Seven years ago Chuck Varney was in the middle of clearing 15 acres of land for a subdivision on Chebeague Island, just off the coast of Portland, Maine, when he stopped. He’s a logger who runs a sawmill on the Island where his family has lived for eight generations. On the side he makes exquisite wooden bowls and spoons to supplement his income. But on that day he was overcome by nostalgia for the farm that had produced food on that same spot until about 60 years ago. “It was like a switch was flipped on,” he says. “I had to do something.” What he decided to do was stage a rescue.
Accustomed to spending only what he has, he took the biggest leap in his life and borrowed money to buy half the land. He found a partner to buy the rest. The name for the farm he hoped to restart came to him while he was clearing the land. “It’s a second wind for a farm that had gone kaput,” he says. “As soon as I thought of the name I walked inside and wrote it down.”
Second Wind Farmis in its sixth year of growing food and this year it’s producing potatoes, squash, beans, peas, carrots, greens, strawberries, pumpkins, and more. The son of a lobsterman, Varney, age 50, knew no more about crop production than whatever he’d learned growing vegetables in his backyard. But he embodies the self-reliance typical of one who grew up three miles across the water from the closest service center. He started to ask the old-timers who’d spent their early years farming on Chebeague what they knew. Gradually he has learned how to till the island soil – fertilizing his fields with sheep manure and dead fish, feeding his potatoes with clover grass, and lining up green beans alongside the squash plants for greater efficiency.
Sharing the farm
The work is hard. Varney started with two used tractors but mostly makes do with the many hand tools he’s collected over the years, many of them antiques. He still doesn’t have electricity and until this year he watered his 1.5-acre field with watering cans. He works on the farm only when he can fit it around his logging job. But Varney rarely complains. “For every moment I give to this land, I get something back,” he says. Islanders stop by to pick peas, dig up rocks, and peel off potato bugs. There’s also the satisfaction of giving the island another food source. Recently he got another lift when Ariette Scott (inset), a local with a background in theater and arts management, agreed to help him turn his farmstand into a business.
The community rallied again, three years ago, when he had to make the first balloon payment on his loan. In a scene that Scott, age 52, describes as straight out of It’s a Wonderful Life (“Chuck is the Jimmy Stewart character,” she says) he swallowed his pride and asked for help. In donations as small as $10 and large as $1,000, the help streamed in and he was able to meet his goal. “He’s always around to pull people out of ditches and help someone out,” says Scott. “People just wanted to help.”
Not giving up
But the debt persists and another big payment is due shortly. Varney wonders whether anyone without deep pockets can be successful as a small farmer. “If I can’t make it – with all the support I have plus the fact that I already had two tractors – I wonder who can,” he says. In fact, the challenge of acquiring land and tools prevents many would-be farmers from starting. It’s one reason the average age of today’s farmer is 57 and that those who care about local food are rallying behind theBeginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act in the soon to be renewed farm bill, which would provide funds for new farmers.
In spite of the headaches, Varney isn’t giving up. He even dreams of building an agricultural museum to house the farming relics he’s gathered over the years. (“It’d be nice to move the horse rig out of my living room,” he laughs.) He and Scott are working to better position the farm as a business – and Good Food Media Group will be helping out (and reporting on the farm’s progress here). They’ve got a website to launch and are considering new distribution partnerships and a CSA, among other opportunities.
As with many small farmers Varney has come to think of what he does as a kind of calling and he’s determined to make it work. “I never thought I would start a mission,” says Varney, “but with this farm I have.”
-Clare Ellis, Media Chief, Good Food Media Group
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