One day recently, one of Winter Hill Farm’s apprentices mentioned that she’d never made sauerkraut. That was all Sarah Wiederkehr needed to hear.
“We’re going to do that tonight!” said Wiederkehr, who runs Winter Hill Farm in Freeport with her husband, Steve Burger.
With all the farm chores and tasks Wiederkehr must accomplish on a typical day, you’d think the last thing she’d want to do is conduct an after-hours cooking class. But Wiederkehr has a passion for teachable moments and a sustainable farm provides lots of opportunities. She and Burger believe that one of the cornerstones of a life in farming is “learning by doing,” and they also believe that it’s important to educate people about the value of small, sustainable farms in the life of a community.
“We’re not farmers who hide on their farms,” she says. “It’s important for us to be part of the community.”
“Sustainable” has become a buzzword that encompasses a range of farming practices designed to create an ecosystem that is self-sufficient. At its core, the movement, which has gained traction in Maine and many other states, is an effort to avoid the mistakes of big factory farms which, at their worst, have depleted the land and threatened the surrounding environment.
Wiederkehr and Burger have been operating Winter Hill Farm, about five miles from downtown Freeport, for close to four years. When the farm was purchased by a group looking to preserve farmland in midcoast Maine in 2011, the couple was offered the opportunity to manage the farm. They jumped at the chance to move from California to Maine and raise a family. Now, along with bringing up two preschoolers, they raise rare Randall cattle and Berkshire pigs, produce raw milk, yogurt and artisanal cheeses, and grow an assortment of vegetables and cut flowers.
Wiederkehr spent her teen years in Brunswick and earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and agronomy from the University of New Hampshire. That wasn’t the field she expected to pursue, but given a choice between doing her work-study job in the dining hall or on the student-run farm, she chose the farm. That’s when she fell in love with farming.
“Farming is a weird addiction I’ve not been able to shake,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Wiederkehr went on to earn two master’s degrees from the University of California, Davis, in international agricultural development and integrated pest management. She thought she might become a researcher or farm adviser, but when a friend purchased some land as an investment, she took the opportunity to start her own small farm. She met Burger, who was managing a livestock operation at Hidden Villa Ranch in Los Altos Hills, when she bought some goats from him. After they married in 2008, she was hired as Stanford University’s first farm educator. She managed a small farm and taught courses in sustainable food systems and organic farming. It was a difficult job to leave when she came to Maine.
While teaching at Stanford, Wiederkehr noticed that the majority of her students were female. In fact, she says one class in sustainable agriculture consisted of 24 females and only one male. The volunteer and apprenticeship programs at Winter Hill, she says, also are about 80 percent women. She attributes it to the fact that young women are often drawn to environmental and social issues.
“The movement in farming to smaller, more diversified farms is a good fit for them,” she says.
The diversity of tasks and projects that a small farm affords certainly makes it a good fit for Wiederkehr. A typical day, she says, starts with weeding one of the gardens, before moving on to her to-do list in the creamery. She might bottle milk, make yogurt, or prepare milk for the raw cheese process. After cleaning up, she might do some more weeding or cut some flowers for her cut-flower business. She also gives tours of the farm to summer campers and manages the CSA (community supported agriculture) accounts. After she picks up her two children from preschool, she might talk them into tagging along while she does more weeding (or not). If one of the pigs has a litter due (as one did recently), she’ll check on that. While her apprentices are often in bed before 8, she’ll stay up late tending the books.
“I’m a night owl,” she says. “But I love the early morning, too.”
Weiderkehr is probably best known for the artisanal cheeses she has taught herself to make during the past couple of years, an endeavor that was designed to make their dairy farm more sustainable. She makes an assortment of “bloomy rind” cheeses, meaning they are mold-ripened, softer varieties such as Camembert and brie. Winter Hill offers one of the few cheese-only CSAs in southern Maine so that consumers can try different varieties. Her cheeses are also sold at several health food stores and at the Brunswick farmers market.
For the future, Weiderkehr is hoping to create a community space right on the farm where she can begin teaching classes in such things as cheese-making, canning and gardening tips (including what weeds are edible and how to prepare them).
“It gets me excited to work with young people who don’t necessarily know what their path is,” she says. “The more people I can connect to farming, the better.”