STARKS — It’s 7 degrees outside and Paul Frederic is heading out to move bales of hay. As he gets dressed, Frederic puts on an extra layer of clothing.

“It’s a two-jacket type of day,” he says as he zips up.

Frederic Farm, which is on Chicken Road, has been in the family for about 200 years, since Frederic’s great-great-great-grandfather settled the land.

It was used originally to grow corn for a canning company in Starks, although the family always has had cattle, as Frederic does today.

Frederic, 70, grew up on the farm but moved to the Midwest for college and to teach as a professor of geography before returning in 1976. Since then he has been selling hay, raising livestock and renting out pastureland to other area farmers. He is also a selectman and part of the newly formed Starks Agriculture Commission, an organization set up to protect and promote the interests of farmers and agriculturists.

The commission is the first in the state, said Jim Murphy, a retired biochemist from Boston and the chairman of the group of townspeople forming the commission, although such groups do exist outside of Maine.

Peter Westover, a contractor for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, said there are 150 agricultural commissions in Massachusetts and a few in Connecticut, and the movement is starting in New Hampshire and Rhode Island as well.

“There is a real need for these types of organizations, because in many cases farmers and the farm economy are invisible at the local level. People move to these towns and don’t even know they are farming communities,” he said. “The commissions help raise the profile of local farms and the farming economy.”

In addition, he said, agriculture commissions can help farmers support each other in applying for federal and state funding.

Jay Finegan, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, said he hadn’t heard of any other towns in Maine that had agriculture commissions, although the word is spreading among those involved in local food initiatives.

Jonah Fertig, 33, of Portland, is a member of the Mayor’s Initiative for Healthy Sustainable Food Systems for the city of Portland and co-chairman of its urban agriculture committee. He is also an organizer of the Burdock Gathering, a sustainable living festival that is held every year in Starks, and a worker and part-owner of the Local Sprouts Cooperative in Portland, an organic worker-owned cooperative. Fertig said he is familiar with what the town is doing and that it fits in well with broader initiatives in the state.

“I think it’s a great example of people taking initiative to increase their access to food and the safety of their food supply,” he said.

Murphy, 66, said the idea for the commission came about while the town was working on its comprehensive plan two years ago.

“We sent out a questionnaire to townspeople asking what they wanted. The top three things were more farms, more local food and more incentives for agriculture,” he said.

Murphy has lived in Starks since 1990, when he bought an old dairy farm and moved here from Boston after falling in love with the area’s hiking trails. He began growing vegetables and raising sheep, although it wasn’t his first time working on a farm in Maine. He spent a year on Darthia Farm in Gouldsboro as a Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association apprentice in 1988.

In November, selectmen approved the formation of the agriculture commission as part of the town’s comprehensive plan.

Frederic, who also is first selectman in Starks, population about 640, said farmers pay a large share of the town’s taxes because they own so much of its land.

“Most people don’t make a full-time living on agriculture, but it’s a very diverse agricultural mix today compared to 30 years ago,” he said. “We want to reach everyone from the big dairy farm down to people growing a few vegetables or people just thinking about it. We are looking for eclectic interests.”

Townspeople interested in joining the new commission met for the first time Wednesday to develop bylaws, which are subject to the selectmen’s approval. Murphy said the commission then can appoint officers, hopefully by February.

He said they have three goals that they will focus on first — bringing more farmers to Starks, expanding gardening and working on community growing and attracting people from other places to visit or work in Starks.

“For example, I would like to attract MOFGA apprentices. Starks is on the far side of the Sandy River and is full of good, cheap land,” said Murphy.

He said the commission would like to accomplish other things as well — coming up with a right-to-farm ordinance and creating an agricultural district to preserve some of the town’s historic farmland.

In Massachusetts, Westover said, agriculture commissions already have accomplished much for the state.

“Every town is different. Many publish brochures, maps and histories of their farmland. Others work on right-to-farm bylaws, while others focus on public farm forums and workshops for the public,” he said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
rohm@mainetoday.com