Tomatillos, rainbow carrots, purple-topped turnips, fresh raspberries—“this is stuff you would sell at the organic farmers market,” Erica Berman says, but she and the farmers and volunteers at Veggies to Table are giving it all away. In the last four years, this tiny farm in Newcastle, Maine has grown and donated 44,500 pounds of organic produce (that’s 37,083 meals) to people experiencing food insecurity, food pantries, and schools.
The farm runs on volunteer and farmer power. WWOOFer volunteers (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), such as the Kayla Paton and Erica Berman, live and work at the farm for weeks or months.
Berman’s love affair with Maine began with annual visits during her childhood in Massachusetts. After 20 years in Paris, where she ran a luxury vacation rental company, Berman and her French husband, Alain Ollier, decided to return to the place she knew and loved best. In 2012 they bought a mostly wooded plot on the outskirts of Newcastle. “There was no farm here before, nothing except a field,” Berman says as she walks between rows of deep green kale, pointing out their cold storage unit, a dug pond, and a handsome young rooster strutting amongst the hens.
When they moved to Maine, Berman and Ollier wanted to live a life closer to the land, but they weren’t planning to farm. They got involved with a gleaning program and learned just how profound the issue of food insecurity is in Maine. One in five children doesn’t have access to enough healthy food. Sixteen percent of seniors are food insecure. According to Maine Harvest for Hunger, a UMaine Cooperative Extension program, Maine ranks ninth in the nation for food insecurity. “I’ve always been fortunate enough to have food,” Berman says. “If I’m hungry, I’m grumpy. I just can’t imagine having to live like that. It’s heart breaking.” Families experiencing food insecurity make tough choices. Some will skip breakfast, thin their milk, or buy cheap and unhealthy foods. Others opt to pay the electric bill instead of buying groceries, or forgo getting the medical care they need.
Chef Laura Cabot, an award-winning caterer who helped pioneer Maine’s farm-to-table movement, saw how the pandemic dramatically increased the need for food access. She set out to cook meals for the Waldoboro Pantry. “When I first connected with our local pantry, I was dismayed by the types and quality of items offered. Lots of carb-heavy and sugary offerings, canned goods and lower quality meat-by-products.” She wanted organic vegetables and fresh herbs. Veggies to Table got involved, bringing pantry-goers access to nutrient-dense produce. Cabot reports in a testimonial on the farm’s website, “Now I am confident that the food I am cooking for our community is as nourishing as it needs to be.”
The farm also grows and sells flowers to raise funds. Berman starts listing: calendulas, bachelor buttons, tulips, snap dragons, bells of Ireland, sunflowers. “I think I have probably more than 50 kinds of dahlias and zinnias.” The farm was growing so many flowers they decided to give them away to anyone who needs joy. They’ve delivered free bouquets to healthcare workers, teachers, police, Maine CDC, Togus veterans, and Hannaford and Reny’s employees. When a truckful of dahlias and zinnias arrive unexpectedly it brightens everyone’s day. Berman says, “No one’s been sad to get flowers yet.”
The farm’s veggies and colorful bouquets are trucked around by an important figure on the farm: Blanchette—named by Berman’s French husband, Ollier—is an adorable white ’94 Honda mini-truck that looks like a character from a Pixar film, especially when the bed is bursting with showy blooms of pink dahlias. Berman declares Blanchette the perfect farm truck. “She’s so small and cute and the sides come down.” The truck rides low to the ground, making it easier for volunteers loading crates of produce. She’s also lightweight and doesn’t compress the soil when the crew drives on the land, a helpful feature on this no-till farm.
Veggies to Table has become a place for social connection and community. Over 150 volunteers, ages 8 to 80, do everything from planting seedlings to floral arrangement to grant writing. In the fall, students in IDEAL, an alternative education program at Lincoln Academy, come in once a week to help weed, mulch, harvest, and even handpress apple cider. Even with lots of helpers, Berman’s schedule is chock-full from 4 a.m. to well-past dark. There’s a lot of work to do, but she offers a helpful reminder, “Life goes by fast and it’s better to do something meaningful.”