Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
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Meet Ryan Dennett – MOFGA's Farmer Programs Director

Ryan Dennett with Maeve. Photo by Michael Dennett

Ryan Dennett with Maeve. Photo by Michael Dennett

March 2020

Ryan Fahey Dennett grew up in North Berwick, Maine, and earned a bachelor’s degree in sustainable agriculture and a master’s in plant and soil nutrition from the University of Maine. She was a MOFGA journeyperson, and she and her husband operate Crescent Run Farm in Gardiner, where they raise hogs, sheep, broilers and beef on MOFGA-certified organic pasture and grow MOFGA-certified organic hay. Their farm is located on Oaklands Farm, where the Dennetts also work in partnership to raise Oaklands' beef and hay.

In February 2016 MOFGA welcomed Dennett as its New Farmer programs coordinator. She came to MOFGA from the Maine School Garden Network, where she coordinated programming, partnerships and fundraising.

In early 2019 Dennett became MOFGA’s Educational Programs director, and now she directs our Farmer Programs department, a new department that combines our agricultural services and our farmer educational programs.

Q. Did you grow up on a farm?

A. No, I didn’t. Growing up, several elders in my family imparted their values and skills around gardening, putting food by and cooking from scratch. I fell in love with biology and specifically plant science in high school, but ultimately decided to study nursing in college. By the time I completed my first clinical rotation, I thought that perhaps I might be better suited to caring for plants than people. After dabbling with a 1-acre market garden and several types of livestock, I realized that we couldn’t do both well and grow the business, so we decided to focus on the livestock. In eight years of caring for animals, those nursing skills have come in handy now and again.

Q. Your personal experience as a farmer combined with your academic background and leadership skills have propelled you to an important position at MOFGA in a short time – and during a time when you and your husband have been raising your young daughter. How do you do it all?

A. I certainly could not do it alone. We are fanatics of the Boys and Girls Club where our daughter is part of a tight-knit community. With reliable childcare both my husband and I can be on tractors at the same time or I can give my full attention to MOFGA, so that I am able to be fully present with Maeve during my time off. We hire out some farm work to create leisure time for us. As graduates of MOFGA’s Farm Beginnings whole farm planning course, we are particularly mindful of our values and needs regarding our lives and the farm. As such, the farm and our roles in it have shifted in order to accommodate my growing responsibilities to MOFGA and my family. We stopped doing chickens when my daughter was born and are taking a break from hogs to make sure that we aren’t feeling overwhelmed. It’s exciting to focus in on fewer enterprises and feel that we have more opportunity to scale up while maintaining our standards.

Q. Can you tell us a little about the new department that you’re heading?

A. MOFGA’s Farmer Programs is the combination of our agricultural specialists who provide technical assistance to farmers and our farmer education specialists. We have had a lot of opportunities to collaborate while in separate departments, but certainly felt a silo effect. We wanted to better understand each other’s work and give farmers an obvious place to connect with MOFGA. We will continue to offer on-farm consultations, technical resources, workshops, conferences and farm tours.

Q. What are some of the duties of your job? How big is your staff?

A. I spend a lot of time doing strategic planning, writing grant proposals and reporting on those that are awarded. I meet weekly with staff to oversee the management and evaluation of our grant projects, services, programs and events. I’m excited to create more collaborative efforts between staff members specializing in technical services and education now that we are all on the same team. We currently have a staff of seven who specialize in working with crops, livestock and different regions of the state, as well as beginning and advanced farmers. We are in the process of hiring an organic farming and business specialist.

Q. What most excites you about the organic farming scene in Maine? What are some of the challenges for farmers?

A. I love seeing the partnerships between farmers form and build opportunities for growth in organic farming, particularly with processing and distribution. Daybreak Growers Alliance, Sowbelly Butchery and Turtle Rock Farm are just a few examples of farmers working together to source and distribute local food. We’ll have more of a focus on working with processors to source local organic food in 2020, and I’m excited to see more of these relationships come together.

Challenges for farmers include finding markets, growing markets, accessing land, accessing capital, finding adequate labor, navigating regulations, record keeping, and as you might imagine, managing stress and relationships. Growing the food can be a challenge too! We do our best to offer support and guidance through these challenges by building personal relationships with our farmers and creating peer cohorts, providing them with on-farm technical assistance, access to low-interest funding, mentorship, educational farm tours, conferences and workshops, and providing direct funding for educational and marketing technical assistance purposes.

Q. What are farmers asking for in terms of education and services?

A. Farmers are expressing more interest in policy and production techniques for climate resilience. They’ll see more of this in 2020 as MOFGA creates a policy department and our farmer programs offer workshops, tours, and a Farmer to Farmer Keynote on climate resilience supported by a SARE grant. Farmers want MOFGA to build demand for organic products, which we are responding to with our new communications department and southern Maine specialist, who engages with our largest concentration of consumers in the state. No-till production and all topics related to labor are perennial requests that we incorporate in our educational offerings each year. Farmers want personal relationships with their technical service providers and on-farm consultations. We aim to offer 145 farm visits this year and have shifted some job positions to create three regional specialists to foster familiarity with farmers in northern, Down East and southern Maine.

Q. What advice do you have for people who want to start farming in Maine?

A. Start by working or apprenticing on a farm in Maine. Make sure you know the soils, climate, production techniques, market demands and constraints, and people who can help before starting your own business. Attend MOFGA’s Farm Training Project on-farm trainings to learn and connect with a peer support group. Take the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s So You Think You Want to Farm in Maine course and access the Beginning Farmer Resource Network of Maine to start building relationships with local service providers who can help you get started. Work with a Small Business Development Center or SCORE mentor to develop a business plan and figure out whether you actually have enough money to start farming now or need to continue working for more starting capital. When you are ready, apply for the MOFGA Journeyperson Program to secure a mentor to guide you through your first couple of years, develop a strong network of peer and professional support, access free trainings and an educational stipend, and participate in the Farm Beginnings course.

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