Meryl LaTronica found her way to Just Roots Community Farm slowly. When she graduated from college and considered her future she realized that farming might be her calling. “Farming felt like such a great combination of outdoor physical work and working with land & nature, but also doing work that is about serving and connecting people. The people plus plants life has always felt like the most amazing balance, getting to work every day under the beautiful sky, but side by side with other people and for people.”
For over fifteen years now she has worked as a production farmer and educator in the eastern part of the state, and then helped create and manage Powisset Farm in Dover for Trustees of Reservations. All her interests and skills are being put to work for the Just Roots Farm.
Some of us may remember that when the Davis Street School was demolished to make way for a new community center, the Pleasant Street Gardeners lost their garden plots. That was a heart-breaking consequence, but the gardeners were determined to get community garden space back. They petitioned the town for a new space; the ultimate decision was to site this new garden on farmland that had once held the Greenfield Poor Farm.
In 1849 the farm was owned by Justin Root who sold it to the town for the Poor Farm. The name Just Roots is a nod to the history of the land, but also a statement about what kind of farm it would be in the future as it planned to make good healthy food available to everyone, including those with low incomes.
Last week I met Meryl LaTronica, the official Director of Farm Operations, at the old red barn and saw the setup for the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Nowadays they have 240 CSA members who get to choose how they want to fill their order. One hundred and forty of those shares are for low income customers. “We are always looking for creative ways that people can pay. They can use SNAP. We like to give people options,” she said.
I saw the equipment used for cleaning the vegetables. The most fascinating piece of equipment was the bicycle powered root washer that cleaned beets, daikon radishes and other roots.
Two small greenhouses and a 95 foot long hoop house filled with still ripening tomatoes stand near the 60 Community Gardens. Gardeners who don’t have garden space can get a 20 by 20 foot plot. The herbs, squash, beans and lots of flowers riotously fill their plots.
Beyond these structures are the seven acres of production fields. I was amazed to see that there were new plantings. LaTronica said they want to get the most food they can from the land. “This is the last planting for the year. We like to get these seedlings in the ground by September 1, but all the rain this summer upset our schedule. Still, we keep planting greens, celery, lettuce, fall carrots and other vegetables that don’t need a long season. Maybe we’ll get a harvest, and maybe not, but we have to try. Right now we are harvesting about every other day,” she said.
We walked past leeks, potatoes and sweet potatoes. “I like growing sweet potatoes because it sends out such pretty flowering vines,” LaTronica said.
I wondered why so many rows were covered with white reemay, a very light row cover. She said this has been a terrible year for flea beetles on the brassicas and the reemay is the answer.
My tour led us to a large area planted with buckwheat, a good cover crop that that will be cut down. The virtue of buckwheat is that it very efficiently smothers weeds, and adds nutrients when tilled into the soil.
It was wonderful to see all this great production, but this farm is about more than the vegetables. It is about people. “We go out to people when we hold our Farmer’s Market in the alley next to Green Fields Market, and at the Saturday Farmer’s Market,” LaTronica said. “But we also want to bring people to the farm. They come here to put together their CSA shares.” For a small extra fee, CSA members can also make use of the pick-your-own garden. That garden includes a few vegetable varieties and enormous number of trellised cherry tomato plants, and flowers. Gardeners do not live by vegetables alone. “
Just Roots sells produce at Green Fields Co-op, but they donate food to the Center for Self Reliance, and the Stone Soup Café. Last year LaTronica estimates that about 10,000 pounds of produce was donated to the community.
I volunteer Four Corners Elementary School so I already knew about the School Snack Market. Every week Just Roots brings vegetables to the school and each class comes and the children taste what has been brought. Then they go to the research station where they can give their opinion of the different vegetables. I can just imagine the importance these children feel as they make their report. Then they move on to the Snack Station and choose a healthy snack to take back to their classroom.
I asked LaTronica if she ever thought about the farm’s history as a Poor Farm. “Oh yes, I do think about the people who lived here,” she said. “I can hear them whispering to me.”
I like to think those whispering spirits are rejoicing that the farm is poor no more.
Between the Rows September 15, 2018