Charles DeGrandpre, 88: Broke ground in field of organic agriculture

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FREEPORT — Charles DeGrandpre, a pioneer in organic agriculture who was the farm manager at Wolfe’s Neck Farm for decades, died Feb. 18.

DeGrandpre grew up on a farm in Ipswich, Massachusetts, with seven sisters and one brother. He attended Essex County Agricultural School in Danvers, Massachusetts, before enlisting in the Navy.

His first job was at Saracen Farm in Ipswich. It set him on a pioneering path in what is today known as sustainable agriculture, but began in the 1940s. The farm was owned by Barclay H. Warburton III, a family associated with the Wanamakers and the Vanderbilts, who had the resources to experiment with organic agriculture. Warburton and DeGrandpre experimented together with methods that have only recently become recognized by the current sustainable agriculture movement.

Warburton was inspired and influenced by Friend Sykes of Wiltshire, England, an early leader in organic agriculture who worked closely with Lady Eve Balfour, now considered a founder of the movement. DeGrandpre met both when they visited Saracen Farm; some of the seeds for experiments came from Sykes in England.

After 10 years at Saracen Farm, in 1958 DeGrandpre went to Alfalfa Farm in Topsfield, Massachusetts, familiar to many drivers on Interstate 95 by its iconic twin blue silos with white lettering. DeGrandpre was recruited in 1968 by Lawrence M. C. and Eleanor Houston Smith, founders of Wolfe’s Neck Farm. The Smiths had begun pioneering work in organic agriculture at about the same time as Warburton in the 1950s, well before the publication of “Silent Spring” by Rachael Carson in 1962, which sounded the first serious alarm about the harm caused by chemical fertilizers.

The Smiths and DeGrandpre continued to experiment with organic methods in Freeport, with DeGrandpre paying particular attention to developing healthy soils and nutrient-rich grasses to raise beef. Among the innovations at the farm was the first round hay baler in the state.

A 1984 issue of “Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener” quotes DeGrandpre as saying that even with 300 head of cattle, “there’s some years I haven’t paid more than $100” in vet bills. There was never any medication in the feed.

“Charlie was very early in promoting sustainable farming techniques back in the 1970s,” said Tom Settlemire, a retired biochemist at Bowdoin College who is now a leader in the local food movement in Maine. Settlemire worked with DeGrandpre on a USDA Soil & Water Conservation project; DeGrandpre was also a key figure in the creation of the Maine Beef Breeders Association.

“He was a very special person,” said Settlemire, who recalled that many people came to DeGrandpre for information and advice.

DeGrandpre was honored by the Maine Beef Producers, as well as several other local and national organizations.

Today, two of his sons and his grandson still work at the farm, continuing his work and dedication to the land.

DeGrandpre retired from the farm in 1992 and, with his beloved wife, Claire, moved to an adjacent house, which allowed him to continue enjoying the land and the neighborhood with which he was so familiar. During retirement, the couple spent many winters traveling their favorite route through Las Vegas and the West, and spent time in Florida with family and close friends.

DeGrandpre was predeceased by his wife in 2009, and his son, David, in 1991.

He is survived by two sons, James and Richard, of Freeport; his daughter-in-law, Gloria Fogg DeGrandpre, wife of David; grandchildren Johannah, of Yarmouth, Laura Loiselle, of North Andover, Massachusetts, Karen, of Freeport, Kathy of South Portland, Michael of Providence, Rhode Island, Sarah of Washington, D.C., Elizabeth of Sheridan, Wyoming, and Matthew of Freeport; and great-grandchildren Chuck DeGrandpre and Madeline Claire.

A funeral service was held at St. Jude’s Church in Freeport Feb. 22. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Parish of the Holy Eucharist, 266 Foreside Road, Falmouth, ME 04105.