As the farm to table movement continues to gain traction across America’s home and professional kitchens, the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset is taking it one step further with its innovative agricultural program. Through the foundation’s 175-acre Saltmarsh Farm, the environmental education organization is producing 15,000 pounds of vegetables annually for its dining hall. The farm is less than a football field away from the kitchen and Chewonki officials say good food makes good sense. While the organization has always made the farm a relevant part of the student experience, the reliance on its own crop is a relatively new development.
“It’s really been over the past 10 years that the farm has been providing us food,” said Chewonki kitchen manager Bill Edgerton. “They do a great job of maximizing what they’re producing.”
Edgerton estimates a full 30 percent of the food he uses for the 80,000 meals he serves comes from the farm, with another 18 percent bought from local purveyors such as Goranson Farm in Dresden.
“Almost 50 percent of our food comes from the state of Maine,” he said. “Including the value of the food from the farm, over the course of the year, I spend roughly $3.20 a meal.”
Together with a paid crew (and occasional unpaid student helpers), Edgerton creates most of his meals from scratch, including pasteurizing the milk. He works in concert with Chewonki farm manager Megan Phillips to plan meals throughout the year, depending on what is in season. The two are in constant communication, adjusting meals sometimes daily.
A certain degree of fluidity is necessary for the relationship to work. Occasionally a glut of one type of crop can require an Iron Chef level of creativity on Edgerton’s part.
“Sometimes we have 50 pounds of zucchini and I’m like ‘hmm, I wonder what the heck I can make with this,’” he said.
The flexibility and unpredictability is welcomed and keeps the kitchen staff on its toes. Despite this, the operation runs like a well-oiled machine without skipping a beat.
“Bill has one of the only jobs at Chewonki that has three deadlines a day,” said Phillips.
As for the kids and staff, the food gets rave reviews, said Chewonki Community Relations Director Kathy Damon.
The dining experience is communal — not an eat-and-run dining hall — with signs on tables indicating where the food was grown. Chewonki is one of a number of educational organizations embracing the farm to table movement. According to farmtoschool.org, over 43,000 schools are utilizing regionally produced foods. Farm to school empowers children and their families to make informed food choices while strengthening the local economy and contributing to vibrant communities, the organization argues.
Almost every single Chewonki participant works with the farm and their philosophy of education is, integration into meaningful production, said Phillips. The farm is not just window dressing for the brochure as students actually milk the cows, collect eggs and load grains for the animals.
“We have cows, pigs, sheep, turkeys and chickens,” said Phillips. “We're draft animal -powered so we have one draft horse. We are a food, fiber and firewood farm.”
The farm raises roughly one acre of diversified vegetables and manages a 150-acre woodlot that produces between 20 and 30 cord of firewood a year, said Phillips. In the future, apple trees will be used for juice, cider and pies. There are also 14 acres of rotational grazing land.
“In addition to all those things we grow, we also grow kids,” said Phillips. “In this day and age, we have devalued the work of the hand. Many of our students feel hugely empowered to do things that matter. At the very least our students leave with a sense of where their food comes from and become critical consumers.”