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When I met Penny, I instantly knew she was born to be the boss. She doesn’t take guff and she gets things done. She knows how to make things grow and make them sell. She can motivate and cultivate.
Along with her siblings, she runs her family’s fourth generation farm, Jordan’s Farm, on about 60 acres on Cape Elizabeth land. Their produce is sold wholesale and from an on-site farm stand. Each week they sell fruit and veggies at senior housing centers and corporate offices from a baby-blue renovated school bus.
Maine is a place known for its food and for its land. Over 8,000 farms are operating on well over a million acres of Maine land. I imagine that for every one of those farms, there is a badass like Penny at the helm.
HOW DOES FARMING CONTRIBUTE TO YOUR HERITAGE AS A MAINER?
I was born here. This is where I grew up. We are fourth generation farmers here in Cape Elizabeth on Jordan’s Farm. My father purchased the farm from his aunts in about 1946 as part of the GI bill, so I grew up here farming. My grandmother and grandfather farmed here, and they had a retail stand at the end of the road. My grandmother’s father, my great-grandfather, also farmed this property. And that’s how it contributes to my heritage as a Mainer. I think the dirt is under my nails most of the time.
WAS THERE A DEFINITIVE MOMENT WHEN YOU REALIZED THIS WOULD BE YOUR LIFE’S WORK AS WELL?
Oh, I didn’t know it was going to be my work, I really didn’t. I left the farm to work full time in corporate America. I worked at Unum for twenty years as a project manager, so I think my journey was about going off and gaining some experiences that I brought back to the farm. When Unum merged with Provident in, I think, 1999, I came home over the summer to work my dad and my brother. I said I wanted to farm before graduate school. I went to graduate school for Community Organizing and Program Design. I realized during that summer why my brother and father did what they did. It was such an amazing experience. I finished grad school and came back, and proposed to my dad that my brother and I take over the farm. He accepted that proposition and we wrote a business plan for him about what we were going to do and how we were going to grow the farm. The pinnacle point was that that summer before I went to grad school when I thought, “My God! This is so wonderful to watch the whole process of plants going from seed to harvest. And then looking at these views every morning.” And being soaking wet harvesting lettuce or whatever, and having rain drip down your face while thinking, “This is way better than an office.” It really is! Oh my God, what more could you ask for? I think my father wanted us to go get other experiences. Because when I came back, I applied what I learned.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO WORK WITH YOUR FAMILY?
I think it’s the key, because I have no clue how my father ran a farm all by himself. My brother, he’s the farmer and he decides what is going to be planted when; the crop rotation and the soil amendments. The overall management of the land. I’m responsible for any transplanting, field maintenance or harvest; as well as the farm stand marketing and operations. My sister Pam is the bookkeeper and helps out whenever we need her. And my sister Carol manages what we call the Dirt Yard with my nephew. We are kind of a foursome who work together. I always liked harvesting vegetables. I always wondered why I draw and doodle little boxes, and connect the boxes together. But I like sorting. I love sorting tomatoes and grading things and saying to veggies, “You get to stay on the island and you get to go somewhere else.” I love selling vegetables.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE A FARMER IN MAINE IN 2013?
For Maine, we are considered a large-scale farm. I tell all my friends in Aroostook County that we are a garden. The demand here is huge. I now have to say to people who want to become wholesale buyers, “I’m sorry, but I am maxed.” I can’t grow enough. People say that farms compete. Oh my, no. We need each other so badly. So, I’ll call Rick Belanger in Lewiston and say, “I need some cucumbers, my crop is waning.” And he’ll say, “I’m looking pretty good, I can move some in your direction.” Or vice versa. He’s an awesome grower. We all work together from a farm perspective. Say I had a commitment to move X amount of product to a wholesale customer, and I had a crop failure. I’d call another farmer. I’ll have to pay them, but at least I’m keeping that customer. I’d say to be of this scale farm in Cape Elizabeth, Maine is an anomaly. Cape Elizabeth is known for houses, not farms. We are blessed to be in Cape Elizabeth because we have a highly educated consumer base that knows if they participate in agriculture, the farm will continue to be here. And we also have a conservation easement on the south side of Wells Road, 46 acres that will always be a farm. It will always be tilled.
IS THERE A VEGETABLE OR PRODUCT THAT YOU GET REALLY EXCITED ABOUT?
Eggplant. It’s gorgeous. I love the way it tastes. I grill it. I love moussaka and baba ganoush. I love eggplant on my pizza. I went one year, I swear to God, where I ate eggplant every day in some form. Tomatoes make me smile because tomatoes are so gorgeous in the field. The way people get excited about tomatoes; they are very tactile, everyone likes to touch them. I get excited about the first ripe tomato. When I look at lettuce, and look across the field, it’s like looking at flowers. I walk across every morning to figure out what I have to sell or what the deer ate. Every morning there’s usually dew on it and it glistens. And I think to myself that it’s the most beautiful vegetable in the world. If you were to ask my brother, I bet he’d say corn. We grow a heck of a lot of corn, and he grows wonderful corn. I tell everyone it is the best corn in the Northeast, but they say every farmer says that! But we have people travel from Falmouth or Gorham just for our corn. So it must be pretty good. My brother’s other favorite is pumpkins. You should watch him handle a pumpkin! It’s like he’s holding a baby.
YOU PROVIDE FOOD TO PEOPLE IN WAYS THAT ARE SO DIFFERENT THAN A GROCERY STORE. HOW DO YOU THINK THAT MIGHT HAVE IMPACTED PEOPLE’S LIVES?
I think it’s a thinking impact. We have several customers who have truly embraced seasonal eating. I think more and more people have to get to that point. They basically shop here almost every day. And they come in and plan their meal based on what is in the farm stand. At peak season, like now, there’s quite a bit in there. It’s what they do now. They come in, look at what we have and plan their meals. And they say, “I love it!” I’d say that the fact that we are present in the center of multiple developments, it’s not about us selling food that impacts their lives, it’s about us growing food. Keeping this space and keeping that picture of where food comes from. They drive past that everyday, and I think that’s what impacts people’s lives. Not the farm stand versus the Hannaford experience. It’s that people can see where their food comes from. They can see us bringing it in, and us washing it and prepping it. They see that it’s not that easy. And we try to make it look beautiful, but sometimes, things wilt. And we forget food comes from dirt! And that things grow and munch on it! If you find a little mealy worm on your lettuce, that’s a good sign. When our lettuce is ready to harvest, we aren’t going to spray anything on it, that’s ludicrous!
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
That’s a very easy question for me. It goes back to when I had to write my applications to graduate school, and I had to write about this. What’s important to me is knowing that when I leave this Earth, I will have made a difference. I am a firm believer that we are all here to do something. And I really want what I do to have impacted wherever I am in some way. And that’s what is important to me.
WHAT IS A LESSON THAT I HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY OR ARE NOW LEARNING?
Have your “ bad boy” before you are fifty! (Laughs.) I have to tell you, I’ve got to write a book someday! I divorced him. You didn’t think you were going to get that response, did you? You are thinking, “Holy shit!” I was stupid at 53, and I met this guy. He was really cool, with great blue eyes and a motorcycle. Handsome guy, very charming, and I just fell in love with the guy! And I lost all of my common sense over this stupid stuff. I should have figured this out. Have your bad boy before your fifties. You should be in your twenties. And don’t ever marry your bad boy. I realized I need someone who grounds me. And I said I need a South Portland boy. Those South Portland boys have common sense and are kind. Traits that you really need. Right after I said that, I went to a bar. I like bars, they are my favorite places. So I’m sitting there and a South Portland boy walks in. And I say to him, “You are the guy I’ve been looking for! I just want you to know, I made a resolution and you are part of it.” He said, “Okay. Will you tell me what it is?” And I said, “Eventually.” He’s so nice. And we are together now. He was my designated driver that night, and he still says, “I’m her designated driver, two years later.”
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
There are two. I love the moment when I get here and I am the only one here. I get out my truck and I look around and I think to myself, “Holy cow, I get to do this everyday.” It’s a very intense day, but I get to do it everyday. I figure out what work I have to accomplish in the amount of time I have and with the amount of people I have. And I love to do that, it’s just so exciting. I tell people every morning what the plan is. Will that always come to fruition? Ninety percent of it usually happens that day. I also like the end of the day, about 3:30 or 4:00 when I think, “What did I get done? What do I need to do? Who do I need to call, how can I sell more vegetables?” And I pour myself a glass of wine.
For more about Jordan’s Farm, click here.