PALMYRA — While one half of most young farming couples in Maine have to work at a paying job off the land to make ends meet, Jarret Haiss and Johanna Burdet are bucking the trend. And it’s paying off.

Beginning with this year’s growing season, the couple, with their 18-month-old daughter, Tiger, are working Moodytown Gardens on Warren Hill Road full time.

All the time.

“To me it was really scary,” Burdet, 31, said. “I knew that we weren’t making a lot of money from our outside employment, but it was always a nest for me so if things got really tight we had some sort of other income. It’s definitely scary for anyone to stop working off the farm.”

Now, she said, she can focus all of her energy working on the farm and doing what she used to think about doing when she was the agriculture education teacher at the Cornville Regional Charter School near where she grew up in Cornville.

The couple bought the 75-acre farm on Warren Hill Road, which is Route 151, four years ago, and they cultivate about 10 acres of organic vegetables and make hay on about 20 acres.

They run their own farm stand in the front yard and raise pigs for market. They have nine piglets and Fat Man — a giant 700-pound castrated pig who’s “just a lucky pig” because he refuses to get on the livestock trailer for the slaughterhouse.

Staff photo by David Leaming Farmer Johanna Burdet feeds Fat Man the pig and piglets at Moodytown Gardens farm in Palmyra last month.

Farmer Johanna Burdet feeds Fat Man the pig and piglets at Moodytown Gardens farm in Palmyra last month. Staff photo by David Leaming Staff photo by David Leaming

Vegetables, seven varieties of potatoes and flowers are grown using organic methods, but the produce is not yet certified organic.

Haiss, 32, grew up on a farm in neighboring St. Albans. He worked roofing, did odd carpentry jobs and farm work and did some ski instructing before landing on the land full time.

The couple has been farming together for seven years and has been at the old farm they bought since 2012. For the other three years, the couple farmed an acre of land at Burdet’s parents’ farm on Moodytown Road in Cornville, and the name stuck. They later moved onto a parcel a little less than an acre near her parents’ home and started their own little operation and finally outgrew that and purchased what was the old Elm Lawn Farm in Palmyra, where they now farm full time.

“This is the first full year that neither of us has had any outside employment,” Burdet said. “What we realized was that my teaching job was really just pulling from the farm, both my time and it wasn’t lucrative, and we realized that it wasn’t really helping us make ends meet.”

Haiss added that when both of them are working full time on the farm, they both can sell more produce, do tractor work and run the three-person farm crew they hire for the season.

“We are making more money with me being able to focus on the farm,” Burdet said.

YOUNG FARMERS ON THE RISE

U.S. Department of Agriculture data on farmers aged 34 and younger grew by nearly 40 percent from 2007 to 2012, the last time the USDA released agriculture census data.

John Harker, the former director of production development at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, said in 2013 that young farmers make up more of the farm owners and managers in Maine than in previous decades. Harker, who since has retired, said anecdotal observations of young farmers buying property and attending farmers’ markets and agricultural meetings continues to grow.

“There is a movement for more people who want to grow their own food or start a small food business,” he said in 2013.

Harker said more colleges also are offering sustainable agriculture programs. He said a large percentage of those attending those classes are young families who want to start farming in a serious way.

Matthew Randall, agricultural compliance supervisor at the Maine Department of Agriculture, said that while new census data has not been released, the recent Maine Open Farm Days showed other families like Haiss and Burdet are “taking the plunge” and working farms full time. The data is released every five years.

“The number of young farmers in specialty things are on the rise,” Randall said. “It is a scary jump to go full time and make those kinds of moves.”

Gary Keough, a statistician at the USDA field office for New England in Concord, New Hampshire, said all of the New England states have seen an increase in the number of farms since 2007 and 2012.

“Everybody has an increase in the number of young farmers, especially beginning farmers,” Keough said.

Beginning farmers, like starting any other business, he said, will find out if they have the right stuff during the first five years on the land. Some realize within that first five-year window that the farming life isn’t for them and leave the land. Others, like Haiss and Burdet, say they can make it.

Heather Johnson, executive director at Somerset County Economic Development Corp. in Skowhegan, said her office is keeping track of young farmers and will be releasing data probably next year.

“There’s so much value in these young farmers coming into our communities, not only for what they produce on their farms, but for the value they add to the community in total,” Johnson said. “I think they bring an energy and an excitement and a broader thought to our natural resources and the value that our natural resources can play to the individuals in the community.”

EARNING A LIVING

Haiss and Burdet have survived seven years farming and are on pace this summer to make enough money to earn a living, they said.

They have several wholesale accounts for their produce — five restaurants, a couple of stores and a lot of shares for The Pickup, Skowhegan’s community supported agriculture program, where additional restaurants and stores get their supplies. They also sell at farmers markets in Hampden, Skowhegan and Belgrade Lakes. Hello Good Pie and Day’s General Store, also in Belgrade, buy from them as well, they said.

 

Farmers Jarret Haiss and Johanna Burdet work in one of their market gardens at their Moodytown Gardens farm in Palmyra last week. The young couple is making a go of farming without having to work at outside jobs.

Farmers Jarret Haiss and Johanna Burdet work in one of their market gardens at their Moodytown Gardens farm in Palmyra last week. The young couple is making a go of farming without having to work at outside jobs. Staff photo by David Leaming

Burdet said she has joined the Maine Federation of Farmers Market board of directors and is secretary and newsletter writer for the Skowhegan Farmers Market.

 

Burdet said this year their sales have increased about 30 percent over previous years, making the transition to full time worth it. She said having time to work enriching the soil with organic nutrients has finally begun to pay off.

“I really think it’s a direct effect of me not working — being on the farm,” she said. “You start making money and saving up money in August and we’re doing it already now. Last year it was at the end of August, so we know we’re doing well this year.”

Burdet said they didn’t know how it would work out when she left her job at the charter school and it was a little hard at first, but it’s been surprisingly easy to get by, she said. Their mortgage is low, they heat the old farmhouse with 14 cords of wood they cut each winter, and so far it’s been worth it.

So, any regrets?

Not really, Burdet said.

“I still miss teaching,” Burdet said. “I still miss having that other life where you know other people and you have a bigger purpose. I do miss that. But that’s it.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

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