In September, people from all over Maine—and the East Coast—converge on Unity for the Common Ground Country Fair. Unity sits in an area, not too far from the coast, which is dotted with farms, lakes, deep woods, and ridgelines with unexpected, expansive views. It’s near the towns of Freedom, China, Detroit, and not far from Liberty, Harmony, and Hope—smack in the middle of one of Maine’s cluster of intriguing, evocative town names.
To get to the fair, we drove on up-and-down back roads, with a few “yikes-I-didn’t-expect-that” right-angle turns, by farms, through shadowy woods, by Lake St. George, and then suddenly up to high vistas of Knox and Thorndike’s farmland. There, we knew we were near the fair when the brilliantly resourceful local fire departments had “voluntary toll” boot drives to raise money from the fair visitors.
The fair—generally referred to simply as “Common Ground”—started in 1977 and has become a Maine institution. It is put on by MOFGA (the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association), an impressive organization that provides resources and support for Maine’s organic community and—to my delight—is a generous and friendly wealth of knowledge on all aspects of farming and gardening in Maine.
Maine is home to a rich and growing culture of small farms and self-sufficiency. It attracted a significant back-to-the-land movement in the 1970’s, inspired in part by then-Maine residents Helen and Scott Nearing and their book “Living the Good Life.” MOFGA and the Common Ground Fair grew out of that 1970’s movement and both continue to thrive as another generation tries to make a sustainable living in rural and small-town Maine.
No doubt, MOFGA has had a key role in the resurgence in organic farming in Maine over the past decade. And the Common Ground Fair is both a tribute to and a playground for MOFGA and its members. The fair takes place over a three-day weekend and is a marvel of organization and the power of volunteers. Everything appears to run with ease and efficiency, from the parking, to the food, to the cleanup and recycling. While I apprehensively expected to find a gathering of aging hippies, or a smug, unrealistic group of ideologues—I was happy to find a vibrant mix of people of all ages and varying backgrounds (although mostly white ) coming together to learn more about, to celebrate, and to retain the skills of rural living at its best.
Unlike other country fairs, Common Ground has no midway, pig races, or pie-eating contests.
It tends more towards knowledge-sharing, with workshops on everything from calming a nervous horse, to working with honeybee swarms, to using green manures. I was torn by all the workshop choices but directional tree-felling (for George), and home orchards and composting (for me) won out. Next year, mushroom cultivation, for sure.
There were barns full of animals. And whole areas of vegetables, farmers markets, gardens, and orchards.About 60,000 attend the fair each year over its three day run. But, surprisingly, it never felt crowded or rushed.
It’s not dirty or littered, and people take time to talk and share information. I happily wandered around huge tents of artisan and craft booths from folks throughout Maine, with some really exquisite products. All in all, it was pure pleasure, and we will be back for much more next year.