A major fire at Balfour Farm in Pittsfield just before Christmas wiped out key components of the dairy, including a commercial kitchen, cafe and poultry processing facility. We called farmer Heather Donahue to talk about how she and her husband Doug have been getting by. The short answer? With a lot of help from friends and neighbors. And a cozy shed with one light bulb.

RAMBLE ON: Balfour Farm produces MOFGA-certified organic yogurt and cheese from a small herd of Normande and Normande crosses, but the Donahues had done some work to make their farm more than just a farmstead dairy. They moved to Maine in 2010 from New York, where they had been farming seriously since 2004 after getting their feet wet with a hobby farm in New Hampshire. The original farmhouse in Pittsfield was built in 1835 but had been added onto over the years. “A lot of times. You can’t take walls out of this house because they are all connected.” A few years ago, the Donahues moved out of the farmhouse into a small building near their dairy barn and creamery that they had been using as a farm store. Moving into the so-called shed was a temporary plan, with the intention to sell 17 acres of the property and the farmhouse and then build themselves a “big” house, a 24-foot-by-24-foot log cabin, farther back from the road and close to the dairy barn. Plenty of people came to look at the rambling old house. “Nobody wanted to buy it,” Donahue said.

CAFÉ AU LAIT (AND CHEESE): They tried leasing the 17 acres and house to a couple of novice farmers, but that didn’t go well. “They didn’t know what they were doing.” Meanwhile, locals were asking about their farm store; when would they reopen it? And a friend who had experience as a personal chef was moving to Maine. Last spring, they put a commercial kitchen into the farmhouse, hired the friend and started serving breakfast and lunch out of an adjoining dining room. They put in a small coffee bar and a farm store, where they sold their own products as well as Smiling Hill ice cream and milk.

CHEF IN TRAINING: They lost their original chef, who was lured away by a food service job with benefits, and Donahue stepped in for a couple of months starting in late summer, turning out grilled cheeses, yogurt bowls, soups and salads. “It was very much farm fare, my favorite recipes that I’ve cooked up over the last 27 years of married life. But I did learn how to do eggs Benedict!” The couple brought in a new chef in November and had added weekend dinners. They’d also started working toward a goal of turning part of the old farmhouse into a B&B, with plans to book guests this spring. “We had kind of looked at that as our retirement plan, for when we are old and don’t want to haul coolers around the state (to farmers markets).”

Heather and Doug Donahue of Balfour Farm in Pittsfield stand next to a structure that housed their commercial kitchen. On Dec. 18, a spark from one of their old tractors started a fire that spread through the poultry processing room and behind the house. Staff photo by Derek Davis

TRACTOR TROUBLE: Then on Dec. 18, Doug plugged one of their older tractors into a block heater. “It is like a diesel truck. They need to be plugged into a heater when it’s cold.” Heather was down at the farmhouse doing laundry from a recent dinner. She wrapped some Christmas presents. Then they sat down to lunch. “We saw the flames out the window.” A spark from the tractor had started a fire that quickly spread through the poultry processing room and into the back of the house. It destroyed the commercial kitchen outright. “The cafe portion just smells really bad from the smoke.” The insurance company has declared the whole farmhouse a loss. They lost their food stock, including dry goods, jams and jellies, and all the personal possessions they hadn’t been able to keep in the shed (basically everything). Fortunately, the dairy operation was far enough away to be unaffected.

AT THE MARKET: The Donahues nonetheless hit their Saturday farmers markets as usual, one in Brunswick and in Portland. They had to. “We had product ready to go.” And wholesale orders to fill. “It was important for us, cash-flow wise, and to move that product because it is perishable. But emotionally too, it is part of our week. In the midst of all the craziness, it really helps to have something scheduled. It helps ground you.”

A CHICKEN IN EVERY POT: The poultry processing room was where they stored five freezers full of processed chickens (they raise about 500 meat birds, including turkeys, annually). Two of the freezers were a total loss, but the state told them they could sell what was in the other three. Another farmer, Hanne Tierney, offered freezer space at her farm. “She came over with a couple of apprentices, and they moved all the chickens over.” But Tierney would be needing that freezer space herself soon for pigs. How were they going to move those chickens – meant to last the winter – fast? That’s when a local business offered to buy all the chickens. The business, which wishes to remain anonymous, offered the chickens free for the taking at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House in Pittsfield, which held a “community karma” event to distribute them. “That was a load off our minds.”

WINTER OF DISCONTENT? Could there be a worse time for all this to happen? There wouldn’t be a good time, Donahue said, but winter hasn’t made it any easier. “The first thing we did the day after the fire was go through the things in the office. That whole room was exposed and we were still getting snow.” They blocked off the entry but have yet to get back in to dig around in what remains; it’s all covered with a crust of ice now. “My cast-iron pans are in there somewhere. If anything is going to survive it will be them.” But Donahue keeps things in perspective: Their cows, barn and creamery are all safe, and the shed is home. “There is a roof over our heads, and it is tiny but it is cozy.”

SHED SOME LIGHT: It really is a shed, 16 by 20, with a wood stove to cook on, a small freezer “and we have one light bulb downstairs.” They have a diesel generator and a battery bank to use to keep equipment like the pasteurizing machine going. “We fall back on the solar on the days we aren’t working.”

RECOVERY PLAN: They hope to do some cleanup after the bitter cold passes, but the big picture is tentative right now. “I don’t think we will rebuild in that same space. There are conversations we have to have with the town, like do we have to build on the footprint?” Maine Farmland Trust has an easement on the property, that needs to be considered. “There are a lot of people we need to talk to. And we need to come up with a whole other business plan.” But she’s optimistic. “If you had talked to me the day after, I was a complete mess. We are starting to move beyond that.”

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.