Talking exciting vegetables and sustainable farming with Penny Jordan of Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth
This year, for the first time ever, Jordan’s Farm is growing fennel.
“Each year, the family gets together and we select a product to vote on to the island,” says Penny Jordan, 63. “This year, it was fennel. One year, Pam (Jordan’s sister) advocated for leeks. We’ve tried all sorts of stuff.”
Edamame was a short-lived experiment. And despite a miserable first year of selling kale—“We maybe sold three sprigs, total,” Jordan jokes—the dark green brassica has proved itself a keeper.
Jordan’s Farm is a fourth-generation (soon-to-be fifth) farm in Cape Elizabeth. Currently, the farm is run by Jordan, who actually lives 10 minutes away, and her two sisters, Carol and Pam, alongside their brother, Bill. (Jordan’s nephew, Philip, is the next generation farmer-in-training.) Each member of the Jordan family plays a different role. “Bill’s the farmer,” says Jordan. “Carol manages our soil products, and Pam handles
the soil products side of the business.”
As for Jordan? She does a little bit of everything, from marketing and sourcing new products to managing and hiring farm laborers.
Even though she grew up in Cape Elizabeth, Jordan wasn’t always a fixture on the farm. For 20 years, she worked at Unum, an insurance company with offices in Portland. In 1999, she decided to make a change.
She attended graduate school at Boston University to study community organizing and program design for nonprofits, a degree that has served her well over the years. Between leaving her job and starting classes, she returned to Jordan’s Farm, intending to work for just that summer. But then something shifted. “I understood then, for the first time I think, why my dad and my brother did what they did,” she says. “I realized that there was something really rewarding about the process of planting something, watching it grow, taking care of it and presenting it to a customer.” She loved the look on people’s faces when, following a long Maine winter, they smelled a fresh tomato or picked up a cucumber. “Every year, people say, ‘I couldn’t wait for this flavor.’”
The success of Jordan’s Farm comes in part from the tight-knit nature of the family. There isn’t much sibling rivalry to speak of, according to Jordan. “From my perspective, it’s actually easier working with my siblings than it is working with strangers. We all have the same mission. We all know each other’s history. And yeah, sure, we know each other’s hot buttons, but we don’t push them much.”
Over the years, Jordan has watched Maine go through a series of changes. As a young girl, she watched her father load up the truck and head down to the Boston market to sell his produce. But as California began to take on a greater and greater role in agriculture, small farmers in Maine suffered. Big city markets no longer purchased from small Maine farms. The family had to pivot, focusing on marketing to their customer base in Maine.
Jordan’s Farm now operates two retail locations, one in Cape Elizabeth and one in South Portland. It also runs a soil products company. And, there’s the critically lauded on-site farm-to-table restaurant, The Well, where chef Jason Williams serves simple yet inventive fare made with just-picked produce and local meats.
Maine customers are clamoring for more local produce than ever before, but Jordan says things haven’t really changed dramatically. Just because Beyonce donned a KALE sweatshirt once doesn’t mean lesser-known crops are, well, cropping up everywhere.
“I tell people the truth the way I see it, and I think mainstream products will always be mainstream products,” Jordan says. “People want their peas and their lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. What changes is that we now have people adding a little excitement into their vegetable mix.”
Hence, the fennel.
Looking forward, Jordan thinks Maine farming will continue to grow, producing even more of the “mainstream” veggies customers demand (the full list includes corn, potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, broccoli, spinach and fall squashes). She also sees farming moving indoors.
“I think we’re going to see more growth in the number of mid-sized farms in Maine, now that people are paying more attention to Maine’s agricultural industry,” she says. “And I think we’re going to see more and more farmers extending their growing season with large-scale rigid greenhouses that are heated year-round.”
This, Jordan believes, will help solve the two major challenges farmers face in Maine: cold weather and too little daylight.
“You know, I really don’t see why Maine’s not doing it already,” she says as she surveys her family’s four greenhouses. “If someone could figure out how to grow those little mini-cucumbers in Maine, they’d make a lot of money. They’re doing it in Canada. We should be able to do it in Maine, too.”
Katy Kelleher is a writer and editor who lives in a small house in Portland with two dogs and one husband.