CAPE ELIZABETH — For a town with a population of only about 9,000, Cape Elizabeth boasts an unusually large farming community.
According to the Cape Farm Alliance – a collection of farmers, fishermen, horse owners and gardeners – the town is host to 19 different and loosely defined farms.
And while many of “farms” on the list are part-time projects – only about five of the farms grow produce or raise animals as their sole source of income – the diversity and cooperation of the farming community, combined with its history, help keep it stable.
Caitlin Jordan, a town councilor and manager at Alewives Brook Farm on Old Ocean House Road, is part of a long history of farmers in Cape Elizabeth dating back 13 generations.
She said despite having so many farms, the owners don’t really compete for customers. Instead, the farmers often collaborate and help out where they’re needed in each other’s operations, which is part of the reason they’re able to be successful.
“You look at South Portland next door, there’s not a single farm in the entire city,” Jordan said, noting the city’s farmers market struggles because of that, while Cape Elizabeth has three farms with markets that operate daily. “We all talk and trade. And, we all practice similar growing habits. It’s a total collaborative effort.”
Nick Tammaro, owner of Down Home Farm off Spurwink Avenue – one of two meat-producing farms in town – agreed with Jordan.
“It’s one great big family,” he said, not missing the irony that many of the farmers in town are related in some way. “There’s no farmer in this town that I would not hesitate to call, and they know they can call me too.”
Jordan said other towns’ farms are now looking at Cape Elizabeth as a model. She said Freeport farmers are attending this month’s farm alliance meeting to learn how Cape’s community works together to promote farming.
The composition of Cape Elizabeth has the changed dramatically over the years, morphing from a once mostly farming community into a wealthy bedroom suburb that now claims the highest median household income in the state.
And although not all the changes have been welcomed by the farmers, that new wealthy population is a major reason the farms remain open.
“As hard as it is to see outsiders coming in, they support us,” Tammaro said, noting he currently sells all of his beef to customers within the town’s limits.
“Yes, the development drove property taxes up, but those are the kind of people you want,” he continued. “They’re different than the people shopping at Wal-Mart. They have a little bit extra to spend and it’s important to them to know where their food is coming from. And that is important for helping to keep the characteristic of the town.”
The youngest farm in Cape Elizabeth, Green Spark on Fowler Road, is an anomaly in the farming community, where most owners have historical family ties to the area.
Austin and Mary Ellen Chadd have been working their leased farm land for the last four years, growing organic produce on old potato fields. Both come from an academic understanding of farming, having studied agriculture at college in Washington state, where Austin Chadd grew up. Mary Ellen is from South Portland.
Like the other vegetables farmers in town, they sell most of their product at the Portland farmers market, but take in about 20 percent of their business at their farm stand, which they open the first week of June.
They said the town’s farming community has been a great benefit in starting and continuing to operate Green Spark.
“All of the farms have been very supportive of us and we’ve been lucky to have them around,” Mary Ellen Chadd said. “They’re all incredible farmers.”
Despite having three other vegetable farms in the area that have been around for generations, Austin Chadd said their competition is really large retail supermarkets.
“I think there’s plenty of people to go around,” he said. “We don’t feel threatened by each other. Because there’s so few of us around, I think we’re only helping each other.”
The biggest challenge for farmers in Maine is finding land near people, he said, noting that many of the farms that participate in the larger weekly markets, like the ones in Portland, travel from hours away.
Although Cape Elizabeth farmers have the advantage of farming in a wealthy community where residents can afford to buy higher-quality food, it’s still a challenge to make money.
With the rapid growth of farmers markets in recent years, it’s become more convenient for people to access food grown locally, but it hasn’t necessarily meant more profits for farms.
“Years ago, you used to go to the market and sell all your food to the same people who all used to go to Portland,” Jordan said. “Now, with the other markets opening, people go to Scarborough or South Portland or some other market. You’re still selling close to same amount, but now you have to go to all the markets to bring in the same amount of dollars.”
And while it’s still a struggle to farm, with many farmers picking up side jobs of carpentry or snow plowing in the winter, it is still possible to make a living, Tammaro said.
“Yes, you can make money,” he said, noting that he currently subsidizes his farm with a landscaping business, while leasing the 80 acres he uses from the Maxwell family, another longtime farming family in Cape Elizabeth.
“What we think is buy local, stay local, buy with us,” Tammaro said. “And it works as long as you give them good products.”
Mary Ellen Chadd, co-owner of Green Spark Farm in Cape Elizabeth, points to some of the early sprouts in a greenhouse off Fowler Road on Monday, March 18. Green Spark is the newest farm in Cape Elizabeth.
Cattle at Down Home Farm off Spurwink Road take a break to snack on some spent grain from Rising Tide Brewery in Portland. Down Home is one of two meat-producing farms in Cape Elizabeth.