Growing Food, Love, and Community
Friends of Aroostook and Dale Flewelling harvest farm fresh produce for Mainers in need
On an early Friday morning in August when most of my Portland neighbors were sipping their first morning coffee, I was hunched over a Northern Maine potato field helping to harvest potatoes to feed the hungry. Plucking red potatoes from the rich soil, I worked alongside local volunteers for Friends of Aroostook (FOA). Depending on the day, the group might include people from Meals on Wheels, incoming freshmen from Bates and Bowdoin colleges, local high school students, members of the U.S. Border Patrol Explorers (a national program for teens), or minimum security inmates from the Aroostook County Jail, among others. Founded by Houlton native Dale Flewelling, FOA harvests close to 120,000 pounds of fresh vegetables annually on nearly 45 acres of donated and inexpensively leased farmland. The produce is delivered to 16 food pantries in Aroostook County, soup kitchens, and other organizations that serve seniors and families in need, including Good Shepherd Food Bank’s Mainers Feeding Mainers program and the Aroostook and Eastern Area Agencies on Aging Meals on Wheels. FOA feeds the hungry by augmenting the cans and boxes of food that come from food pantries with healthy produce grown, gathered, and delivered with love, respect, and commitment.
A serendipitous phone call prompted Flewelling to found FOA 12 years ago. A Portland-based community agency called the Empowering Life Center in Houlton (where Flewelling’s wife, Lois, is founder and president) on behalf of a farmer, Leo McAvoy, who was located less than an hour down the road in Benedicta. McAvoy was willing to donate several acres of corn to anyone who could manage the harvest. After recruiting five volunteers, Flewelling harvested 3,600 ears of corn in two days and donated everything to Aroostook area food pantries. “That was a red flag for us,” Flewelling says. “Why was a Portland agency calling Houlton to connect us with a farm in nearby Benedicta? We realized we needed to do a better job connecting food with people in the state who needed it.” Over the years, FOA’s reach has extended to a radius of 130 miles from Houlton. “We help many homebound seniors who receive fresh produce, which once was not available to them,” Flewelling says.
According to FeedingAmerica.org, nearly 5 million senior citizens currently face hunger in our country. After a lifetime of hard work, 63 percent of households with older adults (50+) face an impossible choice—to buy groceries or pay for medical care. And as the baby boom generation ages, the number of seniors facing hunger is only expected to increase. Maine has 172,650 people who struggle every day with hunger, and 45,000 are seniors who experience food insecurity—one out of every four along with another 56,000 who face the threat of hunger. Aroostook County is one of Maine’s oldest counties, with 17 percent of its population over 65. In this rural, remote part of the state, 17.5 percent of the population lives in poverty. Potatoes are the primary agricultural product, but far fewer of them are harvested here than in the 1940s, when Aroostook County potatoes made Maine the nation’s top producer.
While scooping up a half dozen potatoes at a time and dropping them into large plastic pails for the younger guys to carry over to the trailer, I meet Laurice Gras-Bell, who grew up with Flewelling and serves on the FOA board; June Smarr, who began helping harvest six years ago along with three of her sons, Nathan, Jacob, and Matthew; and David Gardner, from Presque Isle, a volunteer for the Aroostook Agency on Aging Meals on Wheels. Smarr remembers harvesting potatoes as a child during a three-week break from school, an Aroostook County practice for decades. “It’s hard work. We’d be in the field by 7:00 and finish by 5:30 every day. We used to pray for rain,” she says with a laugh. The work isn’t any easier today. Volunteers—who plant and weed as well as harvest—get involved because Flewelling is an energetic and talented recruiter. He’s always looking for seniors and families in need—and finding ways to get fresh food to them. “I’m an extrovert, so if you don’t come to me, I’ll come to you,” Flewelling says.
At 69, Flewelling is a classic, cinema-verité version of a native Mainer who has lived a good life: rugged and outdoorsy with a firm handshake, and a genuine, warm smile. He’s engaging with seemingly limitless energy and an old-school courteousness. He also has three children and seven grandchildren, and will be the first to tell you that he “married up” with Lois. Flewelling and his siblings grew up in Maine’s northernmost county, bordered by Canada to the east, west, and north. Aroostook County is larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, and major crops include broccoli, potatoes, hay, and small grain rotation crops. With one older sister, one younger sister, and two younger brothers, Flewelling became the man of his house when his father abandoned the family when he was 15 and his youngest sister was only a year old. He describes his mother as a woman with indefatigable energy. “She worked in a french fry factory and also in a chicken factory, among other jobs,” he says. “Our mother showed us the value of hard work, but she also found a way to make us feel that we were the center of her world.”
The center of Flewelling’s world now is his family but also his community, which he has served as a town councilor, and as a member of the planning board and the school board. For 32 years, he operated Dale’s Transmission Service in Houlton; when it opened in 1978 it was the only transmission service north of Bangor. “In rural Maine, folks often sacrifice to have their car repaired,” says Flewelling. “These people sustained me for 32 years so I could retire early. Now I’m on a personal mission to give back to those who gave to me.”
Flewelling’s story found its way to AARP Maine, whose state director, Lori Parham, commissioned a short film in 2014 about FOA, titled “With Friends Like These.” In the film, Parham calls hunger among Maine seniors “a silent epidemic” as she harvests bush beans in one of FOA’s fields. “They’re proud; many never thought they’d find themselves in a position of going hungry,” she says. “They don’t know what resources are available and how to access them. We’re hoping through programs like this we can start to get fresh produce to people who need it.” In 2015, AARP Maine gave Flewelling its annual Andrus Award for his extraordinary efforts to improve the lives of others. Named for AARP founder Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, it is the organization’s most prestigious award.
When asked what FOA’s current dream for the future might be, Flewelling says, “Our greatest need is to purchase a local farm and build a proper storage facility. Farm ownership would bring longevity to Friends of Aroostook, and if we can get help to fund a property purchase, we can focus on increasing amounts of fresh produce for more of Maine’s residents who are food insecure.” FOA has already received financial support from Machias Savings Bank, which provided a grant for the construction of a greenhouse where Flewelling grows fruit, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, which matches FOA’s seed purchases dollar for dollar, along with a number of nonprofits and foundations. There’s no doubt that given Flewelling’s drive and charisma, his dream of a farm will eventually become a reality.
From her perspective at AARP Maine, Parham sees him as an example of selflessness and spirit for the entire state. “Maine is typically ranked among the top food-insecure states in New England,” she says. “But Dale puts his heart and soul into taking care of many without hope. He gets up early every morning to feed the hungry in Aroostook, Washington, and Penobscot counties. Dale loves his community and it’s reflected in the results of his work.” To quote the famous champion of farm workers, Cesar Chavez, “The people who give you their food give you their heart.”