As summer turns to fall, the Maine landscape is beautiful to behold. Lush forests stretch as far as the eye can see in a tapestry of green, yellow and crimson-colored leaves. Every few miles along a narrow roadway, restored wooden barns adjoin modest homes set on tidy acres where farm families coax food from the soil and tend to livestock.
I was fortunate to visit this northeastern farm state recently, spending time at the “Common Ground Country Fair” in Unity, Maine. Only about 2,000 people live in the tiny town, but an estimated 57,000 people jammed the single-lane roads to swarm this year’s three-day event in late September.
The fair was part celebration and part education – a festival of first-hand knowledge about how to produce food in ways that focus on enhancing, not endangering, human and environmental health. Young and old gathered in yellow-and-white striped tents to discuss such topics as the marketing of organic lowbush wild blueberries, how to develop “micro-dairies,” and science that shows healthy, chemical-free soils can better sequester carbon from the atmosphere as a mitigant to the climate crisis.
In a jangly parade running through the middle of the fairgrounds, children and adults dressed as honeybees, fresh vegetables, sunflowers and trees and carried colorful signs calling for protections from the threats posed by industrial agriculture. One small child carried a sign that read “No sprays on me.”
The messages carried through that parade and across the fairgrounds speak to the fact that alongside this jovial festival of food and farming are mounting concerns about a lack of leadership in Washington and federal promotion of the permissive use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in farming; as well as the monoculture cropping practices that have become a mainstay of U.S. agriculture and are stripping away essential biodiversity.
This week, a group of state leaders cut the ribbon on a project to help address those concerns by promoting sustainable solutions in Maine that they intend as an example for the rest of the nation to follow.
The Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union opened its doors Oct. 8 as the first U.S. member-owned financial institution focused solely on funding small farms and food businesses that engage in sustainable agricultural practices. The credit union aims to provide financing for endeavors that improve access to fresh, locally grown food and are environmentally protective. With roughly 40 percent of the state’s 7,600 farms run by men and women under the age of 40, there is an appetite for progressive strategies to improve food production systems, supporters say.
“We are not there to finance commodity agriculture. We are organized to serve a re-vitalized and re-localized food economy,” co-founder Sam May told me. “The modern food system has it all wrong. It is killing the planet, the soil, our personal health and putting our civilization at risk. We are doing what we are doing in Maine because it needs to be done and we can do it.”
The credit union founders, former veterans of Wall Street, have raised $2.4 million in capital that includes a $300,000 conservation innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The founders have garnered the support of the state’s U.S. congressional delegation, including Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine, emphasized the need for more of this type of support: “Our food economy is growing rapidly and financial support will be a big part of that continued growth going forward. I’m so pleased to see this first-in-the-country credit union that will support the unique needs of small farms and food businesses. I hope other states take note and help to close the gap between farmers and their financial institutions,” she said in a statement.
The work is not just admirable but urgent. In addition to scientific reports linking industrial agriculture and agrochemicals to water pollution, sterile soils, human diseases and reproductive problems, recently released research shows additional links to sharp declines in important bird and insect populations.
But rather than heed the warnings, the Trump Administration is racing to rollback regulatory protections at a rapid rate.
It seems fitting that it was here in Maine, more than 50 years ago, where author Rachel Carson kept a cottage and would sometimes retreat as she wrote about the dire consequences of a world awash in chemicals, a world where nature is sacrificed, and the sounds of song birds going silent.
To visit a country fair in the fall in Maine is to see what that long-ago call for action from Carson looks like in modern form. These are people who recognize that they must protect and build upon systems that sustain and nourish, not systems that destroy. These are people who hope their children and grandchildren will always be able to behold a landscape of lush forests and rich farmland as far as the eye can see.
It’s a lesson the rest of the country needs to learn. There is no time to waste.