From a Run Out Hayfield
to a Prosperous Organic Farm
in Ten Easy
by Tom Roberts, February 2004
This is the story of how we started a farm from scratch beginning in 1995.
A little background.
In 1980, I joined Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, which at the time was focused on
organic production of storage crops, and no fresh market retail sales.
From 1980 to 1993, I co-managed Peacemeal with Ben & Ariel Wilcox. During that time
we expanded into attending farmers' markets eight times a week and shipping storage
vegetables well into January. We increased the fields under cultivation from two acres
to over ten acres, an at times had a dozen people working in the fields.
In 1990, I met Lois and it wasn't difficult to get her to join the farm, even though
early on she described her ability to grow things as having a "brown thumb".
In 1993, Ben & Ariel decided to split up, and Lois and I operated Peacemeal
ourselves in '94. By spring of '95 we began looking for a place of our own.
What we started with.
- Land. 74 acres in west Pittsfield, mostly wooded partly cut over within the previous decade. 5 acres
of run out hayfield in the center with a 700 foot poorly maintained woods road as the
only access. The woods were mostly maple, ash, popple, hemlock, spruce and cedar.
- Equipment. As Peacemeal had grown we bought and evaluated many farming implements and
hand tools, so at our new place we were able to envision a minimal but sufficient
equipment package to get us started. It was:
- a 25 hp Kubota 4WD tractor with bucket.
- a Kuhn 3 point hitch, 4 ft. wide rototiller.
- a Woods "Dixie Cutter" bush hog rotary mower.
- a Patu D-40 3pt. hitch brush chipper.
- a 3 pt hitch tool bar with four single shank disks.
- a 27' x 100' greenhouse
- Knowledge. We had a hands-on knowledge of how to farm including the timing of
plantings, seedling starting times, plant spacings, weed management, use of cover crops,
hand tools, variety selections, marketing methods, soil improvement techniques, and
What we added since the beginning.
- More equipment.
- a manure spreader
- two Excalibur food dehydrators
- a Burch 3pt hitch 6 foot wide disk harrow
- awoods trailer
- well and drip irrigation system
- two more greenhouses
- a Troy-Bilt Pony hand tiller
- a Stihl weed whacker
- a 2 ft. x 3 ft. Waterloo-Small maple sap evaporator and arch
- More products.
- maple syrup
- dried tomatoes and herbs
Advantages we had
- combined 15 years of farming experience.
- simple low cost living style.
- enough cash and credit to spend $35,000 for land and $25,000 for tractor and equipment the first year.
- Lois's nursing license.
- experience with farmers' markets, both attending and starting.
- a 5 acre old hayfield and 70 acres of woods.
Disadvantages we faced
- loss of our mentors.
- "starting from scratch".
- not the best of soils.
- not a lot of space for expanding our growing area.
- no readily available irrigation water.
- We were both 50 years old.
What we did.
After toying with several other possibilities, we named our new place Snakeroot
Organic Farm because it was on the Snakeroot Road in Pittsfield and because we wanted to
promote the fact that we were an organic farm. To assure marketing and income
continuity, our first year we farmed a few fields at Peacemeal but now went to market as
Snakeroot. As we did this we tilled the hayland sod of our new fields, had lime spread
and planted buckwheat, tilled it midsummer, planted buckwheat again, tilled it in
September and planted rye for the winter. Over that summer we moved our stuff over to
Snakeroot and set up living arrangements.
That winter we applied for organic certification from MOFGA, and the following spring
began planting our new fields. Our only market at that time was the Orono Farmers'
Market, which we had helped start two years earlier. We were going to market in a Honda
Civic hatchback, pulling a trailer when we had more to sell than would fit in the little
In July of '96 we began setting up in Pittsfield at Hathorn Park several days a week
to introduce ourselves to what we hoped would be a new and local customer base, and to
determine which days would be best for a Pittsfield Farmers' Market. Eventually we
settled on Monday and Thursday afternoons, which, along with the Saturday Orono market
gave us the ability to market our produce continually as we harvested it.
When the Unity Barn Raisers began a farmers' market in Unity, we immediately joined
as charter members. Since Unity was to be a Saturday market, this meant that Lois would
have to attend that market since I was busy going to Orono. Luckily she enjoys going to
market, too, and is good at it.
In 2000, the Town of Fairfield organized a farmers' market in that town, and again we
became charter members for that Wednesday market. In 2003, the folks at the new Johnny's
Selected Seeds warehouse in Winslow asked how their employees could be better served by
local farmers, and our answer was "Start a farmers' market!" so now we have two Thursday
Our market season is from early May to late November, but our busiest season is from July
to October when we attend market Monday afternoon (Pittsfield), Tuesday afternoon (Orono), two
on Thursday afternoon (Winslow and Pittsfield) and two on Saturday morning (Orono and Unity).
Once they are properly trained, we often have apprentices do some of these markets so we can
stay home and farm.
Along the way, we opened more of the land that could be turned into productive
fields, and now we are moving onto less productive areas and into greenhouses, both of
which requires us to bring in good soil to these new growing areas. With surprising
forethought, when we created the large circular driveway with plenty or turn-around
space for large vehicles, we had all the topsoil bulldozed into piles before the
driveway gravel was spread. Today we are using those topsoil piles, the sod long since
rotted, to make ourselves new growing areas in locations that previously had poor soil.
We have developed several local relationships for supplying feedstuffs to build our
compost piles. About a mile down the road from us is an organic Jersey farmer who brings
us cow manure when he can't spread it on his own fields. The Town of Pittsfield has
taken up our invitation to be the town compost pile for resident's leaves, grass
clippings, and other yard waste. When chipper trucks are clearing out the brush under
local powerlines, they know they have a standing invitation to dump their chips at our
farm. So we are well supplied with materials with which to make our compost. The manure
and leaf piles we mix in the spring, turn during the year, and spread on
our fields in the following year. We also utilize the leaves and hay for mulches and turn any
remaining leaves into leaf mold for use in potting soil in future years.
In 1999 we solved the chronic springtime cash flow problem by initiating a CSA plan where our customers purchase a $100 share by April 1 and get
$130 credit at the farm or any of our market locations. Starting with 8 members in 1999, by
2005 we had 31 members buying a total of 36 shares, including two memberships we donate to the
Maine Public TV auction and the WERU Community Radio auction.