How a Washington County farmer is working to fight hunger in Maine

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

Posted Jan. 18, 2017, at 6:29 a.m.

 Milbridge, Maine — Farmer Michael Hayden held a bulb of his homegrown garlic aloft last week while a group of giggling children at the Milbridge Elementary School tried to identify the mystery vegetable.

“Radish!” one shouted. “Onion?” another guessed. One little boy waved his hand in the air with confidence and said, “Oh, I think I know. It’s the thing that vampires don’t like.”

Mystery solved, the easy-going Hayden — affectionately called “Farmer Mike” by the children — presided over a table set up outside the school at the end of the day that looked like a pop-up farmers market. Each child was given a plastic bag that they could fill — for free — from the produce set out temptingly on the table. There were Maine-grown carrots, potatoes, turnip, squash and garlic, and oranges, grapefruit, tomatoes and strawberries that came from warmer climes.

“My mama loves tomatoes,” Rachel Falabella, 6, of Milbridge said as she picked out the perfect ones to take home to her family.

Amelia Gamez, 7, of Harrington enthusiastically selected a good-looking carrot.

“They’re my favorite,” she said. “We wash them and eat them.”

As the 100-plus children who go to the Milbridge school filed past Hayden’s table, class by class, they had big smiles on their faces as they picked out their produce. Some even followed Hayden’s lead and took a nibble out of a raw clove of garlic. From the dramatic screams of shock that followed — raw garlic is spicy — it appears that it may not be the next culinary sensation at the elementary school.

But the amazing thing is that the children will try anything that Hayden gives them, teachers said.

Perhaps as important as the students’ willingness to sample new tastes is the fact that Hayden’s visits to the school are a way that the nonprofit Maine Seacoast Mission is working to combat hunger and food insecurity, a serious problem in the region. At Milbridge Elementary School, 75 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. The number is based on federal income guidelines and is often used as an indicator of poverty among students by school districts.

“Food insecurity is such a big issue in Washington County,” Wendy Harrington, the director of service programs at the mission’s Down East campus in Cherryfield, said. “We try to provide different ways for people to access food. For some, walking into food pantries is the last thing they’ll ever do. For those who might not need the food pantry but need additional help, we’ll send food home with the children.”

But Maine Seacoast Mission officials know that shelf-stable food such as peanut butter or pasta doesn’t provide all of a person’s nutritional needs. They also know that there can be a stigma that goes with being singled out to receive free food. And that is where Hayden, who owns the 10-acre Folklore Farm in Cherryfield, comes in.

Beautiful scenery, harsh way of living

Hayden, 38, first came to Washington County seven years ago after working on land in Pennsylvania and New York. He had no intention of staying in that part of the Maine coast.

“I was getting ready to do a new farm adventure,” he recalled, adding that he was interested in checking out land in Waldo County, where many young farmers call home. “But the people here are so nice, and they just needed another farmer so badly. I stayed because there was this undercurrent buzz of anything is possible here. There is a feeling of community support.”

He found his new home to be beautiful, with its rockbound coastline, colorful blueberry barrens and rushing rivers. But he also learned that life in the sparsely populated county, where just 32,000 people live in an area twice the size of Rhode Island, can be harsh, too. It can even be hungry. Many residents work at seasonal jobs connected to the blueberry industry or wreath making, and they struggle to get by throughout the year. According to the Maine Seacoast Mission, which has served the state’s islands and its Down East coast since 1905, more than a quarter of the county’s children live in poverty and experience food insecurity.

Even for a farmer, life in Washington County is not necessarily easy. In 2012, Hayden started Folklore Farm on a blueberry farm in Columbia, but it was slow going at first. He operated a farmstand for two or three seasons but struggled to find customers and was thinking about moving on.

In 2014, he had a stroke of luck when he began collaborating with the Maine Seacoast Mission on the effort to end child hunger. The mission had received a grant through the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation to fund its programs to help the county’s children get enough to eat, and it was searching for the right kind of farmer to be a part of that. The farmer had to be good at growing vegetables and communicating with children. And he or she needed to be passionate about ending hunger.

They found all that in Hayden, according to Harrington.

“Michael is so committed,” she said. “His philosophy is that he wants to feed people. He is a subsistence farmer. He sells produce to us for far below market value. The guy is not getting rich off this. It really isn’t just a business for him — he is very community oriented.”

Planting seeds to end hunger

For the past three years, Hayden has grown thousands of pounds of produce for the free “farmers markets” that are held weekly in the fall and monthly in the winter at Milbridge Elementary School and Cherryfield Elementary School. At Narraguagus High School in Harrington, he distributes the produce for students to pick up if they want to do so.

In Milbridge, every student and every teacher is invited to take part in the markets, according to Principal Marcia White. In a typical autumn week, they browse among crops such as tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, kale, broccoli and cauliflower that Hayden brings for his young shoppers.

“Fresh vegetables grown right down the road taste better and are fresher,” White said. “It’s great. And if any of us fell on a rough week, it’s right here. It’s gotten so that it’s an integral part of the school, and it’s looked on favorably.”

Hayden also grows produce to help fill the backpacks that are sent home with children, so that they will have access to healthy food and not go hungry over the weekend, a problem among food insecure families.

“I love distributing vegetables,” Hayden said. “I get to give them to the kids. That’s the best part. Mainers don’t like food pantry. They’re too proud. We’re trying to find a way we can grow vegetables and make them accessible to everyone.”

At his farm, he grows what he calls “‘50s food” in the single acre that is currently in production. Washington County folks do not hanker for trendy microgreens or unusual vegetables their grandmothers wouldn’t recognize, he has found. Instead, he plants crops such as peas and tomatoes, squash and carrots.

“People here want beet greens and lettuce heads,” he said. “Simple vegetables that people grow.”

Hayden doesn’t mind growing simple vegetables or living a simple life. He is staying in a small, timber-frame cabin behind a friend’s farm in Milbridge while he’s building a tiny house on his own farm. He also is working with Incredible Edible Milbridge, a project that has so far planted 24 public vegetable gardens around the community in an effort to make Milbridge stronger, healthier and more food independent. The produce grown there is free for all.

Hayden said he has noticed that many grandparents in the region have their own vegetable gardens, but that’s not necessarily the case for the parents of the children he sees at the schools.

“We’re trying to prime the pump. Trying to meet the community halfway,” he said. “I got into farming because I want to feed my community. Luckily, I found my niche. I go to the grocery store, and the kids say, ‘Farmer Mike! We love your carrots!’ It’s very heartwarming.”

Ten-year-old Kaleb Castleberry of Milbridge, a fourth grader, is always glad to see Hayden. Kaleb and his mother, Amanda MacLean, have been enjoying cooking up soups and sauces together with the fresh vegetables he brings home from school, and they have been sharing their recipes with his classmates. He said he would like to tell other children who may be wary about trying new vegetables to be brave. That they might be surprised.

“I’d tell them it’s good. It’s not actually weird. It’s just a vegetable,” Kaleb said. “Farmer Mike just wants us to be healthy and try new stuff.”