To Freeport farming couple, innovation comes naturally
FREEPORT — When farmers Ralph and Lisa Turner received the Commissioner's Distinguished Service Award this month from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, Gov. Paul LePage praised their communication skills.
Department Commissioner Walt Whitcomb lauded their creativity.
The Turners, owners of Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport for the past 17 years, saw the honor a little differently.
"It might be an award for bravery, as much as anything," Lisa said. "Or foolhardiness. It could go either way."
Indeed, the Turners in August did something few local farmers would be willing to do: The couple opened their farm to officers of the Food and Drug Administration, giving people who could shut them down free reign to poke around their place of business.
It wasn't because the Tuners were so confident Laughing Stock was up to code; it was to show that local farms can't possibly afford to comply with regulations created for massive corporate farms, nor should they have to.
It was the latest in a career of bold moves for the Turners, whose engineering skills and outspokenness have made them leaders in the southern Maine farming community over the past two decades.
The couple met while studying at the University of Maine at Orono. Ralph earned bachelor's degrees in mechanical engineering and business administration and became a facilities engineer. Lisa studied soil science and civil engineering and went on to design landfills and groundwater models.
Lisa decided in 1997 to begin farming on 1/5 of an acre, in part to spend more time at home with her and Ralph's three young children. At the time, she was reading the work of Eliot Coleman, the trailblazing organic farmer who had recently studied local growing techniques across Europe. Inspired, the Turners built a greenhouse, which made Laughing Stock stand out.
"We instantly had the niche of being winter growers when no one else in the area was doing it," she said. "People eat every week of the year, it turns out."
Today they grow vegetables during all four seasons on 15 acres using seven greenhouses. For the past 12 years, they've heated them with used cooking oil from local restaurants. They've built a walk-in cooler and devised more energy-efficient tractor parts. After Maine experienced extreme rains in 2009, they installed raised beds to keep their crops from being waterlogged.
The Turners appear to have benefited greatly from their engineering education, though they say the innovations they've made are just part of farming.
"If you're going to do this, you have to be able to turn a wrench, to innovate, to improvise, to fix stuff when it goes wrong," said Ralph, who turned to farming full-time a few years after his wife. "You can't hire a mechanic every time you have a hiccup. So the truth of the matter is, there are a lot of people farming at this scale and bigger that are just as good engineers and don't have the degrees.
"When we experiment, whether it works or not, we kind of keep the doors open. We're not secretive about what we do."
There's nothing very secretive about the Turners, who serve on countless agricultural boards and organizations, including the Maine Farm Bureau, and have been public in their stance on issues including the rental of property from land trusts to farmers, and some proposed models for farm-to-school programs, both of which they oppose.
"We'll speak up, even if what we're saying is wildly unpopular. Politics exists in everything, so you've got to get off the farm and say what you think, or people will make decisions that affect your life without asking you," Lisa said.
"Farming has become an 'in' thing to advocate for," Ralph said. "And a lot of the advocacy groups don't spend as much time interfacing with actual people who farm as we think they should. We're involved to make sure people who do this for a living, that our voices get interjected into whatever conversation is going on."
Last year, while reviewing the regulations of 2011's Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA decided it needed to get out and see some farms. The Turners volunteered, along with two other Maine farms, Spears Vegetable Farm in Nobleboro and the Apple Farm in Manchester.
About 20 FDA officials toured Laughing Stock Farm for several hours, asking questions, and listening as the Turners made their case for various elements of the act's regulations as feasible, unnecessary or cost-prohibitive. Now they just have to wait and see what happens; it could be two years before the act's revised regulations are announced.
"They really did listen," Lisa said. "It was hard to tell how much their minds were changed, but sometimes it takes a while of hearing the same thing before you decide you want to change your mind."