This Maine farmer tells us how to improve wildlife habitat on our own land

Retiring to, Not From by John TwomeyA subtitle on John Twomey’s interesting and informative book, Retiring To, Not From, reports that it includes, “Intimate details of life on a remote farm in Maine.” And that is certainly true.

The level of detail about farming will be of interest to anyone who grows vegetables and fruit, but what intrigued me was John’s explanations of how he has improved wildlife habitat on the Montville farm of he and his partner Leigh, since retiring there in 2009. This former U. Mass. Professor is, to put it mildly, really into farming and wildlife!

From pruning hundreds of apple trees to planting thousands of white and chestnut oaks to mowing his fields and brushy areas in a way that most benefits wildlife, John gives us lots of great ideas about how all of us who care about Maine’s wildlife from birds to deer, can help them survive and thrive here.

Along the way, you’ll read some interesting stories about wildlife on his farm. For example, there was this in a section on wild turkeys: “I have also witnessed numerous daytime attacks by hawks, coyotes, and foxes, and seen firsthand the hen wild turkeys’ amazing ability to deal with such incidents.” Makes me want to secure a turkey blind on his farm for next spring’s hunt!

Retiring To, Not From

An avid birder, John includes a list of 100 different kinds of birds he’s seen in the field and forests of his farm. If I was a bird, I would definitely want to live there where he works to create and foster feeding, roosting, and nesting sites.

For example, he tells us, “I use cutting practices that leave large amounts of slash (tops and branches) from trees I cut down because such debris provides secluded areas where certain ground-nesting birds feel comfortable raising their young.” He even girdles some trees to create snags that provide homes for insects. Yes, he even manages his farm for insects!

After clearing brush around my house for years, I got educated to the value of that brush, and since then I’ve been letting it grow, with occasional trimming. And now those bushes are loaded with birds and bird nests.

I especially enjoyed John’s chapter on the pond he created, where he raises and harvests brook trout. I’ll let him know that if he ever needs help with that harvest, I’m the man!

“Starting around the age of six, I began spending countless hours each spring and summer in pursuit of these magnificent little fish,” he reports. He purchases 150 six-inch brook trout from a hatchery and stocks them in late September. “Around mid-June, after a couple of months of steady feeding after ice-out, Leigh and I begin to fish for the trout. We use small lures, flies, and live bait, and are generally able to catch the majority of them with relatively little effort.” Alas, sounds like they don’t need any help!

Having just gone through a debate over the wisdom of cutting mature oaks on DIF&W’s Jamies Pond Wildlife Management Area in Hallowell, I was interested to read this: “Many years ago I began a program of growing desirable trees from seed and transplanting them to strategic locations. In doing so, I have focused exclusively on trees that will be most beneficial to wildlife. Two of these beneficial trees are white oak and chestnut oak.” John has planted thousands of oak trees all over his farm.

The book also focuses lots of attention on farming, and even in that section of the book, I noted interesting info about wild critters. “Certain wild animals also pose a threat to the vegetable garden,” he writes, naming woodchucks and white-tailed deer. And I have to say, John is more compassionate than me.

Like my wife, an avid gardener, John uses electric fence to keep the critters out of his vegetable gardens. “Woodchucks can be more persistent than deer,” he acknowledges, “and when I do encounter a particularly cantankerous woodchuck, I live-trap and relocate it.” Good for you John. But I just shoot them all.

My wife Linda’s gardens are plagued by voles, and John gave us some good ideas of how to capture and get rid of them.

In the section on fruit trees and fruit, John tells us that in addition to bringing back his wild apple trees, he’s been working to establish a variety of fruit trees, focusing on apples, plums, sour pie cherries, and peaches. I was amazed at how many varieties of apples he’s growing. And the fact that his trees are now producing over 1,000 pears each year, most of which they eat fresh. The rest they preserve in light syrup or as pear sauce.

From soil maintenance to food preservation, John covers it all in great detail. He also tells us about the restoration of their old barn and home, and construction of hiking and cross-country-ski trails through his woodlot, giving readers lots of great stories and helpful information. He has even taken steps to protect and preserve his farm, after he and Leigh are gone.

As he writes in the preface, “I write this largely so that my family, particularly my grandchildren, might better understand my philosophy, my plans, and the specific components of the way of life that I have chosen… I strive to follow the principle of simplicity… Most importantly, everything I do is guided by the principle of working with and not against nature.”

Well, John, your mission has been accomplished. And I can only thank you for sharing this book with us.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.