If you are looking for a terrific example of what it takes to run a successful organic farm these days, you should meet Garin and Sarah Smith. As Sarah will tell you, “Our success is partially due to the fact that we make a great team. We’re not getting rich—you don’t go into farming for that—but we pay our bills. We feel fortunate because we’re happy and we’re productive members of our community.”
Non-farmers have an idealistic view of farming as “the simple life,” Sarah says, “and it is, sort of, but it’s also extremely busy and chaotic. We work harder than anyone I’ve ever met. We work from sunup ‘til we fall into bed at night. But I wouldn’t want to sit in an office all day and ship my kids off to daycare. Other people have a lot more than we do and they’re not happy. This is our life. It is what it is and we pretty much do it smiling.”
While Sarah comes from a farming background, she did not grow up on the farm due to a parental split. It was not until she was in college that she sought the peace of her father’s farm during summer vacation. That is the farm that she and Garin own and operate today, since Sarah’s dad retired four years ago.
Garin grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina in a house that had a big yard—big enough for a greenhouse and a vegetable garden, which he worked with his dad. He was into the physical sciences from high school on, particularly ecology. So when he went to Warren Wilson College in North Carolina—where he met Sarah who majored in Biology —he majored in environmental studies with a concentration in sustainable agriculture.
Even before college, Garin worked on vegetable farms near Charlotte. “I liked working outside. It fit my personality well. The first farm I worked on was a six-acre vegetable farm. As a result of that, I haven’t wanted to do anything else since. I almost went to art school instead of college. But I get a lot of gratification from the meditative aspect of farming. To me, it’s living art. We’re part of a living system that we tweak to create this work of art that’s constantly changing.”
Garin’s environmental studies background gears him to work with natural systems, “instead of making them fit into our box. Organic works with the way things are, then jostles them a little bit, but not so much that you change the whole biology of it. I can’t really see any other viable way to farm.”
As a result of Garin’s mindset, a killer work ethic, and Sarah’s amazing talent at marketing, Grassland Farm is a thriving, organic enterprise. The farm’s three hundred acres are beautifully situated on hill and river bottom in a crook of land formed by the confluence of two branches of the Wesserunsett Stream, which meet the Kennebec River just a mile away. The river bottom soil makes for rich grassland, supporting lush stands of white and red clover, timothy, orchard grass, and many other species.
The dairy herd—forty cows primarily Lineback genetics—thrive on pastures which are managed with intensive rotational grazing practices. The milk cows are moved to fresh grass twice a day. Sarah was pre-veterinary in college, and she laughs at that idea now. “We rarely need a vet. Attentive management and preventive care makes for healthier animals.”
But the Smith’s agricultural philosophy means that they don’t stop at dairy. They strive to operate a classic, diversified farm. They raise chickens, beef, and devote about six acres to vegetables and cut flowers. The farm’s provender is sold in shares to members of their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) as well as to five farmers’ markets: Augusta, Waterville, Orono, and two markets in their home town Skowhegan.
The Smiths are very involved in their community and active in the wider world on behalf of sound farming practices. They ramped up the already existing farmers’ market in Skowhegan to the point that it has become a Saturday destination, complete with live music and free family events. They are board members of MOFGA (the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) and MOM Maine Organic Milling. “People in your community should know who you are,” Sarah says. “When we bought this farm we bought into the community. When people drive by here I want them to be able to say, ‘Hey, there’s Sarah and Garin’s place.’”
Additionally, the Smiths host interns every summer through MOFGA and growfood.org. “We don’t expect them to leave here at the end of the summer and become farmers,” Sarah says. “Some do, for sure, but they all go away with a whole new perspective on food, food policy and sustainable agriculture. They know who grows their food. We spend dinners sitting around the big twelve-seat farm table talking about federal agriculture policy, GMOs, organics and farmers’ markets. So I feel we’re giving people tools to help change old habits and outlooks. We have a great time and we’re really passionate about what we’re doing. I think that kind of energy is something people in this society crave.”
The Smith’s two children, Cedar and Reed, are lucky enough to be growing up in the midst of all this passion and energy. “I don’t know how we do it all some days,” Sarah says. “Hopefully, the kids will want to take over for us when we tire out!”