by Steve Fitzpatrick, Branch Manager – Houlton, FA Peabody Insurance
Dick York has always had a passion for farming and healthy food alternatives. In 1996, Dick decided to turn that passion into an organic farming business on a 2 acre plot of land in New Limerick, Maine. Unfortunately, it was not as successful as he had hoped. Although a national organics trend was growing the local demand for organic foods, it was simply not catching on with his consumers. He knew more product outlets were necessary and a 100% focus on retail sales would not pay the bills.
In 1997, Dick and other Aroostook county organic farmers developed a co-op to assist in marketing their products. The co-op has long since folded, but it did start the development of wholesale markets. The first strong demand for York’s wholesale market was, fitting for an Aroostook County farmer, organic seed potatoes. This wholesale potato market was the first key to growth, no pun intended, for Nature’s Circle Farm.
Nature’s Circle has met certification requirements from the USDA, the State of Maine, and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Today, Nature’s Circle farms 300 acres with 180 acres in crop production this year and the balance of the land in rotation. The farm continues to expand its crop selection having added squash in 2009. The current crop selection includes potatoes (seed and table stock), beets, rutabagas, parsnip, cabbage, carrots and 8 varieties of winter squash. They now subcontract some crops with other organic farmers and act as the distributor. Nature’s Circle Farm has become the second largest organic farm in Maine and the largest multi-crop organic farm in Maine employing six full time workers and up to 30 employees in summer.
Nature’s Circle continues to evolve with changing consumer demand and the requirements brought on by its growth. In 2008, Dick’s daughter, Meg, became part owner of the business and has taken over the sales and marketing functions. Meg has a vision of the business developing more stable income by acting as a packing and distributing facility for organic farmers throughout southern and central Aroostook County. She believes that once others with the same passion for organic farming know that a stable economic environment is available and a local processor and distributor can take over the process once the crop is harvested, the area will be dotted with a community of smaller organic farms. Meg states, “There are dozens of organic farmers throughout Maine and as far away as California that are searching for available growing land and would come here in an instance if we have a stable economic environment for their products.”
Dick York has always had a rule that states, “We will not grow crops that have to be immediately harvested and shipped. If we can’t store it, we won’t grow it”. As Nature’s Circle Farm looks to the future, Meg says that rule may be changing as well. They are in the early stages of researching the market for alternative crops that are shipped straight from field to market. Even so, there are growing pains. To remain profitable, their main crop must make grade #1. Additionally, it is often difficult finding sufficient help, seasonally, on the farm.
Nature’s Circle Farm is a success story for an area that has seen a rapid decline in its potato farming community within the past several decades. The business has grown multi-fold and now supplies such large health food stores as Whole Foods. When the product leaves Nature’s Circle, it’s washed, inspected, and packaged. The future looks bright and what started as Dick’s dream and early despair has literally become a growing reality.
Steve Fitzpatrick, branch manager for the Houlton office, is the Agent for Nature’s Circle Farm. Steve handles commercial accounts and specializes in transportation.