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Maine-ly organic, all subjects are fair

Email|Print| Text size + By Melissa Waterman
Globe Correspondent / September 18, 2005

UNITY, Maine -- Each September, as the area's organic farmers are reaping the harvests of their brief summer season, a remarkable fair takes place in this tiny town. Nestled here among fields and valleys is the headquarters of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which since 1977 has organized the Common Ground Country Fair.

The fair, which runs this Friday through Sunday, has evolved from a celebration of all things organic to a celebration of sustainable living, attracting at least 50,000 people from all over New England for three days of food, music, and learning.

Jenny Begin, who with her husband operates a small Oriental rug and musical instrument repair shop in Damariscotta, has been attending the fair for more than 20 years. This year, she expects to spend a day there with her husband and 5- and 10-year-old children, catching up with friends from throughout the state, sampling organic food, and learning more about sustainable ways of life.

''I first came to Maine with friends who were going to the fair," Begin recalled. ''I had studied at New Alchemy Institute [an experimental organic farm in Woods Hole on Cape Cod] and had a dream of owning my own farm. When I came, I felt like the fair was full of hundreds and hundreds of people like me and that Maine was a warm and inviting place, full of community."

That sense of community is fundamental to the fair's mission. Russell Libby, executive director of the organic farmers association, which was founded in 1971, has been involved with it for more than 22 years.

''In the beginning, the Common Ground Fair was a place for people to knock down the barriers between organic farmers and others," he said. ''But the fair's constituency quickly expanded. People come back year after year because they can reconnect with people from other parts of the state."

Nearly everything that has to do with sustainable lifestyles is at this fair. Set up like the spokes and rim of a very large wheel are exhibitors, vendors, political and social change organizations, musicians, and others promoting such things as solar-powered homes and growing grain in Maine. You can learn how to revitalize old pastures, how to sharpen a scythe, or how to pick a sheep's fleece for spinning. You can learn to spin yarn with an old-fashioned drop spindle, work with craftspeople making porcupine quill jewelry, or practice knot tying and fire making. You can buy Maine products, including candles and cloth, T-shirts and yarn.

Peter and Nancy DiGirolamo have been bringing their homemade soaps to the fair for 10 years, though Peter is quick to say, ''We were fairgoers long before we were fair vendors." The couple began their company, Trillium Soaps, in the early 1990s, and while the business has been successful (their soaps are in stores throughout Maine, Massachusetts, and even New York City), the DiGirolamos return every year to this fair.

''The Common Ground Fair brings a community together from throughout the state," said Peter. ''You are part of a larger thing and a positive way of life that has less impact than other corporate entities."

The food sold at the fair reflects the focus on Maine agriculture. Anything sold must be 100 percent organic, said Libby, and 50 percent of the ingredients must be from Maine producers. Hence, you'll find no coffee here. You can find just about anything else, though, from the Big MOC (Maine Organic Cheeseburger) to falafel and gyros from Shivanarth Farm.

''It's a gastronomic paradise," said Begin.

In the Social and Political Action Tent, fairgoers can talk with representatives of a network of organizations. Want to know more about single-payer health plans in the United States? Curious about the practice of paganism in Maine? Worried about genetically modified foods in your diet? This is the place to get the details.

''The fair is not a hippie gathering," said Julia Schulz, co-founder of the Penobscot School, a language school in Rockland, who has run a booth at the fair for five years. ''It's got crafts, music, speakers, gardening exhibits -- it's a lot of fun, but it's also serious. There's a great cross section of people who come and find out they are interested in other things, such as alternative healing, wind energy, or super-insulated storm windows, for example. It's a very rich cross-fertilization of interests and that makes the fair even more pleasant."

On opening day Friday, the fair is free for students. In the afternoon Children's Parade, children dressed as vegetables bang drums, led by a 20-foot-tall stilt walker. In the Youth Enterprise Zone, young people sell their homemade products. In the children's area, youngsters can clamber on jungle gyms, learn to walk on stilts, and generally romp freely. Indeed, the fair seems to be a haven for children.

''When you go there, you see nothing else but the fields and woods around the edge," said Begin, who brings her children each year. ''It's a very protected world. I can let my children roam free without concern."

When the fair ends Sunday night, volunteers will turn the many tons of waste into compost. The organization's goal is to achieve zero net waste, said Melissa White, education program assistant.

''The food vendors are required to use disposable cups and other things so that all can be composted," she said.

Libby is encouraged by the continued vitality of the fair.

''The Common Ground Fair is trying to model a sustainable future in as many ways as it can," he said. ''It gives people ideas that they can take home and use during the rest of the year. It's experiential learning while having fun."

Contact Melissa Waterman, a freelance writer in Maine, at waterman@gwi.net.

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