WHITING, Maine — After serving for nine years as a U.S. Army trauma nurse stationed in the U.S. and, later, in Germany, Holly Pickens wanted to return to her native New England.
“I’m a veteran of the Army and I have some PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from trauma nursing,” said Pickens, a native of Vermont, who, along with her partner, Shelley Hart, owns Wabi-Sabi Farm. “I find farming is so therapeutic and I know a lot of other veterans who are doing the same thing because it gives you that quiet purpose.”
Hart grew up in southern California and moved to Boston when she was 18. Until she became involved in farming, she worked full-time as a non-profit organization project manager. Now, she works for the Downeast Salmon Federation in Machias. Pickens, who lived in New Mexico for 10 years, also continues to work as a registered nurse at the Calais Regional Hospital.
With a population of about 500, Whiting’s town limits consists of rocky coastal land and coniferous forests. It lies about 45 minutes south of international border crossing at Saint Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada.
“I was a reservist and I got deployed a couple of times — nothing in combat, but I definitely saw some horrible injuries,” said Pickens, who, in 2002, served as a reservist with the 7251st Medical Support Unit, Albuquerque, New Mexico. From 2003-2004, her unit was deployed to the Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas.
Then, in 2006, Pickens’s unit was deployed to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Regional Health Command, in Landstuhl, Germany, which, according to the U.S. Army LRMC webpage, is the “only forward-stationed medical center for U.S. and Coalition forces,” where more than 95,000 soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq were treated, since 2001.
“I think it’s a normal response to a lot of stress,” Pickens said. “It’s not just within the military. I think it’s happening within society nationwide — anxiety, depression. We can’t cut down the amount of energy that goes to someone else and put our energy into something we want to build ourselves.”
Pickens is a client of Maine’s AgrAbility veterans program for farmers experiencing disability issues related to their military service.
Anne Devin is the coordinator of the veteran division of AgrAbility. For Pickens, “AgrAbility only had to link them up with a business mentor, and they took off running putting together a business plan and securing funding,” Devin said.
Pickens and Hart named the 25-acre farm Wabi-Sabi, the traditional Japanese aesthetic which teaches acceptance of life’s imperfections, impermanence and transience.
About four years ago, “we lived in a house in Kennebunk, with a third of an acre of land,” Pickens said. “We found that we ran out of room to do the farming we wanted to do. We moved up here because land prices are lower and because it’s beautiful.”
Hart added that Pickens’s only restriction on buying land was: “We had to look for land that was within 10 miles of the ocean. When we moved here, the road was here and there was an old, falling down cabin right here, where this house is now being built.”
Since that time, they carved-out the western-side of the hill, laid the cinder-block into the earthen-mound opening to serve as a foundation for their future house — which now serves as their temporary, one-room home. The current roof will be the first floor as their building project proceeds. A well was drilled, which provides water for their outside open shower stall and to meet the water needs for themselves, the farm animals and for irrigation, if and when it becomes necessary, Hart said.
“This was all trees,” Hart said. “We cleared quite a bit. We have nine Mangalitsa pigs. They’re moderate-sized, not huge, but they’re not small pigs. When we took two to butcher, they were plus-400 pounds. They really don’t need barn space, just a little cover and can live outside.”
Mangalitsa hogs were bred for harsh winters, Pickens said. Since the farm is “off-the-grid,” its only source of electricity is from a generator which powers their well and provides light in their home.
The hairy hogs were a natural choice. The Mangalitsa’s other selling point is its meat — almost no fat, mostly lean meat — often referred to as the “Kobe beef of pork.”
“The most pigs we have had at one time was 12,” Hart said. “We’re still buying bags of feed, which is not ideal for us. We would like to go organic, but it’s just a matter of getting the right feed here. We’re working on that. We don’t use any pesticides or herbicides or anything like that. We don’t use chemicals on our animals except for worming.”
In addition to the hogs, they raise California rabbits for meat, chickens for meat and for eggs and some ducks. Last season, they grew tomatoes, beans and other produce.
“We just planted 1,100 bulbs of garlic,” Pickens said. “We do have a new venture — a food cart. We’d like to do a farm-to-taco-type, Mexican food. I think our goal is to get farm-fresh, real food to people. It’s a little difficult up here because we’re so far away from major areas.”
“My issues are not physical, necessarily, although depression can be for sure,” Pickens said. “Working with AgrAbility has been a good experience. They’ve been very responsive. The thing with AgrAbility is they don’t finance anything, but they can point you to places” that provide financing.
For more information on Maine AgrAbility, visit https://extension.umaine.edu/agrability/.
This article is part two of a two-part series featuring different facets of the Maine AgrAbility program.