The Farm that Twitter Built

In 2011, I wrote a piece on a homestead farm in Maine. It was an assignment for a Maine magazine I had already done several pieces for and respected. I filed. And waited. And waited. And waited. Though I was given several reassurances of publication -- and payment -- the magazine just seemed to stop publishing. It sucks, but it happens. And this story continued to live only on my hard drive.

It's been three years, and I think the piece is worth sharing -- especially now as homestead farming in Maine is experiencing a huge resurgence. Neal is a fascinating guy, a social media early adopter and he works hard to make the best life for his family and to give back to his community. I was proud to tell his story -- and share some of his delicious recipes.

Neal Foley is building his agro-tourism dream at Montville’s Claddagh Farms

By Jessica Strelitz

There is Bach playing in the barn. Neal Foley tells me that the soothing music stimulates milk production, as his daughter Sola prepares her veal calf to go out to pasture. He is her cow. Neal refers to the pre- teen as the barn’s manager, and he means it. There are no employees at the Foley family’s Montville homestead Claddagh Farms -- halfway between Augusta and Belfast. Canning. Gardening. Animal husbandry. It’s all done in-house.

Neal and his wife Kathy were living in Washington’s remote San Juan Islands when the opportunity for a location change arose. Neal looked at 35 farms in 7 days, and in March 2010 his family of seven moved across the country into a 150-year-old farmhouse and got to work.

A view on the farm.There was plenty to do. The farm had been in the community for generations but hadn’t been maintained for years. There was a foundation to bolster, a new perimeter fence to stake and a 150- tree apple orchard to rehabilitate – just for starters.

“Ive been picking fruits and vegetables since before I could ride a bike,” Neal said as we toured the farm.

As a professionally trained chef and experienced farmer, he worked to connect the two linked-but-separate worlds during his time on the West Coast. He catered, taught nose-to-tail butchery and shared his experiences online via Twitter, Facebook and a weekly podcast. But while the restaurant-farmer movement is growing in Maine, the local market was already crowded with options for fresh eggs, milk and meat by the time the family arrived in Montville.

“One of the things which attracted us to Maine was the support and encouragement there is here for small farms. I am happy to see farmers markets proliferating and that farmers here tend to try to work together,” Foley said. He needed a way to stand out.

Turkeys, ducks, chickens and other birds at Claddagh Farms.Neal struggled to find quality meat for his clients when he was catering in Washington, so he began raising his own animals. People wanted to learn more about the process, so he began teaching butchery workshops. When they wanted to learn how to prepare the meat and other dishes, the farm-cooking school was born.

I have the most magic kitchen matter where I put them, they're never there....they seem to walk the house on their own & hide.

In Washington, Neal hosted a weekly podcast focused on farm life, food and politics that attracted a global following. It spawned a cookbook, which he self-published, and proved an effective way to teach from a geographically challenging location. But podcasts take a lot of time to produce, and with an unending task list at Claddagh Farms, Twitter soon became his preferred method of connecting with the food universe.

It must be autumn.....I'm braising rabbit in ale for dinner.

Photos are effective viral tools. By using the popular short messaging system, Neal can hold multiple conversations with his network of 3,000 followers while feeding the sheep, and include a picture of the field as they graze. He sold his last three workshops, and all of last year’s syrup, via social media channels.

RECIPES: Berry Cobbler + Braised Pork with Apples a la Bonne Femmes

Another bull calf... Christmas veal here we come!

Herding sheep at Claddagh Farms. The most successful homesteaders have voracious curiosity, Logging. Cheesemaking. Carpentry. Organic farming. If it interested him, Neal learned all he could about it. One of his first inroads to his new community was joining the volunteer fire department. He was the only one who showed up and already knew how to drive the truck and operate the pump.

“Neal is fascinated with the origin of things, how it is broken down and how it travels to the plate. He’s a chef, so he gets it and helps to connect the dots on the whole picture,” said food writer and chef Annie Mahle.

She has been cooking professionally for 25 years, but it was only after taking one of Neal’s workshops that she felt confident speaking with her guests about how her meat got to the plate.

“I really know what a tenderloin is now. I totally get why it’s a terrific piece of meat, I have seen and touched it.”

What a day.... truck broke down. Milking done late. Emergency tuna melts in oven, brownies instead of
cake...happy Birthday 2 Me!

Neal began raising ducks a few years ago: Rouen, Pekin and Muscovy. Pigs too, large black tomworts and Glouchester old spots. He hosts a multi-day duck workshop each winter and tweets duckling pictures to drum up interest. He convinced chef-author Kate Hill, whom he’d met via Twitter, to travel from her home in France and work with him on the duck workshops – first in Washington, then in Maine. This year he will have 30 ducks to break down, as well as 25 geese and 20 turkeys for the holidays.

“I suggested if he grew [the ducks], I’d come from France to teach him how to confit, and the rest is history in 140 characters,” Kate wrote in an e-mail exchange. “Neal keeps his learning curve on a very high arc by continually seeking out new and old ways.”
Moving the sheep at Claddagh Farms.
Finishing chores & heading out soon to pick up some more sheep....I must be insane.....

Foley loves duck, rabbit and pork, but says lamb is the future. He is slowly adding to his flock of Fresians, Leicester Longwools and North Country Cheviots. Not the most common breeds, but they fascinate him and their uniqueness is worth the extra effort to get them to the farm.

Rainy AM. Researching history of our farm. Feeling close ties to former farmers Stillman & Grace White of the 40's

“I am reminded by Neal that the energy we put into making our food is our most precious commodity,” Kate added. “Whether it’s milking cows on a blizzardy morning, or mixing up dough for homemade bagels the night before, putting time into our own food is essential and should come first.”

Coffee and blueberry cake after a farm tour and chat.Agrotourism is the next step for Claddagh Farms. The only way for a farm to be sustainable is for people to be interested enough to travel there, buy products, understand how to use them and return for more.

Neal wants to turn his cooking school in the red farmhouse into a destination, but there are challenges -- regulatory burdens that make it tough for farms to connect with restaurant kitchens, a lack of places to process meat for commercial use and encouraging more chefs to be flexible with their cooking and their menus. He’s ready. But first there is the matter of that new hay loft ...