IMG_1349 Veggies to Table Erica berman and Alain Ollier - Photo Caroline Mardok.jpeg
IMG_1349 Veggies to Table Erica berman and Alain Ollier - Photo Caroline Mardok.jpeg

 A Heartfelt New Chapter: Parisian Entrepreneur returns to the US to Grow a Philanthropic Farming Venture

Erica Berman, Founder of Veggies to Table
Paris, France to Newcastle, Maine

Photography by: Kelsey Kobik, hero image by Caroline Mardok 

Moving to midcoast Maine was a childhood dream come true for Erica Berman. Originally from Massachusetts, Erica has fond memories of spending summers in Maine as a kid. Each subsequent visit, she would find it harder and harder to leave the lush, quiet coastline. Something about the New England sensibility, dramatic and dynamic seasons, and her own childhood nostalgia drew her back after decades living as an American immigrant in France.

After a successful career running two businesses in Paris, Erica and her French husband Alain, decided it was time to commit to a new chapter in their lives. Erica had made a name for herself in Paris running the popular cultural blog Hip Paris, and boutique rental agency Haven In. She felt ready for a major change and wanted to direct her talents towards a different more meaningful cause at this point in her life.

When it came time for them to consider returning to the U.S., Erica jumped at the opportunity to return to Maine. At first, Alain was skeptical, having never been to the state, but it was love at first sight when he visited. Their little town of Newcastle is in a quiet but vibrant community on the coast. They are able to enjoy all the quintessential pleasures of small town living, while still being only an hour's drive away from Portland (and the nearest airport). The town has a thriving co-op, movie theatre, independent bookstore, numerous restaurants, and a friendly community, which has made the rural experience more accessible and less isolated.

"I think people often think country people are bumpkins. This could not be further from the truth. There are so many humble yet, highly intelligent, people here, people looking for a simpler and more honest lifestyle."

Ever the builders and creators, Erica and Alain become inspired to start Veggies to Table after Alain heard an NPR piece on the rampant problem of food insecurity in Maine. They reached out to their community and found mentors who helped them manifest their goals. Erica developed a fruitful relationship, with the owners and operators of Growing to Give, a farm and non-profit for donating fresh produce to local food banks, and flowers to organizations all over their community. That relationship gave her a framework for how she could start her own philanthropic farm: Veggies to Table. 

Farming for the first time was a big learning process, however, Erica and Alain had the support of their community and many mentors to help them learn along the way. Also, they have found that by welcoming volunteers to their operation, they have cultivated even more friendships through their work.

During the pandemic, their work at Veggies to Table became that much more urgent. 2020 was only their second season on the farm, and the pandemic only made food insecurity that much more rampant. That year the two of them made significant efforts to expand their farm and volunteer resources, while also incorporating social distancing and safety practices for their workers and volunteers. 

 

Running Veggies to Table has been a way for Erica and Alain to integrate themselves more fully in the community. They have been able to build relationships by giving back. They have created a new life and a second career where they can see the impact of their work in real time. Hopefully organizations like theirs, and the ones that they were inspired by, can inspire others to start non-profit farms in their communities to provide healthy and accessible local food to those who need it.

www.veggiestotable.org

 

 

Q & A

What initially made you decide to move to Maine from Paris? 
My French husband, Alain, and I decided to move from Paris to Maine to lead a more quiet and meaningful life. A life where we would be feeding our soul as well as ourselves. Alain always sort of ‘hated’ living in Paris (if one can believe that!) where we met while he was there on a brief trip to visit family—he has not lived in France for many years). We joke that he got ‘stuck’ in Paris with me!  It is true that I had become complacent in my existence there and thanks to him and a wake-up jolt we made the move.  It will be 10 years in July.

Tell us about your journey into farming professionally. How has the farm evolved/changed to become a sustainable operation? 

Veggies to Table is still very very new. We are headed into our 4th season, and we have been officially a non-profit for just about three years. We rely on foundation grants, corporate sponsors, and individual donors to fund our mission. I’m working on a handful of things to make our mission even more sustainable such as the supper club we’ve been hosting this winter and will start up again in the fall, selling Veggies to Table merchandise, and an exciting Paris Sweepstakes with a week giveaway in a luxury Paris apartment —stay tuned!. We also hope to host our first ever live events on the farm this summer, Covid, and bird flu (oy) permitting!

How has the pandemic affected your work, life, and priorities?

The pandemic has made me take a step back and realize the true importance of good friends and family—spending time with those you love. I don’t think that I realized just how special it is to be able to just be with those you care about. It’s not a given any more. I wonder if we’ll ever be able to go back to casually hanging out with friends. It still seems a little far off to me

 

From your experience working in food insecurity, what changes have you seen since the pandemic regarding food assistance? Did you shift your growing or operations in response?

Food insecurity in Maine has deepened since the beginning of the pandemic. it’s estimated that at the height of the pandemic over 13.5% of Mainers (up from 12%) were living with hunger daily. Over 43% of school children rely on school meals daily (https://www.fullplates.org) We were only in our second season when the pandemic hit so just getting our feet wet. We had to head into our second season making sure to keep our crew and volunteers safe and healthy. This remains a priority!

 

We have been continually growing and expanding production to try to help meet the demand and supply local pantries in partners with as much fresh, organic, nutritious purchase as possible. With supermarkets still experiencing supply chain disruptions, we are needed more than ever. Each year we have new partners — we supply over 30 local organizations with our organic produce. In three seasons we have grown and donated 31,000 pounds of produce and 1,850 bouquets of flowers. We think 2022 will be our most productive season yet.

How has your professional life shifted since coming to Maine? How do you balance your on and off farm work?
We thought by moving to Maine we would have a quieter, calmer life, but I think that it’s not really where you live it is how you live. I have realized that I am   someone who always has too many things that I’m passionate about, and never enough time in the day to get them all done. It’s hard to balance time away from the farm. And with the pandemic even more so. Leaving is challenging especially in the summer. We do try to sneak away from time to time. We promised ourselves that we would try to have a day off each week just for the two of us this summer. And, we will even try to have a little vacation at some point. Things we love to do in Maine are kayaking, going to Popham beach, hiking and early morning yard sales. I promised myself I would get to lots of them this summer! We also try to do a lot of cooking in our down time and discovering new recipes! And each evening we make time to relax with our kitties, a good movie or show, or a book!

Where do you draw your creative inspiration from?

Aside from the beauty of Maine, and the daily joy of the organic produce and flowers we grow to donate, I get a lot of creative inspiration on Instagram from the community that I follow there. There are so many amazing farmers and people working to change the world and feed their communities. I also gather a lot of inspiration from my cultural blog on Paris, HiP Paris. When I moved my life from  Paris to Maine, and sold my vacation rental company Haven In,  I held onto the blog.  It is a source of daily joy and beauty. During the pandemic being able look at images of Paris, France, Italy and Europe daily was a great escape for me and my followers.

 

What do love most about this community and the land you are farming on?

We love our community. People are friendly, open, willing to help out. It is a diverse mix of people from all sorts of lifestyles and places. We are ‘from away’ as are many of the members of our community, but we still feel like this is home.

 

The land we have found to farm, and live on, is close to town, yet feels isolated—a perfect combination. I grew up driving from suburban Boston to the city and hated it. Alain, wanted to feel like he was in the middle of nowhere. This location is perfect as I can pop into Rising Tide Coop for dinner and be there and back in a heartbeat but when I am here at home, it’s really private and secluded which we both love. During the pandemic it was a joy to be able to go out the door and into the woods and just walk and walk. There are many trails on our land and beyond. We feel blesses to have found this land.

Have you noticed the effects of climate change since you began your farming journey? Has it affected your growing operation?

Even in the few years we have had the farm, we see longer seasons, greater fluctuations of drought and deeper periods of rain.

What was the most challenging part of your transition to rural life?

It really did not seem challenging at all, honestly.

Would you ever return to city living full-time? 

I don’t think so. There is just no draw for me, or my husband. I do love the city, love to visit, especially Paris where I lived for 20 years. However, I don’t feel any desire to move back.

 

A lot of people dream of packing up their city lives and moving to the country. What advice do you have for anyone considering making the leap?

I suggest spending time in the winter in the community you think you want to move to. If you love it with cold and snow, you will adore it year-round. We came here and rented houses in the off seasons in January and February for a number of years before making the full plunge. We adored it despite the predictions of friends that we would not last long. Ten years in I think we proved them wrong.

 

I also think it is important not to fully give up your city life until you are 100% certain you are ready for the transition. After a few winters we rented a furnished house in Newcastle for 6 months. We sublet our Paris apartment. We found we had no desire to leave so we ended up buying  this land and building our house. The transition was slow and we left the door open to our former life just in case.

Have you noticed a similar shift in France/Europe of more people choosing to leave the city?

I think the shift in Paris is to close suburbs for more space and a garden, yet with easy access to the city. I also see many Parisians buying a second home in the countryside or a first home and renting in Paris. Rents are, oddly, cheap in Paris compared to other big cities, so it is easier to rent and purchase a home. Country living is still accessible in France. I don’t see a lot of people truly giving up the city for 100% country life.

 

Do you have any farming mentors, books, podcasts, etc. that have helped educate, guide, and inspire you?

 

 

What are your plans and goals for the coming year?

I hope to expand Veggies to Table so we can feed more of those in need and spread our flower joy to even more essential workers, teachers, health care workers and anyone needing food for the soul.

I also hope the coming winter I make it back to Paris and Italy… it has been 4 years. I would also love to find the time to sneak away and learn Spanish. That was the plan when the pandemic hit. Maybe this winter will be the year I can do that. Maybe I will take a permaculture class and learn Spanish, who knows!
 

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