UNITY — Thousands of hungry fairgoers will flock to the Common Ground Country Fair this weekend for a celebration of rural living, farming and the traditions of Maine.

In addition to the folk music, agricultural exhibits and speakers, part of what draws crowds to the annual fair is the food — all of which is organic, and mostly from locals sources.

Unlike most state and county fairs, the one organized by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association does not have carnival amusement rides or games. The fair is meant to reflect the mission of the organization, which works closely with farmers and gardeners to grow organic food, protect the environment and support local and rural food production. 

Volunteers are an important part of making sure the fair, which in recent years has drawn about 60,000 people over three days, runs smoothly, according to volunteer coordinator Anna Libby.

“They’re an integral part of the fair’s infrastructure. Our volunteers are working year-round to do the preparation that really powers the fair,” she said.

Making sure that the fair’s roughly 2,000 volunteers don’t go hungry always has been a priority of fair organizers, director Jim Ahearne said, but this year extra effort is being made to make sure the food volunteers receive is on par with what is sold at the fair. Last year, about 4,600 meals were served to volunteers during preparation and the weekend of the fair, Ahearne said.

He said serving and selling organic food is important not just because it tastes good, but also because it is in line with MOFGA’s goals of promoting and preserving local agriculture.

On Thursday about 15 bakers, including attendees from July’s Kneading Conference and fair volunteers, gathered near the fairground’s main building to bake wheat and rye loaves for other members of the volunteer population. It was one of just many events going on at the fairgrounds Thursday, the final day of preparation before the start of the fair, which opens at 9 a.m. today and runs through Sunday.

Dusty Dowse, vice chairman of the board of directors of the Maine Grain Alliance, and the project’s organizer, said the group expected to make 1,000 to 1,100 loaves of bread over the three days.

The Maine Grain Alliance is a nonprofit organization based in Skowhegan. Its mission is preserving and promoting the use of traditional grains and providing access to locally baked bread. The alliance hosts an annual Kneading Conference in July, which brings together farmers, bakers and chefs from around the region and the country, for a three-day conference on growing and milling grains and baking bread.

Dowse said the conference was a good place to recruit volunteers to help produce bread for the fair, an idea that the fair committee also supported.

“It’s something we’re trying out this year. A lot of food vendors support us, but one of the things we have been trying to find is more organic bread,” Ahearne said.

Among the bread bakers Thursday was Allie Heller, 22, who traveled from Portland, where she works as a baker for Chef Harding Lee Smith’s chain of The Rooms restaurants. She said she heard an announcement about the project at the Kneading Conference and was excited about an opportunity to participate in the fair.

“It’s really fun. I love how much people can learn, and I think its important to make these traditions available and pass them on in a light-hearted way,” Heller said.

Lily Joslin, 25, a fair volunteer who never had made bread before, said she learned a lot about the process Thursday, including how to create the right ratios of yeast, flour, water and salt. Most of the flour was donated by King Arthur Flour in Vermont. Ahearne said the demand for local flour did not make it feasible for the fair to get enough flour to produce all of the bread with locally grown grains, although a small amount of flour was produced locally.

The dough rises for about two hours before it is kneaded and shaped, Dowse said. By 10 a.m. Thursday, about 250 loaves had been baked and the group was preparing more for the ovens.

Joslin said she thought the project also brought attention to bakers as a link between farmers and consumers.

“A lot of people don’t think bread is an important or healthy part of their diet, but we’re here to show them it is,” she said.

The fair has a strict food policy that requires all food sold by vendors to be organic and from Maine, although there are some exceptions for things that Maine does not produce, such as lemons, coffee and some spices, Ahearne said, and organizers are trying to extend the philosophy to the food preparation they do for volunteers.

A lot of raw food, including vegetables such as tomatoes and squash, is donated from vendors and local farms; but most of the preparation is done at the fairgrounds, he said. Almost everything is made from scratch at the fairgrounds, whether it is tomato soup, or this year, bread.

Patti Hamilton, the fair’s kitchen coordinator, said the fair kitchen prepares an array of meals for volunteers that vary every year depending on what is donated. Past menus have included soups and stews such as lentil soup, clam chowder and green bean soup; and eggs and home fries, fruit, date rolls and sausage for breakfast.

She said the fresh bread will make a big difference in the quality of food that can be produced on the site.

“It’s awesome. We usually have day-old bread that is donated from bakeries, and which we need, but to have fresh bread really extends our possibilities,” she said.

Dowse, who has been a member of the association since it was formed in 1971, said the food volunteers eat at the fair is always good, and that if the organization permits it, he would like to continue the project next year.

“I think it’s important to have really good bread baked by a local outfit. Bread is the staff of life. It is the core of our existence,” he said.

Rachel Ohm —  612-2368
[email protected]

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