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Local agriculture celebrated in Unity

UNITY - The 30th annual Common Ground Fair, Maine’s largest celebration of rural living, got under way Friday and, from the minute the gates opened, thousands of visitors poured into the campus maintained by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. At one point Friday morning, traffic was backed up all the way to Burnham.

Whether it was getting the latest information on composting toilets or the economic blockade of Cuba, or buying fresh goat soap or a skein of naturally dyed wool, there was something for everyone, including the busloads of schoolchildren.

The fair’s overriding theme — eat and buy local — was everywhere, including in the keynote address by Maine organic farmer and author Cynthia Thayer, who said Maine consumers have "lost connection with their food."

"We have been brainwashed by big business when we walk into a supermarket to expect and demand any kind of food, from anywhere, any time of year," Thayer said. "We want tomatoes in January, lettuce in February, potatoes in May, apples in early July, kiwis anytime and we don’t much care what they taste like."

Consumers have distanced themselves so much that "some shoppers think that the small finger-sized carrots found in every store’s vegetable aisle, are really baby carrots."

Thayer, who operates Darthia Farm in Gouldsboro, said "If this trend continues, in another generation, most children will believe that all their food comes from the supermarket, manufactured in some mysterious back room. And perhaps they’ll be right."

At the farmers’ market section at the fair, organic producers said that consumers are starting to get the message. MOFGA and the Maine Department of Agriculture have made eating locally a priority, bolstered by consumer food scares such as Mad Cow Disease, Starlink genetic corn entering the food stream, and the most recent deadly outbreak of E.coli from packaged spinach grown on the other side of the country.

Arlene King Lovelace of Brighton Farm said that sales at the Waterville Farmers’ Market have been outstanding this season. "I am definitely seeing a difference," she said. "There has been a steady group of people every Thursday, buying their weekly produce and meat."

Jeanine Santos of Hermon, picking up several bunches of leeks and a bag of mixed salad greens Friday, said that she was making it more and more a priority for her family to buy from local farms.

"I stop at farmstands, go to the farmers’ market," she said. "Aside from the fact that the food is so much more nutritious and tasty, I feel good about supporting the local economy."

Brighton farmer Bob Lovelace said that from a purely economic point of view, farmers’ markets are often comparable or even less than conventional supermarkets when produce is bought in season.

"We don’t have to add on the cost of fuel, like the big chains do," he said.

Thayer said in her address that 20 percent of all fossil fuel used to produce food is consumed on the farm. But 80 percent is used in processing, packaging, shipping and storing.

"The grapes you buy in midwinter most likely have traveled over 6,000 miles from a vineyard in Chile to a grocer in Bangor," Thayer said. "A typical fresh food item in a North America household travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles to your table."

During a recent trip to a supermarket, Thayer saw one woman with canned beans, another with three bags of organic greens from California and a third with hydroponic tomatoes imported from Mexico. "This was in September when lettuce grows beautifully here ... and when we are picking green beans by the bushel. Why aren’t they gong to the farmers’ markets? Or to our farm stands? Why do consumers buy Red Delicious apples from Washington State in October when our small-scale apple growers are selling apples just off the tree a half mile away? Is it ignorance? Or laziness?"

Thayer suggested several ways to make a difference: buy from a farmer; grow your own; forage for berries and other wild food; eat local; lobby for locally grown food in schools.

She asked the dozens of listeners sitting on the village green at the Common Ground Fair to make a pledge to eat one meal a week that consists of locally-grown food.

"Farmers would sell more food. Children would see the possibilities. Food would take on a whole new meaning. We can all participate in the solution," she said.

The fair continues through Sunday. There are several specialized areas at the fair, including agriculture and forestry demonstrations, children’s’ tent and events, animal shows, entertainment, energy and shelter, environmental concerns, folk arts, health and healing, vendors, social and political action. The grounds open at 9 a.m. and close at 9 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday.

A full schedule of events, speakers and activities can be found at www.mofga.gov

Contact Sharon Kiley Mack