Community School have been working since spring.
Victor Esposito, who heads the Jobs for Maine Graduates program at the school, said his students planned the garden.
Some are volunteering part of their summer to work there. Tomatoes, squash and herbs are thriving, and three youngsters were sowing lettuce from Johnny's Select Seeds, the Winslow-based company that's providing advice and supplies.
Given a good harvest, Esposito plans a farmstand, assistance to the Vassalboro Food Pantry and fresh local vegetables for the school cafeteria in the fall.
He sees multiple ways to expand the program -- for example, by inviting area high schools to send students.
Lowell pointed out the shed that will provide space for vocational students to learn small-motor repair skills, and the future chicken house where students can take care of chickens and earn fresh eggs.
Lowell said his clients hadn't planned so much charitable work, but he is pleased with what Esposito is doing.
Lowell and Esposito emphasized the role Vassalboro Town Manager Mary Sabins played in connecting the two programs. Lowell and Victor also credited Vassalboro agriculturalist and Selectman Lauchlin Titus with providing expert advice.
Lowell called him "the brains of what we're doing."
As students working Monday morning had their pictures taken with the governor, Baldacci asked them what they were getting out of the program.
"I'm just waiting for the food to pop up," Joey Frederick replied.
The governor said that while in the U.S. House of Representatives, he served eight years on the Agriculture Committee -- the only New Englander there -- because "agriculture is a voice that doesn't get heard often enough."
He urged Lowell and Victor to consider adding an energy program such as a windmill or biomass or solar -- anything except foreign oil.
Lowell has no plans in that direction yet, but he said the sturdy barn roof would be suitable for solar collectors.
Lowell and Victor spent a lot of time and money rehabilitating the farm, removing tons of junk and dead animals from the fields and tons of manure from the barn.
The farmhouse has new windows, new doors, a new furnace and a new septic system, Lowell said. Its future use has not been determined, although a farm family would be welcome.
One idea, Lowell said, is establishing a halfway house for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The governor asked him for a brief concept plan he could share with state military officials.
Lowell and Victor emphasized that Sunset Meadow is a work in progress.
They said they hope to buy another 170-plus acres soon and, when the whole parcel is assembled, put it under an easement that will limit its use to agriculture forever.