UNITY — The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardening Association announced Sunday that its fund drive to establish a new education and demonstration center here has topped $1.5 million. The Unity center will become the new permanent home for the Common Ground Fair scheduled for September.
The success of the fund drive signifies the acceptance of organic farming by the community at large, a significant expansion in interest from that generated by “a few hippie farmers 25 years ago,” according to MOFGA director Russell Libby of Mount Vernon. “A lot of different people have become interested in good food. A lot of people have decided that organic farming is where agriculture is heading,” he said.
Libby said the organization has 3,000 members and 175 certified organic farms, including the latest addition of six dairy farmers. A few decades ago, traditional dairy farmers would have died before they joined a “hippie organization” like MOFGA, Libby said. Now all farmers have learned “we have more in common than we have different. The only way for Maine farms to survive is to build connections to the consumer,” Libby said.
Of the 175 certified organic farms, about 100 sell directly to farmers markets. The 24 dairy farms sell through wholesale outlets. The other farms market through the growing food co-ops throughout the state or local restaurants.
The Common Ground Fair started in Litchfield in 1977 and moved to the Windsor Fairgrounds 17 years ago. Attendance has soared from 11,000 at the first Litchfield fair to an average 56,000 in recent years.
“We outgrew the fairgrounds six or seven years ago. The traffic and people were closing in and the space was really restricted. We were always looking for space for a year-round educational center,” Libby said.
In 1996, the search ended when MOFGA purchased 200 acres of former potato fields on the Thorndike-Unity line from the Maxim family.
A fund drive started in September 1996, to transform the farm into an education center and a home for the annual fair by 1999. The reaction has been so positive that the schedule has been moved up a year.
“I always thought we could do it, but not this fast,” Libby said.
The drive got a kick-start when the Libra Fund, consisting of money from the late philanthropist Elizabeth Noyce, the Maine Community Foundations and the McEvoy Fund donated a total of $115,000. An anonymous Maine donor promised another $500,000 if MOFGA raised $1 million. The fund topped $1 million by the first of the year.
The rest came from loyal MOFGA members who donated anything from their change collections to $85,000. “Most came from people who just support what we are doing,” Libby said. Many MOFGA members pledged $1 a day for three years. “I’m one of them,” he said.
Development plans include a large exhibition hall, several support barns, an amphitheater for entertainment, a model homestead and, eventually, office space for MOFGA.
Concrete for the barns will be poured this week. “The barns have priority so the fair can be held in September. The office space can wait,” Libby said.
Other donations include an heirloom apple orchard. A group of apple farmers will donate the trees, plant the orchard to showcase the state’s oldest apple varieties, and eventually conduct educational sessions on apple growing. Other groups have donated herb gardens.
Common Ground Fair visitors will have the option of riding a train to this year’s fair to be held Sept. 25-27. The 200-acre site is located on the tracks of the Belfast and Moosehead Railroad. The plan is to run shuttle trains from both Unity and Belfast.