Germinating in Portland

text and photos by David Homa

(Background: A few months ago Maine based entrepreneur Eli Cayer took on an all but abandoned single-story warehouse bay in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood with the idea of reusing it as the Urban Farm Fermentory, a fermentation center for food (sauerkraut, pickles…) and beverage (cider, and wine) fermentations.  As the fermentory evolved, Cayer’s focus developed to include a micro/experimental farm (growing herbs and flowers so he would have materials to experiment with infusing into the morphing foods at various stages of fermentation).  David Homa was enlisted to guide the transformation of the rubble-strewn back lot into an urban farm.)

It’s 10 am in Portland and I descend into the gardens at the Urban Farm Fermentory.  The sounds and smells of the city (both good and bad) surround me.  I take stock of the progress of newly emerging seedlings and watch the honey bees take off for their day of work.  As I begin the ritual of watering the various growing spaces, there is a constant reminder of man’s impact on Portland.  The gardens of the Urban Farm Fermentory reflect the challenges of urban gardening, small spaces and poor (if not toxic) soil.  But the application of principles of permaculture quickly transforms challenges into opportunities.

For those of you who are unaware of permaculture and its profound ability to heal the earth, here is some background.  The formal underpinnings were developed by Bill Mollison in the 1970’s.  Mollison strived to create human settlements that were in harmony with nature.  Much of the agricultural beliefs are derived from observing nature and mimicking the processes to the built environment.  Permaculture encompasses housing, food production, and energy consumption.

So how does the largest city in Maine and permaculture relate to one another?

In Portland, we find that finite resources govern many of the opportunities for home and work.  From a sustainable city perspective these finite resources are time, money and land.  What we have in Portland is a used car, some dents and rust, but we can make it work. We just have to be innovative.

Back at the Urban Farm Fermentory, our landscape is 900 square feet of contaminated soils along an abandoned rail line, littered with the debris of past tenants and nature trying to fight back.   During the early stages of reclaiming the area we are struck by the wasteful actions of the past and the myopic views of the earth below our feet in this industrial zone.  So we approach the growing season with a toolkit that is slightly different from the average farmer.  We grow our crops in containers and raised beds, our workspace is built of recycled items, and we take a step back and observe nature, all the while bathing in the sounds and smells of the city.