SIMPLE FAIR. Celebrating country wonders at an organic fair in Maine

THERE is no amplified hawker's bark at the Common Ground Country Fair. Here the clang of a stonecutter's hammer and the thud of a woodsman's ax mingle with a keening Scottish bagpipe. Where the perennial New England autumn fair has its tractor pulls, cotton candy, and Tilt-a-Whirl rides, here instead are demonstrations of crosscut sawing and of twitching logs with a team of Hafflinger horses. The midway is lined with tented kitchens laden with bounties of the harvest, all grown organically. And the sweet scent of blueberry johnnycakes and pressed apple cider cuts the frosty air. Local people once labeled it ``the hippie fair,'' this meeting of organic farmers and gardeners at the Windsor fairgrounds, nine miles east of Augusta, Maine. Though peasant skirts and flannel shirts are still much in evidence, some lament that the gathering has become a ``yuppie affair,'' where cash-flush baby-boomers spend freely on things horticultural.

But veterans of the 12-year-old event call it ``the learning fair,'' a place where growers can have their soil tested, discuss green composting techniques, or discover heirloom seeds of native Maine fruits and vegetables. Children can see animals being animals, and city people can connect briefly with the land.

Fred Richards, a robust old-timer who ``went organic'' 14 years ago, says organic farming means no commercial fertilizers, no chemical pesticides, and the ``proper husbandry'' of the land. To Mr. Richards and many others, Common Ground encourages a return to a common-sense approach to farming that emphasizes conservation and quality.

``This isn't a fad - it's the way they farmed in the '30s,'' he says.

Some 55,000 people turned out for this year's Common Ground fair, which organizers believe is the sole organic farmers' fair in New England, and may well be one of the few of its kind in the country. Presented by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, it has served as a model for country fair organizers in Alabama and Pennsylvania.

The fair takes its name from the ``common ground'' it provides for 800 exhibitors and organizations as divergent as the Maine Trappers Association and the Citizens for Trapping Reform. For a few days, differences are set aside for the greater good of promoting organically grown Maine produce, and for exchanging information and ideas on organic-farming techniques.

Staffed by 500 volunteers who each earn a couple of meals, a T-shirt, and a $4 entry ticket for their labors, the fair accounts for much of the organic association's $80,000 operating budget. The 16-year-old organization certifies organically grown produce, provides technical advice to organic farmers, funds research projects, and conducts an apprentice program.

The white-shingled Exhibition Hall is the repository of the fair's organic yield.

From the prickly, pear-shaped New Zealand Kiwando (``I like to grow what others don't,'' explains Rudd Douglass, an exhibitor from East Pittston), to the 193-pound Atlantic Giant Pumpkin (``I grew it on a good old Maine compost of fish heads and rotten blueberries,'' says 12-year-old Christian Oster), the shed-shaped hall displays an array of unusual, big, and just plain beautiful produce.

Autumn Gold pumpkins, Crookneck Yellow Squash, Belstar tomatoes, Daikor radishes, Lady Finger potatoes, and a host of other produce are spread over 60 feet of tables, like a Thanksgiving vegetarian dinner fit for an entire grange. Whether dried, canned, or fresh, the items are judged not against each other, but against a theoretical standard of perfection. Thus, not one but three entries of Red Ace beets sported a blue ribbon.

On the north end of the fairgrounds, rows of stalls shelter pony mules, offspring of a jack donkey and pony mare; milking Devons, one of the oldest breeds of dairy cattle; Clyde Robinson's Durham oxen team, which can haul three-quarters of a cord of wood through chest-deep snow; and many other livestock breeds.

Using the financial equivalent of chewing gum and baling wire, plus the collective sweat of 80 volunteers, the first Common Ground Fair was launched in nearby Litchfield in 1977. More than 10,000 people showed up.

``We saw the fair as a way of reviving a life style, rather than pushing a new one,'' says Shawn McCole, wandering the grounds playing Irish reels on a button accordion when he's not leading a horseshoeing demonstration. ``At first it was a `back-to-the-land' sort of thing. But the fair has lasted and prospered because it's rooted in a kind of old-time wisdom that has always had meaning.''

After three years, having outgrown the Litchfield site, the fair folded its tents and moved to Windsor. The crowds keep coming, drawn by the sense that the fair clings to something elemental.

Paul Birdsall typifies that feeling. Mr. Birdsall, who works a 50-acre farm in Blue Hill, estimates that 2,000 people came to his demonstrations of plowing and logging with draft horses. More than a decade ago he replaced his farm machinery with Belgian horses, even though horse-drawn equipment died out 40 years earlier.

As he hitched his team to a hay wagon, Birdsall summed up the fair's popularity. ``We're on the cutting edge of something old, and people are learning that it works.''

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