There is a chill in the air at night, and the maples are losing their verdant green. Fall is right around the corner which means that it must be time for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Associations’ (MOFGA) Common Ground Country Fair.
For the uninitiated, the Common Ground Country Fair (or as it is colloquially known Common Ground and shall be called in the rest of the column) has happened every year for the last forty-one years in Maine. MOFGA is the oldest and largest state organic agency in the country (take that Vermont and Pennsylvania). What makes this truly amazing is that we are from one of the smallest states in the country. It is a testament to the dedicated volunteers and employees of this amazing organization that have shaped the organization for years. A lot of the credit can also be laid at the feet of the Common Ground Fair.
In the third weekend after Labor Day (this year the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th) Unity briefly becomes one of the largest cities in Maine as hordes of people descend on the tiny town. If you have never been, you should go, but be prepared. First, a few words of advice, get there early, carpool, and if at all possible come on Sunday. Also, wear comfortable walking shoes: there is a lot of ground to cover, and your feet will be tired by the end of the day. Bring a backpack, jacket, and a water bottle. Finally, leave your pets at home. They will not even let you in the parking lot with an animal in your car. Don’t make the amazing volunteers in parking tell you that, you my reader already know better than that.
When you get to the fair, there are some things I have to do every year. If this is your first year, these are my 10 can’t miss fair events.
- The YEZ tent: Last year they expanded the YEZ tent or Youth Enterprise Zone to two days (Friday and Sunday only). This tent is full of some of the most creative, enterprising, and honestly nice kids you could ever meet. They are all under the age of 18 and have started agriculture-related micro-enterprises. These kids are the business and community leaders of tomorrow and you have the chance to support them now and help them along the way.
- The Farmers Market: No matter which gate you come in (the Rose Gate which has no roses, or the Pine Gate which has plenty of pines) the first thing you will see when you get in the gate is The Farmers Market. Here you can find produce, meat, cheese, and flowers. I always make sure that I get Sweet Annie from Mooarhill Farms, Maple Milk from Tide Mill Farms, and Kiwis from Bluebird Hill Farm. Publicly, I don’t have favorite farmers, much like parents don’t have favorite children, but realistically I do, much like parents have favorite children (thanks Mom and Dad, I know you always loved me best). Stop on your way out of the fair and do your shopping for the week, that way you don’t have to carry your groceries with you all day. However get the maple milk while you can, it goes fast.
- Low Impact Forestry Area: On our homestead, the vast majority of our acres is a woodlot- some traditional, and some simply from lack of time and the slow encroachment of time (and scrub pines). There are so many informative talks and demonstrations in this area that it is a can’t miss for me. There are demonstrations on felling, log twitching, and human-powered logging techniques. There are talks on managing your woodlot, mistakes woodlot owners make, and alternative uses of wood. There are tree id events and even storytelling. On top of that, everyone I have met in the Low Impact Forestry Area are among the finest people I have ever met. It is really a remarkable crew.
- The Stone Workers Guild: I am not an extrovert. In fact, people often exhaust me, and I cease to behave in socially acceptable manners after enough exposure to them (sometimes we have friends over for dinner, and when I have reached my tolerance for social interaction, I get up and go away from the table, often times unannounced and much to my amazing wife’s chagrin). The Stone Workers Guild is a nice place to get away from the crowds of the fair. They do amazing work, and it is nice to sit down and just watch people using old techniques and tools to slowly craft enduring monuments.
- A Will Bonsall Talk: Maine has had many organic leaders that have been developed ever since Helen and Scott Nearing wrote the book on it. Will Bonsall is one of our nations greatest treasures who often times does not get the recognition he deserves. He has been a force in organic farming for many years and his commitment to promoting biodiversity is unmatched.
- Sheep Dog Demos: These go on throughout the weekend. Get there early, otherwise, you might not get to see through the mass of crowds that coalesce around the perimeter of the ring. This is always one of the most popular areas of the fair and for good reason. These well-trained, highly intelligent animals cajole and corral several species of animals. If you are lucky, you might get chosen to compete against them- much to the amusement of your fellow fairgoers.
- See the Gawlers: The Gawler family will be performing at the fair this year (as they do many years. We have some of the most incredible musicians in this state and for years the Gawlers have been among them. They will be performing at the fair this year Saturday at 12:30 PM at the amphitheater. The amphitheater is also home to one of the few rides at the fair as kids of all ages grab some cardboard and careen down the hill.
- Go to the Social and Political Action Tent: The Social and Political Action tent is an absolute must see for me. First, I make sure that I always stop and get a book from Beth Leonard and Gary Lawless of Gulf of Maine Books- and if they have a few minutes have a conversation with them. Then, I just like to walk and read over some of the issues that the people are committed to. I might not agree with everyone in there, but it is nice to read about their points of view and expand my mind a little bit. When I came to Maine, I was a pretty meat and potatoes kind of guy. I still am, but my mind has become more open to things that are outside of my comfort zone. The Social and Political Action Tent may make you aware of issues in our own state and communities that you hadn’t even thought about before.
- Eat a Meal at the Common Kitchen: Every year the best food at the fair isn’t sold from the vendors but earned and eaten at the Common Kitchen. The line for the kitchen for the evening meal can stretch halfway around the paved road that circles the commons. Volunteers and an amazing kitchen staff create miracles every day using food and resources donated by farms throughout the state. However, there is a catch, there is only one way to get a meal at the Common Kitchen, it isn’t available to everyone which brings us to our last and most important thing to do at the fair.
- Volunteer: Volunteers shape the fair. They plan for it and they make it run. The best way to feel connected to the fair is to join the thousands of people every year who volunteer. You get free admission to the fair, a meal voucher for the common kitchen, and a free t-shirt for a four-hour shift. There are many places that need volunteers at the fair even at the last minute. You can sign up for a shift at either of the entrances of the fair.
Finally, this year’s fair will be different for my family and me in an important way. For the first time in a very long time, Sewall’s Orchard will not be at the fair as they have decided to step back and concentrate on their vinegar business. For years, since my wife was just a little girl, Sewall’s was a must stop. They had hot and cold cider. More importantly, they have Bob and Mia- who are two of the nicest people you will ever meet. Although there will be new cider vendors I am sure, the fair will never be the same without your booth and the warmth emanating from your cauldrons of cider and your smiles.