Freeport neighbors hope for the best as Wolfe's Neck Farm loses cattle
FREEPORT — With the last cattle scheduled to leave Wolfe's Neck Farm by September, neighbors hope the next farmers will reinvigorate the agricultural operation and keep the farm vibrant. The farm is actively seeking an independent agricultural replacement to run an operation by next summer.
Last month, Pineland Farms Natural Meats notified Wolfe's Neck Farm that it would terminate its contract to use the farm and would move the cattle by Sept. 15.
According to Erick Jensen, president of Pineland Farms Natural Meats and director of the Wolfe's Neck Farm beef operation, the decision to remove the cattle was a difficult one, but was necessary. He said heavy rainfall this spring carried waste into the ocean, contaminating nearby clam flats.
"We had to get the cattle away from the ocean," he said.
Fences would have had to be installed around every gully in the pastures to alleviate the runoff problem, which would divide the fields into smaller grazing areas. These costs, plus the expenses associated with housing the cattle at Wolfe's Neck Farm, added to Pineland's decision.
"With the size of the operation, it wasn't feasible for us to carry a full-time staff there," Jensen said.
Tim Kittredge, Wolfe's Neck Farm executive director, said Pineland Farm Natural Meats pulled out of it's five-year grazing contract about 10 months earlier than expected.
"Wolfe's Neck Farm would certainly have liked to continue the relationship," Kittredge said. "But this is an opportunity for growth, and that's the way we are looking at it."
Kittredge said the farm foundation was already looking to diversify its agricultural activities when they were made aware of Pineland Farm's decision to pull the cattle from Freeport.
"We wanted to add a farming partner or partners," he said. "The agricultural committee has been conducting research, and have issued requests for proposals for new partners."
According to the Wolfe's Neck Farm Web site, the farm foundation requires applicants to follow "sustainable agricultural practices including conservation, alternative energy, and whole farm ecosystem management practices."
The expected term of a new agreement includes a three-year commitment, with two one-year options for each party.
Kittredge said there have been several inquiries submitted and appropriate bids will be pursued.
"We hope to have a new agricultural partner by next summer," he said. "But we want to proceed slowly to make sure everything is the right fit."
Judith Thompson of Wolfe's Neck Road, has been a neighbor of the farm for 46 years. She said losing the cattle is disappointing because the herd was a draw for visitors in the spring.
"The farm has been a great neighbor for all these years," she said.
John Slavin of Burnett Road, said as a farm neighbor for 37 years he has a love/hate relationship with the farm. He said while he volunteers on the farm and supports the educational and agricultural activities, he questions some of the decisions made over the years. He said losing the cattle is a "sad situation," and is a loss of a valuable resource.
He said he hopes Pineland Farms will take care of the fields when they pull the last of the cattle in September.
Jensen said Pineland Farms would be responsible for haying the land, reseeding areas that need it, spreading manure and preparing the pastures for the next tenant.
He also said the soil is tested frequently, as advised by the Department of Agriculture, and the soil's pH levels are "fantastic."
"We cannot use commercial fertilizer on an organic farm," he said. "It's illegal. We cannot use a chemical spray for weeds either. There is a limit to what we can use. We follow the standards that are in the will."
Jensen said he would not spread sludge as fertilizer, as its proximity to the ocean would create even more environmental hazards.
"Running an organic farm is difficult," he said. "We want to leave the farm as good or better than when we started in 2005."
Wolfe's Neck Farm is a nonprofit organization with 626 acres. It was one of the first organizations to market antibiotic and hormone free beef using small alternative farming practices and rotating grazing fields. In the late 1940s Lawrence M.C. and Eleanor Houston Smith purchased property around the existing farm, and began the organic beef operation in the 1950s.
In 1985, the farm was given to the University of Southern Maine, and in 1997, it was transferred back to the Wolfe's Neck Farm Foundation.
In 1995, the foundation signed the agreement with Pineland Farms Natural Meats to take over the beef operation, and gave Pineland Farms use of the Wolfe's Neck brand for 50 years.
Charles DeGrandpre, a retired Wolfe's Neck Farm manager, said he has watched farming techniques change over the years, and said preventative maintenance was necessary.
As a farmer and manager of the farm for 35 years, DeGrandpre said his daily activities included maintaining the fields, trimming weeds, moving manure, seeding the pastures and growing hay. He said the fields used to be rotated between haying and grazing to keep the soil productive, but he hasn't seen the fields seeded in 18 years.
"When Pineland Farms took over, they rented the fields to graze," he said. "As I look at things, maybe they didn't keep up as well with the fields as they could have, and now the question is, where does the farm go from here?"
DeGrandpre said if fields aren't maintained on a regular basis, thistles and weeds will take over, manure will pile up, and fields will lose their farming potential.
"To make improvements, there needs to be changes made," he said. "Maybe they will bring in people who will get into a reseeding program, grow cover crops or nurse crops, and use the necessary equipment to do it right."
Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or firstname.lastname@example.org