Cultivating Turner Farm's riches of land at sea.
The fields are green and gold, unfurling from beneath a modern timber-frame barn toward the shores of the Fox Islands Thorofare. An iconic New England stone wall climbs and dips across the land, where Native Americans lived more than 6,000 years ago. In a nearby hoop house, we find rows of fragrant basil and stands of showy tomatoes, many of which are bound for local markets and this evening’s barn supper. More than 200 years after the Thomas family established roots here on North Haven’s Fish Point, their agricultural legacy lives on, thanks to those who now till the soil, tend the hearth, and champion sustainability at Turner Farm.
One of only 15 year-round islands off the coast of Maine, North Haven is located 12 miles out to sea. Those who wish to go there must plan their journeys in advance. Last year, on a visit to North Haven artist Eric Hopkins, we departed from the Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head, and jaunted efficiently over the ocean in a tiny charter plane piloted by Penobscot Island Air. Today’s vessel of choice is the Captain Neal Burgess, a state-run ferry that travels between Rockland and North Haven three times a day. My traveling companion is the former publisher of Maine magazine, Kevin Thomas. Originally from landlocked Aroostook County, where both of his grandfathers were farmers, he is intrigued by Turner Farm’s offshore enterprise. After an hour on the boat, we near our destination and see North Haven’s sister island, Vinalhaven, across the thoroughfare. Like fraternal twins, these landmasses, which were once called the Fox Islands, are as different as they are alike—the former known for its forest-ringed fields, the latter for its granite quarries.
Hannah and Cecily Pingree are waiting at the landing for the Captain Neal Burgess. Both graduates of the North Haven Community School (the smallest K-12 public school in the state of Maine, with 70 students), these siblings returned to their hometown after several years spent pursuing passions in other parts of the country. A documentary filmmaker, Cecily is also the owner of Calderwood Hall, a restaurant, market, and bakery located across from the ferry landing. Built in 1908, the space served as a dance hall, basketball court, and movie theater (among other things) before reopening in its current capacity in 2014. A yeasty pizza aroma escapes from the open kitchen, tantalizing those who stop in for a North Haven Brewing Company beer or shop the market for produce and dairy goods—much of which comes from Turner Farm.
Hannah also works with food as business manager for Turner Farm and Nebo Lodge. A historic inn with nine guest rooms and a restaurant, Nebo Lodge was purchased and renovated by Chellie Pingree (mother of Cecily and Hannah) in 2005. It has become a popular destination for locavores. A chalkboard on the restaurant’s wall describes the “Island Harvest”— microgreens, garlic, edible flowers, fromage blanc, and lobsters—that will form the basis for the evening’s menu. The restaurant’s cook (she does not like to be called a chef ) is North Haven native Amanda Hallowell, who has been at Nebo Lodge since it opened. Hallowell and her team have been lauded by national publications such as Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, and Travel and Leisure. Vases filled with dahlias, zinnias, and other late-summer blooms are a colorful contrast to the white-painted wainscoting. Both Nebo Lodge and Turner Farm are known for their flowers, which have been carefully arranged by innkeeper and gardener Pam Mountain. Modern, nature-themed rugs designed by Angela Adams, who was also raised on North Haven, adorn the wood floors.
“It’s a joint social-business mission,” Hannah says of Nebo Lodge and Turner Farm. “We believe it enhances community sustainability. You have a place to eat or buy food, and it also has provided people with employment.” After graduating from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, with a degree in political science, Hannah served four terms in the Maine Legislature, most recently as speaker of the House. A mother of two, she continues to be active politically, serving on the North Haven school board and numerous committees that support the 355 individuals who live on the island year-round, as well as the 1,500 summer residents. “We all are in this together,” says Hannah. “We rely on each other.”
Hannah is proud of her mother, who (along with then-husband Donald Sussman) bought and began revitalizing Turner Farm in 2008. Previously a state senator, Chellie now represents Maine’s first district in Washington. Elected the same year she bought Turner Farm, Chellie has served on the House Committee on Agriculture and the Appropriations Committee’s agriculture subcommittee. “She is one of the most involved members of Congress regarding food and farm policy,” says Hannah. “When she’s not in Congress, she figures out how we can make this farm work.”
Chellie is having lunch with us—tomato and mozzarella sandwiches on homemade bread, from Calderwood Hall—but first excuses herself to take a phone call from the secretary of the U.S. Navy. She soon returns, and is more interested in hearing about my companion’s experience with family farms than in talking about herself. Originally from Minnesota, Chellie came to Maine (by way of Massachusetts) in 1971, following in the footsteps of back-to-the- landers Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of Living the Good Life. Her Scandinavian grandparents had been farmers, and Chellie would go on to study with organic farming expert Eliot Coleman—himself a member of the back-to-the-land movement—at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Hannah was born while Chellie was still a student. After graduating with a degree in human ecology, Chellie moved to North Haven, where she farmed on rented land while raising Hannah, Cecily, and her son, Asa. Capitalizing on wool from her farm’s sheep, she founded the mail-order company North Island Yarn in 1981. At one time, her business provided knitting kits and other products to more than 1,200 accounts around the country. “In a state like Maine, there aren’t multiple big employers in every small town,” says Chellie. “It’s a very rural economy. You become a businessperson in a backwards way. You learn as you go. You’re always trying to figure out ‘How do I add value to this product or income for my family?’”
The land on North Haven’s southern shore has a history of inhabitants stretching back several millennia. Archeologist Dr. Bruce J. Bourque and his colleagues did excavations between 1971 and 1980 and found that the site had been occupied multiple times beginning 6,000 years ago. A Native American group known as the Red Paint People established a village there around 5,000 years ago and hunted swordfish from this location. Centuries later, Samuel and Mary Cushing Thomas of Marshfield, Massachusetts, settled the area. It remained in that family for six generations, taking its name from a man who married into their clan. By the time Chellie and Donald Sussman bought Turner Farm in 2008, the land was being used as a summer estate. Its 200 acres had not been cleared for many years and required extensive restoration. “It’s the biggest farm I’ve ever had the chance to run and the most serious operation,” says Chellie. As we drive onto the farm’s property, we pass through a wooded area and a pen where several large pigs are snuffling at the ground. Behind the barn, a cow chews a mouthful of grass as her companions doze in the midday sun. These placid bovines supply the milk for the farm’s North Island Creamery, which specializes in fresh artisan cow cheeses, yogurt, and raw milk. Turner Farm also sells pasture- raised beef, pork, and eggs. “Everybody who farms knows that it’s not easy to make a living,” says Chellie. “Our season is very short. You have to pay for the infrastructure year-round. So we’re constantly trying to look for the right way to go about doing it.” Turner Farm’s vegetables, flowers, and herbs are certified organic through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. There are eight greenhouses on the property.
The twice-weekly farm stand is finishing up for the day. We peek inside the majestic cupola-topped 40- by 60-foot barn, which was built by Houses and Barns by John Libby in 2009. We hear voices and pots clanging behind a curtain as Hallowell orchestrates the preparations for the upcoming barn dinner. Light filters in through the window, illuminating the few remaining cartons of cherry tomatoes. The island community has been especially welcoming to Turner Farm, not only by visiting its farm stand but also through the farm’s community-supported agriculture program. Turner Farm also supplies mainland stores and restaurants, such as the Good Tern Co-op and Suzuki’s Sushi Bar in Rockland.
The farm managers, Brendan Sinclair and Liesel McCleary, greet us outside the greenhouses. Sinclair and McCleary realized that they shared a mutual love of agriculture while working at the Michigan State University Student Organic Farm in East Lansing. “We met while castrating a pig’s scrotum,” jokes Sinclair. They have worked on farms from Colorado to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and came to Turner Farm in 2015.
In the summer the farm has close to ten staff members, who do everything from weeding the fields to cleaning greens. Turner Farm greens, such as kale and spinach, are staple crops. Inside one of the farm buildings, Sinclair gestures toward a washing-machine-sized piece of equipment that looks like an industrial salad spinner. It is used to rinse large quantities of produce. “On the island, we have an unlimited market in July and August,” says Sinclair. “In September everyone leaves, and we still have all this food we are figuring out how to sell.” Sinclair next points out the boiler that heats three of the greenhouses using wood from fallen trees. In the winter, Sinclair and McCleary (who are often the only farm employees still remaining on the island) wake up several times a night to keep the fires burning. “Farming is a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year job,” says Sinclair.
We follow McCleary into the greenhouses, where she shows us the holy basil that she has been carefully cultivating. We also see a few containers of gingerroot. McCleary is interested in medicinal herbs like these, but they will not likely end up on farm stand shelves. “There is a balance between what we like to grow and what people will buy,” says McCleary. She walks carefully through the rows of flowers, which have been planted in the field just below the greenhouse. Bees dip amidst the nasturtiums; an inquisitive chicken pecks in the soil near the calendula and borage.
Nearby, the doors are open for tonight’s sold-out barn dinner. A few guests have sailed in from nearby Eagle Island; others have taken the charter Equinox out of Rockland. Several will be staying at Nebo Lodge, as we will be. The departing sun splashes a trail of magenta across the water, and we find our seats at one of the long tables that have been set up inside. Strands of lights are suspended like stars from the rafters; the centerpieces are bunches of baby carrots in mason jars. Across from us, a group of young women toast their friend’s birthday with the cocktail of the evening: an Italian spritz made with Aperol, Campari, rosemary, and orange. After greetings from Chellie Pingree, Sinclair, and Hallowell, the family-style dinner begins. We pass platters of blistered shishito peppers and radishes, baba ghanoush, cumin-braised beef, and roasted new potatoes.
By the time we finish our final dish—Maine peach and blueberry crisp with maple- pepita crumble—the moon is high above us, softly lighting the historic fields that sustain this Maine island. A vast ocean surrounds us, but we are grounded in community.