Aroostook power corridor faces opposition from rural landowners

ALBION — Over 50 years, Eric and Rebecca Rolfson have created a rural oasis in this central Maine farming community. On 123 acres, they have hand-built a log cabin and renovated a 200- year-old family farmhouse.

They have created a maple syrup business, cultivated hayfields that serve local dairy farmers and cut a community trail system through their woods. This is where they plan to grow old, on land where Eric Rolfson’s parents are buried.

So they were shocked last July when they received a letter from LS Power, a New York City-based power and transmission system developer.

The Rolfsons learned they were among 3,500 or so landowners with property on the potential route of the Aroostook Renewable Gateway, a roughly 140-mile overhead transmission line that would connect the largest wind farm east of the Mississippi River with New England’s electric grid.

Aroostook power corridor faces opposition from landowners
The latest proposed route of the Aroostook Renewable Gateway. Dotted lines are route options. Source: LS Power. View a larger version.

A map shows a potential 150-foot wide corridor slicing north-south through the Rolfson’s property.

Standing in the farmhouse’s yard in mid-November, looking up at the wooded ridge that could someday trace the path of transmission lines strung from 110-foot towers, Eric Rolfson expressed his frustration and fear after a lifetime of pouring his heart into the land.

“We love it here,” he said. “We can’t imagine looking up at those towers.”

When it was approved last June by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Janet Mills, the bipartisan legislation enabling the Aroostook Renewable Gateway was hailed as an achievement that would finally unlock northern Maine’s green energy potential while lowering electric rates. 

But already the Aroostook line is beginning to feel reminiscent of another controversial corridor — the troubled New England Clean Energy Connect project, the six-year effort by Central Maine Power’s parent company to build an overhead transmission line from Quebec to Lewiston.

After years of court battles, a citizens referendum was overturned in April and work was allowed to resume. Crews are being reassembled to finish the now-estimated $1.5 billion project, the company said, with plans to energize the line in 2025.

Meanwhile the Rolfsons, and neighbors in Albion, Palermo, Freedom, Thorndike and Unity, are organizing in opposition to the Aroostook line.

They have held protest rallies. They set up a Facebook page with 1,000 members and created a citizen group, Preserve Rural Maine. They’ve hired a Portland attorney with experience fighting transmission lines, including NECEC.

Nearly a dozen towns have enacted temporary moratoriums.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

The 2021 citizens’ initiative aimed at killing NECEC also contained unprecedented language that requires the legislature to approve any new “high-impact electric transmission lines.”

The idea was to provide a check on developers seeking to push projects through communities that opposed them. The Aroostook line was the first test of the new law and, based on the fight brewing here, it’s not working as planned.

Two problems are becoming obvious. First, rank-and-file lawmakers were asked by key legislative leaders to endorse the project before even knowing where the transmission corridor would run. Second, language in an initial 2021 transmission line bill encouraged new lines to be located in existing rights-of-way or corridors “whenever feasible.” But feasible is a broad term, leaving it to developers to assess what’s technically and financially doable.

The prospect of new transmission corridors going through resistive communities has led some lawmakers to take a step back.

Eleven relevant bills were proposed for the upcoming legislative session, ranging from study alternatives to preventing eminent domain takeovers to rescinding approval altogether. None got the initial go-ahead this month from the Legislative Council, the 10-member leadership body that controls the flow of legislation, although one was granted on appeal. The council includes two Aroostook County lawmakers who are key champions of the project: Senate President Troy Jackson, a Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, a Republican.

There’s wide agreement that Maine and the region will need more transmission lines to carry clean energy and phase out the fossil fuel generation linked to climate change. But the highly organized opposition against the Aroostook venture is raising a critical question about how Maine is pursuing its interconnection goals. 

Eric Rolfson and Rebecca Rolfson pose for a photo with their dog.
Eric and Becky Rolfson stand in one of their farm fields in Albion, below a proposed route for a transmission line from northern Maine. Photo by Tux Turkel.

What lessons have politicians and policy makers learned from the NECEC debacle, or from Northern Pass in New Hampshire, the failed attempt to construct a 192-mile overhead line from Quebec that was killed in 2018 after stiff community opposition?

Northern Pass, NECEC and Aroostook Renewable Gateway have something in common. They were designed to carry high-voltage power over lines strung on tall towers running through wide swaths.

By contrast, a similar-size project now being built from Quebec to New York City, the Champlain Hudson Power Express, plans to run cables underground and underwater in narrow corridors. Another cross-border proposal, Twin States Clean Energy Link, would put some of the line under state roadways.

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The Aroostook Gateway is the product of decades-long ambitions to connect Maine’s northernmost county with New England’s electric grid, and boost the local economy by building wind, solar and biomass power plants.

It remains in its early stages, planned to come on line in 2029. LS Power has yet to seek key permits from utility and environmental regulators.

As the process unfurls, two additional questions loom: Will Maine push ahead with an unpopular overhead transmission design that has snarled two similar high-profile projects? With an eye on lessons from Northern Pass and NECEC, is it still possible to bury cables underground?

For its part, LS Power stresses that no routes have been finalized.

The company met in July with residents along proposed route options to hear their concerns. It plans a second round of meetings in early 2024 and expects to adjust the route based on feedback.

The route is subject to change until all permits are in hand, the company said, no sooner than 2026.

The company even explored placing towers along sections of Interstate 95, but that idea was rejected by the Maine Department of Transportation. 

One thing not likely to change, according to Doug Mulvey, the company’s vice president for project development, is the alternating current, overhead wires design. LS Power is familiar with underground projects, working on one in San Jose, Calif., Mulvey said.

But burying a high-voltage line that carries the required direct current from Aroostook County to central Maine would cost roughly five times more than the overhead option, he said. That would be a non-starter because a top reason the $2.9 billion project won a competitive bid process at the Public Utilities Commission is it promised to save electric customers money.

“Everyone in the state, everyone we talked to, is extremely concerned about rates,” Mulvey said.

Adding to the complexity, LS Power and the PUC are bogged down in negotiations over details of the power purchase and transmission service agreements. Mulvey told the Portland Press Herald that the impasse was putting the project at risk.

Renewable energy versus ratepayers

The Aroostook Renewable Gateway checks a lot of boxes on the wish list for Maine’s clean energy aspirations.

The line would connect to a 170-turbine wind farm in southern Aroostook County called King Pine, to be built by Boston-based Longroad Energy. The $2 billion project would have a capacity of 1,000 megawatts, producing enough electricity to power 450,000 homes. Other generators, such as solar or biomass, might someday also be able to use the line.

In approving King Pine and the power line last January, the PUC estimated that most Maine residential electricity customers would pay an extra $1 a month — or $1 billion in total — for a 60% share of the project. The rest would be paid by Massachusetts customers as part of that state’s clean energy acquisitions. The actual megawatt-hour cost of electricity hasn’t been made public.

When it was approved by the PUC, the project was hailed by Mills’ energy office as a way to combat the impact of volatile natural gas costs on electricity supply, while creating economic opportunities in northern Maine. Jackson said it would unlock affordable, homegrown renewable energy and create good jobs.

“With today’s vote,” Jackson said at the time, “we are the closest the state has ever been to making the northern Maine transmission line a reality, and unleashing the untapped economic potential and power of Aroostook County.”

All this seemed far away in Albion, roughly 130 miles south of the planned wind project. This is dairy farm country in a state where the industry has been shrinking for decades. But here, 10 dairy farms hang on, evident by the hayfields and pastureland spread across rolling hills.

Driving the country roads, what sticks out most isn’t the cows. It’s the signs. Election season is over but what looks like roadside campaign signs are everywhere. Black-and-white signs read: “Keep LS Power off our land.” Yellow signs with an outline of a transmission tower say, “Stop Gateway Grid,” with the weblink,

A roadside sign that reads: Keep LS Power off our land
Roadside protest signs against LS Power and its proposed power line project are common along central Maine roadways near Albion, Freedom and Palermo. Photo by Tux Turkel.

The signs are on the Noyes Family Farm, a third-generation dairy operation with 100 cows that grows corn and hay on 370 acres. Chuck Noyes and his daughter, Holly, were part of a protest at the Albion town office in late July. It was organized to call attention to concerns ranging from loss of farmland to electromagnetic radiation from overhead wires.

In mid-November, Holly Noyes came to the Rolfson farmhouse, with several residents who formed action committees in their communities, to talk about next steps. Over pancakes and the farm’s maple syrup, they discussed a path forward.

“What are our next steps if the legislature isn’t going to listen?” asked Josh Kercsmar of Unity, vice president of the Preserve Rural Maine group. “Where can we turn?”

‘No real input’

This is not what lawmakers had in mind in 2021 when they considered LD 1710. The bill created the Northern Maine Renewable Energy Development Program and directed the PUC to seek proposals for a transmission line that would ship power from green-energy generators in Aroostook County into the New England grid. Jackson, who represents a district in far northern Maine, was the lead sponsor.

But some interest groups that testified on the bill, such as the Maine Farmland Trust, urged lawmakers to remove the “wherever feasible” clause, to “ensure that there is a strong preference for proposals that are collocated with existing utility corridors and roads, and as such, avoid further impacts to important natural and working lands.” No changes were made.

And after the passage in June of LD 924, a follow-up, legislative resolve sponsored by Jackson, Stewart and others to signal specific approval for the Aroostook Gateway, some lawmakers felt the process was being rushed.

“My big concern,” said Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter, “is that we’re approving this line, it’s going through 41 communities, but there was no real input during the legislative process before the approval was made.”

Foster, who serves on the legislative committee that handles energy matters, represents towns through which the line could pass.

He proposed a bill for the upcoming session to reconsider the project’s PUC approval. It was rejected by leadership in early November, along with all but one of the proposed remedial measures — a bid from Sen. Chip Curry, D-Waldo, to prevent eminent domain from being used to build the line.

A map showing how the power line corridor will impact the town of Albion.
This map depicts the proposed route of the power line, along with their farmhouse (Home 1), a planned family house and existing dwellings. Map courtesy Eric Rolfson.

“I think (Senate) President Jackson and others are determined to get this project done,” Foster said. “And I’ll leave it at that.”

Jackson’s perspective, however, is that some lawmakers who oppose wind farms were “piling on” to create obstacles.

After meeting with the Albion-area organizers, Jackson said he’s sympathetic plight and wants LS Power to do its best to mitigate impacts. But he doesn’t see how the lines can be buried, based on the PUC’s bidding criteria.

“That’s not what the PUC asked for in its request for proposals,” Jackson told The Maine Monitor. “They would have to re-bid the whole thing. You’re going to have different costs and ratepayers are going to be impacted.” 

But by selecting a project with overhead transmission lines, Maine is ignoring a lesson from both Northern Pass and NECEC, according to Beth Boepple, a Portland attorney who represented opponents in both cases. It’s technically feasible to run high-voltage cables underground along existing corridors or roadways, she said, and that’s what Maine should require.

“It’s one of the lessons we should have learned,” she said. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

One difference, Boepple said, is opponents have organized early. There’s still time to press the PUC and permitting agencies such as the Department of Environmental Protection to require underground cables. That could avoid long and costly legal battles, she said.

“We’re a long way from going to court,” she said. “There’s a lot that can be done through the permitting process.”

But even at this early stage, the process is fraught with competing tensions, according to Bill Harwood, Maine’s public advocate. 

The developer requested and won some assurances before investing millions of dollars. But the legislature had to sign off on a major project without key information.

Customers statewide want lower-cost electricity. Local residents, though, don’t want giant towers and overhead wires on their land. 

“Going forward,” Harwood said, “we need to think carefully about whether there’s a better way.”

The story Aroostook power corridor faces opposition from landowners appeared first on The Maine Monitor.

Maine’s vast rural expanse complicates the search for Lewiston shooting suspect

It takes about 13 minutes to drive from Schemengees Bar and Grille in Lewiston to the Papermill Trail/Miller Park boat launch in Lisbon. The fastest way is along Route 196, leaving the area locals call Lincoln Street Flats, cutting southeast across the city, past businesses, homes and places of worship and into neighboring Lisbon where the road crosses the Androscoggin River.

The tree-lined streets look quintessentially New England this time of year with the leaves’ red-orange hues.

It’s not known if the Lewiston shooting suspect, Robert Card, took that route after his deadly rampage at the bar and a bowling alley on Wednesday evening. But investigators found his Subaru abandoned at the boat launch shortly before 10 p.m. that night.

He hasn’t been seen since. 

With the search for Card now extending into a third day, investigators face a massive challenge: the suspect in Maine’s deadliest mass shooting has escaped in a state with an estimated 17.5 million acres of forest land and numerous rivers, vast expanses of uninhabited land dotted by small communities, farms, logging roads and two lane highways. 

More than 350 law enforcement officials in Maine were taking part in the manhunt, said Mark Latti, spokesman for Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Authorities spent Friday conducting extensive searches by air and boat, said Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck.

A police car sits in the middle of the road.
The scene at Just-In-Time Recreation on Mollison Way, at intersection with Main St. All of Mollison Way, from Main St to King Ave. and Fair St. is closed by police. Photo by Emily Bader.

Divers with the Maine State Police, Warden Service and Marine Patrol were getting ready to search a small section of the wide and meandering Androscoggin River, which stretches from Maine’s western border at the town of Gilead, through downtown Lewiston, until it meets the Kennebec River and eventually the sprawling Atlantic Ocean. 

A utility is using its dams to lower the water-level of the river in the area, but Sauschuck made it clear that would not be law enforcement’s only area of focus.

But the message from authorities on Friday was clear: they need the public’s help to locate a man they consider armed and dangerous. So far, more than 530 tips have come in from the public.

“Every minute this goes on we’re more and more concerned,” Sauschuck said. “That’s why we’re working 24/7.”

Maine has been here before

Maine’s vast wilderness and forest lands have shielded suspects from capture before. As the search dragged on Friday, the challenges ahead to locate Card evoked memories of past manhunts.

In 2015, Robert Burton, accused of killing his girlfriend, eluded capture for about nine weeks before he gave himself up. He lived in the woods in Piscataquis County, in central Maine, county officials and the Bangor Daily News said at the time.

It was the longest manhunt in state history. Tracking dogs and electronic road sign warnings were used in the extensive manhunt for Burton, the newspaper said. State police said he was suspected of hiding in the woods and stealing provisions from nearby campsites, Reuters reported at the time.

Three years later, it took officers from 200 jurisdictions during a four-day manhunt in the woods of Maine in April 2018 to locate John Williams, who was later convicted of fatally shooting Somerset County Sheriff Eugene Cole, Maine media reported at the time.

In Pennsylvania last month, convicted murder Danelo Cavalcante, 34, escaped from prison and avoided capture for nearly two weeks despite a massive manhunt to apprehend him. The New York Times reported it was a federal aircraft that detected a “heat signature” — an object giving off more heat than its surroundings — that eventually located him.

Robert Card knows the area 

Robert Card’s family has lived in Bowdoin for generations, and members of the family own hundreds of acres in the area, The Associated Press reported. Officers were at a home believed to belong to Card’s brother Thursday night. 

“This is his stomping ground,” Richard Goddard, who lives near the family, said of the suspect, according to the Associated Press. “He knows every ledge to hide behind, every thicket.”

Like the rest of Maine, Androscoggin and Sagadahoc counties, which were under shelter in place orders until Friday as police searched for Card, are heavily wooded, with a majority of their landmass covered by forest. 

Many trees line the roads of Lewiston.
South Ave looking toward the Androscoggin River and Lincoln St. Photo by Emily Bader.

Of Androscoggin County’s roughly 307,000 acres, 63% consists of forests, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Forest Service, compared to 60% of land in smaller Sagadahoc County.

Overall, 89% of Maine is covered by forest land, excluding water.

“We do look at all of these situations as if the individual could be there,” Sauschuck said of the focus areas for the search. “And if that’s the case, you’ll see tactical teams at some point” dressed in casual clothing “just because they’re out in the woods and they’re going to be out crawling around.”

Dense underbrush and downed trees are a couple complicating factors in searching through Maine’s varying woodlands and topography, said Bryan Courpois, a veteran search and rescue volunteer and president of Pine Tree Search and Rescue.

Gridded searches over a set tract of land can be bogged down by searchers having to stop and check underneath trees. The search can be much more efficient if the members of the team know each other well, Courpois said. That situation could be complicated when law enforcement personnel from multiple jurisdictions are on the scene. 

“It’s also sometimes dictated by the experience of the ground searchers and how well that particular group has worked,” Courpois said. “If there’s some people on our team that I’ve worked with a number of times … we can probably cover an area more efficiently than we could if we had some less experienced people.”

The search area 

Investigators were focused Friday on a boat launch on the Androscoggin River, using a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, underwater to search. Divers will join the search as early as Saturday.

“They’re using, right now, a remote-operated vehicle, a ‘submersible ROV,’ which they operate with a tether from the shore and basically it’s got propulsion and the ability to change depth … They’re also going to be physically in the water with scuba divers,” Latti said in an interview with The Maine Monitor.

Latti stood on Route 196 by St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Lisbon near the search area along the Androscoggin River. Police would not let anyone closer to the boat launch down the road.

Group of law enforcement by the Androscoggin River.
A group of law enforcement at the intersection of Lincoln and Locust Streets. The Androscoggin River is seen behind police. Photo by Emily Bader.

Overhead helicopters with the Maine Forest Service and New Hampshire State Police were also supporting the search for Card, Latti said. He said he did not know if the helicopters had any heat detecting equipment onboard, although the Portland Press Herald reported crews were using thermal imaging to scan the water. 

That heat-detecting technology becomes less effective if a body has been submerged in a cold river like the Androscoggin, a dive rescue expert told The Maine Monitor.

Whether by air, walking along the shoreline or remotely from land each approach comes with a trade-off between the area that can be covered and the level of detail that search ultimately provides.

“The helicopters that were above can cover a lot of ground, but they can’t focus as well as somebody walking along the shoreline,” Latti said.

When dive rescue and recovery teams start searching for a person, whether dead or alive, they rely on evidence and witnesses to determine where that person was last seen in relation to the body of water, said Justin Fox, a veteran diver for Colorado public safety agencies and president of Dive Rescue International.

Without evidence of where a person enters the water, a search area expands significantly, Fox said. Rather than closing in on a certain location, investigators have to first rule out where a person is not.

“I think that there’s a lot of unknowns in this instance,” Fox said of the kinds of information investigators in Maine have at this time. 

Should Card have drowned in the Androscoggin, then any targeted location effort might have to extend miles downstream with the flow of the river.

“There’s also the potential for the water to move a [drowning] victim,” Fox said. “So instead of sinking straight to the bottom, if there’s a current significant enough to move them, then they would also have to search downstream of the point last known.”

Police are seen on the road near the Lisbon boat ramp.
Law enforcement staged on Frost Hill Ave. near the boat ramp in Lisbon. Photo by Emily Bader.

Card’s whereabouts were still unknown by Friday afternoon.

“He could be anywhere at this point,” Kenneth Gray, a retired FBI Special Agent and a senior lecturer at the University of New Haven’s Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, told the Boston Globe. “He could be in Canada. He could be down in Massachusetts. He could be anywhere in the Northeast.”

New Hampshire State Police have sent SWAT team members to assist with ground searches in Maine, said an agency spokeswoman. 

Detectives with New Hampshire’s major crime unit are also helping investigators at multiple crime scenes. The Special Enforcement Unit is providing air support with its helicopter, she said. 

Troopers were also providing mental health services to people involved in the shooting, and shuttling blood donations from New Hampshire hospitals to Maine hospitals.

“New Hampshire State Troopers will continue to remain vigilant and visible, especially along our Maine border until this situation is resolved,” said Commissioner Robert Quinn in a press statement. “We will provide additional resources as requested by law enforcement partners.”

What the experts say

Edward Davis, who was Boston’s police commissioner during the 2013 Marathon bombings, said the situation was somewhat similar to what occurred in his city during a days long manhunt for the suspects. 

One big difference: greater Boston is an urban environment, whereas the area being searched in Maine is largely rural.

The bombings happened on April 15, 2013 and the second suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was not located until April 19. He was hiding in a boat parked in a Watertown backyard. 

During a manhunt, Davis said investigators typically set up a grid around the area to organize the search. They also scour social media and interview acquaintances to understand where the suspect might go.

Investigators would also see if the suspect had a second “switch car” or a boat they could use to evade police. They would use the suspect’s cell phone to track their location and look at surveillance video to locate them.

Card’s cell phone was found in his home by law enforcement, the Associated Press reported. Investigators also found a note.

Scott Sweetow, a longtime firearms instructor and military reservist who is now president of S3 Global Consulting, LLC, said it was apparent to him that Card had military training and knew how to handle a weapon. But he was optimistic he would be found.

“The average SWAT officer (federal, state or local) is likely to be far more proficient with long guns than this guy, and also part of a well trained team,” Sweetow said. “It may take some time, but they will eventually catch this guy.”

The story Maine’s vast rural expanse complicates the search for Lewiston shooting suspect appeared first on The Maine Monitor.

Rural towns hope to entice remote workers to move to the Pa. Wilds with a ‘free’ summer. Here’s how it’s going.

Mississippi Today joins national collaboration focusing on rural workforce development

Mississippi Today joins four U.S. newsrooms in exploring changes in rural workforce development as part of an editorial collaboration from the Institute for Nonprofit News’ Rural News Network (RNN).

As one of 75 newsrooms reporting on rural issues in 47 states, Mississippi Today is part of a national initiative to uncover the most critical needs in these communities. Collaborative reporting reaches more people to make meaningful change possible.

“We are delighted to have Mississippi Today join this reporting project to share how Mississippians can bridge gaps in the work-to-jobs pipeline for rural communities,” said Alana Rocha, Rural News Network editor. “This crucial reporting will be shared across the country to surface solutions for other communities fighting for a better future for rural workers.”

For the next six months, Mississippi Today will work with Cardinal News in Virginia, KOSU in Oklahoma, Shasta Scout in Northern California and The Texas Tribune in covering the issue for regional, statewide and national audiences. The journalists will explore how changing demographics, politics and economic needs are reshaping rural workforce development programs.

Mississippi Today’s higher education reporter Molly Minta will focus her reporting on one Mississippi Delta county, Issaquena, where less than 1% of adult residents have a bachelor’s degree, the lowest in Mississippi and the second lowest in the nation. Her research is showing that nearly a quarter of adults aged 25 or older in this sparsely populated county on the edge of the Mississippi River have attempted college but didn’t graduate. Her project will look at the barriers to higher education there but also focus on efforts underway to increase the county’s college-going rate.

“Working with this collaborative has enabled us to see how some of the same issues affecting Mississippi’s Issaquena County are at play in other parts of the country and to see how other communities are attempting to tackle the problem,” said Debbie Skipper, Mississippi Today’s Justice Team and Special Projects Editor. “We are also gaining insight and advice from the leadership at the Rural News Network as we move forward in the reporting and editing process.”

This series is made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation. Financial supporters have zero say in the editorial process.

The first round of the series publishes in early December, with follow-up stories set for early 2024.

The post Mississippi Today joins national collaboration focusing on rural workforce development appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Despite suburban sprawl, apple orchards and farmers find ways to survive in Berkeley County

BERKELEY COUNTY — Apples are everywhere in Berkeley County.

Each of the county’s three water towers has a Red Delicious painted on the side. In downtown Martinsburg, a giant statue of an apple marks the location of a time capsule planted in 1990. And at Musselman High, the mascot is the Applemen. Today, it’s just a Red Delicious with a green leaf, but at one point the apple mascot included beefy arms and legs and a screaming face.

The “Big Apple Time Capsule” in Martinsburg, placed in 1990 to be opened in 2040. Photo by Tyler Dedrick.

The school’s namesake, an apple processing plant, went out of business years ago. Today, it’s a church.

While apples loom large in the area’s history and culture, the fruit itself is increasingly disappearing from the Eastern Panhandle. Orchards once dotted the landscape; in 1987, Berkeley County alone had almost 10,000 acres growing apples and peaches. But as the Interstate 81 corridor has developed and folks from the D.C. Metro area moved in, the trees have been hacked down, the land paved over and warehouses and housing developments built instead.

As of the 2017 agricultural census — the latest number available — the county’s orchard land was only about a quarter of what it was 30 years ago.

Despite the changes, there are still farmers and orchardists in Berkeley County. Not far from the buzz of I-81, where trucks haul goods up and down the Eastern United States, one can still find rows and rows of apple trees. But as the county changes, those farmers and orchardists that remain are searching for ways to hold on and continue the agricultural tradition.

A tale of two orchards 

Back in the 1940s, decades before the interstate gobbled up nearly 40,000 acres of farmland, a man named George S. Orr Jr. started piecing together plots of orchard land.

By the time he died in the late 1980s, Orr had amassed over 1,000 acres. Today, the land is split between two parts of the family — each with different routes forward in the ever changing county.

West of Martinsburg, one path leads down a little gravel road to Orr’s Farm Market.

According to market manager Katy Orr-Dove, George Orr’s granddaughter, the market started thirty years ago with a simple idea: people could pay to come in and pick their own fruit. Over the years, that idea blossomed into a pumpkin patch, a petting zoo and hayrides in the fall — at one point they even had a small herd of buffalo.

Orr-Dove said when she got involved in the business after teaching for a while in Hagerstown, Maryland, she wanted to figure out a way to combine her passion for education with her background in farming.

“I found there were kids who didn’t know the sound a pig or a cow makes,” she said.

Orr’s Orchard Farm and Market is a third-generation family farm and apple orchard. Diversification has been key to the orchard’s continued success, said Katy Orr-Dove. Photo by Tyler Dedrick

The market, sitting on half of Orr’s original orchard, is what is nowadays called an “agritourism” attraction, essentially a working farm that has visitors come to see what farming is like. It’s a growing industry, and about 300 farms statewide engage in the practice, according to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture.

With the influx of new people in the county and the wider region, Orr-Dove said she’s seen the business move away from the wholesale production of apples — in this area, mainly for sauce and juice — towards direct retail sales. She estimates when she first got involved, the market only accounted for 15% of the orchard’s revenue. Today, it’s 40%.

“Diversifying really helps,” she said. “During 2020, we saw a hit in tourism, but the wholesale was strong. Right now, the apples aren’t selling, so tourism helps.”

Right now, she’s getting a little bit of help from the state too — a backup of last year’s crop at the cold-storage facilities has caused the apple market to bottom out. A bushel, usually about 40 pounds of apples, is going for as low as 85 cents, almost half of it costs to pick them.

To keep the orchards going in the area, for the first time in West Virginia, the state Department of Agriculture and the USDA stepped in to buy up 600,000 bushels and send them to food banks.

Over the hill is another chunk of George Orr Jr.’s empire — the Appalachian Orchard Company — which chose a different road. Headquartered just off I-81 next to the Martinsburg Industrial Park, the company grows and ships apples for production — mainly for apple juice and applesauce.

Julie Bolyard, CFO and granddaughter of George Orr, said the apple market has always been different in the Eastern Panhandle and the wider Shenandoah Valley. While in high producing states a group of growers might ship apples to a central packing house, growers in the Panhandle have always packed the apples themselves and sent them directly to processors like White House in Winchester or Knouse Foods in Pennsylvania, which bought out Musselman in 1984.

With the closure of Musselman and cutbacks at White House, Bolyard said they’ve had to get creative. That includes landing a fairly lucrative contract with GoGo squeeZ, the pouches of applesauce known to parents everywhere.

Like her cousin Katy Orr-Dove, Bolyard said diversification is key to moving forward — she and her husband have also started their own meat business, with sales at local farmer’s markets.

“I think it’s good to not have our apples in one basket,” Bolyard said.

Shrinking farmland

While the big spreads of large crops are dwindling in the county, others are trying to make do with what they have — people like Ben Thompson and Kathryn Rowley, of Willow Bourne Farms.

Located at the base of North Mountain (Buck Hill, as the locals call it), the two grow and produce about a hundred products for sale at local farmers’ markets. And that’s just on five acres of land.

Unlike the Orrs, whose roots are fused to the soil of Berkeley County like the trees they grow, Rowley and Thompson are newcomers — she’s originally from Boone County, he’s from Western Pennsylvania.

But they needed a place to sell their products. And while there are long-standing farmers’ markets in Charles Town and Shepherdstown, Martinsburg never really had one.

With a few other local producers, the couple helped start the Martinsburg Farmer’s Market. Now, after years of sweating in blazing parking lots selling their wares, the farmer’s market has a permanent home in the Martinsburg Roundhouse, an old railroad interchange that was the starting point for the first nationwide strike in the country.  Many of the regular vendors are first generation farmers, just like them.

Rowley said they’ve gotten nothing but support from the established farmers in the area.

“I think the bigger farms like your Orrs have a bit of nostalgia because it reminds them of their grandfather or their great-grandfather selling produce on the side of the road,” Rowley said. “They’re not working to put people out of business — they’re rooting for us.”

A housing development encroaches on fields and farmland. Photo by Tyler Dedrick.

And the support for the market has been a mix of folks. Thompson and Rowley said they get visitors from the city of Martinsburg who don’t have fresh foods within walking distance. They’ve also benefited from the influx of people who usually live in houses built where farmland used to be: people who moved in from Northern Virginia looking for local foods.

“They’re more health conscious and are trying not to support Big Ag,” Rowley said.

Farmland preservation

While Berkeley County has seen runaway growth and loss of farmland, the county was the first in the state to establish a farmland protection program in 2003 — now there’s a statewide program and 17 county-run organizations.

With no zoning in the county, the protection program is one of the few tools for “responsible growth,” according to county director Resa Ingram-Orsini, a fourth-generation farmer herself.

The program is pretty straightforward: if a farmer wants their land to remain for agricultural use forever, they apply to the board. If they are selected for farmland protection, the board does a survey of the plot and conducts two appraisals — one at a farmland rate and one at either commercial or residential rate. The difference between the two values is paid to the farmer (up to $6,500 an acre).

In exchange, the farmer has an easement written into the property designating it for farming and agricultural practices only.

Ironically, the program is possible because of the increased development in the area. It’s funded through the transfer tax on property sales — a “Catch-22” according to board chairman Tom Gleason. After two decades in existence, 80 farms totalling 8,500 acres are under protection.

One of them is Appalachian Orchard, which in 2022 became the first working orchard in the state to undergo farmland protection, putting 350 acres of the company’s land into the easement.

Bolyard called it a “decision of the heart.”

“The downfall of the program is because the land is strictly agricultural, it’s worth less when you get a loan from the bank,” she said. “But that doesn’t matter — we did this because I have three kids and if they want to get into farming, they’ll have the land to do it.”

But most of the county’s 73,000 acres of farmland still isn’t protected, and developers have been grabbing up land in the Shenandoah Valley portion of the county, where water and sewer hookups abound.

That’s where, just west of Inwood, White House owns a massive orchard that adds up to nearly a third of the county’s remaining orchard land.

White House is still growing apples there. But during the building boom of the early aughts, a small subdivision started to bisect a portion of the land. In recent years, that subdivision has almost cut the land in half with houses.

A couple years ago, the land was put up for auction, cut into five parcels of land. At the time, it was advertised in The Washington Business Journal and other D.C. Metro publications as a perfect opportunity for more home building and development.

The land didn’t sell, this time, but could be relisted in the future.

But across the road is another orchard, owned by the Appalachian Orchard Company. This one, though smaller, is a 250 acre spread with trees dating back to the late 1980s.

“It isn’t protected yet,” Bolyard said. “But the key word there is yet.”

Despite suburban sprawl, apple orchards and farmers find ways to survive in Berkeley County appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

Shortage of pharmacists leaving customers in peril

With pharmacists around the country walking off the job or threatening to do so, Maine pharmacies have experienced sudden closures, infrequent hours and frustration from customers who say they’re unreliable.

Over the past several weeks, employees at Walgreens and CVS, the nation’s two largest pharmacy chains, staged walkouts or did not show up for work to protest what organizers told The Washington Post are conditions that threaten the safety of employees and patients.

The walkouts show pharmacists feel “safety is so compromised that it’s actually better to not open the pharmacy,” than to open it, said Emily Dornblaser, a founding faculty member of the University of New England School of Pharmacy and director of interprofessional education.

“They just can’t meet the needs of the people that need them. And in doing so, they’re potentially putting other people at risk.”

There have been no reports of walkouts at Maine pharmacies as of Friday, but national organizers told CNBC that Walgreens walkouts are scheduled for Oct. 30 to Nov. 1. It is unclear whether any Maine pharmacists will participate.

Meanwhile, at least eight Walgreens have closed since 2020.

There is a shortage of pharmacists in Maine and nationwide, Dornblaser said. It started in the mid-2000s, when a shortage prompted a number of pharmacy school openings. But then the 2008 recession hit, and pharmacists who may have otherwise retired continued to work, she said.

Starting about six years ago, Maine finally met the demand for pharmacists — and then some. Jobs became more competitive, wages dropped, and so did applications to pharmacy schools.

In the fall of 2018, UNE School of Pharmacy reported 273 students enrolled in its Doctor of Pharmacy program, according to data from the university. By the fall of 2022, enrollment had dropped to 116 students, a nearly 60% decrease over five years.

Maine’s only other pharmacy school, at Husson University in Bangor, admits 65 students per year, according to its website.

“Right in the middle of that, then, is a pandemic,” Dorblaser said.

Complicating the equation is that pharmacists are doing a lot more than filling prescriptions.

“We’ve definitely seen a lot more added to our plate: testing, delivery of vaccines. We’re right now in the introduction phase of the 23-24 COVID vaccine, along with our flu vaccine, along with the (respiratory syncytial virus) vaccine,” said Steve Maki, president of the Maine Pharmacy Association.

“So, I mean, there’s a lot of additional services and things that three years ago weren’t even on our radar of, ‘Oh my gosh, this is now something we have to adjust for and we have to plan for.’”

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Maki, who has been a pharmacist since 1996 and opened Spruce Mountain Pharmacy in Jay in 2009, said the pharmacy landscape “seems like it changes right before our eyes.”

“Three years ago, pharmacists weren’t even considered as providers in the state,” he said, referencing a bill passed during the 130th Legislature that amended wording to the Maine Pharmacy Act to add that a pharmacist is a “provider of healthcare services,” but did not effectively change what pharmacists do.

The additional responsibilities led to “substantial burnout,” Dornblaser said.

Compounding that, wages for pharmacy technicians, who provide critical support by counting and filling pills, stocking shelves, giving immunizations and assisting customers, have remained low for years, Dornblaser said.

A customer and pharmacist engage in a conversation at a pharmacy counter
The pressure and focus on generating revenue is demoralizing for a profession that is supposed to be centered around helping people, said a retired pharmacist. Photo courtesy of CVS.

The average hourly wage for a pharmacy technician in May 2022 was $18.12, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Dornblaser said during the pandemic-induced workforce shortage in other industries, she often heard of techs lured from pharmacies for better-paying jobs.

“You had people who had really a large amount of responsibility in the job in terms of keeping people safe, who weren’t compensated nearly as much as somebody working at … a McDonald’s,” she said.

Not only are pharmacists overworked and pharmacies understaffed, but there are fewer brick-and-mortar locations for people to get prescriptions filled.

Since 2020, Walgreens has closed locations in Auburn, Bangor, Fort Fairfield, Guilford, Millinocket, Newport, Pittsfield and Portland, according to pharmacy board licensing records that were confirmed by a Walgreens spokesperson.

Walgreens, CVS and Rite-Aid, which had already closed hundreds of stores nationwide before the pandemic, have since announced hundreds more closures.

Walgreens announced in June it would close 150 stores and in 2021, CVS said it would close 900 stores by next year.

Rite-Aid, which closed its Maine locations by early 2018, announced earlier this month it filed for bankruptcy and will close hundreds of stores.

In rural areas, inconsistent hours, staff shortages and closures mean residents can’t depend on their local pharmacy to get their medications — if they even have a pharmacy near them.

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Peter McCormick spends his summers on Campobello Island, just over the bridge from Lubec, in Canada. When he’s there, he transfers his prescriptions from a Walgreens pharmacy near his primary residence in Vermont to the one closest to his summer home, 40 miles away in Machias.

One Friday last summer, he received a notification two prescriptions were ready for pickup and made the 50-minute drive to Machias. When he got there, he said, the pharmacy was closed. A clerk told him, “We don’t have enough pharmacists,” and he could try the Calais Walgreens an hour away.

“A woman standing nearby said to me, ‘Don’t bother going to Calais because the Walgreens there is closed, too,’ ” McCormick said.

“Thankfully I had enough medication to get me to Monday, but the episode caused me an unnecessary three-hour round trip and would have been a much bigger problem if I hadn’t ordered my refills somewhat early. Overall, very disappointing,” he said.

Last month, Walgreens signed a consent agreement with the Maine Board of Pharmacy that said the chain’s Machias and Calais locations closed without notification and did not meet the state requirement that pharmacies are open for at least 40 hours per week on multiple occasions. It agreed to pay a $10,500 fine.

Walgreens paid at least $68,000 in penalties last year after failing to meet staffing requirements.

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“There are times when we must adjust or reduce pharmacy operating hours, or temporarily close a store, as we work to balance staffing and resources in the market to best meet customer demand. When this occurs, we make every effort to minimize disruption for patients and customers by selecting days with the lowest prescription demand to ensure that there is a nearby pharmacy to meet immediate prescription needs,” Walgreens spokesperson Kris Lathan said in an email.

“We also provide patients as much advance notice as possible through signage, automated phone calls, updates to our online scheduler, and adjustments in refills,” she said, but did not respond to specific questions from The Maine Monitor about the penalties, store closures or walkouts.

Lance Keen of Cooper said those stores are a “mess,” with “sporadic closures and can’t be relied on.”

He, too, experienced an incident where he ran out of a prescription and was unable to get it refilled in a timely manner, causing him “physical distress.”

With his usual pharmacy being 20 miles away, Keen said he has to be more attentive to when he needs to send in refill requests. He has also started to get his prescriptions delivered through Express Scripts, a prescription benefit manager that offers home delivery.

Mail order services offer convenience and consistency, especially for people in rural areas, like McCormick or Keen in Washington County, but Dornblaser worries an overreliance on them is a missed opportunity to develop “that community relationship.”

“Often it’s the pharmacist that you sort of casually mention something to and they can sort of say, ‘You know, that sounds like this,’ or, ‘You should go get that checked out,’ ” she said.

They can catch potential drug interactions, administer vaccines or serve as an easily accessible healthcare professional to answer questions.

The possibility of more closures worries her.

“We are a very rural state and, you know, having access to a healthcare provider can be such a lifeline for people,” Dornblaser said. “And the loss of a pharmacist or a pharmacy in a community has a pretty big impact overall.”

The story Shortage of pharmacists leaving customers in peril appeared first on The Maine Monitor.

In Oklahoma’s Black Belt, land ownership and power built Black wealth

Reading Time: 10 minutes

  • Attendees, some wearing cowboy hats, sit in the stands watching the rodeo.
  • Riders on horse travel down the street as residents watch.
  • A group of young men perform with drums in the street as a group of people sit on the sidewalk to watch the performance.

BOLEY, Okla.

The biggest weekend of the year in this tiny town kicks off with an hours-long parade. Cowboys and cowgirls trot their horses along downtown blocks lined with watchful spectators and vendors selling their juiciest barbecue meats.

This story also appeared in Reckon

Inside a squatty stone community center, a vintage photography exhibit documents Boley’s better days, when a pair of banks and dozens of homegrown businesses on those same streets bustled as the town center of a prosperous agricultural region.

The parade kicks off the Boley Rodeo & Barbecue Festival, one of the nation’s more well-known celebrations of Black cowboy culture, taking place as it does in the largest of what once were 50 Black towns in the state.

Only 13 still exist.

The rodeo celebrates a certain Black presence in Oklahoma and the history of the Western frontier, as well as its place in Black farming, past and present.

Nearly half the Black-operated farms in the nation today are beef cattle ranches. In Oklahoma, it’s two of every three. And most of the Black farms are in the eastern part of the state, where Boley is located.

Yet, the Memorial Day weekend festivities also celebrate a place Boley, other Black towns, and the Greenwood section of Tulsa — home to the “Black Wall Street” destroyed in 1921 — occupy in America’s history.

Black folks, “not only farmers, but doctors, lawyers, and craftsmen of all kinds,” came here seeking “greater opportunities and more freedom of action than they [were] able to find in the older communities North or South,” Booker T. Washington, the noted Black educator and civil rights leader, wrote after visiting the town just two years after its official establishment in 1903.

Back then, Black folks by the thousands came west. Land was plentiful, and so were the cattle. The soil was fertile. Cotton, the region’s king crop, was high.

“Boley, like the other negro towns that have sprung up in other parts of the country, represents a dawning race consciousness, a wholesome desire to do something to make the race respected,” Washington wrote, “something which shall demonstrate the right of the negro, not merely as an individual, but as a race, to have a worthy and permanent place in the civilization that the American people are creating.”

Boley town marker. (Boley Facebook page)

The land that made Boley

Without the Trail of Tears, Boley as Booker T. Washington described it would not have been. And the Trail of Tears was a dispute over rich agricultural land.

In 1830, Congress passed and President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, which effectively evicted thousands of Native Americans who made up the “Five Civilized Tribes” from their ancestral homelands in the Southeast and the Plains and gave their stolen lands to white settlers.

Thousands of Native Americans were displaced to land that included what is now Oklahoma.

The Muscogee Creek Nation was one of the tribes, along with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole, rooted in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina. The Muscogee enslaved people and brought those enslaved with them to the area around what now is Boley.

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The Muscogee aligned themselves with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Several factors may have influenced the decision, including the tribe’s historic ties to the American South and to white Southern ancestors, religious ties, the defense of separateness and anti-Blackness as an idea and economic reality, according to David Chang, author of “The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929.”

Afterwards, in order to be accepted back into the Union, they agreed to grant Black people freedom as well as full tribal citizenship. Over time, they were forced to give up much of their land to the federal government. They were also pushed to allot land to all tribal citizens.

One of the newly enfranchised Creek Freedmen was James Barnett, and 160 acres of land was allocated to his daughter, Abigail. Boley, about 70 miles southwest of Tulsa, would rise on that land, as would the lives of those who would make it their home, place of business or ticket to success.

“At this time, the U.S. is an agricultural society. So to seek opportunity, to seek economic independence, is often to seek land ownership,” Chang said.

Black cowboys are born

Enslaved people weren’t the only thing the Muscogee brought to the land that later would become Oklahoma and part of its Black Cowboy culture. Cattle had been an essential part of their economic life in the Southeast, and they brought their herds and their know-how, too.

Some tribes in the Indian Territory had already been cattle herding, but struggling to do well. Not the newcomers. With the help of those they had enslaved, they developed a successful cattle industry on the new frontier.

After the Civil War, the Muscogee economy struggled. Next door in Texas, cattle farming was booming, and many of the large herds were driven to railheads and to slaughter on trails that went through the Indian Territory. Black cowboys became a skilled workforce for those drives.

Many had been trained as cowhands on cattle ranches prior to the Civil War, and they operated those ranches when their slaveholders went off in support of the Confederacy.

After the war, the formerly enslaved were able to move around freely, and that gave them the opportunity to work nearly every type of job on the long drives to Kansas and other key markets.

And cowboy work paid more than sharecropping, the other principal way for a Black man to make a living. They often were paid the same amount as the white men who rode beside them, and more than the Mexican vaqueros and the Tejanos whose ancestors had been so critical in the years before.

Generations in the making

Much of the land obtained by Oklahoma’s first-generation Freedmen was great for growing cotton. In other areas, the financial grass was greener on the other side — rich in coal and oil.

Abigail Barnett’s land, as it turned out, was most valuable because of its location. It was smack dab on the path of a developing railroad route west from the transportation hub of Fort Smith, Arkansas, just across the eastern border.

There were no towns in the region, so Boley became its regional business center. It would be an early 20th century town run by Black folks for Black folks, a place where local governments empowered by Black voters would control most of the essential institutions of daily life.

An edition of The Boley Progess newspaper from 1906. According to the official town of Boley website, the weekly newspaper began in 1905. The paper and various advertising campaigns circulated through the South and lured many former slaves to the new town. (Oklahoma Historical Society)

“It might be somebody who can sell the inputs that you need for your farm,” said Chang, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota. “It might be a small bank, and the idea of a small financial institution is very important in this situation because of course, capitalism is about capital and you have to have access to capital. And who has the capital? The banks.”

Boley would have two, including the first nationally chartered bank in the nation owned by Black folks. Eventually, it also would have three cotton gins, its own electrical plant and more than its share of bustling, Black-owned businesses.

Its townsfolk were among Boley’s biggest boosters. They took out ads in newspapers and sent word to family and friends back East, telling them how good the living could be in this place with more promise and prosperity than persecution and punishment.

“It was a project that was generations in the making for these African American people,” Chang said. “This kind of sovereign institution, whether it be a farm or a church, or a growing store or a small bank, is an effort of taking away the fragility of many African Americans at this time.”

A raisin in the sun

As much as Booker T. Washington’s prose described Boley’s beginnings and what it could be, another Black man’s poem, written some four decades later, might well describe the condition of so many Black Americans years later, including those who’d planted their seeds of hope in Boley. “What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes asked, in his poem “Harlem.” Does it shrivel up, he wondered, “like a raisin in the sun?”

But the dream of Boley was deferred long before the town was established.

The Indian Appropriations Act of 1889 opened up two million acres of forcibly unoccupied land for claim by U.S. citizens, mostly white settlers, including some who rushed in to claim land before the official opening date. Those early rushers are the “Sooners” of Oklahoma lore, those claimants who acted sooner than the others.

The settlers assumed considerable governmental power when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. They used it in the same way that other states, most prominently those of the former Confederacy, did.

Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has discussed that period and process in American history as Redemption, “when the gains of Reconstruction were systematically erased and the country witnessed the rise of a white supremacist ideology that, we might say, went rogue, an ideology that would long outlast the circumstances of its origin.”

Segregation in schools and public transportation would become law, not just culture. Black voting would be suppressed and Black voters disenfranchised. The promise of a better life that had drawn Black folks to Boley and the rest of the state would seem more and more to be a return to what they had sought to put behind them.

Boley has changed through the years: Pull the slider up and down to see a historic photo (date unknown) of Boley and a current day photo from 2002 of the town. (Credits: Oklahoma Historical Society, April Simpson / Center for Public Integrity)

Boley’s Black-run local government created somewhat of a protective bubble for its residents. But other problems intruded.

“The population started declining in the ’20s when the boll weevil came along, which is a bug, and it chewed up the cotton,” said Henrietta Hicks, the town historian and Boley native. “Plus the fact, the [federal] government stopped the farmers, especially Black farmers, from growing the amount of cotton that could feed a family.”

The Great Depression hastened the town’s decline, as did the fate of the Fort Smith and Western rail line: Founded in Boley in 1899, it ceased operation in February 1939.

“And then on top of that, there’s the increasing rabidity of white supremacy across the nation, and especially in Eastern Oklahoma,” said Chang, the University of Minnesota history professor.

“The rise of outlaw elements of white supremacy, like the Ku Klux Klan, and very much legal instruments of white supremacy — like much of the government of the state of Oklahoma and all of its counties — made it difficult for these towns to really survive.”

By 1950, Boley’s population — about 4,000 several years after it was incorporated in 1905 — was 646.

Today, Boley is barely an echo of its past.

Most of the businesses are dusty, vacant shells. The schools have all shut down. Machines do much of the work that field hands did before. And the charms of city life seduce the young.

Still, a younger generation of Boley Bears, locals who’ve taken on the name of the old high school’s mascot, want to keep the town alive. Some have returned and some never left.

They know they’re investing in a Boley that isn’t what it was.

But who says it can’t be better?

This story was produced in partnership with the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

The post In Oklahoma’s Black Belt, land ownership and power built Black wealth appeared first on Center for Public Integrity.

A rural family is doing what has to be done, one gig job at a time

Over the last couple of decades, Jamie and Aura Moore have cobbled together a living for their family of six, doing everything from lobster fishing, chimney sweeping and photography, to restaurant work, midwifery and carpentry.

They even nibbled for awhile at a bunny food business.

The philosophy of life for this couple is a little like Jamie’s approach to his primary occupation of carpentry.

“It’s a whole different way of thinking,” said Jamie Moore, who also writes poetry. “It’s all about following the laws of the wood, working with it, and being able to keep stuff from falling apart on you.” 

The family’s six-acre Machias homestead, perched along a brook that meanders into Little Kennebec Bay, is rife with symbolism that captures their tenacious way of life; from the rutted, winding road leading to their modest farmhouse, stretched over the years with salvaged lumber, to the home’s overflowing pantries of canned foods preserved from bountiful gardens.

The couple, Jamie now 52 years old and Aura 44, bought the home about a decade ago with $48,000 in cash, saved over the years by renovating and leapfrogging from house to house, doing all of the work themselves.

Jamie said he knew nothing about construction when they bought and renovated their first house. The only tool he had was an axe left by the previous owners.

It hasn’t gotten much easier.

“After we closed on this house, we had six dollars left in our bank account. We said, ‘OK kids, let’s go to Dunkin Donuts and celebrate — each of us gets a donut!’” Jamie laughed. Aura quickly corrected him, remembering they could only afford donut holes. 

Jamie Moore operates an electric saw while cutting wood.
Jamie Moore building his daughter’s home from salvaged wood. Courtesy photo.

Their precipitous tenacity is not a new story Downeast. For many, it is the story. 

Washington County, with a poverty rate hovering just below 20 percent, consistently falls within the three poorest counties in the state.

With a population of 31,437, according to the U.S. Census Data for 2022, less than a quarter of residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Roughly half of the working-age population is even counted in the civilian (non-public-sector) labor force.  

About a third of those workers are classified, like the Moores, as self-employed — the so-called “gig economy” — based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

These dogged statistics exist despite the region’s rich abundance of natural resources, including lobster and other fisheries, lumber, and wild blueberries, industries that would presume a wealth of good-paying traditional employment opportunities.  

The problem is these seemingly good-paying jobs come and go with the seasons.

“You have to be creative to come up with something to be able to survive,” said Jamie Moore.  “Usually you’ve got to have two or three things going on. You have to be willing to do whatever you have to do.”

To make ends meet, Jamie and Aura — who also homeschool their children, are renovating their house, and building another house for their oldest daughter, Praise, and her husband — have to scrimp and work a variety of jobs.

Jamie builds custom furniture, does construction and sweeps chimneys. Aura pitches in with her professional photography, and by growing and canning nearly all the family’s food, including meat and fish. 

The kids also pitch in, with sons Seamus and Sean helping with salvage and building projects. For about five years, 18-year-old daughter Gracie ran a successful rabbit food business, doing everything from the foraging to the package design, that also helped keep the family afloat. 

According the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, only 37 percent of Washington County’s two-adult, two-children households (the most commonly used benchmark) are making the approximately $96,000 annual living wage the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Living Wage Calculator estimates is needed in Washington County to afford basic necessities, such as food, child care, health insurance, housing and transportation.

Despite assiduous efforts, the Moore household’s income, with three children still living at home, falls far short of even the lower benchmark living wage.

A dozen jars of canned fish line a shelf inside the home of Jamie and Aura Moore.
Canned fish on a shelf in the Moores’ home. Photo by Joyce Kryszak.

It’s an economic reality recognized by many community leaders, including the Sunrise County Economic Council. The nonprofit organization works with municipalities, businesses and other nonprofits to create jobs and bolster prosperity in the county.  

During a SCEC web presentation in March giving an update on the county’s economy, the group’s executive director, Charles Rudelitch, said native Downeasters tend to perceive the ebb and flow of seasonal employment as natural.

But he said it’s not, adding it’s a real challenge for small businesses to make a profit and for individuals to make a living wage when demand for goods and services varies so much during the year.  

Despite the region’s economic challenges, Rudelitch said the personal income reported by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for Washington County in 2021 was a surprising $1.5 billion.  

“It’s easy in Washington County to focus on how the county performs poorly relative to other parts of Maine and New England, but there’s an awful lot of economic activity here,” Rudelitch said during the presentation. “It’s important to remember just how important self-employment is in the county.”

The SCEC recently opened its MaineStreet Business Building in Machias, hoping to foster the region’s entrepreneurial spirit.

The center provides small businesses with low rent, digitally connected office spaces, and professional support and training. A partnership with Washington County Community College offers two free online successive credit-bearing courses, covering the fundamentals of running a business.  

Katie Bragg, the director of small business and entrepreneurship for the SCEC, said there’s already great interest from people who want to grow a hobby into a sustainable business. But the training also provides a reality check.

“Sometimes people are told if you do something that you’re passionate about, it will be wonderful all the time and that’s not the case, it’s not always fun,” Bragg said. 

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Another focus for the SCEC is building a broader economic foundation for the county.

The organization supports larger existing and emerging industries, such as the $110 million Kingfish land-based aquaculture facility being built on Chandler Bay in Jonesport. Given the green light after several permit challenges, the company is projected to create 70 year-round, living-wage jobs and 100 temporary construction jobs.

The frame of a new home.
An under construction home being built for the Moores’ daughter. Courtesy photo.

That could be a boon for people looking for a full-time career, and for gig construction workers like Jamie Moore, who is always hunting for work close to home.

Over the last couple of years, Moore has spent weeks and often months away, traveling as far as New Hampshire to take remodeling and construction jobs.

He admits it’s hard for the family to be separated, and the high cost of gas, as well as the wear and tear on their two vehicles (a 2003 Honda CRV and a 2012 Subaru Forester) eats into his earnings.

But for Moore — who spent about eight years making what he called decent money as a lobster fisherman and another three dragging for scallops in Maine’s icy waters — it’s worth the trade-off.   

“It was really hard being out there, sticking your hands in the dead fish, it would just turn my stomach so bad,” Jamie said. “I just kept telling myself I gotta go back, I gotta go back. I’ve just got to do it.”

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Eventually the money he was able to earn as a furniture and cabinet maker lured him from the water and those heftier, at least seasonally, steady paychecks.

These days Jamie concentrates on the larger construction jobs because he can make more money. He said trying to make a living building custom furniture isn’t a viable career Downeast, where so many others are also scraping to get by. 

“I just didn’t have the heart,” he said. “People wanted a table, and I was like, I want them to have a table! So I would charge them what they could afford.”

That sense of fairness is a core principle for Jamie and Aura, who place their faith in God and their commitment to the Golden Rule at the center of all they do.

A brown table constructed by Jamie Moore sits in his workshop.
A 14-foot hand-hewn table built by Jamie Moore. Courtesy photo.

For the Moores, sometimes donating or bartering work and volunteering their time have to be factored into their personal “living wage” formula. For example, Aura spent three weeks in Uganda four years ago, volunteering her professional photography skills at a nonprofit birthing center.  

Not only did her photography help generate donations for the center that provides critical maternity services in the impoverished country, but the experience also motivated Aura to come home and begin a new kind of journey.

She decided to earn a Bachelor of Science degree as a certified midwife, and for the last four years has traveled back and forth to Bangor for classes and for her preceptorship, requiring participation in more than 50 births.  

She graduated this month, welcomed home by a massive wood sign her husband erected in their field by the road that was hand-painted by her artistic children with flowers and the words “Congratulations Mama.” 

Although her new profession will bring in some much-needed additional income, the couple knows the family likely still will be scraping by, having to do most things themselves, do with less or simply do without. 

They’ll still have to leave the county for work too, at least for a while. For the next two years, Aura will live with a family in Bangor every other week to begin her midwife career at a birthing center; Washington County doesn’t have a stand-alone birthing facility.

But it still won’t be a steady income. As a certified, experienced midwife with a four-year degree, Aura will be paid only hourly for prenatal visits and a set fee for each birth. Still, neither she nor Jamie regret their occupational choices.

“We’ve always had times of abundance and times when it’s been pinched,” Aura said. “But we have been very blessed and we’re both just doing what we love.”

Jamie agreed, adding that making a living sort of on the fly — one gig, one piece of furniture, one birth at a time — isn’t for everyone. 

“I don’t want to in any way make it look like it’s easy for us,” he said. “None of it is perfectly organized and on schedule. But it gets done.”

The story A rural family is doing what has to be done, one gig job at a time appeared first on The Maine Monitor.

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