by Catie Joyce-Bulay
Dig Deep Farm sits atop a sunny ridge on a slope of land in South China, Maine, that has been farmed for over 75 years. The property was once a dairy and vegetable farm called the French Family Farm– and still affectionately called that by locals. It is now home to a cooperative farming operation that includes Dig Deep, a mixed organic vegetable farm, and 3 Level Farm, a farmstead goat creamery that also grows flowers and mushrooms.
It was this arrangement that farmers Dalziel Lewis and Jon Strieff, who joined forces on the property in 2016, were looking for. “Being a part of an inter-generational community and having opportunities for collaboration and perspective appeal to me,” said Lewis. “There are many skill sets needed to farm – being a part of a working community of farmers and unique individuals strikes me as an important layer for resiliency.”
The 143-acre 3 Level Farm is owned by Christopher Hahn and Kim Patnode. An agricultural easement was purchased with the help of Maine Farmland Trust, protecting the land from any development. The property also hosts a community-owned solar panel array, and has pasture, woods and a small orchard.
The two families try to get together for potlucks most Sundays and Lewis said she interacts with Hahn on a daily basis around farm management. They are working on creating bylaws for the future addition of more farming operations and are exploring cooperative ownership of the land.
Collaborating on farmland was not unfamiliar to Lewis. She has been farming in this model since she began Dig Deep in 2009 on an acre of leased land on Goranson Farm in Dresden, Maine. Lewis, a rural Maine native, raked blueberries for her first summer job. Soon after, at age 17, she met and began working with her mentor, farmer Jan Goranson, and was hooked.
“The physicality of the work and being outdoors drew me in and it was the community and conscientiousness of the work that has kept it sustainable,” said Lewis, who has a degree in creativity and human development from Hampshire College.
She met husband Strieff through the farming community. After working on a variety of farms around the country, Strieff began Good Morning Farm on the 3 Level property in 2012 and they joined forces in 2016, when Lewis was looking to scale up her operation at Dig Deep.
Dig Deep grows about 20 kinds of organic vegetables and berries on nine leased acres, including over-winter kale, pea shoots and microgreens, allowing them to offer fresh greens year-round to customers. They grow the kale over the summer and cover it with high hoops for insulation to harvest throughout Maine’s cold winter. Since the farm sits on a high wind spot, they employ an insulated shipping container to grow pea shoots and microgreens.
Certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association since 2009, soil health is a big priority for Dig Deep. They’ve been soil testing their current plot since 2015 and have seen micro and macro nutrient levels go up along with improvements in the workability of the soil, with weed pressure going down.
Through some trial and error, they developed a successful cover crop rotation that includes a fallow period followed by sudangrass and daikon radish seeded by late July.
“The sudangrass and daikon was a way that we can address soil building and weed smothering in an annual cover crop cycle,” said Lewis, noting they currently don’t have enough ground open for a vegetable plot to cycle out for an ideal two-year break. “Adding a summer cover crop followed by a fall oats and peas mix, we are discovering, puts our land in a good position for spring planting.”
The cover crop also helped to reduce tillage, said Lewis. “We don’t use a rototiller,” she said. “We use a disc and minimal tillage in general because of the rocky soil and an interest in consuming less fossil fuels.”
Dig Deep is an acronym that Lewis came up with when she first started the farm, pondering her life direction as well as the direction she wanted the farm to take. It stands for “Directly Involved in Growing Diversity Education with the Earth and People.” “It speaks to where my heart is around community education, either hands-on or at farmers markets,” said Lewis, who employs a lot of work-share labor.
Dig Deep sells at four different farmers markets around central and coastal Maine, including a couple year-round. They also provide the vegetables for 3 Level’s farm stand and offer a CSA program with a choice of a bag share or farmers market credit share.
Although the farmers markets are their biggest revenue makers, Lewis said that might be shifting. This spring they started delivering a weekly-commitment CSA share. This is something they had been considering anyway and, with the changing market due to COVID-19 precautions, it made sense to begin now.
The farmers markets and CSA both provide different meaning for the farm’s balance. “CSA members invest money in the spring,” she said. “They are really the heartwood or the vertebrae of the farm. And the farmers market – though we have some loyal customers, there’s a little more vulnerability in that scenario.”
“We are doing a little bit of self-serve, but we feel we can help our community by offering home deliveries,” said Lewis, who added it also helped them learn a new skill set – they built a web store through food4all.com where customers can purchase weekly vegetable shares for $20 – $25. Since the COVID-19 restrictions they’ve added at least an hour of time online daily, either researching public health safety protocols or helping customers access the web store.
“That’s how things might go for a while in general,” Lewis said. She said they were able to finish their first delivery run of 30 shares in two hours and that it felt good for her, her husband and their seven-month-old daughter to all pile in the truck for a ride.