CUMBERLAND — The first year he farmed, Gary Goodrich grew tomatoes, which he proudly brought to local stores, expecting them to be snapped up by wholesale buyers. No one wanted them, which was a little crushing.
Nor did they particularly want the cucumbers he was growing on his new Replenova Farm in Cumberland. He realized he was operating in what felt like a whim economy, whereby he might arrive with 100 pounds of the same kind and quality of cucumbers he’d brought the week before and be rejected. “They can say, ‘Oh, we’re all set on cucumbers.’ ”
For someone who had spent decades running a biotech firm, this was a rude surprise. Goodrich founded Bioprocessing Inc. in 1990 and owned and ran it until he sold it to a California company called Bio-Rad Laboratories in 2012. He was used to more predictable business practices.
“We manufactured and developed raw materials that were used for testing cancer,” Goodrich said. “Our customers were large diagnostic companies that made these tests. We had contracts. Yearly contracts for these things.”
But the Pownal resident, who started farming in his 60s after decades of hardcore vegetable gardening, likes a challenge.
“Once I started talking to stores that said, ‘No, we don’t want your vegetables,’ it was like, OK, I guess I gotta figure out what you do want.”
Which is why he’s got heirloom European squash 3 feet long, dangling like fat tropical snakes in one of his three hoop houses. Those cucuzza squash, which he’s been selling for $5 each at the Yarmouth Farmers Market this month, represent Goodrich’s approach to agricultural innovation: grow market crops no one else is growing in Maine.
He stocked the Portland Food Co-op with fresh edamame this summer and has another crop of the tasty little soybeans ripening on the farm for the fall harvest. While soybeans are grown on some farms in Maine, edamame, the immature versions, are typically only to be found in the freezer cases at supermarkets, imports from outside the state.
Then there are the sour gherkins, which look like watermelons perfectly sized for Barbie and Ken’s dinner table at the Dream House. Melothria scabra also go by the name mouse melons, and Goodrich recommends adding them to salsa. Or treating them like grapes. “Just pop them in your mouth,” he said.
“Experimenting with new varieties is a tricky balance for farmers,” said Amy Sinclair, the manager of the Yarmouth Farmers Market. “Because the majority of customers still want the basic beefsteak(tomatoes)-blueberry-corn fare. But there’s a smaller, devoted group of foodies, bored home cooks and restaurateurs who go to farmers markets looking for something brand new. That’s Replenova’s customer.”
Those kind of customers, Sinclair said, can be spotted at the market with giant cucuzzis from Replenova slung over their shoulders. “We look like a vegetable militia!”
SUSTAINABLY ALL THE WAY
At 65, Goodrich fits right in with the aging farming demographic in Maine as well as nationally (average age 58), but as he puts it, “this is a second-act kind of thing.” He’s upfront about being funded by the fruits of his past labors, although Replenova is too rough and ready to look like a classic gentleman’s farm. He’s got enough money to experiment, but not enough to throw up an instant, full-scale farm.
The goal is to make a sustainable business, approached from every angle.
Evironmentally speaking, he is using solar power, with a wood-burning assist on cloudy days, to keep his three hoop houses warm enough to extend seasons, and to fire up his drying facility, which handles about 1,000 pounds of tomatoes a week. (Despite that Year One rejection, he hasn’t given up tomatoes entirely, but he does focus on cherry varieties and dries much of his crop.) The wood is available locally, and he said it takes him only about two cords to get through a season. They’ve got to keep that drying house hot.
“Nathalie,” he asks his right-hand woman on the farm, Nathalie Forster. “What’s the temperature in there? Without the assist, when the sun is out?”
“One sixty,” Forster answers.
Peering in the back of the hoop house, the flourishing cucuzzi vines look ready to make a break for it. They can grow 3 inches in a day, Goodrich says. “It’s like Jurassic Park in there,” Forster jokes. He and the farm staff, which includes Forster and Brenda Engel, are seed-saving as well, and they’ve already got a crop of winter greens going from a batch of seeds they harvested earlier this year. Replenova uses rye as a fall/winter cover crop to replenish the soil. In the spring Goodrich cuts the rye down, smothers it with plastic and leaves the root structure in place as much as possible, doing only a light till with a small machine. He planted white clover around the hoop houses. They sit on roughly an acre and a half he’s leasing from the Cianchette family, which owns both the parcel he’s on and a nearby grass-fed beef farm.
“It’s good for the pollinators but also low maintenance,” Goodrich said. “It only grows this high,” he said, gesturing at the ankle-height clover, which doesn’t even need mowing. “That is less fuel you are using in your tractor.”
Replenova is not intended to be his retirement indulgence. “It needs to pay for itself,” he said. “That makes it sustainable, financially, right?”
While he already has a relationship with Good Shepherd Food Bank, handing over some of the aforementioned tomatoes and cucumbers, he wants to make the farm work financially in part so he can give more. “What we need is some high-value organic produce, maybe some culinary-type stuff to help make it sustainable and then we can give away a lot of stuff.”
Another innovation he started growing this year falls into that high-value category: pea shoots in a totally compostable medium (and plastic tray), inside a compostable bag, so the customer can trim what they want to eat and then leave the container to regrow.
There’s another area in which he wants to practice sustainability: work force.
“Growing food is so terribly undervalued in terms of the effort it takes to get it going,” he said. “So I have got a high wage.” He pays $15 an hour, he said. “I won’t do it for less. What is the point?”
He acknowledges his privilege in being able to pay those kind of wages. “I sold a biotech company,” he said. “That’s fine. You can say anything you want about that. But we want to contribute. I think feeding people is an important thing.”
The name Replenova is “two Latin words jammed together,” Goodrich said. Replenish and new. That sounds a lot like the name of a pharmaceutical company.
“Or a biotech company?” he said, smiling. “Maybe that is my bias.”
Goodrich knew he wanted to be a scientist when he was in seventh grade. His science background comes into play constantly on the farm, whether he’s rigging a solar-heated system to jump-start seedlings or considering a new crop. He’d been hearing about turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties. “I tend to look at these things pretty askance,” he said. “People make all these claims about this stuff. So I want to see peer-reviewed, published papers.”
He found more than a thousand of them, devoted to the healing powers of turmeric. Now he keeps a root in his freezer and shaves it onto his eggs in the morning.
In the hoop house, turmeric grows near the cucuzzi (which are planted on an arbor, for easy picking for people with aging knees), and Goodrich plans to do a whole hoop house of it next year. It takes 10 months for the turmeric root to mature and his plan is to harvest it in November, when there isn’t much of it fresh on the market. He’s hoping to sell a lot of the crop to Whole Foods.
His desire to grow food is nearly as longstanding as his desire to be a scientist. His father introduced him to gardening as a teenager, and by the time Goodrich was an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, he was planting such big gardens that one year, he stayed all summer to tend it. When he moved to Boston to take a job doing cancer research, he lined the deck of his apartment in a triple-decker with raised beds. “All my neighbors thought I was crazy,” he said. “This was 1976-1977 when I was doing this.”
He moved to Maine in 1981, and as he and his wife raised their family of three, Goodrich gardened and cooked for all. “I did it for 25 years,” he said. “My wife worked a second shift (at L.L. Bean).” He pushed the limits in his home garden too. “From a culinary point of view, I am always looking for outstanding things.”
He’s got room to expand in Cumberland, but will likely move the operation to a 17-acre parcel he purchased recently in Durham. That will cut his commute down from 10 miles to about five. For now though, he’s focused on tinkering with what he’s got in Cumberland. He’s got marketing to do, the farmers market to staff – those cucuzzi aren’t going to sell themselves – and along his commute, restaurants to stop in at, bringing fresh sugar snap peas or garlic chive flowers to sell. It’s a switch from the biotech life but not that far afield.
“I had 20 people in my company, and I still had to be the lead marketing and sales and the lead developer,” Goodrich said. “You have to do all that. I had great people but you have to do those things, and I am learning that in the food business you have to do the same.”
Maybe he’ll plant fava beans next year. Maybe he’ll convince more people to buy his dried cherry tomatoes, which so far look too much like red raisins to woo the farmers market crowd. He’s got kinks to work out with the marketing of the edamame; when the beans are at their prime for eating, the pods turn brown, and he got feedback from the Portland Food Co-op that this was a turn off for customers.
“It’s OK if you hit a bump,” Goodrich said. “So you go this way and then you go that way. It happened to me once a week in 25 years of business. Or once a day. Business isn’t perfect that way. God, in farming you have to make tons of adjustments to make it sustainable from the financial point of view.”
“That’s why I’m not building brand-new stuff and doing it all at once,” he said. “You also have to enjoy the trip here. And each day you learn something new.”