Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

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Meet Daniel McPhee – MOFGA Educational Programs Director

Meet Daniel McPhee – MOFGA Educational Programs Director

March 1, 2017

Daniel MacPhee, MOFGA's educational programs director, is himself an alum of the MOFGA Journeyperson Program. He and his family raise MOFGA-certified organic seed crops and grafted nursery stock at their farm, Blackbird Rise, in Palermo – far from MacPhee's suburban Southern California roots. He has worked for many years at the intersection of farming and education throughout New England in settings ranging from a community CSA farm to urban public schools, city government and public and private colleges. At MOFGA he supports new and established organic farmers, gardeners, apprentices and consumers through educational workshops, events, mentorship and networking. He is also responsible for MOFGA's low impact forestry, organic orchards and new farmer training programs, including the apprenticeship and journeyperson programs, and works closely with other service providers in the state to increase services and opportunities for Maine's farmers. MacPhee has a bachelor's degree in geology and geophysics from Yale University and a master's in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences from MIT. He is a NOFA-accredited organic land care professional and sits on the board of the Grassroots Seed Network.
Q. MOFGA's educational programs grew tremendously under Andrew Marshall's direction and have continued to do so under your direction. Do you have data to highlight that growth?

There is no question that the success of MOFGA's educational programs today is a direct result of Andrew's vision, commitment and gifted ability to engage community. In the past 10 years alone, at least 1,500 people have participated in MOFGA's Apprenticeship Program, more than 250 have completed the two-year Journeyperson Program, and many thousands have participated in the more than 100 different workshops, trainings, events and conferences we run each year. MOFGA's new farmer training programs are measurably impacting local economies, communities and the lives of individual farm families in Maine. Despite having the oldest population in the country, Maine is second in the nation for percentage of beginning farmers, who now make up a third of all Maine's primary farm operators. Between 2008 and 2014, Maine added 30,000 acres of organic farmland and 138 new organic farms, more than any other state. This shift is not an accident – it is the product of years of program development, curriculum design, collaboration and network building to create an effective new-farmer training pipeline and to foster the tight-knit community of farmers, state agencies, service providers, local consumers and farm advocates that guides and supports it. Despite a national failure rate of more than 50 percent for farms in their first five years of operation, 92 percent of MOFGA's Journeryperson Program graduates are still farming today, and 87 percent have remained in Maine to do so, creating more than 140 new farms.  

Q. How big is the educational programs staff?

MOFGA's educational programs department is fortunate to have three other awesome staff members. Anna Mueller, events coordinator, is responsible for the planning and logistics that make it possible to run all the events we do throughout the year. As MOFGA's new farmer programs coordinator, Ryan Dennett runs our Apprenticeship and Journeyperson Programs and leads the six-month-long Farm Beginnings whole farm and business planning course each year. In addition to her work as MOFGA's volunteer coordinator, Anna Libby has taken on a growing role in the education department focused on supporting programming for MOFGA's many non-farmer members.  
Q. A whiteboard at MOFGA lists dozens of educational programs. The list looks overwhelming! How many events do you and your staff run each year? Do you have a favorite educational event?

We run well over 100 workshops, trainings or other educational events over the course of the year at MOFGA's Common Ground Education Center in Unity and at various farms and other venues around the state. These range from hands-on workshops lasting a couple of hours, such as home fermentation or poultry processing, to extensive multi-day programs, such as our four-day Low Impact Forestry weekend or six-month-long Farm Beginnings whole farm and business planning course. It's hard to pick a favorite, so how about the first three that come to mind? I always look forward to the in-depth sessions and end-of-season camaraderie at the annual Farmer to Farmer Conference each November. During the growing season I love the weekly Farm Training Project series workshops for the opportunity to get to see different farms around the state and their innovative systems. And, of course, being so interested in crop diversity, breeding and regional adaptation, the annual Seed Swap and Scion Exchange is hard to top.  

Q. What are some issues related to new farmers that you have been dealing with lately?

Not surprisingly, we frequently see the "usual suspects," such as secure land tenure, market access, production and business skills, and financial stress creating obstacles to new farmers' success. In a perverse way that gives me a certain degree of comfort because, even though the individual farmer may be new, many of the struggles they face are not, and MOFGA has developed effective strategies, tools, support resources and a culture of mentorship over the past four decades that can address a lot of these. Of course, every new farmer's situation is unique and requires reinventing the wheel to a certain extent. MOFGA's role is to ensure that all the right tools are readily available to make that process as painless and successful as possible. Understanding and developing effective relational systems is one area we've been devoting some special attention to lately in recognition that interpersonal engagement, or "soft skills," are often major underlying factors contributing to those common obstacles listed above. Additionally, with the recent passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and new uncertainty surrounding the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka "Obama Care"), I see familiar challenges to farmers' success reemerging in a significant way. I am confident that MOFGA's ag services and education departments are well positioned to directly support the training, peer-to-peer education and technical assistance necessary to help organic farmers understand and comply with FSMA regulations effectively and affordably. I am less sure of the role MOFGA might play in supporting farmers to overcome new barriers that changes to the ACA could present.

Q. What are your long-term goals for MOFGA's educational programs?

To build on the depth and strength of our new farmer training programs, I'd like to see growth in professional development programming and network support for established organic farmers as well as increased educational offerings for gardeners, homesteaders, permies (permaculture practitioners), cooks, activists, youth and MOFGA's many other non-farmer members. I also see more integrative use of MOFGA's grounds for educational programs and ongoing demonstration of best practices and innovations. That will include the next chapter of MOFGA's Farmer in Residence Program, integration of the Maine Heritage Orchard, Low Impact Forestry Program, landscaping/gardens and our new solar array. Another major goal, across all program areas, is understanding and addressing geographic, social, economic or other barriers to participation. Who is missing? Why? How might our programs change to accommodate diverse needs of an evolving audience? How can we support existing efforts in other communities?
Q. Tell us a little about organic seed production and why you do it.

I've long had an interest in seed saving and crop diversity and feel strongly that regional, certified-organic seed production is a critical piece of a resilient and truly sustainable food system. Corporate consolidation and chemical company influence within the seed industry concern me deeply. They have led to a steep decline in crop diversity and decrease in stewardship and breeding of varieties specifically adapted to organic production systems. In my frustration I also see an important opportunity to resist by participating in a constructive alternative. Each season we generally grow 15 to 30 organic vegetable, herb and flower seed crops on our farm, most of which are sold on contract to a variety of retail seed companies based in the Northeast. We also do our own stock seed production, variety trials and breeding projects aimed at developing crop genetics naturally adapted to our climate, soils, pest and disease pressures, organic production methods and markets. Since the universe of organic seed producers is quite a bit sparser than that of organic vegetable growers, it can be difficult to find relevant production guidance – particularly for the many less common medicinal and perennial herb species that we grow. It has forced me to actively seek mentors near and far and to pay extremely close attention to my crops and production systems with a depth that I often did not engage when growing food crops for market. I really enjoy all the trial and error experimentation (or error and error, at times) and coming up with creative DIY crop isolation and production systems and ad hoc contraptions for harvesting and processing different types of seeds. An added bonus of growing crops to the mature seed stage is that our farm is full of flowering plants throughout the season, providing forage and habitat that supports large populations of native pollinators and other beneficials. 

Q. Do you have a favorite plant among the nursery stock that you raise for Fedco?

Sometimes it depends on the season. In this past dry summer, I really appreciated the tough resilience of Antonovka apple seedling rootstocks that consistently thrived without irrigation. Although, when it came time to dig the 2-year-old trees for delivery last fall, I was not quite so enamored with the incredibly long, deep roots they had developed to provide that drought resistance! As far as varieties go, it's hard to pick favorites, but I really love Smokehouse, Black Oxford and Blue Pearmain apples – and have been propagating every Asian pear and russeted apple that I can get my hands on.  

Q. Why did you and your family name your farm Blackbird Rise?

We moved onto our farm in January and had one of those requisite "first" winters when all the expected and unexpected things go wrong and you keep yourself warm by fixing mistakes and making more. One morning in the earliest spring, dozens of red-winged blackbirds flew up out of the woods, over the sloping rise on the west side of the farm, across the fields, and spilled over the windbreak into a huge old sugar maple that fills our front dooryard. Their bright tumbling clatter woke our spirits and immediately grounded us in this place. They continued to trickle through each morning, checking in on us, for a number of days before gradually fading away and leaving us to start the growing season ahead. Each season since, we look forward to their arrival as a welcome reminder that spring is coming and that we too are a part of the rhythm of this place.

Q. How do you manage to farm and hold a position of such responsibility at MOFGA?

That's a question I would love to see a good answer to! I am amazed whenever I meet someone who manages to farm and work off-farm full time with grace and sanity. I work with a couple of those people – and aspire to get there myself, but it's a work in progress.  Despite the privilege of working at an organization that recognizes the stresses of farming "in the margins" and having the benefit of so many experienced role models to learn from, I still struggle constantly to balance on-farm, off-farm, family and personal responsibilities just like many other farmers I know. It is so tempting to take on an extra contract here or sow a few extra flats there, but what feels like a small investment of extra effort initially can easily end up compounding a debt of time and exhaustion instead of bringing a future payoff. Juggling it all has been an ongoing education in limits for me –and it's often not smooth or pretty. This past season we made the very difficult decision to take a break from raising livestock. Despite my reluctance to give up ground in the struggle to reach our farm vision, I have to accept that exhaustion and over-commitment aren't going to get me there either. Sometimes it's necessary to put on the brakes to avoid a crash. Even so, more often than I'd like, I still find myself up at 2 a.m. tackling backlogged emails or processing seeds for a contract deadline. But, little by little, I can feel healthier boundaries and more realistic expectations creeping in … I think.
Q. How do your Southern California roots impact your life in Maine? We have better weather here, right?

Ha! It wasn't an accident that I left southern California – although it certainly wasn't better weather that drew me away to the Northeast. I still love to visit the Southwest, especially when I can get out into the desert, scrub and canyons, but I feel most at home in the Northeast, where seasonal cycles have a real influence on my life, my work and my relation to community. I love a snowy winter and a mild summer. I can even tolerate blackflies for the clean and abundant water that we both depend on. As climate shifts and we bounce more frequently between extremes, I'll gripe and grumble about an especially dry year or bitterly cold winter just as much as the rest, but on the balance I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

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