A Lifetime Project Blooms
“Follow your passion.” “Pursue your dream.” How often we hear these encouragements toward self-fulfillment, and yet how often we respond to them, wide-eyed, with questions. An inner voice asks, “How would I do that? With what money and whose support?” Perhaps we would act, if we knew how. Far less commonly heard are the nuts and bolts of re-direction—the path to the passion, the road to the dream.
Erica Berman is co-founder of Veggies to Table, a farm that donates 100 percent of its produce to those facing food insecurity in mid-Coast Maine. She is the right person to listen to when it comes to the how-to behind an aspiration. When she heard the calling for a more meaningful life, she listened. She left the one she had created for over twenty years—an American in Paris running a thriving luxury vacation business—and relocated to Newcastle, Maine, to begin anew. Together with her husband, Alain Ollier, whom she met in France, Erica now spends her days cultivating the produce that the farm provides to underserved residents of Lincoln County. They are helped by many volunteers and a farm manager. On the farm, they use organic, no-till methods to grow vegetables, fruits, and flowers for community need and pleasure. And Erica’s further goal is to teach others how to do the same.
It’s a humbling, inspiring pivot, from a business devoted to romantic Parisian getaways to a grow-to-donate farm in coastal Maine. For Erica, co-founding this non-profit organization meant a transition from Franco-American businesswoman to New England farmer. What she makes clear about the process: it took a synergy of hard work and active community collaboration.
The vision for the farm took hold after the couple moved to the Newcastle-Damariscotta area, a place Erica has known and loved since childhood. There, she and her husband purchased land in the wooded outskirts of town. “We knew we wanted a lifetime project,” Erica explains, “but we didn’t know what that lifetime project was.”
That changed when, on a day in the spring of 2017, Alain turned on the car radio, tuned into National Public Radio, and heard the jaw-dropping facts about hunger in Maine: one in five children not knowing when there will be a next meal; one in seven adults facing the same situation; Maine ranking highest among the New England states in food insecurity, with at least 13.6 percent of its residents living with hunger. When Alain shared what he learned with Erica, a light went on for both of them.
Their property would become a working farm with the mission to provide high-quality produce to those without physical or financial access. The farm would engage the broader community as well, providing volunteer opportunities, lessons in sustainable farming, and educational outreach on farm-to-table food preparation and nutrition.
Immersion in the local culture of donation farming was the path that led Erica and Alain to Veggies to Table. They volunteered with the Lincoln County Gleaners, and from there Erica served on the Steering Committee and greater involvement with Lincoln Country’s food pantries, school programs, and senior centers. They met the founders of Growing to Give, a grow-to-donate farm in Brunswick, and came away with inspiration and advice. The managers at Twin Villages Foodbank Farm in Nobleboro helped the couple understand how their half-acre farm could become a targeted force serving the large nutritional needs of mid-coast Maine.
Through these community collaborations, Erica and Alain learned that they could “supplement and complement” existing food-donation efforts, bolstering the reserves of fresh produce at regional food programs and enhancing the varieties of produce available.
In spring 2019, Veggies to Table was launched—a farm manager found, volunteers recruited, beds prepared, and vegetables, fruits, and flowers planted. In the first year of operation, they donated 4250 pounds of produce, or 3269 meals, to over 30 organizations. As of this autumn’s harvest, that tally almost tripled, rising to 12,000 pounds of produce. The farm stretched, Erica explained, “to get the maximum amount of food to as many people possible, especially given the heightened need due to COVID-19.”
But that’s not all, Erica added, shifting her focus from what is needed to what is also delightful to behold. “I want to grow successful, beautiful crops,” she emphasized. Part of the Veggies-to-Table mission is to enrich foodbanks’ offerings with a wide variety of unique and appealing crops. They grow over 50, in fact—mainly heirloom varieties. “There’s joy for me in diversity,” Erica said. “I don’t want to grow one kind of carrot, tomato, or bean, when I can grow 10.” That aesthetic impulse also finds its way into the bouquets of flowers donated to community members. “You should see the happiness on people’s faces when they receive flowers,” Alain said, with Erica adding, “The goal with our flower donations is to bring nourishment to the soul as well as to the tummy.”
As they move ahead, Erica and Alain are mindful of the challenges before them, on the ground and behind the scenes. Every day on an organic farm is a battle against pests, weather, and disease, as well as with deer, porcupines, and groundhogs.
Additionally, there’s a website to manage, social media to maintain, marketing, donor outreach, and grants to apply for. The funds raised are the lifeline of this nascent organization. Although the farm logged 3000 volunteer hours in its first year of operation, its growth largely depends on funds from grants and donations to pay their farm team and invest in essentials, such as harvesting tools, irrigation, a washing station, and cold storage to keep crops fresh.
When I asked Erica what it takes to push forward with a lifetime project that often demands over 70 hours a week of labor from sun-up to sun-down, she spells it out succinctly: passion, patience, persistence.
Standing amidst the tidy rows of her garden, curly hair escaping her floppy hat, brown overalls flecked with soil, rubber boots rising to her knees, Erica is all small-town farmer now. Her former Parisian life peeks through only in the French phrases exchanged between husband and wife in the fields.
Reflecting on the couple’s dream, she is down to earth. She considers the half-acre of land that she’s been cultivating for the past fourteen months and says, “It‘s a process, with super long hours and hard work. But there’s nothing like growing your own food, knowing you can be self-sufficient, feeding neighbors in need, and giving back to the beautiful community I call home.”
Kneeling down to examine the soil and pick out some pesky weeds, she adds, “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
For more information on Veggies to Table, go to https://veggiestotable.org