Seeding A Dream: Sheepscot General Store & Uncas Farm

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Chelsea Community Kitchen is thrilled to present the Michigan premiere of the documentary Growing Local. See here for more details about the presentation. We’re equally delighted to share this information about one of the vignettes in the film and the two farmers who are following their dream. Taryn is a Chelsea High School graduate.

Sheepscot General Store & Uncas Farm is a famously fertile piece of land in Whitefield, Maine, that had produced food for centuries—and once boasted its own store—had been protected with an agricultural easement, ensuring that it could never be developed into house lots; but there was no guarantee that it would ever be actively farmed again. With the financial help of the landowner, young farmers Ben and Taryn Marcus revitalize the farm and transform the store into a thriving community food hub; yet they live with little security to show for all their toil.

They are among the farmers featured in “Growing Local,” a film about the struggle of Maine’s local food movement to remain viable. The film premiered at the Camden Film Festival in September 2014 and has won numerous awards across the country.

The film was developed by Seedlight Pictures in partnership with the Maine Farm Land Trust to highlight the problems encountered by the farmers driving the local food movement, which is striving to create a locally based self-sufficient food supply. The primary issues facing the local food movement are financial barriers, access to land, and consumer awareness of the importance of buying locally grown produce, Ellen Sabina, outreach director for Maine Farm Land Trust, said.

“We wanted to make this movie because there are a lot of issues being experienced by local farmers,” Sabina said. “We wanted to zero in on those issues so that people know the local food movement isn’t a sure thing. These issues need to be addressed so that it stays around.”

According to Sabina, the Marcuses were approached to be a part of the film because of their contributions to the local food movement and, also, because they lease their land.

“The Marcuses are a great source of energy in Whitefield,” Sabina said. “They’ve done tremendous work at reviving the farming community there and they’re doing it all on land and with facilities that they don’t own.”

The financial barriers involved in acquiring and developing land are a major obstacle for the younger generation interested in agriculture, Ben Marcus said. He credits the support of his landlord and the Whitefield community with the success experienced by the Sheepscot General Farm and Store, located at 98 Townhouse Rd. on land that was formerly the Uncas Farm.

Ben and Taryn Marcus settled in Whitefield, where Ben was raised, in 2009. The Uncas Farm, established in 1969 by Whitefield resident Austin Moore, had always been a vibrant community center with a general store, Ben said.

After a series of land transfers and unreliable tenants, however, the store had closed and the land was fallow when Ben Marcus returned to town.

Informal conversations with the current landowner, Dan Ridgell, resulted in a formal business relationship. The Marcuses signed a lease with Ridgell in 2010, secured a loan to remodel the store and prepare the land, and opened the Sheepscot General Farm and Store in 2011.

Sheepscot General is currently one of the only organic strawberry farms in Maine. The Marcuses were honored with the Cooperating Conservation Farm of the Year Award by the Knox-Lincoln Soil Conservation District in November because of the contributions they have made to agriculture.

“We have a shared vision,” Ben Marcus said about his landlord. “Our situation is an anomaly.”

The Marcuses success at Sheepscot General would not have been possible in another area, Ben Marcus said, due to the costs associated with entering into agriculture and the difficulty in turning a profit.

“Essentially farming comes down to sweat equity, your physical labor and time,” Marcus said. “The realities of financing and getting what you deserve in sweat equity are some of the biggest issues facing new farmers.”

The dramatic increase in the cost of land is a barrier new farmers face even when attempting to purchase land designated for agricultural use through land trusts, Marcus said. Austin Moore purchased the 180 acres that became known as Uncas Farm on Townhouse Road in 1969 for $27,000, Moore said. In 2004, Dan Ridgell purchased the land for $650,000.

“Most kids out of college have no collateral,” Marcus said. “They have no way to secure financing. It’s preventing a lot of people my generation from getting into it (farming).”

“There’s a real need for capital in the farm and local food business,” Sabina said. “Farmers are having a real problem accessing capital to grow their businesses.”

“Growing Local” highlights the issues preventing the growth of the local food movement through three vignettes. The Marcuses story is featured in the segment “Seeding the Dream.”

Sabina said that she hopes the film sparks conversations and discussions about the local food movement.

 

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