Originally published in Castine Patriot, May 2, 2013
Family, farm and food: Heather Retberg ties it all together
Heather Retberg at her Penobscot farmhouse on Quill’s End Farm with daughter Carolyn and son Ben: “We’re in it for the bigger picture.”
by Anne Berleant
Quill’s End Farm is the hub where Heather Retberg runs, with husband Phil, family and farm alongside her work as a self-described “food justice issues” advocate.
The daughter of a Lutheran minister, Retberg first met her husband in Guadalajara, where both their fathers were in language training for missionary work in Latin America.
“We are both pastor’s children,” she said. “Phil was going to go to school to be a minister.”
They attended the same Lutheran high school in Michigan and again crossed paths at college in Minnesota, where Retberg studied international relations. At 24 years old, they married.
“I was going to be single until I was 40,” Retberg said. “Life took a much different course.”
The road from Minnesota to running a family farm in Maine began when Phil, selling Kirby vacuum cleaners at the time, did a demonstration for a doctor who owned a sheep farm and was looking for someone to manage it.
“[Phil] always had an inclination towards animals,” said Retberg.
They moved to that farm when first son Alexander was two months old. Two years later, they saw an ad seeking apprentices at Sunset Acres Farm in Brooksville.
“That’s what got us to Maine,” Retberg said.
After working on other farms for years, with Phil also employed as a carpenter, the Retbergs saw their chance in Penobscot, on farmland owned by Horsepower Farm owner Paul Birdsall.
The farmhouse, Retberg said, “was sitting up on the side of the road.” It needed to be completely gutted and rebuilt, but the structure and floors were sound. The Retbergs bought the land (part of Blue Hill Heritage Trust’s Farmland Forever program) and began renovating the farmhouse nine years ago.
“It was a really intense period,” Retberg said. “Phil was working full-time as a carpenter on Butter Island…We had a herd of cows on David’s Folly farm…Phil would set things up on the weekend…I was keeping it going.”
At the time, they were renting a house from Denis Blodgett in Brooksville, and had asked “if we could have a garden and some chickens,” Retberg said. The answer was yes—and those chickens were towed to Penobscot in an office trailer, which became the farm’s hen house.
Life on the family farm
“For both of us, the way we came to farming was a part of our faith. It grew pretty naturally out of that,” Retberg said.
They raise their three children, Alexander, Ben and Carolyn with a similar philosophy.
“We totally think about them in farming terms,” she said. As seedlings, “we shelter them,” and then, as they get older, “we send them out.”
School days, she said, are “really carved out with lesson plans” for the children, who also help out in the farm store at Quill’s End.
“For them, it’s the normal way of life,” said Retberg.
While she may not have wound up in the life envisioned while a college student, Retberg’s international relations studies have not in the least gone to waste.
She helped write the Local Food and Self-governance Ordinance passed by Blue Hill, Penobscot, Sedgwick and Trenton in 2011, and Brooksville in 2013, and used as a model for similar ordinances state and nationwide, and she travels to Augusta regularly for public hearings on related bills proposed in the legislature.
“We’ve discovered the system is not working,” she said.
For Retberg, food sovereignty issues—working to give farmers freedom to sell directly to consumers and to not operate under rules and regulations designed for large, corporate farms—is both a local and international issue.
“There’s definitely an overlap between human rights abuse and basic access to food,” she said, citing Haitian farmers faced with both poverty and donations from seed corporations that may not offer a long-term benefit.
Retberg said she thought about this back when she first began farming.
“Farming seemed like a direct way to start in our own backyard to address, on a small scale, things that are happening all over the world,” she said.
How does Retberg balance family, farm and activism?
“Phil is definitely the primary farmer…I keep maintenance, the feeding, watering and moving animals, and communication with customers,” she said. And nearby homeschool families take the kids on days she travels to Augusta for public hearings on proposed farm- and food-related legislation.
“It just seems we’re in it for the bigger picture. Our family life—we can work and live together.”