How one Skowhegan woman is driving a local foods revolution

Sarah Smith and her daughter Charlotte, 11 months.

Sarah Smith, 31, is one of the stars of Maine’s organic farming sector. It’s not just because she and her husband Garin brought renewed life to her father’s dairy farm in Skowhegan or because she works at all hours of the day while raising three children, ages 6, 3 and 11 months. It’s because she’s helping to change how her community thinks about organic food by generating more connections between customers and farmers.

By organizing projects to bring the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market to the poor, pregnant women and children, she is feeding people organic fruits and vegetables who never used to buy produce, whether it was organic or not. Residing in Somerset County, where nearly one in five people live below poverty level, her goal is to make people healthier and help the local economy in the process.

In 2006, Sarah and Garin had a busy year: They moved back to Skowhegan after college (Sarah had co-managed the garden at Warren Wilson College), started running Grassland Farm, had their first child and got married. Sarah also took over the farmers’ market, which at the time had four vendors and was not reaching the people who could stand to benefit the most from a healthy diet. With more than half of the county’s residents qualifying for supplemental nutrition assistance programs, she said, she wanted to move beyond the stereotype that organic food is for people of privilege.

So in 2007 the market became one of the first in the state to accept food stamps. That same winter, the market started its “double dollars” program where customers can double the value of their federal food assistance benefits up to $10 per market. The program is funded by the Wholesome Wave Foundation and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation.

She later helped coordinate the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program with Skowhegan Family Medicine, so pregnant women and obese children are eligible for free vouchers to be redeemed only at the market. Also funded by Wholesome Wave, the program relies on the farmers’ market in order to prevent people from going to supermarkets, where they risk picking up soda and salty and processed foods, in addition to the fruits and veggies.

With lots of debate about restricting people’s access to unhealthy food, it’s important to remember that the reverse works as well: Providing incentives teaches people healthy habits.

Sarah said many of her customers have told her they weren’t buying fruits or veggies at all, prior to the programs. Now they’re not only buying quality food, they’re trying new items, such as kohlrabi. One family comes often because they now love white carrots. One woman has lost so much weight that Sarah said workers thought she had undergone gastric bypass surgery. She hadn’t; she’d just been eating healthier. Those who have changed their eating tendencies tell Sarah they just feel better.

“When you incentivize people to eat better food, there’s a tipping point where they at some point will not go back to their old ways,” she said. “I think that is kind of the magic question: How long do you need to incentivize fruits and vegetables before they commit to spending their own money to buying these fruits and vegetables?”

Sarah volunteered to manage the market for five years, and this is her first year receiving a part-time wage. The market now has 20 vendors, plus music and fun activities for families, and last year an online survey conducted by American Farmland Trust rated it the most popular farmers’ market in Maine, beating out those in more populated areas like Portland. Skowhegan didn’t win because it has better produce but because of the “community vibrancy” associated with it, Sarah said at the time.

And it’s that sense of community that Sarah has continued in her work helping to run yet another major local, agriculture-related endeavor: The Pickup. Instead of coming to the farmers’ market, the Community Supported Agriculture program provides people with a different method of getting their fresh eggs, maple syrup, greens, bread, cheese and organic milk. Customers purchase a “share” of the harvest and receive a weekly basket of seasonal fruits and veggies from various local farms. The CSA started in the spring at the Somerset Grist Mill and already supports about 40 producers.

Her work both as a farmer and as manager of the farmers’ market has benefited her work running the Pickup. She understands the timing of the harvest and how crops are affected by different weather patterns. And she said she simply loves working with other farmers and helping them access new markets. The larger marketplace benefits.

“The economic driver piece is: As you get more dollars into these farms, guess what these farmers do. They turn right around, and they dump it into the economy,” she said. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has reported that if you give an organic farmer $1, you create $0.83 in spending for other local businesses.

Sarah knows this fact firsthand. And she knows just how difficult it is to earn a living as a farmer. She and her husband bought Grassland Farm from her father in 2007 and have several mortgages to pay for it, including one from Slow Money Maine, which connects investors to food producers and entrepreneurs.

Starting out, “it was sink or swim,” Sarah said. By the time they had purchased the farm, they had been working for a year with no pay. They later learned that community members had expressed doubt about their chances of making it.

“How do you define success? We pay our bills, and to us that’s pretty successful,” she said. They milk 40 cows, keeping about 90 total, and raise laying hens and pigs. They grow about 40 different types of crops on four acres of gardens, selling to Barrels Community Market in Waterville, in addition to farmers’ markets in Skowhegan, Orono and Augusta.

No one gets into organic farming to make money. But she, Garin and their children,
(Cedar, 6; Reed, 3; and Charlotte, 11 months) eat great food and live in a beautiful setting where they make products without using pesticides. Sarah and Garin have hired three workers, love what they do and have a larger goal that drives them: make people healthier and support their community at the same time.

Sarah will give a keynote address called “Farming, Family and Community” at the Common Ground Country Fair at 11 a.m., Sunday, at the common.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.