UNITY – Yellow was the predominant color Friday at the opening day of the 30th annual Common Ground Fair – the yellow of slickers, shiny rubber boots and bold sunflowers.
Rain throughout the day, at times coming down in sheets, did nothing to dampen the spirits of those attending the fair, which is expected to be host to 60,000 visitors from all over New England.
Considered the state’s “alternative” fair, it may not be traditional, but it is usually one of the state’s most popular events.
The three-day fair is sponsored each year by Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the oldest organic organization in the country, and becomes an occasion for education, entertainment and acknowledgment of alternative farming, lifestyles and business.
More than 1,200 volunteers keep things running smoothly, taking tickets, directing traffic and manning first aid stations.
Despite early morning showers Friday, hundreds of schoolchildren and other visitors were lined up when the gates opened at 9 a.m.
The organic farmers displaying wares and products were smiling at the rain, although calling it “too little, too late.”
This summer of hot, dry weather will have a long-lasting effect on Maine’s organic farmers. Many lost half their winter feed crops and with the price of organic feed twice that of conventional grain and hay, the farmers are worried.
Gloria Varney of Nezinscot Farm in Turner raises three hundred animals, including dairy cows and goats, sheep, chickens and pigs. She sells her milk to Stoneyfield Organic Yogurt and makes organic cheese with her goats’ milk.
Customers were raving about her cheeses at the fair Friday, but winter was on Varney’s mind. “We lost 45 of our 100 acres of hay,” she said. “The drought has affected us terribly, that and the army worm infestation. This winter is going to be extremely tight, in terms of feed.”
“Our corn and some of our alfalfa should be okay,” she said, “but we definitely will be buying more grain, and at organic prices, that will hurt.”
Varney said conventional hay runs about $2.50 a bale, where organic hay costs $4. Depending on which ration a farmer uses, conventional grain can cost $100 a ton compared to organic grain at $350 a ton.
Beyond the effect on the crops, Varney said her animals did not handle the stress of the prolonged heat wave very well. “Our milk production was definitely down.”
Several tents away at the fair, Bruce and Nancy Stedman of Buxton displayed magical birdhouses and feeders made from wildly shaped dried gourds. “The gourds [when growing] are 90 percent water,” said Bruce, “and they need thick walls for carving.”
He said his crop was down by 50 percent or more this year, due to the drought. “It wasn’t the heat, they love the heat,” he said. “But it would have been nice to have some water.”
To help several of his fields, Bruce said he dug a new irrigation pond this summer and put in new drip irrigation systems in others.
Everlasting flower farmers Joyce and Jerry Cass of Poland Springs said their summer crop was saved when they went away to Alaska for 15 days in August and a heat wave hit. “Joyce’s 82-year-old father, walking with a cane, watered the flowers every day. He is our hero,” said Jerry Cass.
Some specialty farmers, however, said that they were able to irrigate enough to offset the hot, dry summer.
Sherry Fowler of West Sumner grows acres of catnip and said Friday that catnip – which she turns into specialty products for cat lovers – “needs lots of drainage, so the dry conditions were just right.”
It also wasn’t obvious by the impressive display of fruits and vegetables in the fair’s Exhibition Hall that this summer had difficult growing conditions.
Along with prize-winning traditional garden varieties, there were artichokes, lemon cucumbers, quinces, specialty pears and at least two dozen varieties of hot peppers – complete with their own warning sign: Do not touch! HOT!
Fair gates open daily at 9 a.m. and the hundreds of booths close at 6 p.m. Evening entertainment begins at 7 p.m. Dozens of agricultural lectures, craft presentations and educational seminars are scheduled.
More information can be obtained at the MOFGA Web site, www.mofga.org.