Farming is Romantic

Heather, Caroline, and Phil Retberg. Photo credit Bridget Besaw.

Keynote address by Heather Retberg, Quill’s End Farm, Penobscot, Maine. The essay was read as part of the 5th Annual Local & Sustainable Food Conference in Lewiston, Maine, Saturday, April 10, 2010.

Sustainable agriculture. A viable food production system. Family scale farm. Local food economy.

“Milk distributors” . “Chicken processors”. “Food Safety Inspection System”. “Supreme court rulings”. “Private sales”.

These terms have become the terrain of our daily conversations. The first set are words we use to describe ourselves and others on our peninsula, who are beginning to understand the necessity and the urgency of coming together to survive. The second set of words represent the steep learning curve my husband, Phil and I are now climbing as we try to decide how much regulation and licensure to accept, or indeed if we have a choice. Our state and federal laws, we have come to learn with a heavy clarity, right up to the highest court in the land have been written against us. We’ve been happily working outside the system for our first 12 years of farming. This past fall, the system knocked on our door. We are not farmers, family or otherwise in their world—instead we are ‘distributors’ and ‘processors’—the same language and definitions used to describe industrial food manufacturers. The language here is of primary importance. The definitions are written by the USDA.

Photo credit Bridget Besaw

We farm a 100 acre piece of land in Penobscot. This farm had been abandoned for some 30 or more years, the two gorgeous old barns long since fallen into the ground, the farmhouse relinquished to porcupines, birds and other creatures. The 18 acres of fields had been hayed and were largely devoid of nutrients, growing acidic over time, reverting to blueberries, poplars and woods. We greeted this farm in 2005, our third child an infant, with relief and enthusiasm. Several passionate people and two conservation organizations are part of this farm’s story and how we came to be part of it. We felt blessed beyond measure and, after farming in different places for different people for 7 years, we were ready for what would clearly be our lifetime of work. In this place, we are raising our three children. We moved the farmhouse and restored it to be livable for human inhabitants. We are a diversified, grass-based livestock farm. We raise beef, lambs, and pork in season. We maintain a flock of laying hens, three dairy cows, two dairy goats and until last year we also raised broilers, turkeys and ducks. Phil has always wanted to milk cows and we’d been working towards that goal for 10 years. He spent two summers working 70 hours a week on an island building job to save the money to bring him home to farm full-time when that job was done. Meanwhile, we grew our herds, cleared 30 acres of woods and are continually working at increasing the fertility of these long neglected soils. It’s an evolving vision of family life, connectedness to our community, and increasing their connectedness to this plot of land and their food supply.

What I most want to share with those of you who care about growing food, contributing to your own local food economies, and raising strong and connected families and communities, is how romantic farming is.

Read full Farming is Romantic essay here.

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