A Little Look at a Big Fair

Every year, thousands of fairgoers flock to Unity for three days of healthy food, organic education, live music, and good, old-fashioned fun.

It’s a warm September day and the air at the Common Ground Country Fair is thick with music and the smells of fried food, fresh hay, and livestock. To my left, contra dancers swing their skirts and rap their heels on a wooden floor under a big white tent. The lines of dancers merge and separate in time with the French-Canadian folk music. To my right, a little girl walks by holding a chicken, to which she coos quietly as she pets its motley feathers. A few feet away, a woman in a faded, checkered dress sits at a spinning wheel, turning rough wool into smooth thread.

In 2015, I attended my first Common Ground Country Fair in Unity. What I’ve described is just a tiny corner of the massive annual event, which spans three days in late September and is going into its 41st year. Later that day, I’ll sit in a straight-backed chair while a man in an old- fashioned suit describes eco-friendly burial practices and shows off his handmade raw pine coffins. Even later, I’ll hold a rabbit in my arms, big and warm and fat, gray fur tickling my nose.

I’ve always harbored pioneer girl fantasies, ever since I read Little House on the Prairie. And here, alongside thousands of fellow fair-goers, I get to do just that. I taste homemade pickles and try my hand at weaving. I learn about canoe carving, medicinal herbs, raising rabbits, and composting. Booths stretch out in seemingly endless succession, selling everything from pure beeswax honey pots (“It’s the most natural way to keep honey,” explains the girl behind the table) to organic wool clothes. It’s a cornucopia of Maine- made items, Maine-grown food, and Maine- bred talent. For a $15 ticket (available at the gate, or $10 if you buy in advance), visitors will be able to taste organic food (grown and produced exclusively in Maine) or purchase items from locally based companies.

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) gives preference to vendors who use non-polluting organic materials and processes, and they do not allow out-of-state businesses to hock their wares.

The annual three-day event is organized by the MOFGA, a group whose mission is to “advance organic gardening, farming, and the organic system within the state,” in the words of Ted Quaday. As the executive director of MOFGA, Quaday knows better than most the values of organic living. “The organic system isn’t the only element of the work we need to do as a society to build a sustainable future, but it’s a big part of it,” he says. “Food is a huge part of our environmental footprint.” Not only does organic farming and gardening help protect the public water supply from being polluted by chemicals, it also helps encourage biodiversity within the ecosystem. Bees and ladybugs are ushered into fields, welcomed by farmers who accept that the insects’ role is far more significant than their small size would suggest.

“Organic farmers are committed to farming in cooperation or in coaction with nature,” says Quaday. “There are so many benefits to living like this—environmental, health, and even social benefits,” he argues.

I’ve never thought about the social benefits of organic or local farming. After all, eating an organic tomato or munching a handful of locally grown lettuce doesn’t usually make me feel particularly connected to anything (except, perhaps, my grocery bill). But at the Common Ground Fair, it’s possible for an outsider like me to observe the community that has grown up around the organic movement. Despite the fact that some 60,000 visitors pass through the gates, the vibe is somewhere between a neighborhood block party and a music festival. People are friendly and kind. Kids play freely without parents hovering too closely. Fairgoers nod at each other, loose gestures of welcome.

“I think the most joyful element of the fair is seeing so many different people from so many walks of life finding something that resonates with them,” says April Boucher, who serves as the fair director for MOFGA. “There are so many people, both people who come to the fair and people who have exhibits and booths, who come every single year. It’s a reunion for them. It’s something folks can look forward to at the end of the growing season.”

For farmers, the fair provides a place where they can talk shop, swapping tips and trading stories about the summer’s work. But it’s also a time when people can let loose and relax. Our position toward the top of the globe means Maine has an extremely short growing season. Plants bolt easily.

Fruit ripens, and then rots, on the vine. Throughout the summer, Maine’s farmers are on constant alert, ready to plant, tend, weed, and harvest at exactly the right times. It takes a lot of effort to make farming work in Maine, so when September rolls around, many farmers feel a sense of fulfillment. Their work isn’t done, but they can slacken the pace a little. They can take a weekend to unwind, and in the swiftly descending twilight of late September, that’s exactly what they do.

This also explains why the Common Ground Fair involves such an abundant variety of elements, from foot races to composting demonstrations. It’s not simply a demonstration of rural living. It’s also a celebration of it. As Boucher says, “People don’t celebrate without dancing, music, or a big, amazing feast.” Some people celebrate by giving their time and labor to MOFGA. “We couldn’t do any of it without the volunteers,” Boucher notes. “We have over 2,300 shift volunteers and over 290 volunteers in leadership positions. They coordinate in all different areas, from folk art to livestock. The staff works hard, too, but the volunteers are a grassroots movement.”

As the final day of the Common Ground Fair winds down, I find myself exhausted and sunburned. I’ve eaten bowls of greens prepared by the self-styled Salad Cowboys and tasted locally produced Heiwa Tofu, fried and served with a pungent garlic sauce. I have chicken feathers in my shoes and a blister on one foot from attempting to contra-dance (it’s harder than it looks).

I also leave the fair with a renewed sense of purpose. I’m not just reporting an article; I’m participating in a global movement. The enthusiasm for rural living—and for organic growing—is infectious. It’s also deeply hopeful. “There are many things we need to do to offset climate change, to preserve our natural world,” Quaday says. “But by promoting organic living, we can help people change and help protect the land we live on.”

Although it’s just one weekend out of the year, the fair somehow exerts a stronger pull than my years and years of dreaming about little houses and big prairies. Maybe it’s because it’s real. From the soil to the music-filled sky, this is real Maine.