A talk with John Bliss
By Scott Douglas
John Bliss, 30, raises vegetables and livestock at Turkey Hill Community Farm, in Cape Elizabeth. This is the second year that the Massachusetts native; his wife, Stacy; and their daughter, Emma, have lived on the farm.
Turkey Hill is an organic farm that derives much of its income from offering CSA (community-supported agriculture) shares on a subscription basis.
The Bollard: How does someone with no farming background come to be running an organic farm in Cape Elizabeth?
Bliss: I lived abroad for a couple of years after college in Istanbul. After that time in Turkey, I was aware of the momentum of an activist culture that was catching on in the U.S., an anti-globalization thing. That was ’99, when I came back from Turkey, and that was also the September protests that happened in Seattle, and that was a point where I became more aware and wanted to be involved in some way with a local focus. I’ve always spent my summers in Maine. My grandparents, and now my parents, own a place in Georgetown.
A friend lived in Tucson. There I started to get involved in local grassroots organizations, like a bicycle cooperative, building bikes and teaching kids how to build bikes. Another project that I initiated with a couple of friends was establishing a community space which had its focus on art projects for homeless folks and the broader community, with a focus on public art.
At the same time, I was volunteering at a community garden. I had been dumpster diving for all of my food for that whole year, and so discovering fresh vegetables at the garden — fresh kale, fresh tomatoes — that was all new to me. I started to take that food and prepare it for the homeless shelter people. We were dumpster diving not only for feeding ourselves, but feeding the homeless community.
Serving fresh, organic food at the shelter really gave me an awareness of how food and diet can improve our lives in a psychological way. These people coming in off the street, they’re at no risk of starving, but they have a steady diet of donuts and coffee and salami sandwiches. The food they get at most shelters is pretty crappy. Also, I had the awareness of how I felt eating that food — I felt much more energized.
I was sort of opening my eyes to agriculture in 2000, 2001. I met my wife, Stacy, at a wedding of mutual friends. Very, very quick timeline: we decided to live together and get married. She was finishing up her studies at UPenn. Both of us were at this point where we were ready to do something completely different, really make a commitment in our lives. We thought about staying in Philadelphia and doing farming there, urban farming, but just thinking about the long-term nature of that, with her daughter, Emma, who was five at the time, didn’t feel quite right, so we decided to move to Maine.
The first stop was MOFGA [the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association]. We asked them what they would advise — where to go, how to get started. Traditionally, you become an apprentice, and you work with a farmer for a season or two seasons, and then you take the next step and manage a farm, and then you take it from there. But I wasn’t interested in being an apprentice, and we had a daughter to think about, so we jumped right into the manager position, and we managed a CSA garden in Cumberland called Sunrise Acres. We were there for two seasons, and it was really trial by fire. We didn’t know anything, what the hell we were getting into. We just took out all the books from the library and researched a lot about different vegetables.
Did you have any disasters?
Uh huh. In retrospect, it’s just vegetables, but it’s pretty stressful. There was one time we were harvesting mesclun mix, baby greens in the mustard family. We were using the washing machine for spinning the vegetables.
Like a massive salad spinner?
Exactly. You put it on spin, and it works great. But this one time, we decided to see what would happen if we put it on ‘agitate,’ and it was a disaster. As soon as we did it, we knew it was a bad idea. We opened it up, and it was shredded, bruised goo.
That was a very difficult place to work. The owner was challenging to work with, among other challenges of the farm.
So then how did you come upon this place?
There’s a program that’s cosponsored by MOFGA and Maine Farmland Trust called The Farm Link. It links up landowners with potential farmers. They told us about this place in Cape Elizabeth, and we met the landowners, and they wanted to preserve this property. I sent them a proposal about what a CSA is all about and how we wanted to function.
It’s really challenging, farming in suburbia. You can’t own the land and do it unless you’re independently wealthy and want to offer that as a service to your community. As far as making a living and buying land and paying off a mortgage, you can’t do that farming. We potentially could, with Stacy’s income [as a midwife], go that route, but morally it just feels wrong subsidizing everybody’s food with our mortgage payment.
Farms ought to be — in this area, with property values where they are — they really need to be community spaces, because it’s a community resource. It would be great if land values were low enough or farmers got paid enough to make it work in the old, traditional, capitalistic way, but it just doesn’t. Our food prices are kept artificially low by long-standing government policy of cheap food, and none of that will change. Well, it might change, with the price of oil.
We lease the land. We pay $500 a month in rent. I don’t want anyone to get the impression, ‘Oh, what a sweet deal.’ I don’t know anyone else who would dunk all their heart and soul and life’s work into a property they don’t own. That needs to be appreciated and recognized: the fact that we could be evicted or whatever.
What did you have to do to grow organic produce, as opposed to conventional farming?
Mostly the application of manure instead of chemical fertilizer. We hired a guy to come in with a plow and turn the field over. We added rock powders, which have trace minerals like sulfur, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous. That’s something where a conventional farmer would just apply the chemical of the three basics: nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. In conventional agriculture, that’s all you need.
We put up the hoop house in the field and we tried to grow rye and oats that first year, before we moved in here. We got the guy who did the soil treatment to do that, and he totally did it wrong. He didn’t follow the directions of where to plant which one. Rye will come up the next year, whereas oats will grow, and then the freeze will kill it. The idea was I was going to plant the oats and have the rye come up as a cover crop, [but] that whole plan was messed up. That was a big initial investment that we made.
I don’t really push the issue of organic so much, because I think it’s more about local farms. I think it’s a good idea to support a conventional, small farm in your area rather than buy California organic produce.
But you choose to farm organically.
Oh yeah, I wouldn’t do anything differently. It just doesn’t really make sense, because you’re always putting more and more and more in terms of chemicals into the ground. You’re never solving the problem; you’re never even addressing the root of the problem, whether it be malnutrition of the plants or a weed problem.
But chances are that at a small farm in New England, the farmer is going to be aware of these issues and they’re going to be worlds more responsible than a conventional farmer in the Midwest, where they do huge, huge, huge farming on a crazy scale. Here, they know they only have 12 acres to work with, and they’re going to have that 12 acres to work with 20 years from now, so you’re not going to cause crazy erosion.
You also raise animals, which you hadn’t done before.
Right. I still am learning. We started out last year with laying hens, and chickens for meat, and turkeys. And then the turkeys got eaten by a fox, all but one. Just last night, a skunk was chewing on a couple of chickens.
That’s something that people don’t usually think about in terms of livestock. The assumption is that it’s more humane to raise an organic chicken than a conventional chicken, and I think that’s still true, but the thing that people don’t realize is that a chicken that’s inside a warehouse in a factory-production model isn’t going to get eaten by a fox. And they’re always going to have their food on time, and they’re always going to have their water on time.
It’s the most programmed, safe life you can imagine, because what the factory is after is the product and the profit, whereas here, we’re trying to think of it more as an ecosystem, allowing chickens to be grazing on their own. There’s always chickens that are going to find their way out of the pen… so there’s that danger, and you have to come terms with that.
Did you, at least initially, form emotional attachments to the animals? And then how do you, you know…
I don’t think it’s a contradiction.
I’m not saying it’s a contradiction, and maybe I’d feel different if my livelihood depended on it, but I would think it would be tough to get attached to the pigs and then send them off to slaughter.
There’s this quote that I can’t remember exactly, but I read it on a farming Web site. It’s something like, ‘The peasant’s attitude toward his pig is that he appreciates the pig all that much more as a being because it has offered its body as sustenance.’
Well, he doesn’t exactly offer it.
Right, he doesn’t offer it, not literally.
I do the chickens here, and I would have a role in the pigs if we had the facilities here, if we had a pulley and a huge scalding tank and I had three extra days in my schedule in the fall.
You might think this is too spiritual or hokey, but essentially, when I have a hand in the chicken processing, I really feel like there’s life in the universe, a life energy or force that is all the time here. It’s mostly unorganized, and when there’s a chicken or a human being or a living plant, that’s organized life. That energy has been channeled and organized into a structure, an organized pattern that we would call a life. When you kill a chicken or anything, that life energy is just drained back into the pool of life-potential that there is. I think that’s a very beautiful concept.
I experience this in the garden, too. When you plant a row of beans or whatever, you kill the weeds, put the seeds in, let that sit for a week, and if you’re lucky, the plant will start to germinate and come up. But inevitably, the weeds will beat it to it, and you have a carpet of weeds, and you have to take the hoe and kill all those weeds. What you’re doing is putting those lives, the organized life forms, back into potential, and you’re allowing for the crop to grow. If you didn’t do that, the crop wouldn’t express itself to its full potential.
So I don’t think it’s altogether a different thing — weeding and killing plants to eat them, and killing animals.
I know that with the pigs, you have innovative sources for feeding them.
This year, it was my mission to put together a feeding program that would be economical. So I made a bunch of phone calls, drawing on my dumpster diving knowledge of where there’s waste in the system. For example, the baked beans factory. Or all the microbreweries in town. When they soak the grains, it’s a waste product for them. And bakeries are just endless sources of waste.
The chickens and turkeys get feed?
Right. They’re organic. The pigs are not certified organic, although I don’t give them any antibiotics or anything. One of the biggest things with organic livestock products, whether it be milk or chickens or eggs, is you have to feed them 100-percent organic food, which makes them a lot healthier than most humans. So I have to buy that grain….
A bag of grain, conventionally, is like five bucks. The bag of grain that I feed my chickens is 20 bucks, so it’s four times the price.
Twenty bucks for how much?
Fifty pounds. [editor’s note: weight figure corrected from original version]
And that lasts how long?
A day. Every month, $1,000 I spend on feed. That’s really important for people to know, because when I sell eggs, I make like 10 cents on a dozen, if that.
And how many dozen do you have a day?
Right now I’m getting about eight or nine dozen a day. So a dollar a day, maybe. And that’s if my production is efficient, and I don’t spend too much time messing around, like chasing after birds, or a fox doesn’t get in there and wipe them out. The variables are such that the egg thing doesn’t make any profit.
The chickens, they make me a couple of bucks a bird. They’re $15, though. At Hannaford, maybe a chicken is five bucks. So they’re three times the price, but I’m spending four times as much on feed, so I think it’s a really good deal.
Initially, how did people know that they could come here and buy stuff?
That’s all about the CSA. The CSA creates a community around the farm, and last year there were 17 members in our first year, so basically 17 of our friends, some clients of Stacy’s, a couple of neighbors who were curious and stopped in. From that base of 17 people, it’s an explosive, word-of-mouth growth that doesn’t need any advertising at all.
Even now, with 30 CSA members, I’m still at a point where I need to make sure I can sell other stuff, like eggs and chickens in the wintertime, and not on a subscription-based thing. I’m just sort of asking people, ‘Can I sell you eggs all through the winter, and can you ask 10 neighbors if they want to buy eggs, too?’ so that I don’t have to deal with selling eggs wholesale, because I can get 50 cents more per dozen selling directly.
How much of your diet comes from here?
Just about 100 percent in the summer. If we didn’t have a nine-year-old daughter… [we would buy less food]. Going to school with a lunchbox of Brussels sprouts and kale and cut-up chicken and homemade bread, that’s not going to work. I’m not interested in giving Emma food issues. But if I was still back in my bachelor days, I’d still be dumpster diving and growing my food; I wouldn’t be buying any food.
When I say that, what I mean is I wouldn’t be buying any conventionally raised foods, produced by corporate entities…. The more I do this, the more open I am to supporting other farms.
I’m not into having a dairy, but I like butter and cheese and milk, so the more I become aware of the profit issues, and the difficulties of farming, the more open I am to searching other local farms with the products that I can’t do.
What’s your schedule like?
Spring is the craziest season… and May is the busiest month.
How busy? How long of a day?
As long as I’m awake. It’s all the time. It’s not really appropriate to compare it to a 9-to-5 job. If you do that, you’re setting yourself up for failure. I think that a lot of business owners do the same thing — they take their work home with them, and it’s their whole life. In some ways, I think that’s good…. Obviously, in some ways, it seems a little bit oppressive. But if it’s good work, then all the more power to you.
What about in the summer?
Also the whole time I’m awake. The fall, I wish it would slow down, but it doesn’t really… because of harvesting, and it seems like the livestock is taking up a lot of my time now. The turkeys are big, and I’m rotating them around the farm. The pigs require a lot more food and a lot more attention. Slaughtering of chickens happens just about every week….
In the wintertime, last winter my full-time job was looking for a job, because the farm doesn’t make enough money for me to feel comfortable relaxing. I still need to make a little bit of money. Finding a job just from December through February isn’t easy. You don’t want to train someone for three months, and then they’re out of there.
I was delivering papers this [past] winter. I did retail. L.L. Bean during the holiday season…. Eventually I got all my substitute teaching paperwork together, and I did that.
This winter, I’ll be a little better off, because I’m coordinator for the youth religious education program for the Quaker meeting we go to, and they pay for that job. And there’s a ton of stuff to do in the winter, as a farmer. All my marketing is done in the winter. Setting up the CSA. Really, planning the whole year — ordering the seeds for 80 or 90 different crops, planning out the livestock rotation.
I’m actually not very good at multitasking, juggling things all at once. I need to take care of certain things in the winter, and that way I can put it out of my mind and be that much less crazy later.
Like ordering chicks, we do that 10 times, we have 10 generations of chicks, and 10 weeks of slaughtering. That’s a big succession game, and I like to have as much of that out of the way as possible, so I order them all at the same time, and then I don’t have to think about it. I know that every other Wednesday, I go to the post office and pick up some chicks.
There was one time, I don’t know why, but the pick-up was on a Friday night. I was finished working for the day and I had showered and I was looking dapper. I went downtown to the post office across the street from Bubba’s Sulky Lounge. There were people hanging out in front of Bubba’s, and it was the first time I had picked up at that post office, and I asked the postal guy, ‘Hey, do you know where I can pick up some chicks?’ The guy gave me a look like, ‘Who the fuck are you?’