Turning the tide: UMaine Cooperative Extension moves into Falmouth

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FALMOUTH — It was moving day Tuesday at the new University of Maine Cooperative Extension Regional Learning Center at 75 Clearwater Drive in Tidewater Village.

Half-unpacked boxes clogged the hallways and employees moved from room to room, setting up offices and finding the perfect spot for office plants and book cases.

But for the UMaine Cooperative Extension, which is sharing the office condominium with University of Maine admissions and fundraising offices, this move is about more than new digs; it’s about new opportunities.

“Our primary reason for wanting to move here was access to the land,” Extension Associate Director Doug Babkirk said.

The Extension, which organizes the popular Master Gardner certification program, Master Food Preservers program, Eat Well nutrition education program, Maine 4H Clubs and many other food and agriculture-related programs, has spent the last 40 years renting a small house on the University of Southern Maine property in Portland.

Now, near the old Tidewater Farm, the program will have access to three acres for a garden, sharing the agricultural space with Cultivating Communities and the Center for African Heritage, both of which have gardens in the Tidewater Village.

“This year we’ll do the design and just assess what’s there,” said horticulture specialist Amy Witt, who heads the Master Gardner program. She said by next year the gardens would be in use, offering hands-on classes and growing food to donate to food pantries all over the state.

In addition to growing food, the Extension office will offer cooking, canning and food preservation classes in the new on-site teaching kitchen.

“We’ll teach people how to develop the skill set to preserve local foods,” said Kathy Savoie, who heads up the Master Food Preservers group and works on the national Eat Well low-income nutrition education program.

Savoie and several Extension nutrition experts travel all over Cumberland County teaching food preparation and nutrition classes in people’s homes, at food pantries and for community groups. Now, in addition to traveling around, the Extension can offer classes in its teaching kitchen.

“It’s great because we’re on a public bus route,” Babkirk said. “And we’ve got plenty of parking.”

Initially, when the move to Tidewater was proposed, the Extension ran up against challenges, both financially and with the town. The group had proposed building a new office on a conservation easement near the old Tidewater farmhouse, but when the recession made funding scarce, the office began looking at other options, including the purchase of the condo space in the mixed-use building.

While the group still needs to raise $100,000 to pay for the new space and the garden project, Babkirk said fundraising efforts have improved.

But challenges like that don’t stop him and the other Extension employees from dreaming big.

“In the future, we’d like to explore foundation grants to restore the (Tidewater Farm) barn and possibly create a sustainable living center here,” Babkirk said.

The Extension will hold a grand opening event on May 14 at 11 a.m. at the new Regional Learning Center.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

Sidebar Elements

UMaine Cooperative Extension Associate Director Doug Babkirk stands on the Tidewater Farm property that overlooks the Presumpscot River tidal zone in Falmouth. The Extension office has moved into Tidewater Village and will offer cooking and gardening classes as soon as this summer.

UMaine Cooperative Extension nutritionist Rae Belanger unpacks supplies for the new teaching kitchen at the group’s new office and learning center in Falmouth’s Tidewater Village. The Extension will offer cooking, canning and preservation classes in the kitchen, as well as gardening classes at the nearby farm.

UMaine Cooperative Extension Associate Director Doug Babkirk walks out of the old Tidewater Farm barn in Falmouth, which he hopes the Extension may someday be able to restore and use. The Extension has recently moved into the Tidewater Village and will begin planting a teaching garden on the property next year.