Talk of the Quad: Farmers on uncommon ground
On a quiet and cloudy Sunday morning, my three housemates and I decided to make the trek to the 38th Annual Common Ground Country Fair. As we headed north to Unity, I honestly had no idea what to expect. I had been hearing about this magical event for my past three years at Bowdoin, both through BOC emails inviting me to join group excursions and from friends and acquaintances around campus, but I had never been there myself. In the spirit of the final hoorahs of senior year, I decided to finally check out what this fair was all about.
The Common Ground Country Fair is described by the Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener Association (MOFGA) as “a rite of passage from our busy summer season into the quieter winter months we know lie ahead. It is a time to rekindle friendships, to learn and to savor all the extraordinary food grown by Maine’s organic farmers…[to celebrate] Maine’s rural way of life.”
Sounds pretty idyllic, right?
Sadly, I can’t say that I felt such a strong sentiment of community and excitement at the end of the day. Rather, my experience at the fair was woefully underwhelming. Sure, it may have been the gloomy weather. Or maybe it was due to my somewhat (unintentionally) judgmental attitude toward agriculture-related events here in the Northeast.
You see, I grew up (and still live) on a beef cattle ranch in western Wyoming, so I have a very particular and different view of agriculture and fairs. Maybe that is why I found the manicured look of fancy and expensive organic farm food a little superficial. Or maybe I was jaded by the fact that the fee just to enter the fair was a steep $15, and there weren’t even that many free samples to make me feel like I got my money’s worth. Either way, I guess I just wasn’t that impressed by the entire event.
All cynicism and judgment aside, though, I could see how and why the Common Ground Fair draws so many people. The sheer physical footprint of the event was almost overwhelming, and if it weren’t for the aid of a trusty map, I think I would have felt very lost and confused. It is obvious that the fair’s organizers have mastered what they do over the past 38 years, though, as the organization was impressive.
The fair could be accessed via train, bike, car or on foot. If you didn’t feel like walking to the entrance from the parking lot, tractor and wagon rides were available. Volunteers were on hand everywhere you looked. (In fact, the MOFGA newspaper reports that 2,000+ volunteers worked the weekend.)
Once inside, the pathways were lined with hundreds of local farmers selling anything from squash and apples to beef and kefir (fermented milk). There was just about anything else you could imagine, too—including food trucks, farming technique classes, art displays, craft workshops and vendors, sheep dog demonstrations, barns full of rabbits, cheese tents, and so much more. Recycling and compost stations could be found around nearly every corner. There were hundreds of people bustling about from all walks of life, from families with kids to barefooted and long-haired hippies (and sometimes even families of hippies). Of course, it was impossible not to run into the occasional group of fellow Bowdoin students as well.
My housemates and I spent our few hours at the fair wandering aimlessly between tents and demonstrations, quietly passing them by or stopping only briefly. It was all very nonchalant. I was naturally drawn to the horse demonstrations and the cattle stalls, however. The true highlight of my day was seeing a pair of Scottish Highlanders, my favorite cattle breed. My housemates also willingly tagged along as I dragged them to the sheep dog demonstrations, where four border collies showed off their sheep and goat-herding skills to a crowd gathered around a large pen. Through all of these events and stops, I couldn’t help but think of my own cattle and my three border collie cattle dogs at home, causing me to become seriously nostalgic.
Despite the overall “meh” feeling of the day and my pre-established sentiments toward events like the Common Ground Country Fair, I would say that the trek was overall worthwhile. My roommates collectively ended up with a bag of apples, three miniature squashes, an eggplant sandwich and some yogurt. I may have left empty-handed, but I walked away with a feeling of satisfaction.
I felt like I was reconnecting with my own agricultural roots, as well as gaining a quiet appreciation for Maine agriculture—even if it is different than that of the West. The fair may not have been my most thrilling weekend experience, but I think it is worth checking out. Maine is a neat place, and the agricultural opportunities and systems that exist here should be celebrated.