I grew up in a small town outside of Chicago. Although my backyard was a field of oats it never felt particularly rural or isolated. The nearest grocery store was a 15-minute walk away- or a 3-minute bike ride down a steep hill. You could drive it of course, but I was 10 and the law frowned on such shenanigans. I spent much of my summer at my grandparents’ farm. I would visit them for weeks on end- my parents were just glad to be rid of me most of the time.
My grandfather was diagnosed with polio when he was in his thirties. He was reliant on a wheelchair by the time I was born. He sold his farm to my uncle in the 60’s and my uncle rented out the land, raised a few dozen hogs, and sold animal feed to help make ends meet. My grandfather worked the rest of his career selling seed and retired to tend his land.
Outside of his family, my grandfather had three main passions in his life: the small town he was born in (he had lived in our family’s farm house since he was 2), fishing, and gardening. We would go fishing in places where you could get a line in the water from the front seat of his army green 1976 Ford Grenada. The car smelled like old cigars and dead worms (the worms would meet their demise when we left them in the car on a hot day). His garden was half an acre with straight wide rows that he could get his Murray lawn tractor down. The rows were free from weeds or bugs due to a very diligent hoeing schedule as well as help from the agri-chemical industry (I remember applying herbicides and pesticides with him as young as the age of 6). He maintained a small fruit orchard in his backyard as well. When I was in high school my grandfather died. That spot of land and that time spent with him is my idea of heaven on earth. I would give anything to go back and work the dirt with him one more day.
After high school, I worked a smattering of jobs near my hometown and eventually began to make decent money. Not great, but you could live on it. I didn’t like the busyness of my hometown as the oat field in my backyard eventually gave way to an apartment complex. The traffic got worse and it felt like no matter how much I worked, or how much I made ,I never really got ahead. I found myself dreaming of becoming a farmer, but with land being $15,000 an acre and a combine being $250,000 I knew that there was no way I could afford to be a farmer. I decided to move, I quit my job and moved to Maine as part of AmeriCorps.
I met the woman who would eventually become my wife in AmeriCorps. She grew up in Mount Vernon outside of Augusta on a homestead. Her summers and life were similar to mine, although instead of pigs they raised sheep. Instead of dousing their gardens in pesticides and herbicides they maintained their gardens organically- a concept at the time still very unfamiliar to me. She introduced me to farmers that made a living off of the land with a handful of acres, a few tools, and a lot of hard work. Her families’ roots in her community only went back a couple of decades at the time but were every bit as deep as my Grandfather’s were in his. Her parents were involved in every facet of the town, working at the school, the library, going to town meetings and helping out everywhere they could. It was really inspiring. I remember my first time visiting Mount Vernon and I knew after meeting the people and seeing my wife (then girlfriend) in the village that this is where she needed to be and wherever she needed to be is where I wanted to be.
After AmeriCorps, I went to the University of Maine, graduated, and took a job teaching in Lubec. After two years in Lubec, we moved to Mount Vernon. Last year we built a house on the land where she was raised. We are working the land together- my wife, her family, and to a degree myself. It is a different style of agriculture than I was used to. The rows aren’t even and in some places not even there. Instead of one large garden, there are half a dozen different beds scattered throughout the property. We harvest more weeds than vegetables. I look at the poison ivy creeping in- and sometimes think about how easy it would be to spray it like my grandfather would- and have to fight this impulse. We have an orchard, chickens, and each other. What more could one person ask for?