At any given time during the three-day Common Ground Country Fair, there will be 12 to 20 volunteers helping people park. Dave Colson has a day job – he’s the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s agricultural services director – but at fair time, he’s busy running the show in the parking lot. His beige Toyota Tundra is command central for volunteers. We called Colson up to get a view of the fair from the parking lot as MOFGA gears up for its 40th fair, starting Friday.

FIRST FAIR: Colson’s first fair was in September 1981. His sister, who went to College of the Atlantic, was living in Maine, and she’d been sending Colson advertisements for land for sale in Maine. She knew he’d been looking for affordable farmland in Oregon without any luck. Although they grew up in western New York state, the family had roots in Maine, going back to a grandfather from Skowhegan. Colson told his sister he was considering the move. “She said, ‘You better come in time for the Common Ground Fair.’ ” And he did, arriving just in time to attend. “I was pretty hooked,” he said. That winter he and his parents bought land in Durham and started New Leaf Farm, which was certified organic in 1985. After Colson met his wife in the late 1980s, they all ran the fruit, vegetable and herb farm together until 2005, when his aging parents began to back off from farming. These days, with his MOFGA responsibilities, they’ve scaled back to a haying and green manure operation only.

UNITED IN UNITY TRAFFIC: The traffic jam heading to the fair in 1998, the year MOFGA opened permanent fairgrounds in Unity, is legendary. “It was very interesting. There are definitely a lot of stories from then.” Colson remembers overhearing some of the Waldo County deputies talking about the preparations. “They were saying things like, ‘These people are crazy if they think they are going to have this many people show up.’ ” But they did show, and in even bigger numbers than expected. “We were kind of shell-shocked at the end of that Friday and pretty much had to meet that evening to regroup,” Colson said. It’s been a steady learning curve since. “I think we have it down pretty well now. The issue, of course, in being anywhere in rural Maine is that the roads can only manage so much traffic at any time.”

CASE IN POINT: About five years ago, there was a parking disaster when it started to rain mid-afternoon on a Saturday. Fairgoers decided, all at once, that maybe it was time to go home. “The crowds came out to get in their cars, and it got completely snarled. We had a lot of upset people.” They implemented changes the next year, making it easier to find – and reach – exits. But Colson asks for flexibility and a reality check for fairgoers. “Anyone who has ever driven to any major sporting event knows that it takes just about as long to get out as it does to get in. People need to realize, if it takes us five hours to fill up the parking lot, it is not going to take us 15 minutes to empty it.” Remind us, if it rains this year, to hang out in an exhibit for awhile or get something more to eat before heading for the lot.

BY THE NUMBERS: Though it feels as though you’re parking on farmland, MOFGA owns 200 acres in Unity, and you’re parking on its land. (The fields are hayed by local farmers for MOFGA, although with this year’s drought, the second haying that usually happens before the fair starts might not be needed.) They park cars in 11 different lots, not all of them contiguous. Volunteers work in four-hour shifts (and are fed easy-to-transport meals from the communal kitchen, like sandwiches and calzones, delivered via golf cart). There might be 100 volunteers in a weekend, just for parking. And work has already started. “All those stakes and ropes and signs need to be laid out and driven in. It is full-throttle over here right now.”

WHEN THE DAY IS DONE: What happens after all the cars are gone? On Saturday, that can be late; the fair typically has portable lights running on a generator to help people find their way back to their cars. “We’ll get something to eat and think about going to bed.” He no longer camps at the fair. Instead, he camps at the MOFGA offices. “I throw a pad down in my office and sleep on the floor.”


IT’S INEVITABLE: Things Colson knows will happen every year: Someone will lock themselves out of their cars and need AAA. There will be flat tires. There will be dead batteries (the parking volunteers help with jumps). And people will lose their cars and need assistance, generally via golf cart, to find them. “Oh yeah, every year.”

BETTER TO BURN OUT?: Colson’s co-coordinators are Paul Volckhausen and Bob Critchfield. Critchfield, a carpenter from Raymond, has been volunteering for about 10 years while Volckhausen, a farmer from Happy Town Farm in Orland, has, like Colson, been running the parking operation since the fair was in Windsor. (Both men are past board members and presidents of MOFGA.) Aren’t Volckhausen and he burnt out after 20 years? “Call us gluttons for punishment. Part of it is, every couple of years I will say to Paul, “I think this is my last year,” and Paul will say, “I’m not ready to quit yet.” And then I can’t quit. One of these days we’re going to look at each other and say, “This wheelchair isn’t going to get around the parking lot so well.” He has been working on site mapping so that the whole process can be standardized and passed down. “Because I am anticipating I won’t do this forever.”

IS IT A CARNIVAL RIDE?: With all that coordinating, does he ever get to enjoy the fair itself? “Typically, no, I don’t see much of the fair,” Colson said, chuckling. “The joke around here amongst the parking people is, ‘Oh, there is a fair going on? I thought it was just a big parking lot!’ ”

PAY BACK: Why not quit now? And go to the fair? “This organization has done so much for organic farming and for farmers and been such a wonderful community to be part of. There is a very large planning team that manages most aspects of the fair, and a lot of those folks have been doing this a long time too. Part of the enjoyment is seeing those folks and being able to work with them. That has kind of been what’s kept me going all these years.”

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