We approached Grace Pease at the Portland Farmers’ Market last week to ask about Merrifield Farm’s cheap tomatoes. $1 a pound! Was she crazy? Doesn’t she know farmers markets have a reputation for being pricey? We grabbed a bench and sat down with the 24-year-old to talk about the harvest, curing squash and how she’s bringing a college degree in medical anthropology to work on the farm.

KNEE HIGH: Pease grew up in Cornish and has been farming since she was 6, in one shape or another. At 18, she and her sister Ruby, who is one year older than she, were running their own farmstand in Porter. Their parents still farm in Cornish on Merrifield Farm, just a few miles away from the family farm where her father grew up.

Merrifield Farm incorporates fields in Porter, which Grace runs with the help of three apprentices, and in Steep Falls, which Ruby runs with three apprentices. All of them, apprentices included, live in Cornish. “The home farm we call it.” Living quarters include log cabins and a school bus. “It’s fun.” Is that a vintage Cornish school bus? “I think it is an old Ford. My dad used to take it on camping trips with his family and friends. Now it is just parked permanently.”

EXPECTANT PARENTS: Her parents did not expect both their daughters to return to Maine to farm. “Ruby is a career farmer. She is definitely in it for the long run. I think I am in some sense, but I also think I’ll need a break from it at some point. For now, it is really enjoyable. Very humbling. You learn a lot. You’re always learning, so that’s exciting.”

LAST NEW THING: What’s the most recent thing she’s learned? “About how to cure winter squash.” Is that a prescription? “Curing just means so that the sugar develops in the squash and the skin becomes dry and hard so that it doesn’t rot on your counter before you can use it.” Among the tricks, piling it in a field with vines over it. “Some people put them in their greenhouses with a tarp over it.” A cool, dark place is a must.

COLLEGE DAYS: Pease went to Bennington. What made her choose the college made famous by Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt? “We had some Bennington students come to our farm actually and work as part of a field work term, so I have known about it since I was a kid. I knew I wanted to go to a small college.” Bennington does have some agriculture classes, but she steered clear of them. “I wasn’t interested. I thought I was going to do something completely different from what I grew up with.” Also, she already knew a lot about farming.

So she studied medical anthropology. “It’s similar to public health,” she said. She studied issues like the stigma associated with some diseases or the economics associated with it, factors “that are influencing the disease from the outside rather than from within the body.”

PUTTING IT TO USE: Farming might seem like a stretch from medical anthropology, but Pease has found a way to incorporate it. She’s been working with the Sacopee Valley Health Center in Porter on what she calls “a prescription food program,” identifying individuals in the community who are either food insecure or have health problems that are related to dietary issues, such as diabetes. “They hook them up with me, and basically it’s like a CSA box every week.”

Last year, she donated weekly CSA shares to 10 families. This year it’s 20. Every week? “Yep. And we got funding for it this year.” Cornish resident Alex Steed made a donation of $2,000, “which basically means we can include fruit in the boxes as well as veggies. We buy the fruit from the stands, and add things like peaches and blueberries and fun stuff that we couldn’t do before.”

LUCK OF THE DRAW: The land she farms on is a free lease in Porter, arranged courtesy of the logging family that owns it. “They like to see that it is farmed.” The previous landowner had farmed and logged there, and in the 1980s had built a farm stand. Ruby took it over when she was 19, and Grace joined her the next year. “Now I have been doing it for three years by myself.”

It’s a great arrangement for now; because they’ve got heavy trucks going up and down the road, it’s not desirable for development but it’s ideal for a beginning farmer. In exchange, the owners pop into the store with their grandchildren and pick up corn, tomatoes and pies. Every year, Grace writes them a thank-you card and includes a gift certificate to a local restaurant or some such. “I would love to reimburse them in some other way.”

ABOUT THOSE TOMATOES: The crop has been bountiful, mainly because the lack of rain meant a corresponding lack of blight (which thrives on wet leaves). “We had a lot of seeds this year, which meant we kind of overdid it in the green house.” Also, “we’re very conscious of our prices in the market,” in part because Merrifield is not certified organic (which commands a higher price). Another factor, she said, is that the Portland Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays isn’t quite the booming business it used to be. “If you talk to any farmers in that market, they’ll say that back five years ago we could move amazing amounts of food.”

Because farming has gotten more expensive (inputs, equipment, and until recently, the rising cost of fuel), farmers have had to pass the prices onto consumers and correspondingly, she believes, business has taken a hit. Pease said she’s not about to walk away from the Portland market; slots are hard to come by still, and her family has been selling there “since horse and buggy days!” Those $1 a pound tomatoes might just attract a few more customers who will pick up some corn or cabbage while they’re there.

IN THE CAN: With blight-free product and prices that low, is she canning like a madwoman? “No! I only make strawberry jam. That’s all I do.” She sounds sheepish. “It’s so sad in the wintertime when we go to the store and we buy tomatoes.” Her father’s family was good at such home projects, and she has aunts who pickle and make quilts, but “Ruby and I, we’re just too busy. We might throw some blueberries in the freezer.” She shakes her head. “It’s so ridiculous to buy tomatoes in the winter.”


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