We live in a fortunate part of the world. Recently my husband and I were counting our local blessings: good neighbors, relatively benign bureaucracies, easy traffic, and beautiful landscapes with hills and streams, woodlands and meadows.
Those landscapes have changed in a major but subtle way over the 30 years since we moved to Heath. The dairy farms that were here in Heath have all disappeared as have many dairy operations in other towns. A few farm stands sold sweet corn in season, but it seemed that agriculture was in decline.
Nowadays I am very aware of a resurgence of local agriculture marked by a proliferation of new small farms with farm stands, the birth of farmers markets in various towns, and programs like Farm to School that are bringing fresh healthy food to more people. At the same time the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement arrived making it easier for farmers because customers share the risks of farming.
Earlier this week I attended a presentation co-sponsored by Greenfield Community College (GCC) and the Conway School of Landscape Design titled Things Are Looking Up Down on the Farm. It was a logical collaboration because GCC is always reacting to community needs for education and training, and the Conway School curriculum looks at land use in its broadest terms which certainly includes the agriculture that keeps us fed.
This particular talk included moderator Suzette Snow-Cobb of the Franklin County Community Cooperative, and three farm-hers Caroline Pam of The Kitchen Garden in Sunderland, Deb Habib of Seeds of Solidarity Farm in Orange, and Sorrel Hatch of Upinngil Farm in Gill. Each of those farms is different and each farm-her told her story with lively passion, enthusiasm, and honest humor about life on the farm.
Caroline Pam is the newest farmer. With her husband, Tim Wilcox, Pam has been farming here in the valley since 2005. They both spent time in Italy and she is a serious cook. The farm reflects their interests in beautiful and interesting vegetables. Their growing has another aspect. They now have a very young daughter and son.
Pam says that it is hard to separate the work they do on the farm and their life. “Farming is more a lifestyle than a job,” she said. They were always working to maintain a balance that would allow them to make a living without burning out. They have made the decision to stay small. The Kitchen Garden is only 7 acres but they are growing the capabilities of the farm by succession planting and adding greenhouses that will extend their season.
Deb Habib and her husband Ricky Baruc were experienced farmers when they came to Orange in1996. Because they had rough recently timbered land they decided to begin with cardboard and compost. Nowadays they continue to farm with cardboard and compost, often under hoop houses to extend the season, but they also teach their techniques. They give workshops at Seeds of Solidarity Farm and Habib also teaches at their own Seeds of Leadership (SOL) program for teens. SOL has its own garden that donates food to the low income community.. For Habib and Baruc farming is about helping to make sure everyone has access to healthy food, and building community. Habib also said, “It is important to make room for celebration.”
Seeds of Solidarity was one of the major organizers of the now famous North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival in October which brings 60 vendors of produce, local handcrafts, and good eats as well as performances on the Solar Powered Stage to Forsters Farm to thousands of people who are ready to learn and celebrate.
Sorrel Hatch is the only one of the farmers who grew up on a farm. Her father, Cliff Hatch, surprised his father and grandfather who were farmers by coming back to farming after a short time away. Hatch studied entomology at Cornell and came back to work side by side with her father and now her brother at the Upinngil Farm where I pick strawberries every year.. They maintain a small dairy herd of Ayrshire cows and sell raw milk at their Farm Store, as well as cheeses, wheat, and goodies from Hatch’s own Little Red Hen Bakery. Hatch said, “We grew the wheat, we ground it and baked it — but I did have a lot of help.”
The Farm Stand is open seasonally and the Farm Store is open every day year round. Not everything at the Store or the Farm Stand is from their farm. “Bring me stuff and I’ll sell it. I can’t grow everything so it is wonderful to have great stuff for customers from other local farms,” Hatch said.
Hatch said their wheat is certified organic, but like Pam and Habib she said the record keeping required makes it almost impossible for a multi-crop farm. Pam also said that their farm, surrounded by conventional farms is too narrow to provide the required buffers. All agree that their customers know they farm sustainably and trust the safety of their produce.
Although each has unique aspects, these three farms are typical of many of the other small farms in the area in the sense that they not only provide good food, they add jobs, by hiring people on the farm, and by supplying new businesses like Real Pickles with what they need. What they all need is more infrastructure that will help them provide food over a longer season.
Clearly things are looking up for those of us who want to eat good, fresh local food.
The final program of this series Farm Land: Sustaining Farms and Farm Land for the Future with Cris Coffin, New England Director, American Farmland Trust will be held on Thursday, May 19, 6:30-8 pm, Conway School of Landscape Design, 332 South Deerfield Rd, Conway, MA 01341 ###