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Farm Follies

In 1812, Captain David Wasson came home from sea to start a farm in Brooksville and bought 100 acres of low, poorly drained fields that bordered salt water. It was “folly,” to the locals, whose expansive pastures occupied the preferable high, dry ground. First came the large white farmhouse that still presides over the Coastal Road, then a three-story red barn, then 10 children — a notable clan who became ministers, transcendentalists, abolitionists, and artists whose descendants still inhabit today’s Brooksville, though not the ancestral farm.

David’s Folly has been farmed continuously since 1819. Many people trace their discovery of Brooksville to a stay at The Folly, which Minerva Cutler ran as a bed and breakfast from 1920 until the 1980s. Decades ago, eminent back-to-the landers Scott and Helen Nearing planned their farming renaissance during a stay at this seminal farm. Minerva also did a thriving trade in “magic earthworms,” good old regular earthworms with a spirited legend attached.

To its present-day farmers, John Altman, 52, and Emma Simanton Altman, 41, The Folly is a precious heirloom, akin to other small farms on the Blue Hill peninsula. They embrace a heritage of stewardship to produce organically-raised pork and lamb, goat cheese and more. Wasson’s farmhouse endures as residence for the Altmans and their kids: Nick, 14, Izabelle, 7, and Rye, 5 (plus William, 27, Caroline, 25, and Lily, 22, from a prior brood).

Emma comes from a pig- and sheep-farm family in Malta, Montana. John hails from Maryland, but channels the influence of many years in northern New England and 30 years in Maine, formerly as a high-end home builder. After a two-year stint managing a 1,500-acre dairy farm on the Eastern Shore in Maryland, they swapped industrial farming, eschewing emphasis on crop yields and debt service, for Brooksville’s Katy Hill Farm. Its 100-acres of blueberry fields, 30 sheep and goats; cheese- and yogurt-making, and even a farm camp complete with Montana tipi was a vast improvement. “We started with this romantic idea of having a goat dairy,” says Altman. Then David’s Folly, just down the road, became available. “This land matched our intentions.”

They bought the farm in May 2013.

Achieving those intentions hasn’t been easy. The fields needed reconditioning; the massive barn was unsuitable for winter lambing; the old farmhouse hemorrhaged heat. The family slept in down jackets and hats. As improved and innovative systems took hold, the “shift and shuffle” of a farmer’s knack for improvisation has tapered. The new outdoor wood furnace meant zero oil bill this winter. “And no more fighting over the length of showers,” says Altman.

It took 16 months to produce this year’s 100 Heritage Mangalitsa/Large Black cross pigs, and 50 Tunis/Dorset cross lambs. David’s Folly exquisite bacon and pork chops are made from animals born on the farm, grazed in idyllic pastures, sent away for processing, and return for distribution to a clientele craving local, that they know personally.

“The life of our pigs can’t get any better,” says Emma. “Hogs are raised in the woods and foraging the good earth. We finish pork in the fall because the bounty is so plentiful for them: acorns, apples, squash, pumpkins.” The breed is renowned for its red, flavorful meat and creamy, premium quality lard. They love forage and unconventional feeds and are GMO-free; USDA-inspected. Organic certification is pending.

Farm romance persists in special events. “The barn itself is a magical, cathedral space,” says John. Friends asked to be married there in 2013. Now, the Folly hosts a dozen weddings, concerts, and educational food workshops annually, a growing value-added product. Say “I do!” down on Wasson Cove seated on hay bales or under the apple blossoms. Go on hayrides. Hold your reception with vintage china, jam jars for water and goblets for wine, and a band in the holy barn beneath the “swallow thronged loft.” It was no problem to welcome 650 people for a barn dance with The Soulbenders.

On July 21, Brooksville will celebrate its bicentennial at the farm that is older than the town, including epic fireworks in the field. The future augurs more pigs, and perhaps shepherd huts or vacation cottages for farm stay vacationers. And every so often, someone drops by seeking the magical, heirloom worms they “remember as a little girl.” It’s tough being guardians of past and future. Perhaps that’s part of sustainability.

Learn more: David’s Folly Farm, 1390 Coastal Rd., Brooksville.

David’s Folly produce is available at the following restaurants and retailers: Aragosta in Stonington, The Lost Kitchen in Freedom, Tinder Hearth in Brooksville, Tradewinds Market in Blue Hill, The Night Market on Tuesdays from 4-6 p.m. in Deer Isle village, and direct at the farm, dawn to dusk…including eggs. Coming soon: Quail eggs and turkeys.

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