Staff Spotlight: Brie Weisman, Occupational Therapist

Brie Weisman, OTR/L, CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialist), ECHM (Executive Certification in Home Modification) has, has been a consultant to the Maine AgrAbility Program since 2018. She is an occupational therapist who brings farming experience, a sense of humor, and a deep sense of caring to her work on the team.

Where did you grow up? What were the early influences that started you on your way? 

I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA. When I was eight, my parents introduced me to a nature program where I learned about the local wildlife. I enjoyed working with ferrets and the Eastern King snakes and the hawks and owls. In my tweens I got into flower gardening first and then veggies. I just loved to see things grow. 

I came to Maine in 1989 to work for the Student Conservation Association as a trail crew member in Baxter State Park. I fell in love with Maine. That led me to finish up my B.S. in Outdoor Recreation from Unity College.  After a short stint in Oklahoma to work with adjudicated youth, I returned to Maine working various jobs so that I could snowboard when I wanted. I then took a position in Gorham, NH as the Youth Director of Project Youth, providing after school, vacation, and summer programs for middle schoolers. After about seven years there, I wanted something more. After doing some job shadowing, I applied to the Master’s program of occupational therapy (OT) at the University of Southern Maine, Lewiston campus. 

Why occupational therapy?

I love OT. It allows you to be so creative and you get to understand people and what motivates them. You get to be a problem solver under sometimes difficult circumstances and you can really help people dramatically. It is so rewarding. I feel more prepared for my senior years and have met role models for aging which continues to help me make healthy choices. I wish I had learned about OT sooner, but I think my diverse background, including my farming, allows me to connect with people in ways that I would not have had if I had just gone right to school as an OT.

Tell me more about the farming you do.

My husband, Jon, and I bought an 1890s farmhouse and property along the Ellis River in 2000. It came with 17 acres of poor fields. We also have a couple hundred acres of woodland in forestry management.

The old Ford 9N tractor that Jon bought stopped working. Jon had some experience with sheep and I had always liked them. I said, Why don’t we get sheep to graze and fertilize the fields? I did a lot of reading, talked to other farmers, took classes online and in-person when I could. I became a member of the Maine Sheep Breeders Association and attended their conferences.

We bought our first five sheep in 2010 from Elaine Clark, who lives in Limerick, Maine. We settled on Icelandics because they are a triple breed—wool, milk, and meat—and they are good mothers as well. Elaine has been our guru. 

Do you mean she has been a mentor?

Elaine drove the ewes over to us, let us pay for them over time, and was committed to helping us succeed with our starter flock. She answered our questions from medical advice to pregnancy issues. Ten years later, Elaine still takes our phone calls. Mentors can make all the difference in whether a new farmer succeeds or fails. We have found that most shepherds are very generous with their time and knowledge. In turn, we now have a decade of experience and share what we learn with newbies and our sheep community. My husband stays connected with a Facebook group on Icelandics and sheep. 

How have sheep worked out for your farm?

We raise purebred Icelandics. Our goal is to sell them as breeding stock. We also sell their wool in both raw and unprocessed for spinners at different fairs in Maine, and sell washed and carded roving to spinners and crafters. In addition, we have had a local mill process the wool into yarn and carry six different natural colors. We have had as many as 28 sheep, but having a dozen works best for us in our situation.

Do you have other products to sell? 

We have had high hoop tunnels since 2001 and have about 4,190 square feet of growing space. We raise winter greens that can survive without heat: kale, spinach, Asian greens and lettuces. We learned a lot from Eliot Coleman and even got a chance to visit with him on his farm. He is another Maine guru. 

Besides working at Androscoggin Home Health and AgrAbility, you have your own business, Adapt-Able Living?

I started Adapt-Able Living in 2016 as a result of my work as an OT in Home Health. I was constantly seeing people who had fallen and been injured as a result of not having any adaptive equipment or having the wrong type of equipment. In some cases, they were injured permanently. It was completely preventable if only they had had the right equipment installed correctly. My idea was to provide a home assessment offering them low-cost minor changes to prevent accidents. I also wanted to help seniors “age-in-place,” a term to help seniors remain in their homes safely, rather than end up in a nursing home facility. The majority of seniors surveyed by the AARP want to remain in their home and community that they live in. 

You have the perfect skill-set for working with AgrAbility. What’s your favorite part of this position?

I love meeting the farmers. I always learn something about farming that I can pass on to another farmer or use on my own farm. It’s interesting to see the way people set up their farms. Farmers are some of the most creative and adaptable people. They have to be to make it.  I love being able to help farmers continue their work in a safe manner over the long term. 

I also enjoy educating OT students about the AgrAbility program and the ways that we work with farmers, loggers and fishing industry people. This could be an area they’d like to pursue professionally. We show them the various avenues open to them. When they start working with their own clients, they can provide referrals to us.

Brie, thanks for everything you bring to the AgrAbility team!

A mentor may be a lot closer than you think!

Having someone with the time, energy, and personal know-how to guide you in business greatly increases your chance of success. A mentor can be someone with formal credentials and business experience, say, an advisor from SCORE or the Small Business Development Center. A mentor can be another farmer—a peer—who can relate to your trials and tribulations, who listens and doesn’t judge. A mentor is sometimes called a guru. “Guru” is the Sanskrit term for a teacher or guide.

You can be mentored individually or as part of a larger group. Here are some suggestions for how to get started:

  • Connect with commodity groups that match your interests or enterprise, like the Maine Cheese Guild or the Maine Sheep Breeders Association. You can check out these groups online—Facebook and websites—and see if they have regular meetings.

  • SCORE has recently teamed up with the USDA in a special initiative to mentor farmers—call your local SCORE office for a referral.

  • The Beginning Farmer Resource Network is another place to find a mentor.

  • Maybe you have a friend who is already acting in this capacity, you just hadn’t looked at it that way.