So, the night before I take my very first trip to visit two farms, I packed up all my stuff and set my alarm for 6AM. My goal was to be on the road by seven.
Inevitably, I get the dog in the car and hit the road by eight thirty. Close enough, right?
The coastal route to Downeast Maine is literally one of the most beautiful in the state. It’s extremely obvious, however, that the shops, restaurants and hotels are tourist-season driven, because most things aren’t even open yet.
The Johnson Family Farm, previously referred to as Rhodeville by yours truly, is located in Birch Harbor, which lies within the jurisdiction of Gouldsboro, Maine. For those of you that aren’t aware, this is a peninsula located about an hour from Bar Harbor. (I learned, apparently, Google does not recognize Birch Harbor on its Maps app, so I drove around the entire peninsula twice before I decided to actually look at a legitimate map to figure out where I was.)
But enough about geography. The Johnson Family Farm is a small-scale operation run by Eric and Alison Johnson, and their three girls. After taking the ‘scenic route’ to the farm, the border collie and I pulled into a short dirt driveway to be greeted by Eric and the girls.
So before I get started, here are some vital stats about the farm:
Farm Name: Johnson Family Farm
Operated by? Eric and Alison Johnson
Primary goods: Raw milk, unpasteurized yogurt, vegetables of many sorts, strawberries, eggs
Sell to the public? Yes
Sell to grocery stores? Yes, produce ONLY to the local IGA
My personal favorite part of the farm: Olivia the heifer, she’s got spunk
Most interesting part of the farm: The nuc of bees (Rough estimate, “A LOT more than ten thousand bees,” – Eric.)
The hoophouse was made possible by a grant/pilot program the USDA has put together. Essentially, the farm must have kept accurate records of their production levels BEFORE the hoophouse, and then for the first three years of production WITH the hoophouse, the Johnsons must keep meticulous records about how much is grown and for how long, etc.
The idea is that, as long as the hoophouse is kept 90% planted during growing season, and all records are kept accurately, they get to keep it. The USDA wants quantitative data proving that a hoophouse enables a farmer to grow more, and for a longer period of time.
This will be the second year the Johnsons sell their produce to the local IGA. They sell your average things like mixed greens, but they also sell specialty items one wouldn’t really assume would sell, for example, Ghost Peppers. (The world’s hottest pepper, who knew?) Ironically, things like regular ol’ green peppers didn’t do so well at the store.
They have a pretttty sweet deal, because the IGA approached the Johnson to source vegetables from them, and have since then requested special items as well as the normal ones. Interestingly, the IGA turns almost ZERO profit during the slow winter months, but more than makes up for it during the summer/tourist season due to the incredible influx of people during those months.
The farm stand right on the property is only open one day a week, but it isn’t difficult to come right on the farm and get goods at any time, for example, the raw milk and unpasteurized yogurt that their gorgeous, (and locally famous) dairy cow, Rosie, provides.
Rosie, her daughter, Olivia, and their buddy, Baldy, are the three bovine creatures on the little farm.
Ok, so let’s do some quick facts:
1. Rosie (on the left) is about seven years old. Her average life expectancy on a small-scale, free-range farm like this is about thirteen years.
2. A cow obviously must become pregnant and have a calf in order to produce milk. The Johnsons plan on breeding her again, and will stop milking her about two months (or more) before she has the calf.
3. Rosie is milking off three teats right now (One was stepped on and severely injured by her calf) and is producing about 10 pounds of milk per day. Did you catch that? TEN POUNDS OF MILK.
4. The crazy part is that it’s feasible to expect up to TWENTY pounds of milk per day from a cow.
5. Her calf, Olivia, is considered a heifer because she is an unbred female.
6. A typical cow you can expect to milk continuously for about ten months after she has had her calf. Rosie’s been going a LOT longer than that. She is the incredi-cow. And not to mention, she’s gorgeous.
Ok, so have I expressed my amazement at the productivity (and happiness) that these bovines bring to the farm? Olivia, currently, is a pasture pet, but Rosie has truly proven her worth to the family farm.
Baldy, the gorgeous black and white steer, is a beef critter. He gets to hang out with the ladies all day in the sun, walk around, eat grass, and be lazy just like the others. He is treated no differently, and he is just as big a part of the family as the other two. It’s wonderful to see the animal that will someday become a food source treated equally and just as well-respected.
Does anyone know anything about bees? How insanely strange they are? Well, I for one, did not have any idea.
In fact, my assumption was the if you were going to have bees on a farm, you would keep them as far as humanly possible from everything. NOT the case. You know what ELSE is not the case? You don’t have to wear a bee suit to work literally IN their hive. As long as you stay calm, cool and collected and don’t trap one in your rubber boot, (This happened to Alison) then you’re probably not going to get stung.
I was instructed by the three girls that as long as you go towards the hive from the side, NOT the front, you should be all set. They told me this as I was walking towards it, and they were backing away. Confidence booster right there.
The nuc of bees, (Yes, a “nuc,” is a group of bees, in the same way that a group of birds is a flock, a group of horses a herd, etc.) started with ten thousand bees in it. Yes, you read right, TEN. THOUSAND. BEES.
Here is a paraphrased summation of our bee conversation:
Me: So how many do you think are in there?
Eric: Well, we started with ten thousand so–
Me: — wait, ten thousand?
Eric: Yeah, the bees don’t bother me, but the first time I opened that and there were ten thousand bees in there, I got a little wigged out.
Me: *stunned silence*
Eric: Yeah, so if I had to guess… there’s a lot more than ten thousand bees in there.
The best part? The hive is about fifteen feet from the chickens and the cows.
Some quick facts about bees I learned:
1. Male bees: Disposable drones. Used only for mating purposes, and are cast out of the hive in the winter. I was informed that it was one of the more gruesome things they had seen, to watch the female bees drag out and kill the males.
2. The queen bee will fly one hundred feet into the air with a “lucky,” male, mate with him, and then rip off his reproductive organs, and that’s it. He’s done.
3. The females are the worker bees, the caretakers of the young, and essentially run the show.
So, I won’t lie, I didn’t have it in me to get very close to the hive, so this is what I’ve got for a photo for you:
I may, or may not, have gotten a bee stuck in my hair and panicked.
So why keep bees? They sting, are violent, and if one stings you the rest swarm. Awesome.
Well, for one, there is a serious issue with colonies of honey bees collapsing. Honey bees are an extremely integral part of our ENTIRE food chain. So, supporting healthy colonies seems to be the very first reason the Johnsons keep bees.
On top of that, they pollinate anything near them. So, the idea for the Johnsons was to have them pollenate their strawberry flowers, which seems to be going extremely well.
The third reason is a healthy hive can provide a HUNDRED POUNDS of harvestable honey. Just think how much you pay for a small bottle of honey, and then multiply that by a pretty good amount, and you’ll see what I mean.
Bees aren’t high-maintenance in the same way a cow or chickens are. In fact, Alison is a self-proclaimed “lackadaisical” bee-keeper, and their hive is thriving. It’s not exactly a set-it-and-forget-it deal, but there is only so much you have to do, short of providing them a place to live, well-insulated from the cold, and with enough room to let them thrive.
I guess I think bees are pretty cool. In the same way that I think like… tigers are interesting. I think they’re cool, but I don’t need to get near them.
This will be the second year the hive has been at the farm, so this year they will be able to harvest some honey and see just how much is in that enormous hive.
One of my favorite parts about the farm is the self-serve, honor-system dairy fridge. Located directly inside the entry to the house, there is a fridge with a sign on it:
Raw milk and unpasteurized yogurt are actually trending right now. There are many discussion points in legislature and otherwise, but a lot of people love it. I mean, a LOT of people.
It’s also a true testament to the integrity of the community and the ideals of the Johnson family that they can leave hard-earned goods for sale in a fridge, and trust that people will be honest about it.
So what did I get as an overall impression from this farm?
This is a hard-working group of people. It can be very easy to say, “Well, there’s one hoophouse, one dairy cow, and some chickens. That doesn’t seem like too much.” But the truth is, when one part of the pair works six days a week as a contractor, and the other half of the pair manages to sell an enormous amount of produce to a grocery store, processes over ten pounds of cows milk per day, and not to mention the upkeep between a dozen chickens, three bovines, raspberries, strawberries, some ducks and everything in between, there’s nothing small-scale about it.
What makes the biggest impression on me?
How supportive the community is. The Johnson Family Farm is known for their dairy, (In fact, the regulars at the pub just across the field know Rosie by name), and their local IGA sources an abundance of its produce from them. The honor system still lives here, and people appreciate the ability to leave a tab, or perhaps even barter for dairy products.
Their approach to farming is extremely respectful to their animals and their cause: Their beef steer is treated just as well as their dairy cow, and their bees are kept not only for pollenation, but because the honey bee population world-wide is at risk.
I leave you with the farm’s newest member, Rory, a kitten who was found in their barn with his mama. (Mama cat is up for adoption, GET AT ME if you want a gorgeous, 1-year old kitty.)
The Maine Farm Chick