by Sally Colby
In early June, Greg Jordan was scrambling around watering tender plants in the middle of the night to ward off damage from a late frost. Although he didn’t save them all, the effort was worthwhile.
“My grandfather always said ‘Don’t complain – people don’t want to hear it,’” said Greg. “They get tired of it and they won’t come here. So we stay positive.”
His grandfather purchased the 100-acre farm in Chester, Maine, when he was 15. “He never actually worked the farm,” said Greg. “After the war, the industries took off, so he worked at a paper mill for 38 years. But my mother’s side of the family are all potato farmers.”
His mother worked for her uncle on his potato farm, then his uncle started growing vegetables. “They collectively started a large garden here on the farm,” said Greg. “My sister and I sold the surplus from a picnic table at the end of the driveway.”
The Jordans continued to expand the garden while Greg was in school. In 2010, the family purchased the adjoining 90-acre farm. With Greg’s help, more acreage was planted, and as they worked more acreage, the family discussed a switch to larger scale farming.
Meanwhile, Greg attended Eastern Maine Community College and obtained an associate degree in electrical and automation technology while continuing to work on the farm. “Harvest is always a little crazy,” he said. “One of my exams was during fall during harvest and I didn’t study much. The instructor wanted to know why I didn’t do well – I told him I was helping the family harvest potatoes. He told me ‘You might want to rethink this – this degree is going to do more for you in life than that farm ever will.’ When I need a little drive, I think of that.”
After college, Greg worked in a local mill, but a boiler explosion forced his layoff. When spring arrived, he realized he had to make a decision about his future. “I either had to farm or do something else,” he said. “I talked to my grandfather and he said he’d help in whatever way he could. But to quit a job in spring was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Although Greg’s return to the farm was a tough decision, he’s now in his seventh full season on the farm. “I wasn’t new to farming,” he said. “I knew how to do everything. It was a matter of making sure I could provide.” By then, the family was growing 25 acres of produce, but Greg knew he had to double production acreage and make sure there were markets for what they grew. They first increased acreage to 50; this year, the family is growing on close to 70 acres.
Jordan Farms’ biggest crop is potatoes, followed by sweet corn, squash and pumpkins. Popcorn, peas, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, string beans, beets and carrots also thrive on the farm. Rather than starting plants themselves, the Jordans work with two local greenhouses to raise vegetable starts.
This year’s crops include 10 acres of potatoes and about 15 acres of sweet corn. “We plant three different varieties,” said Greg, adding that their sweet corn is highly sought after. “For the first planting, I’ll put all three in because they have different maturity dates. The second and third plantings are one variety. Most of the acreage is an all-yellow variety that’s super sweet. We won’t tell anyone the name, so our regular customers came up with ‘Chester Gold.’”
Greg selects two popcorn varieties – one blue and one yellow. “We got into popcorn because knew we could try it without a huge investment,” he said. “We just change the plates on the corn planter, and it gets the same treatments as other corn.” After potato harvest is finished, the family picks and husks the corn by hand, then the ears finish drying in crates. When it’s dry, a hand-cranked corn sheller works well for removing kernels. “In winter, we take turns shelling corn,” said Greg. “It gives us something to do.” Greg also cuts wood throughout winter for additional income.
Crops are rotated to help control disease, insects and weed pressure. “Every year or two we raise a cover crop on some acreage,” said Greg. “This year I have an oat, rye and clover mix on 12 acres. Next year it will be back in production. Corn is also part of the rotation because it’s high in organic matter.”
Potato harvesting on the farm has evolved over the years. They first dug potatoes by hand, one row at a time. “Then we got a two-row digger and picked them up by hand,” he said. “Next we got a one-row barrel harvester, made in the 1960s. It dug one row at a time and put the potatoes in an old wooden potato barrel.” This year, the Jordans hope to use a two-row harvester.
Three years ago, the family started constructing a 50-by-80-foot building to house their potato grading, sorting and bagging equipment. They built the first section three years ago, and recently finished an addition. “We don’t wash potatoes,” said Greg. “A lot of our roadside customers are storing for the winter, so it’s best to keep dirt on them and in the dark and cold.”
For the past six years, the Jordans offered a corn maze that became a popular area attraction. Greg said he would normally be planting corn for a maze this autumn, but with local fairs cancelled and because it’s a big investment, they probably won’t have it this year. “We’re still planting the pumpkin crop,” said Greg. “If we have to, we can just go back to U-pick pumpkins.”
At one point, the Jordans sold produce at farmers markets, but have since dropped those outlets. Greg said it was difficult to pick, pack and load for market plus prepare vegetables for their farm stand to open at 9 a.m. “It’s a juggling act,” said Greg, discussing the farmers markets. “One day you send too much, another day not enough. We were either bringing produce back or didn’t have enough.” Today, the Jordans sell produce from their farm stand and at one grocery store, but also contribute to feeding their community through the Good Shepherd Food Bank for the program Mainers Feeding Mainers.
“The program obtains grant money to purchase food for food pantries,” Greg explained. “It benefits the people who need the food, but it also puts money into the local agricultural community.” The Jordans sell produce wholesale to the program and donate some. Greg said that although the wholesale price is lower than what they’d receive for the products in their retail market, it’s guaranteed income.
Many family members are involved on the farm, with each person doing what suits them best. The farm stand is open year-round, although full-time hours end in October. In November, the store is open for reduced hours, and after Thanksgiving, it’s self-serve until the following July. “We keep potatoes, popcorn and dried beans in there,” said Greg, “and we have a money box. It works out pretty well.”
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