TEXT BY VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY KELSEY KOBIK
On a mild winter morning, David Spahr greets me in his dooryard and immediately dives into a favorite subject: farming with native plants, many of them rare or endangered. “That’s an American chestnut,” he says, pointing to a nearby tree. “And that’s another one over there. I planted those. I have 27 of them — I’m a lunatic farmer.”
Obsessive enthusiast is more like it. Spahr is growing as many American chestnut trees — not to mention sand cherries (30), wild highbush blueberries (40), and beach plums (60) — as his forest farm in Washington can accommodate, yet he is forever propagating more. Countless black plastic cloning balls bob like fruit on branches of trees and shrubs. In his kitchen mini-fridge, beach-plum, blackberry, ramp, and sea-rocket seeds sprout in baggies of moist peat moss, a space- and energy-saving alternative to grow lights for jumpstarting spring planting.
ABOVE 1) A roasted chestnut. 2) Fresh ramp seeds. 3) Stored ramp seeds.
He typically trades his young plants for, say, a hand-knitted hat or a jar of homemade blackberry jam. The practice suits his mission: to teach people how to generate food for pennies while also restoring plants that, like the American chestnut, have been devastated by imported diseases and habitat destruction and nurturing others that are abundant but not widely recognized, like the wild highbush blueberry. Spahr’s blueberry bushes, transplanted from the surrounding forest, produce small, flavorful berries that taste more like the fruit of their lowbush cousins than the bland orbs of highbush cultivars.
Spahr is arguably Maine’s best-known forager, thanks to his 2009 book, Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada, and the foraging and mushroom-identification classes he teaches. He sells his produce to high-end restaurants like Rockland’s Primo, where chef Melissa Kelly has simmered his beach plums into savory sauces, and Suzuki’s Sushi Bar, where Keiko Steinberger tucks his bluet blossoms amongst her maki and nigiri rolls. His Facebook page features hundreds of photos of his own gorgeously plated dinners, like baked smallmouth bass stuffed with blueberries, raspberries, and chopped jalapeños.
ABOVE David Spahr’s farm, in Washington.
Spahr scoffs at concepts like hügelkultur and permaculture, believing they unnecessarily mystify growing food. Eight years ago, he piled dead branches and “an ungodly amount of leaves” into several long, 4-foot-high mounds, covered them with $3-a-bale hay, and planted potatoes. As the piles have broken down into rich soil, he’s added a variety of vegetables. “This is farming for poor people,” he says with a hint of pride. “No tilling. Done dirt cheap.”