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BTLT In the News: “Your Land: Blue bounty at Crystal Springs Farm”

By Sandy Stott

“Your Land: Blue bounty at Crystal Spring Farm”

To read the full article online, click here. 

We all noticed it during spring walks. The leafing-out looked vigorous, promising, and then the flowers came. My inner bear keeps instinctive track of the little white bell blossoms that signal blueberries-in-the-making. Walk here waddle there, in the spring wherever I see clustered white, the site goes into my berry-memory. I’ll be back, I say, amusing myself mildly with Arnold-speak.

That was the scene this spring at the north end of Crystal Spring’s sandplain grassland barren, which the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust burned over in April 2021. Everywhere on those 14 acres, tiny fists of white speckled and, in some places, bent, the resurgent blueberry bushes. In a lifetime of blueberry tracking that’s verged on worship, I’d never seen such flower density.

Retired Bowdoin College Ecologist John Lichter helped me understand the gifts of a controlled burn. Bushes, like most of us, seek balance — what’s above the surface should roughly match the root network below. When a burn removes much of the bush and the competing weeds above ground, what remains draws upon a root system that teems with nutrients; growth aiming for balance can then be explosive.

Dial forward to July’s second half: Berry promise has become berry bonanza. I’m back! So too, given the Trust’s invitation to pick on some of those 14 acres, are many of you.

————

What’s also drawn me out on this late July day is something larger than my own berry-mania. It’s the promise of watching part of a blueberry harvest on 35 of 70 leased acres of sandplain that adjoin the acres preserved by the Land Trust. Those acres are cultivated by Crystal Spring farmers Seth Kroeck and Maura Bannon, and each year, thousands of pounds of blueberries get raked up and sent to Merrill Blueberry Farms, an organic processor in Hancock. There they are cleaned and sorted, and then frozen and shipped back to Crystal Spring and the farm’s freezer.

From there they go out to markets and restaurants throughout southern Maine. These commercial blueberries and products made from them are an important part of what makes Crystal Spring Farm a thriving operation.

Kroeck’s explanation of their berrying brought me to think more fully about the plants offering me (for that’s how it looks as I bend to pick) their berries. As he noted, “These berry plants are likely much older than I am, and they are likely to be here long after I’m gone.” Blueberry plants, Kroeck explained, “grow in circular clones from underground root networks that can be up to 50 feet across. Seen from the air, the barren sometimes looks like a patchwork of different-colored circles.” A sort of large-scale pointillist’s dream, I thought as I imagined this.

“And,” Kroeck added, “in the past, people wondered how these old fields just gave and gave.” Yes, the usual post-harvest mowing or burning added back some nutrients and encouraged regrowth, but the giving surely outweighed the getting. Enter the discovery of mycorrhizal fungi that partner with blueberry plant roots, increasing their reach and breaking down minerals for them. Blueberry plants, in symbiotic return, provide the mycorrhizae with carbohydrates.

So much going on beneath the surface. Another lesson, I reminded myself, in learn from your land.

Crystal Spring Farm’s 10-day blueberry harvest started on July 26. At midday on the 27, I stopped by to watch. Kroeck was driving the tractor with its two harvesting drums attached to the left side; his son Griffin was working a deck on the back of the tractor, where the just picked berries arrived via conveyor belts and dropped into a box that holds roughly 20 pounds of berries. Griffin tended each box as it filled, removing sticks, wads of grass and leaves — and the occasional snake — then stacked the boxes on wooden pallets. Kroeck drove carefully at somewhere under .5 mph. And the harvesting drums, which feature 12 rows of slim tines, raked the berries off efficiently. Following along in their wake, I saw few remaining berries and no evident damage to the plants. “Yes,” said Kroeck appreciatively, “the folks who invented these are pretty remarkable.”

Coda: The Gift: Earlier in July, while looking over the berry-bounty of the recently burned acres, Kroeck and BTLT Stewardship Director Margaret Gerber, thought, they are so many; some of these berries could help nourish those who are hungry. Kroeck volunteered a day’s harvesting, which he estimated could add up to 2000+ pounds. These berries would then need processing and freezing and distributing. In Auburn, they found the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which could oversee the processing and storage and, in Portland, the Preble Street Food pantry, which could distribute the berries. A fitting tribute to Crystal Spring Farm and the land’s stewards, and a berry fine use of a season’s bounty.

To read the full article online, click here. 

 

Thinning Overcrowded Young White Pines at Crystal Spring Farm

By Cora Spelke (BTLT summer intern) and Steve Pelletier (certified wildlife biologist, licensed Maine forester, and member of BTLT’s Advisory Council)

If you’ve ever walked Crystal Spring Farm’s (CSF) elaborate system of trails, then you’ve had the opportunity to experience its differing forest types, including many dominated by varying mixes of white pine, red oak, and numerous other native hardwood and softwood trees. Each of these species, together and alone, provide a broad variety of important ecological landscape functions and social attributes that in turn support two of CSF’s primary management goals, i.e., healthy, diverse wildlife habitats, and active and passive recreation. In addition, each individual tree, through photosynthesis, actively sequesters and stores carbon throughout its entire system, including the woody fibers and mycorrhizae found deep within its roots. Recognition of this innate phenomena is a fundamental – and increasingly important – means of offsetting the devastating threats of global climate change.

The ability of forest stands to support natural functions is dependent on the general health and conditions of trees within a stand, and include varying factors such as species type, average height and diameter, stem density, and overhead canopy closure. In certain circumstances, tree numbers – or the stand density per unit area – will become so high that the growth rates of individual trees are stunted due to excessive competition for available sunlight, soil moisture, and growing space, thus not allowing trees to grow to their full potential. These overcrowded conditions also limit individual tree vigor which in turn contributes to poor health and increased opportunities for the spread of tree disease and insect damages within the stand.

One area on the Crystal Spring Farm trails that displays such conditions can be found at the beginning of the Blueberry Loop. As seen in the picture to the left, the sides of the trails are full of young (~12-14 years old) white pine trees all growing right next to each other. In order to increase the health of the forest and the trees, some of these young pines need to be removed to allow more growing space for the remaining trees to grow. One of the tasks undertaken by BTLT summer intern, Cora Spelke, is to head out to the CSF trails about once a week to begin thinning out these younger portions of the forest stand. The removal of individuals will specifically focus on those that are poorly formed or already displaying various signs of disease (e.g., white pine blister rust) or insect damage such as the white pine weevil. The most vigorous, healthiest young pine will be left in place with a minimum six to eight feet of spacing around each tree at this point in time. A future thinning in approximately 5 to 10 years would then further increase the spacing of trees at that time, further increasing the value and health of the forest stand. In that way, we expect to improve the ability of this stand of timber to provide quality wildlife habitat, to enhance its aesthetic appeal to recreational users, and to substantially increase the ability of the stand to help reduce our carbon footprint. These efforts are being conducted under the supervision of Steve Pelletier, a certified wildlife biologist, licensed Maine forester, and member of BTLT’s Advisory Council.

Remember to Leash Your Dog – It Could Make or Break Someone Else’s Visit

Many folks enjoy walking on local trails to get out in nature, exercise, enjoy the flora and fauna, and walk their dogs. The majority (but not all) of Land Trust trails allow dogs on leash, including Crystal Spring Farm. Dogs are required to be kept on leash on properties like Crystal Spring Farm for the enjoyment and safety of other visitors and dogs, and it can make all the difference. Over the years, we have received numerous calls and emails from visitors who have come across dogs off leash that have been aggressive, or have been friendly but not under control which has led to dogs jumping on them. These experiences can be harmful both physically and mentally to people who come to enjoy the trails, but are bombarded with dogs off leash and have their visit turned into a stressful and unsafe experience.

In addition, dogs are required to be leashed to limit their impact on wildlife. Dogs running off leash can damage plants, bird nests, and disrupt feeding or mating animals. In agricultural areas, such as Crystal Spring Farm, off leash dogs may also run through (and defecate in) crop fields and garden beds, ruining crops as well jeopardizing a farm’s organic certification. Off leash dogs are also more likely to defecate off trail, and when your dog goes in the woods, it doesn’t just stay in the woods – eventually it (and its bacteria)can be washed downstream and into our streams and ocean, polluting the clam flats, beaches, and shoreline.

So next time you are visiting one of our trails, please remember to leash your dog – it’s required and essential for dogs to continue to be allowed and makes a big difference when it comes to the safety and enjoyment of anyone else who may be visiting those same trails.

BTLT does not have the staff capacity to monitor dogs and help remind visitors to leash their dogs on all of our properties where they are allowed, so we are looking for folks who frequently walk and enjoy the trails at Crystal Spring Farm (and elsewhere) to help us educate visitors about the importance of their dogs being leashed while visiting Land Trust properties. If you are interested in volunteering, please contact margaret@btlt.org.

A Berry Exciting Time of Year…

It’s once again blueberry season at Crystal Spring Farm. A portion of the farm on the south side of Pleasant Hill Road consists of a rare natural community of plants known as a sandplain grassland, which is ideal habitat for low-bush blueberries. It’s July, so the blueberries in the barren are ripening now!  

Please note that the Land Trust only owns a small section of the barren. The much larger adjacent property is leased and managed by Seth Kroeck, Crystal Spring’s farm manager, for the commercial sale of organic blueberries. Please do not pick beyond the Land Trust’s clearly marked property boundary. See photo below.

Kroeck described his growing process for us. “Growing blueberries is a two-year cycle. We prune the plants, either by mowing or burning, the spring after the harvest. The next year they regrow and it is on this new growth that they make flowers and then fruit. By dividing the field in two, each season we have one section of plants in regeneration and one ready to harvest.”  

BTLT undertakes a similar management practice, and last spring half of the section open to the public was burned to promote healthy growth of this unique habitat. As a result, it’s looking like there will be a bumper crop of blueberries on the 14 acres that were burned last year!

As a result, this year you will also see that roughly 3.5 acres of the Crystal Spring Farm barrens south of the Blueberry Loop are roped off. Seth Kroeck and the Land Trust are working together to harvest, process, and donate blueberries from this area to folks in our community, so please observe the signs and do not pick in this area. Stay tuned for more information and updates about this later this summer!

The boundary line is marked with metal stakes and signs, and the lone trees in the middle of the field mark part of the boundary. 

Kroeck also noted that “Bees for pollination are rented from Swan’s Honey in Albion. We truck them back and forth, loading in the evenings when the colonies are inside the hives. It takes 30 to 40 hives to pollinate this crop.” There are also a few ‘resident hives’ on the northside of Pleasant Hill Road that help to pollinate the blueberries when they are in flower.  

Mowing, bringing in hives to pollinate, harvesting, and processing are all labor and capital intensive for Kroeck and Crystal Spring Community Farm. But, blueberries have become one of the farms’ most important crops, and can be found in natural food and grocery stores up and down the coast. This significant investment is also why we ask the community to be mindful of only picking in the areas BTLT has set aside for public gathering. 

The massive “barren” at Crystal Spring doesn’t just produce blueberries, though. The area is a rare natural community home to sedges, birds, reptiles, and butterflies that depend on sandy soils and full sunlight to thrive. Once common along the northeastern coast, development and changing land uses have all but eliminated this unique biome, and the Maine Natural Areas Program lists it as “critically imperiled.” The unique habitat is a product of geologic history and human actions. The sand and gravel deposited by melting glaciers at the end of the last ice age provides a level, well-drained base that acidic plants love. Both Native Americans and European settlers used fire deliberately as a way to maintain the area as grassland and promote blueberry production. 

In 2019, BTLT hosted a “bioblitz” at the property to help catalog the many species that call this place home. The recent prescribed burn of the blueberry barrens will help ensure this unique habitat is sustained, and BTLT will carefully monitor the recovery and the species that it has impacted. This year Grasshopper Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlark have been observed in the barren as well as rare sedge, all which are threatened or critically imperiled species that rely on this natural community.

Our blueberry barren is located south of Pleasant Hill Road. To access it, you can park at the Crystal Spring Farm trail parking area and take the East Trail.  Where the East Trail intersects the Blueberry Loop, take a right toward the field and you’ll find blueberries! 

As you enjoy the blueberries and engage in this wonderful rite of summer, please respect a few important rules: 

  • Stay on our property: The map above shows the location of our property boundary. These maps are posted at primary entrances to our property.
  • Park responsibly: While we prefer that people use the parking area described above and walk to the barren, it is also possible to park along Pleasant Hill Road near the gate approximately 0.75 mile from Maine Street. If you park on Pleasant Hill Road: 
  • DO NOT BLOCK THE FARM ROAD OR GATE! The road must be accessible to farm and fire equipment at all times. 
  • Park only on the south side of Pleasant Hill Road (the side the blueberries are on). With cars parked on both sides of the road, pedestrians crossing, runners and bikers, and farm equipment all converging – it makes for a very unsafe situation. 
  • Have fun! And share your best blueberry recipes with us! 

If you have questions, give us a call at 729-7694. Happy picking! 

Spring Time at Crystal Spring Farm

by Emily Swan – BTLT Board President

Every spring I look forward to walking the trails at Crystal Spring Farm South to see the wildflowers. This Memorial Day weekend I was lucky to catch the tail-end of trillium season overlapping with the peak of lady’s slippers in all their glory. I can always count on seeing star flowers, bunch berries, Canada mayflower, and Clintonia Borealis (also known as bluebead lily). The flowers provide a feast for the eyes, while the birds provide the soundtrack – black-throated green warblers, hermit thrushes, red-eyed vireos, black-and-white warblers, ovenbirds, and more! While it’s tough catching a glimpse of these birds in the woods, in the farm fields, easily viewed from the BTLT Farmers’ Market parking area, you’ll have no trouble at all both hearing AND seeing bluebirds, song sparrows, and bobolinks, among others. If you’ve never seen a bobolink, now is the time to catch of glimpse of these incomparable birds.

BTLT In the News: “Hiking in Maine: Crystal Spring Farm highlights successes of land trust”

Hiking in Maine: Crystal Spring Farm highlights successes of land trust
Owned and managed by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, the site offers nearly 5 miles of pleasant foot trails winding through the forests and fields.

By Carey Kish – veteran hiker and freelance writer

Tucked away in a quiet wooded corner of Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick is a beautiful stone labyrinth. Not a maze but rather a single winding route through a series of concentric rings, the path is meant “to be walked deliberately,” according to a sign near the circle’s entrance. Three granite slab benches at the labyrinth’s center invite visitors to relax and reflect.

The “Labyrinth in the Woods” is just one of the many wonderful highlights of Crystal Spring Farm, a 331-acre parcel located just 1 1/2 miles south of downtown Brunswick. Owned and managed by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, nearly 5 miles of pleasant foot trails wind through the forests and fields of this ecologically rich property.

In 1994, when it became known that 160 acres of working farmland on the south side of Pleasant Hill Road were about to go up for sale, the fledgling land trust, just 9 years old at the time, took notice. The landowners hoped to keep the property in agriculture, and the land trust saw this as a golden opportunity to establish a great community resource.

The prevailing sentiment was “how can we not do this?” said Angela Twitchell, executive director of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust. And with that, the project moved forward and the work of garnering public support and raising the necessary funds began. The land was eventually acquired in 1998, but by then, the land trust already had its eye on the adjoining 160 acres on the north side of the road.

“We worked out another deal with the owners to buy the additional land over time,” Twitchell noted. Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust embarked on another capital campaign, and with a boost from a Land for Maine’s Future grant, the purchase was completed in 2008. Since then, several smaller parcels have been added to “complete what was a bit of a puzzle.”

Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust’s mission is to protect and steward the special places across the communities of Brunswick, Topsham and Bowdoin, to provide recreational opportunities, connect people to nature, and support local agriculture and fisheries. The acquisition of Crystal Spring Farm, considered the Trust’s signature property, checked all of these boxes.

“There was great community affection for this property from the start,” Twitchell said. Input from public meetings helped shape how the land trust would manage the land. With active agriculture a high priority, a farmer was found to run the farm and a farmer’s market was established. Ad hoc trails existed but a more formal network would take some work.

On the south side of Pleasant Hill Road, the trails were constructed in the 1990s. The East Trail leaves the main trailhead and heads for a junction at the property boundary. Here, the Quarry Trail breaks away to the west to visit the site of an old quarry and brings you in view of a solar array erected in 2016 that generates electricity for the farm.

Continuing on the East Trail, the path skirts the farm fields and swings around a lovely little pond before crossing Great Gully Stream. Past the short Ravine Trail loop, the East Trail meets the Blueberry Loop, which makes a nice circuit through a rare sandplain grassland where 21 acres of managed lowbush blueberry barrens are available to the public for berry picking.

The trails on the north side of Pleasant Hill Road were laid out and built in the 2000s by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust and a cadre of volunteers. The primary route through the mixed woods is the Main Loop, which is intersected by seven connector trails that allow you to shorten your hike or explore further as you desire. The Garden Trail is not to be missed, as it visits the aforementioned labyrinth as well as the community garden, which was established 10 years ago to grow food for a local hunger prevention program.

Since its start in 1985, the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust has conserved 3,148 acres over approximately 60 properties; about one-third of the acreage is owned outright while the remainder is protected through conservation easements. All told, there are well over 20 miles of hiking trails to be enjoyed, so grab your walking shoes and day pack and come take good a look around.

To read the full article online, click here.

Why isn’t there more parking at BTLT’s Saturday Farmers’ Market at Crystal Spring Farm?

Have you ever been driving around, waiting for a parking spot at the Market on a Saturday morning, and asked yourself – there are all these fields, why can’t we just use them for parking?

It’s a good question, with a good answer: Crystal Spring Farm was conserved for its agricultural value, including some of the best farmland soil in this part of the state. The fields around the Market, while currently in fallow, are leased to the farming operation run by Seth Kroeck and Maura Bannon, and using those fields for parking would degrade their agricultural value, now, and for generations to come.

We have explored moving the Market to another area of the farm. We considered south of the solar array, but that land is wet and has a large area of federally mapped wetland, so simply is not suitable for the Market. We also considered moving the Market to an area near the Tom Settlemire Community Garden off Baribeau Drive. But all of Crystal Spring Farm on the north side of Pleasant Hill Road, while owned by BTLT, has an easement held by the State of Maine. That agricultural easement will not allow the land to be used for a Market. BTLT has explored other options as well – in 2018 and 2019 we offered a $2 shuttle service that ran regularly from several stops in-town Brunswick, but that service was hardly used. We’ve also tried to encourage bicycling and walking to Market, and we encourage parking along Woodside Road and walking the trail to Market, but have not seen a significant decrease in the number of cars using the parking lot.

BTLT Saturday Farmers’ Market at Brunswick Landing (2020)

After almost two seasons of being at other locations during Covid, at the end of 2021 we surveyed many of you to see if you wanted to stay at Brunswick Landing – where parking wasn’t an issue – or return to the Farm. Customers and vendors alike told us resoundingly they wanted to return to the Farm, so we did. BTLT has done our best to make the Market safe and accessible, while working within the constraints of hosting the weekly event on land that also grows food for our community.

We spend many hours each season seeking volunteers and additional staff to help us with parking, setting up cones, and keeping everyone safe. If you are willing to help, we always need volunteers from 7:30-8:30 and 12:30-1:30 to set up and take down cones, and from 8:30-10:30 and 10:30-12:30 to help park cars. Contact market@btlt.org if you are interested in helping.

We all love the Market and we all love having it on a beautiful working farm. We ask all of you driving to Market to have patience as you look for a place to park, and consider that the person helping you find a place is likely a volunteer, so please be kind. We also ask every one of you to try to find ways to ride your bike, walk, or carpool to the Market.

Thank you!

Mowita’nej Epijij Garden

Bringing Bats, Bees, and Birds Back

By Margaret Gerber, BTLT Director of Stewardship

On a cold and clear Sunday in December, Eagle Scout Luke Page visited Crystal Spring Farm. It was a nice afternoon for a walk, however he didn’t come empty handed, or alone. He brought with him 10 bumble bee boards, one bat box, two bluebird boxes, and a robin / cardinal nesting box. Armed with power tools and help from a fellow Eagle Scout, his troop leader, and the helping hands of parents, he installed another seven bat boxes, two bluebird boxes, and three robin / cardinal across Crystal Spring Farm, Tarbox Preserve, and Androscoggin Woods.

Hanging these boxes will help promote these species by providing shelter, and can be seen along field edges where bluebirds like to nest, hidden among hemlock or cedar bows where robin and cardinals are protected and hidden, and 14 feet above the ground facing south to keep bats safe from predators and in tune with the sun.

BTLT is grateful to Luke and his troop for their hard work, and we hope you’ll enjoy spotting these boxes next time you’re at the community garden or out on the trails at Crystal Spring Farm, Tarbox, or Androscoggin Woods!

 

 

Queer Wild Edibles Walk

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  • Queer Wild Edibles Walk
    October 16, 2021
    12:15 pm - 3:00 pm

-REGISTRATION IS FULL- Please email lydia@btlt.org to be put in the waitlist BTLT’s first collaboration with Queers of Greater Portland! Join us for a beginner-level wild edibles walk and plant ID exploration at Crystal Spring Farm. This event is for members of the LQBTQIA+ community for a chance to connect and enjoy the outdoors! Knate (more…)

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