|Toki Oshima drawing.
Nonprofit brings bridges farming and education
By Stowell P. Watters
The Saco River surged with the last of the snowmelt when Richard Rudolph pulled into the driveway of his new home on River Road. The trip from Boston to the southern Maine town of Standish was a straight shot; a 2-1/2-hour weekender’s trail beneath budding maples and pines, frequented by other expats from the city: business folk with their fishing poles, families piled into station wagons, and Rudolph with his car packed to the hilt with trays of budding vegetables. The year was 1991 and he was sprouting tomatoes on a radiator in Roslindale, Massachusetts.
“We planted half an acre that way, coming up on the weekends,” he says.
He got out of the car and looked over the fields as they rolled down to the water. With help from MOFGA, Rudolph had found and purchased the parcel while still holding his job as an academic dean at The University of Massachusetts Boston. Besides a house, a barn and a solarium he could use as a proxy greenhouse, the land was untamed. But in Rudolph’s mind it already held the makings of his dream, a place where he could put into practice his 30 years of teaching, at the farm he named Rippling Waters Backyard Organics.
That spring he bought a box truck, and a friend painted the side – a purple, orange and green horizon with the farm name stamped in black. In the short gaps between his Boston work schedule, Rudolph grew every vegetable he could think of; by the end of May he had planted 1/2 acre. He took the food to the Portland Farmers’ Market, set it on tables beneath a tent, and hung a plaque that read, “All of our food is grown organically.”
At that point MOFGA had been doing organic certification for almost 20 years. A young Chellie Pingree was about to enter the Maine Legislature, Eliot Coleman was raising eyebrows in the gardening world with his tidy cold frames, and MOFGA was connecting the dots by expanding the Common Ground Country Fair, lobbying for food labeling laws and hosting its first Farmer-to-Farmer conferences.
Having taught more than 40 different courses ranging from history to sustainable development, energy planning, community planning and even global warming, Rudolph realized the need for certification.
“I drew the line from the get-go; I had no interest in exposing people to chemicals," he says.
In fact, he did not purchase the property until he received a phone call from the U.S. Geological Survey that guaranteed his water source, the Saco River, was listed as “pristine.” Even then he held off until he learned it supplied the drinking water for the Saco/Biddeford area. He said it was a matter of principle.
Rudolph grew up in a housing project in New Britain, Connecticut, where his mother was a homemaker and his father was a butcher. World War II was over, soldiers were heading back to work, and America’s postwar economic expansion was firing on all cylinders around the working class family. Farmworkers poured in from the fields to grab up assembly line work next to an influx of Polish, Armenian, Assyrian and Swedish immigrants as two-thirds of New England’s workforce found employment in the factory towns like New Britain.
All around him the great machine was chugging along. His family was no exception, as Rudolph recalls spending a majority of his childhood with his older brother because of their parents’ endless working hours. Still, in the booming city of 80,000, the American dream was not without financial struggle and endless pressure from bill collectors.
|Toki Oshima drawing.
“They were working their hearts out, to be sure, but they were just not getting ahead,” he says. “People were just not getting paid enough and they still aren’t.”
This sentiment stuck with Rudolph and proved pivotal in forming his politics.
“I didn’t come to Maine to make a profit, I came to support my principles, to put my money where my mouth was for all those years,” he says laughingly.
He did just that, splitting his time between Standish and Boston, between farming and teaching from 1991 to 1996. Even when he co-operated a small orchard in Groton, Mass., in the late 1970s, Rudolph was still teaching, always pulling at the cords of the two worlds and tying them together where he could. But in 1996 the stresses of teaching all day, sleeping four hours and then driving to Maine to plant kale became too much. He left academia to become a fulltime farmer.
“I always saw teaching as political work; how couldn’t it be? And over time it became clear that farming was too, and that farming was also educational work. It all tied together,” he says. “The transition just felt natural.”
With his Boston life in the rear view, Rudolph focused on the Maine farm and built a greenhouse. In time he added a second, larger greenhouse, as well as four high tunnels and a composting pad designed and partially financed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He expanded his growing space to about 5 acres, hired a seasonal workforce and put out a job listing for a field supervisor, a right-hand man. What he got was a Mainer in muck boots and overalls with a long dark braid running down her back.
“He wouldn’t return my calls; he was always so busy. So I did what anyone in my neck of the woods would do; I just showed up and started working over there,” says Julee Applegarth.
At that first meeting Applegarth and Rudolph walked around the farm and talked shop. She asked him about his general farming philosophy and he pointed to a passing Japanese beetle.
“He said something like, ‘See that beetle? That beetle has just as much of a right to live its life on this planet as you or me,’” Applegarth says, adding, “That really stuck with me.”
She became his friend and field supervisor for the next 18 years, managing the stand at the Bridgton Farmers’ Market and expanding the sustainability of the farm by using year-round mulches and companion flowers and herbs. Together the two added educational components to the farm, and in 1997 Rudolph became chair of MOFGA’s education committee while serving on MOFGA’s board of directors.
There he helped develop a series of informal classes set at different farms across the state. The program was a huge success and survives to this day as, every summer, MOFGA apprentices meet on the land of poultry farmers, woodlot managers, beekeepers, fruit growers and off-the-grid folks to share knowledge and food. The gatherings have become central to MOFGA’s educational work, utilized by thousands of young apprentices since the program’s inception.
Around this same time Rudolph started ramping up education and charity work all around him. He taught classes on organic gardening, Rippling Waters donated thousands of pounds of food to pantries in York and Cumberland County, and he gave apprentices at the farm an introductory course on farming, complete with printed handouts from Rodale, readings from Four-Season Harvest and The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman and weekly discussion sessions.
Soon Rudolph realized one unwavering fact: He had left the education world, but it had never left him.
“Growing up I hated to get my hands dirty,” he says. “But good food is something we all have a right to, and it can be an opening to talk to people about the environment, about health, politics, and about who is behind the decisions that are made regarding our food. So this farm is about that, about empowering people through education; that is my goal.”
After some years of trying to support all their expanding educational work financially, Rudolph and Applegarth came to a realization.
“We were a nonprofit from the get-go; we just didn’t know it until 2006,” Rudolph says.
Rudolph applied for and received 501(c) nonprofit status, established a board and soon got a major USDA grant. The farm built and tended gardens at three senior housing developments and four schools in the MSAD 6 district, and in 2008 they built a solar greenhouse at the Bonny Eagle Middle School.
The farmhouse – already overflowing with Rudolph, his golden retriever, and a seasonal flux of suntanned apprentices – soon became home to young educators as grant money allowed Rudolph to hire staff to teach gardening and nutrition to children in the local school district.
Rudolph estimates that they reach about 1,600 children a year with farm-to-school education. Students in MSAD 6 learn where their food comes from and how to grow it sustainably. They are engaged in all aspects of gardening: sowing seeds, transplanting, weeding, and reaping the harvest in the school gardens.
Last year the farm was chosen as a National FoodCorps site and now employs fulltime staffers to design curricula and work with children in the schools. These workers split their time between work in the various gardens and teaching the kids about the benefits of eating real food.
The farm has also developed an apprenticeship program for high school students, called the Food Connection Corps, and has given as much as 10,000 pounds of food to local pantries during the growing seasons while hosting weekly groups of developmentally disabled adults who work and learn alongside the farm staff.
Rudolph co-authored a 1986 book entitled Power Struggle about the historical clash between public power and privately owned utilities in the United States. He is going to Beijing to speak about this issue. He chairs the Rail User’s Network, a national consumer advocacy group working for expansion of passenger rail in North America; he chairs the Green Energy Committee; and he’s a board member of the Energy Consumer Alliance of New England.
But the farm, according to Rudolph, was his dream, the culmination of his will and his work – as much a farm as an extension of himself, the physical manifestation of his philosophy.
Or, in his words: “It is not enough to just talk about nutrition, or just talk about politics. It is not enough to just talk about the things we believe in; we need to take action.”
Now Rudolph is stepping down and pursuing his other interests, making room for others to take the reins and continue the work of promoting food security in the MSAD 6 area. Rudolph and the board will seek a new executive director who is committed to continuing the farm and the farm-to-school program – someone who will work with the board to pursue funding for all aspects of the projects, including his or her own compensation. A capital campaign to raise funds to buy the farm and continue it as a community resource is another goal.
About the author: Stowell Watters is a MOFGA journeyperson at Rippling Waters and farms in Limington as well.