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May/June 2008 Cover


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Good Returns

Photos by Michael Mardosa


Good Returns
Black Bear Food Guild cultivates community-supported agriculture

Good Returns
Hayley Williams and Ellonai Hickok

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Black Bear Food Guild harvests went until mid-October. Among those on hand for the final field cleanup was sustainable agriculture major Stephanie Sosinski, lower right photo, who will conduct this summer's guild with UMaine students David Merrill and David LaMarche. The Black Bear Food Guild, established in 1994, is an initiative of UMaine's Sustainable Agriculture Program, coordinated by Associate Professor Marianne Sarrantonio. UMaine's program was one of the first in the country to offer an undergraduate degree in sustainable agriculture.


In early April, the first of the verdant seedlings were sprouting in a University of Maine greenhouse and in May, the two acres of fields out at the university's Rogers Farm were dry enough to begin planting. The 35 full shares in the Black Bear Food Guild were sold and other subscribers hoping to be part of the summer's community-supported agriculture project had to be turned away.

All was going according to plan, based on the fundamentals of sustainable agriculture. But looking out over the tilled fields, not a green shoot in sight, the guild's student manager Hayley Williams was feeling the pressure.
Then the new potatoes started coming up.

"In the greenhouse, it seemed hypothetical," says Williams. "(The first signs of growth in the field) made it all feel a lot more real."

Williams had just finished her sophomore year, and Britta Jinson and Elonnai Hickok their first year when the three took over operation of the Black Bear Food Guild last summer. The guild's close connection between food producer and consumer drew the sustainable agriculture majors to the project. That connectedness also sustained them through Maine mud and blackfly seasons; the 12-hour summer days, working dawn to dusk; and even the one major crop failure early tomatoes to blossom end rot.

"It was very challenging and very fulfilling," says Hickok. "It's really hard work and stressful because you don't have control over the outcome. If a field fails, you have to take it as it comes.

"I learned perseverance and teamwork," Hickok says. "And I gained a greater understanding and respect for the whole process of farming."

From June to October, the guild supplied subscribers twice a week with fresh, organically grown produce ranging from salad greens and radishes to winter squash. At the height of the growing season and harvest, nearly 700 pounds of produce a week was available. The guild also donated to the Plant a Row for the Hungry program, coordinated in the state by University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

"The interaction with members made us really proud of the work we did," Williams says. "We learned that they didn't just want fresh vegetables, but a program condoning local values and interconnectedness.

"It was one of the most intense experiences of my life. We were working so hard and had so much self-responsibility. The time just flew by. It was completely overwhelming and life-changing."

by Margaret Nagle
May-June, 2008

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