It’s 7 a.m. and I’m inching my way down a narrow two-lane highway toward Caribou. The road is slick with ice and packed snow, and the clouds overhead are dark and clotted. There are few other cars on the road, since most people are wise enough to be inside, still sipping hot coffee, waiting to see what the day will bring.
But I’m on my way to the Micmac Farms Festival on Route 1, right on the Caribou and Presque Isle town line.
One Saturday a month from October to May, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs partners with the Presque Isle Farmers Market to host local growers, crafters, and artisans for the festival that attracts hundreds of shoppers looking for high-quality fruits, vegetables, beef, lamb, pork, and more.
More than 20 local farms participate in the market, along with the artisans and crafters, and local residents love the opportunity to be part of the event. There are maple producers and candy makers, tea makers, crafters and artists with beautiful wares, and local musicians including Mawitan’ej E’pitjig, the Ladies Drum Group.
Although the event is only in its second year, Jacob Pelkey, marketing director for the band, said that it has been in the planning since 2009, when a USDA Rural Development Grant allowed them to build the 45,000-square-foot building that was destined to be an indoor market, equipped with all the necessary fixtures and features, including a full kitchen.
However, so many other projects were in the works for the band that no one had any time to really organize it. As time passed and the band established itself more, they began selling produce, received authorization for a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2013, and in 2017 installed a hatchery for trout that has become known statewide.
As I pull into the driveway, other vendors and farmers are unloading their wares, tossing greetings between themselves. There is laughter and hugs from old friends, and the fragrance of coffee already fills the air. The Micmac band keeps the store open Fridays from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturdays until 5.
Pelkey said the real turning point that spurred the year-round monthly market came after he and other members participated in the summer Presque Isle Farmer’s Market.
“There were all these farmers and vendors,” he said, “and they were exactly the people we wanted.”
Working with Deena Parks, the president of the Presque Isle market, the year-round market festival began to take shape. After receiving Tribal Council approval to welcome other vendors, it is now a major feature for the band and the communities nearby.
On a good day, several hundred people come to browse and buy. However, Pelkey said, fish aquaculture has also played a major role in the band’s effort to encourage healthy local foods and to support food sovereignty as part of a healthy lifestyle.
“Historically, the Aroostook band was not farmers,” he said. “They were hunters and gatherers who moved to the coast in spring for fish, and inland in winter for furs and other food sources.”
The fish hatchery is also 4,500 square feet and was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It features a 34,000-gallon system with two large raceways of 15,000 gallons each, giving the band the ability to raise 12,000 pounds of Maine brook trout that is sold for stocking and table sales.
“We harvest fish and have them in Portland’s Harbor Fish Market within 20 hours,” Pelkey said. “That is really fresh.”
The fish are grown in partnership with the soil and water conservation districts throughout the state. They sell fish locally within their district, and the band delivers to them once a year. Those offices keep 50 cents of each fish sale for programming. Micmac Farms sold 20,000 fish statewide through the collaboration; when the building is full it has three generations of fish, 54,000 individual fish, or 12,000 pounds. Right now, the farm is sold out, with only a few fish left for local weekend sales.
Even with changing times, the band clearly has adapted. So well, in fact, that they are partnering with the city of Caribou on increasing agricultural tourism, and most schools in The County include visits to the farm and aquaculture program.
“Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops come to visit, and teachers work our programs into their curriculum,” Pelkey said.
Even more important, the farm and the fish hatchery is being included this year in the Maine Tourism Association’s guidebook.
“There’s a new focus on bringing people to the markets and the farms,” Pelkey said. “And more of a focus on Wabanaki tourism, and it’s our first time as part of it. We’re pretty happy about it.”
Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former reporter for The Forecaster. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.