40th Anniversary Farm Visits & Grower Profiles
Celebrating the intelligence, integrity, and spirit of ingenuity of Johnny's core customers.
by Lynn Byczynski
Our first 40th-Anniversary Grower Profile highlights the work of Daniel Price and Ginger Dermott, owners of Freedom Farm, in Freedom, Maine. They share with us their expertise in growing chilies and sweet peppers, some insights into how they've developed their distribution channels, and their advice to aspiring growers.
In 2005, Daniel and Ginger began their first growing season at Freedom Farm, cultivating a little under 5 acres of vegetables. They sold at nine farmers markets, seven days a week. Last season, just eight years later, Daniel and Ginger grew 15 acres of certified-organic vegetables that they sold at just two markets, a small grocery store chain and a few select restaurants.
By strategically focusing on their most profitable markets and developing certain signature crops, Ginger and Daniel had managed to scale up production while scaling back marketing. They additionally planned multiple successions of a wide range of vegetables, to enable them to offer a diverse selection throughout their marketing season, which runs from early May to Thanksgiving at the farmers' market, and nearly all winter to the grocery stores.
"We try to keep a balanced mix of vegetables, and there are things that we rely on as big cash crops and big market draws," Daniel says.
Peppers are one of those crops that pull in customers to their farmer's market stand — enticed by the sweet fragrance of roasting chilies.
"Five years ago, we were in New Mexico and Arizona, visiting friends, and saw barrel roasters that would be used during chilie season," Daniel recounts. "We've always been big fans of that style of food. So we decided to go for it, and ordered a roaster and grew a thousand chile pepper plants, plus a number of sweet roasting peppers. It's become a big thing for us. People really like it — either they have never seen it before or they're from the Southwest and it brings tears to their eyes to find roasted peppers in Maine."
They roast only peppers that have already been purchased by customers, requiring a minimum of 5 pounds. Some Saturdays, they sell 100 pounds of peppers for roasting at the Portland Farmers Market. At the Common Ground Country Fair, an annual fall event sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Daniel and Ginger sell roasted peppers in 1-pound bags. The peppers have proved so popular that they now have a second pepper roaster, one at each entrance to the fair.
Growing peppers in their cool climate requires some special attention. They start in mid to late March, germinating the seeds in two rounds, so that everything can get started on the heat mat. When the seedlings have their first set of true leaves, they move them up into 4-inch pots. After 10-12 weeks in the greenhouse, around the beginning of June, they transplant them outside on black plastic mulch. They cover the pepper beds with AG-19 row cover on hoops, which they leave on for two to three weeks, until the weather gets reliably warm. Those practices usually give them a bumper crop.
Melons are another signature crop for Freedom Farm, and they grow several kinds, again using plastic mulch and row cover to keep them warm after transplanting. They manage to grow head lettuce, salad turnips, broccoli, and radishes all season, through careful variety selection for the varying weather conditions. They grow onions, carrots, and beets all season, with one big crop in fall to put into storage and sell throughout the winter. Last year, they sold carrots until March.
Although they have high tunnels, they use them to get an early start in spring, rather than producing greens throughout the winter. The past two summers, they planted ginger from Hawai'i in their hoophouses, which, rather to their surprise, has proven to be enormously popular with their customers. Last September, at the Common Ground Country Fair, they sold 350 pounds in three days. One of their 800-square-foot hoophouses yielded 10 pounds for every one pound planted, and although the other was less productive, it still produced about 6:1.
"That seems like it's going to become an important niche product for us," Daniel says.
Given so much variety, Freedom Farm is able to put on a bountiful and colorful display at the Portland Farmers' Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. One of their conversation starters is a table of misshapen carrots that are not for sale, only for barter. Customers bring all kinds of crazy things to barter, or offer artwork, songs, poems, and jokes. It's a small thing, but it keeps the stand lively.
Freedom Farm has experimented with Community Supported Agriculture, eventually settling on a variation in which customers buy $100 shares that can be spent at the farmers markets. A 10% return is automatically added to each share, meaning $100 buys $110 worth of food. "It's worked out well for us, and it's a lot more flexible for the customer," Daniel says.
Their other distribution channels are the Rosemont Markets, with several retail outlets, and the Rosemont Produce Company in Portland, a wholesale distributor to restaurants and food service accounts. The company is able to take larger quantities because of its multiple outlets. Freedom Farm can deliver on Wednesdays, on their way to farmers market.
Because they have to go to the city only two days a week, Daniel and Ginger have more time back on the farm for work and family life. They are committed to organic practices and are certified by MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association), an organization they enthusiastically support. They recently added a team of draft horses to the farm, when a long-time farmhand returned to them after working at a horse-powered farm elsewhere. The horses have been a great addition for certain tasks such as cultivating, but the farmers don't plan to abandon tractor power. Daniel sees the two as complementary on a mixed vegetable farm. Having the horses has caused him to change his cropping system, though, as he finds it's more efficient to spread out and grow more crops in single rows rather than beds.
Like all farmers, Daniel and Ginger have to deliberately seek balance between work and family, especially in summer, when the work is never done. They have two children, ages 13 and 4. "Farming has a lot to do with creating and providing a certain quality of life for our family," Daniel says. "There are times when it's easy to lose sight of that and just work, work, work all the time. We consciously try to step out of that and remember why we're farming. This last season, we started to say to ourselves that we've got to have a cut-off time every day. And we need to go camping."
Trends and Advice
Daniel said that when he moved to Freedom in 2004, he never expected to need more than 5 acres of land for vegetables. But demand for local food has been steadily increasing, and Freedom Farm has grown in response — a trend that he expects will continue.
"I think that as people are squeezed financially and with fuel becoming more expensive, local food is going to become even more of a necessity," he says. "And we're going to need a lot more people to grow it as well."
To those who aspire to become farmers, he advises: "You have to be a little bit of a gambler, and taking educated risks is pretty important. It's hard to get started in this slowly, so the quicker you can do it, the better. It's tough to take on debt, but farmers have been doing it for generations, and it's almost a necessity."
- To learn more about Freedom Farm and the crops they grow and market, visit Freedom Farm's website.
- Images reproduced with permission from Freedom Farm. All rights reserved.
- Browse all Johnny's 40th Anniversary Farm Visits & Grower Profiles.