Plowing New Ground

Farmers, lawyers, and environmentalists team up to create new farm protections.

Several two-lane blacktop roads wind through the small towns of Alna, Whitefield, and Windsor along some of Maine’s most attractive and productive farmlands. You might decide to explore these byways for no other reason than to enjoy an unforgettable farm-fresh meal at Sheepscot General in North Whitefield. My destination, however, is a half-mile farther down the road: a small sheep and goat farm, Fuzzy Udder Creamery, where I am to meet the proprietor, Jessie Dowling.

Dowling, 35, is dressed in a brown hoodie and Carhartt bib overalls. She greets me at the door of the creamery, located in a hay- filled shed attached to her white-clapboard farmhouse. Her 19 goats and 22 sheep have been dropping babies at a prodigious rate, with either 54 or 55 newborn kids and lambs having arrived in the past week—Dowling has lost exact count in the blur of birthing. At this time of year, “I don’t leave the barn for more than five hours at a time,” she says. Before taking me through the birthing pens, Dowling wrestles an all-white, roguish Great Pyrenees dog named Falkor into a separate pen in the barn. Because his role is to keep coyotes away from the sheep and goats when they are out to pasture, Dowling does not encourage Falkor to become friendly with visitors.

I first heard of Fuzzy Udder Creamery from Sean Mahoney, a one-time Verrill Dana lawyer who left his private practice of environmental law to lead the Maine office of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) in Portland. For the past two years, Mahoney has worked with other CLF lawyers and staff throughout New England to launch Legal Food Hubs in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. The rationale behind these ventures is simple: farmers are among the most numerous small business people in New England and face a thicket of legal issues, but they are usually the least able to afford legal advice. At the same time, Mahoney knew that many law firms sponsor impressive pro bono legal programs to represent clients who cannot pay for their services. Mahoney and his colleagues wondered if CLF might serve as a hub to bring farmers and lawyers together to solve problems and help support Maine’s farm resurgence.

CLF staff spent a year researching farmers’ needs, which run the gamut from filing for trademarks to such persistent issues as acquiring licenses, negotiating real estate transactions, and drafting estate plans. Farmers, who are occasionally at odds with environmentalists, were receptive, and CLF staff were gratified at how readily lawyers signed up—45 law firms in Maine are currently participating in the network, and their lawyers have brought closure to 87 cases since launching in May 2015.

Jessie Dowling is not your typical Maine farmer. Raised in Washington, D.C., Dowling attended Hyde School in Bath, a boarding school rooted in character development. She majored in cultural anthropology at Scripps College in Claremont, California, and earned a master’s degree in food policy from City University in London, before returning to the nation’s capital. There, Dowling worked with a coalition of nonprofits to advance a farm bill grounded in community food security, “but at the end of the day, nothing happened,” she says. She decided to return to Maine after Congress failed to act. “I got into farming because I could have a direct impact—growing food, taking care of the land, and creating a healthy environment—doing things that were good for the land and good for people where I could make a difference.”

In 2007, Dowling began apprenticing at Appleton Creamery, one of Maine’s first successful goat cheese purveyors, run by Caitlin Owen Hunter. Dowling began her own creamery business in 2011. The Fuzzy Udder was initially located in Unity. In 2013, she put the financing together to purchase a four-acre farm and moved her creamery to North Whitefield, where she has been located for the past four years. With legal advice from Leslie Lowry at Jensen Baird Gardner and Henry in Portland, with whom she connected through the Legal Food Hub, Dowling is in the process of negotiating the acquisition of a nearby 67-acre farm property that will enable her to substantially increase her flocks and production. “I love lawyers,” Dowling says, “especially when they are working pro-bono.”

Lowry is part of a medium-sized, diverse- practice law firm with 21 lawyers. He and another partner, Mike Quinlan, signed up with the project after meeting the CLF staff attorney, Ben Tettlebaum, whom Mahoney hired to organize Maine’s Legal Food Hub. But Lowry credits his wife, Meri Lowry, for sparking his interest in the farm movement in Maine; she is a founder of and investor in No Small Potatoes, a group connected to Slow Money Maine that makes modest, unsecured loans to Maine farmers, fishermen, and food businesses. Now Lowry is helping Dowling draft a purchase and sale agreement on the new farm, including an interim lease while financing is arranged. Once this first step is complete, Lowry expects to help Dowling design the ownership structure going forward.

After describing the reams of paperwork she has filled out to support the multiple creative mortgage arrangements underway, Dowling takes me out the back door of the barn to a converted greenhouse. We enter a cozy space piled high with rolls of hay, where her sheep and new lambs are feeding and ruminating. The goats are in another part of the barn near the milking shed. “That’s Sandpiper, there’s Magpie, Nightingale, Bobolink, Pipit, Junco, Vireo,” Dowling says, pointing each one out, proud as a parent. The sheep have imaginative names, too, including Lady Gaga and Tina Turner, a ewe waiting to lamb. Before Dowling drives me over to her larger farm-in-the- works, she says her goal is to upgrade her farm and stock each year. This year she doubled the size of her herd and will be milking 19 does (female goats) and 24 ewes. With its yearlings, bucks, rams, lambs, and kids, her flock now exceeds 70 animals. Her business plan calls for her to be milking 56 animals by 2019.

For all of her hard work and ingenuity, Dowling is clear-eyed about the challenges ahead. “No one makes money farming,” she says; after six years in business, she expects to be able to pay herself for the first time this year. “Luckily people love what I am doing and are helping,” she adds. To get by, Dowling is deeply involved in the local farms’ bartering economy. When we arrived, an arborist, one of her tenants at the farmhouse, had just dropped off a load of firewood in the dooryard, and later we stir some traded local honey into a cup of tea when we sit down with her during her only break in the day.

Dowling also manages to be active in farm policy and advocacy, but not by “hanging out in some office on Capitol Hill.” A bumper sticker on the back of her vehicle has a succinct statement about her view of the state of commercial farming, with a four- letter expletive addressed to Monsanto. The new president of the Maine Cheese Guild, Dowling says there are now 86 licensed creameries in Maine with 23 more in the pipeline. The guild members meet 10 times a year at different farms, plan workshops, and organize an annual festival to promote Maine cheese brands. Dowling acknowledges that all her work to scale up her two farms might not pay off; she is a mix of idealist and realist. She believes deeply in what she is doing to help create a more sustainable and environmentally sensible food economy, but she also knows that “sometimes the world doesn’t make sense.”

A few days later, I head across the river and through the woods to another Legal Food Hub farm project, White’s Farm is a free-range pig farm run by Stuart White and his partner, Yasmin Kuhn. I turn into the dooryard of the farm, where Kuhn greets me while White finishes feeding the pigs and putting the tractor in its shed. White, dressed in a red flannel shirt and felt hat with his hair spilling out, invites me into the barn. It’s warmed by a large barrel stove that White feeds with hardwood slabs from his sawmill, one of his side ventures.

White tells me that the farm has been in the family for around three centuries, or “since day one,” he says proudly. The trim farmhouse next door, where White’s mother lives, was built in 1833. Stuart White has worked on the farm since 1973, when he arrived to help his grandfather, who was then a dairy farmer. “I wanted to stay in the dairy business, but I needed $150,000 to upgrade, and wasn’t going to lose the farm just to milk cows,” White says. So he and his father switched to raising hay, then beef, then pigs, “but then we got out because meat was so cheap.” White went to work building houses, which transitioned into building furniture; he later settled into turning bowls on a lathe from tree burls.

In 2008, White said to himself, “People always have to eat,” so he went back to raising pigs and growing garden crops. “There was no money in gardens, so we decided to concentrate on pigs.” Summarizing the past 45 years of his life, White concludes, “If you are a farmer, you’re poor.”

I ask White, why pigs? “I like pigs,” he replies. “I like talking to pigs. I like learning from pigs. I like being around them. Pigs are so much easier than people. They don’t tell lies,” and then quickly adds, “but they will steal food.” Then, pointing to Kuhn, he says, “I used to holler and bellow when the pigs didn’t do what I wanted. But Yasmin taught me not to raise my voice. You trick them into thinking they are in charge.” White and Kuhn have recently collaborated on producing value-added meat products, including salami, pepperoni, and chorizo. “People started making salami 4,000 years ago,” White tells me, “so if you properly control the moisture, temperature, and pH, and add the right spices, there are no problems.”

White retrieves a package of the farm’s packaged salami, which he slices on a homemade black cherry cutting board and serves to Kuhn and myself. Kuhn points out that pigs are root vegetable feeders. White’s Farm receives a truckload—11 tons—of leftover potatoes from the Penobscot McCrum potato factory in Belfast each week, which White and Kuhn feed their pigs. “Corn kills pigs,” says Kuhn. “The corn has so much sugar, it rots their teeth, which is why they slaughter them at four to five months on big pig farms.” Because White and Kuhn do not feed their pigs corn, their salami is exceptionally lean—almost 99 percent meat, with very little fat, which makes up about half of typical salami. They truly have produced a premium product, which tastes fabulous.

White is working with Paige Streeter at Libby, O’Brien, Kingsley, and Champion in Kennebunk to create a limited liability company for his salami business. Streeter, who has been practicing for four years since graduating from University of Maine Law School, says the company structure will help White protect personal assets, such as the farm as he diversifies into entrepreneurial enterprises. A pig farm has liabilities; White recalls a pig getting loose and narrowly avoiding a car that came barreling over the hill. A collision could have endangered the farm if there had been a lawsuit. “I have done things on my own,” he says, “and it doesn’t take much to piss me off.” But then he adds more encouragingly that their value-added salami business is gaining real traction. “Yasmin is a tremendous sales person,” and their salami sells in food shops from Bar Harbor and Belfast to Boston. When White expresses his admiration for his pigs’ “strong personalities,” you have a sense that he is a farmer who has found his calling. “I’ll do this till I die,” he says.

Farmers, lawyers, and environmentalists have not always been in synch, but through the innovative Legal Food Hub, they have teamed up and are working to secure the future of sustainable agriculture in Maine.