Farm Stay: Freeport

Hens are clucking in ablhe barn and cows are grazing on the grassy pastures with ocean views at Wolfe’s Neck Farm and its recompense shore campground. This historic saltwater farm on Casco Bay is a gift to the public from former owners interested in conservation and organic farming.

 

It’s true. Farmers really do make hay while the sun shines. Matthew DeGrandpre, 24, has been haying from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. for more days than he can count. He’s the youngest of the three generations of the DeGrandpre family to work the land at Wolfe’s Neck Farm since 1968. Instead of the usual fog rolling over the fields, it’s been an exceptionally dry and sunny stretch of June days. The young farm manager says that he and other crew will be out there in the sunshine (and moonlight) for as long as the dry days last—cutting and baling in the fields of the 626-acre coastal farm in Freeport.

We’re getting some up-close farm views because we’re staying on the farm itself at the Recompence Shore Campground, an enterprise begun back in the 1950s by Lawrence M.C. and Eleanor Houston Smith of Philadelphia, who owned the tract from the 1940s to the 1980s. The forward- thinking couple established organic and sustainable farming practices on the fertile coastal land, donated 200 acres of adjoining deep woods to create Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park, and eventually gifted the entire farm to the community.

At Recompence, our sleeping bags are unfurled in the woods just down an unpaved lane from a pasture of cows. Even closer is a saltwater view of clamflats that get washed over daily in the eight-foot tides. We’ve reserved a campsite for a couple of nights to see what it would be like to have a mini- getaway at a working farm. The proximity to rhythms of this saltwater farm is exactly what we’re seeking.

Wolfe’s Neck Farm is remarkably welcoming to visitors. When the first DeGrandpre (Charles) was hired to manage the farm, it was still owned by the Smiths. After their generous donation in 1985, ownership was initially held by the University of Southern Maine, and the farm is now owned and operated by the nonprofit Wolfe’s Neck Farm Foundation. Wolfe’s Neck Farm has evolved to be an innovative demonstration farm that’s open every day year-round to the public. Especially in the lambing and growing seasons, the acres are teeming with campground visitors, shoppers at the farm stand for vegetables and eggs, day visitors who explore the barnyard and nature trails or kayak the coves, school kids at barnyard and garden day camps, and teens and college students working in field crews to learn about agriculture.

This is shorefront car camping. Once the tent is up, we pull on our cowboy boots and hop in the car for a short drive to one of Wolfe Neck’s occasional farm-to-table events. Along the way, we pass belted Galloway cattle with grass up to their bellies, an end-of-day, orange-tinted light like frosting on the Belties’ fur.

The event’s setting is the barnyard around the circa-1890 Mallet Barn, and we feel lucky to be included. Tickets were already sold out weeks earlier. I join right in with the crowd to wind through the serving tables and taste deviled farm eggs with kimchee, Flying Point oysters, grilled lobster with spring onions, and pork that was spit-roasted since that morning by chef Masa Miyake, who has a farm of his own nearby and restaurants in Portland. Inside the barn, said to be the largest in Maine when it was built by nineteenth-century entrepreneur E.B. Mallet, the tall beams are lit with twinkling lights and the space has a cathedral quality, at least in size—along with a tractor parked out front and a local bluegrass duo playing at one end.

A highlight of the festive night is the announcement by Dave Herring, the executive director of Wolfe’s Neck Farm, that the farm’s leadership has secured a $1.6 million grant from the New Hampshire-based organic yogurt maker Stonyfield to begin an organic dairy farmer training program. The plan is to help young organic dairy farmers learn how to bring more of Maine’s land into production, Herring explains—and that will be good for health, the environment, and the economy. “This is a new vision and chapter for Wolfe’s Neck Farm,” Herring explains. “We want to be involved in farming that can be done to inform other farmers; to keep this land actively farmed, and help to create a stronger food system in Maine and New England.”

I’m still thinking about the night’s flavors and news when we make our way back to the campground edged by coves. All seems quiet in the darkness at first, but as our eyes (and ears) adjust, I realize that several other campers have made their way down to the shoreline. Families are pointing flashlights and oohing and aahing at moon jellies and horseshoe crabs in the shallows. The wonders of nature and animals are everywhere here.

The next morning, we make an informal tour of other corners of the farm, starting first in the barn and barnyard, where goats in brightly colored collars are skittering up onto picnic tables. Heritage-breed black and rust-red pigs are sleeping on hay beside troughs of feed, and the dozens of laying hens that are strutting about are friendly, with glossy feathers that range from speckled golden to reddish and buff- colored. Some hens hop into or out of nest boxes, and kids from the day camp are pouring into the barn, gathering still-warm eggs with shells that are soft shades of brown, green, and white.

This is a lively barnyard. While wandering, we meet the tall and lanky Herring, and he’s ready to show us more of the farm’s diversity. First stop is the demonstration dooryard garden, where masses and rows of berries, herbs, and vegetables are growing, including tomatoes, lemon balm, garlic, and basil. Children from one of the farm’s day camp groups are invited to pick and taste some of the already ripe, fat, red strawberries. Not far from those raised beds, we tuck into the woods on a nature trail to a salt marsh. Herring explains that a wooden platform overlooking the water is frequently used as an outdoor classroom. To see more of the farm’s historic buildings, we drive across the farm to one of Freeport’s oldest homes, the mid-1700s Captain Greenfield Pote House, a saltbox that was built in what’s now Falmouth and moved to Wolfe’s Neck decades later. We park and walk to feel the breeze and see the view from the “Wedding Field,” a grassy meadow that ends in a seaside bluff. Herring says this is the site of dozens of weddings each year. At the nearby Stone House, which was built in 1918 and includes patio terraces on the oceanfront, we follow a path to a beach that’s popular for kayaking. From the farm’s shoreline are views of Casco Bay, Cousins Island, and Falmouth. I watch some of the early summer sailboats. Just across the Harraseeket River at Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster Company, the lunch crowd is queuing up for lobster rolls, steamer clams, and slices of pie.

Returning to the barn, we stop to meet Ben Jensen, the livestock manager, who moved from Colorado to Freeport to work at Wolfe’s Neck. He brought with him the two horses that he’s feeding, Chico and Dude. Jensen invites us to join him in the pastures while he checks on the 22 lambs born this season. Buttercups and daisies grow along the grassy field’s edge, and the fuzzy herd is clumped together near a feeding area several yards in. Twins are common in sheep, Jensen explains, as the lambs make bah, bah sounds. This year the farm’s ewes produced seven sets of twins.

Beyond the pasture fence, we see several young women in blue jeans unloading trays of seedlings from a farm truck: “Some of the next generation to be trained and inspired,” according to Herring. The farm’s Teen Ag Crew grows corn, raspberries, squash, and other vegetables for a summer farm stand and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, along with produce to donate to local food pantries. In the long, dusty field rows we meet the coordinator, Piper Stiles, and the local teens on the crew, who, together, look like they could be part of a band. They are Lizzy Landry, Sarah Lawless, Mack Stinson, and Emma Lovering, along with Hillary Brown from Connecticut, a University of Maine student who’s staying at the campground during her internship at the farm to learn about field production. The Teen Ag crew also works to put up hundreds of bales of hay, and Matthew DeGrandpre drives up to confer with them about fields that are ready for the bales to be stacked and hauled.

We join the young farm manager, who is on his way to a family meeting in the largest room in the Little River House, the old farmhouse where most of the DeGrandpres were raised, and is now the farm’s office. Charlie DeGrandpre (Matthew’s grandfather) was working with cattle at a farm in Massachusetts in the 1960s when he was asked by the Smiths to manage the organic beef operation that they’d started. His sons, Jim DeGrandpre and Chuck DeGrandpre, are also at the meeting and are still involved with the farm. They are part of its living history. While more intense beef production at Wolfe’s Neck ended years ago, they say that holistic and sustainable principles continue to guide the agricultural practices. “It’s the way we treat the soil,” according to the elder DeGrandpre. The three generations of farmers agree that the nonprofit farm’s decision to establish an organic dairy component is a natural fit—the feed and forage for the 50 or 60 dairy cows could be provided by the farm itself.

For the second night at Recompence Shore Campground, we’ve got a slight change in venue. One of the three “camping cottages” had a cancellation, and we’re able to slide in for the evening. The place is a charmer, painted forest green, and with flowers in the window box. Built within in the past five years, the Cove cottage is open and wood-paneled inside and is set along the shore with saltwater views, propane lights and stove, an outdoor fire ring, enough beds for six people, and an outhouse. It’s much more roomy than our two-person tent. With firewood from the camp store, we get a fire going outside right away.

Before dark, I see some of our campground neighbors walking their dogs and taking pictures from the fence lines of the pastures. We’re certainly not the only ones who are enjoying the agrarian scenery. To be able to visit dairy farms, to see the chickens strutting around yards, is one of the great pleasures of Maine. Getting so close to farms is not possible everywhere. In our stay at Wolfe’s Neck we’ve gotten as near as we’ve wanted to the animals, the hay, and the fertile soil. We’ve seen and tasted our food at the source. Some describe this kind of travel as agritourism, I call it wholesome, fascinating, and as fresh and delicious as a Maine summer.

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