CAPE ELIZABETH — According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average age of an American farmer is more than 58 years.
At just 29, Dan Marion is going against the trend.
Marion is a professional skier, farmer, successful business owner, and self-proclaimed mad scientist. He was born in Windham, attended Cheverus High School in Portland, and knew two things at an early age: he wanted to ski competitively, and his dream was to one day have a farm by the ocean.
By the age of 17 Marion was being sponsored to ski worldwide. And six weeks ago he recruited a group of friends to help him move his business, Fresh Pickins Farm, from Limington to newly leased land along the coast of Cape Elizabeth.
The 6 acres are within private Ram Island Farm, which has been preserved and protected since the early 1900s. The move is the next step for Marion and his mom, Vicki, who helps run the business.
“My mom is the absolute glue that holds this all together,” Marion said.
Fresh Pickins was established in 2008. Marion’s grandfather had a 225-acre piece of land in Limington, which Marion had always been drawn to, despite his extensive globetrotting.
So, at the age of 23, he bought a plow, borrowed a tractor from his dad, traded a pair of skis for some seedlings, and dug in. (The first crop he grew was an entire field of poison ivy, he recalled, but that’s a whole different story.)
Older farmers in the Limington area caught wind of what Marion was up to and offered their knowledge, teaching him what they knew about soil, tractors and Japanese beetles. One of Marion’s biggest and most valuable lessons has been learning to observe the land.
“(The land) has been here a lot longer than us; it knows what it’s doing,” he said. It’s when humans try to “play God,” he added, that things get messed up in nature, and problems are introduced.
Fresh Pickins has grown exponentially. Its products, ranging from natural sunscreen, to chaga tincture, to lavender-infused honey, are sold at Lois’ Natural Foods in Portland and Scarborough, The Portland Food Co-Op, and more than half a dozen farmers markets in southern Maine. With the move to Ram Island Farm, Marion and Vicki will be able to manufacture even more products.
Ram Island owner Shaw Sprague lives nearby and could not be happier about the integration of Fresh Pickins to the area.
“There were 60-70 farms here at the turn of the century, and now there are three or four,” Sprague said.
Sprague met Marion by chance when Shawn Walker, owner of Higgins Beach Market in Scarborough, told Sprague there was someone he had to meet.
They met, and Sprague said he realized he and Marion were on the same wavelength. He realized it even more during a work day, six weeks ago.
“I was blown away,” Sprague said, describing the younger generation of Marion’s friends who came to clean up the property and help restore buildings. “I felt like I was in a time warp, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what it’s all about.’”
The Fresh Pickins acreage had not been worked for decades; it resembled “a scene out of ‘Indiana Jones’” when he first arrived, according to Marion. Despite the dilapidated, century-old buildings, Marion saw endless opportunity.
The last farmers to work the land, Lester and Audrey Jordan, are now both in their 90s. They told Marion where they used to have their herb garden, where to watch the deer path, and where the best spots were for certain plants, according to their memories.
The Jordans were glowing with excitement at the site of the land being worked again. “You could see their sense of pride and gratitude that (Marion) gets what this land could be, and what it should be,” Sprague said.
He lamented how distant the population has become from knowing about their food sources.
“You can’t count on long-distance food supply,” Sprague said, “and that’s where Dan and I come together.” He said he’s witnessed the inability of big corporations to farm, and hopes to see more young farmers like Marion over the next 30 years.
So what’s next for Fresh Pickins?
“I don’t sit still that much,” Marion said, laughing.
When he’s not at school or working on the new farm, he’s frequenting trade shows, interacting with the community, testing out his own natural bug spray, coaching skiing, or running stalls at farmers markets. There are also new products planned that Marion said he’s keeping secret, for now.
But ultimately, he said, “I don’t care if I’m rich, I was just want to live a good life. When I’m dying I won’t be thinking about the money I made, I’ll be thinking about the friends I made.”
Corrected May 26, 2016, to identify Shawn Walker as owner of the Higgins Beach market.
Dan Marion, who will be farming land on Ram Island in Cape Elizabeth: “(The land) has been here a lot longer than us; it knows what it’s doing.” (Melanie Sochan / For The Forecaster)
Some of the products produced by Fresh Pickins Farm, which is moving to Ram Island in Cape Elizabeth. (Melanie Sochan / For The Forecaster)