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Chuck Currie: Freedom Food Farm

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 December Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson

Chuck and Marie

For this issue of the newsletter I called up Chuck Currie, a farmer who has been at it for over 10 years now, and is the proprietor, with his partner Marie, of Freedom Food Farm in Raynham, MA. I left this interview with a great sense of appreciation for Chuck and all that he works toward as an organic farmer trying to make a positive impact in his little corner of the world.

Freedom Food Farm was started in Rhode Island in 2012 but was moved to Raynham in 2014 when the land they were leasing was about to be turned into condominiums. In Raynham they are still leasing, in this case it is APR land. They have reached out to various land trusts to ask for help in buying the land, but because it is APR the land trusts have not seen it as a priority investment to support his land tenure. Chuck and Marie have been looking to go with the OPAV program – Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value.

There is a lot of development pressure in Raynham. As a matter of fact theirs is  the last working farm in town. Chuck is leasing from a private land owner who had run the land as a dairy business on the side as he ran a couple other businesses.

The other APR property in town is owned by the town of Raynham which  took the best land and put it into little league and soccer fields. The remaining, wetter land has been leased to a string of farmers, none of whom are taking good care of the land, in Chuck’s opinion.

I asked him what gives him hope to put good energy into the land. Chuck responded: “I have been a little short on hope lately. I see all the things that are wrong with our current food system - land policies and social policies, global warming, food insecurity. Trying to do regenerative organic farming is the biggest impact I can make. Given my skill sets – born with or accumulated – it is the best way to go.  I am good at working with my hands and mechanics, with experience in various building trades, mechanical work, and I also have a background in ag and soil science. I went to UMass Amherst and got a degree in Plant, Soil and Insect Science.”

When asked how he got into farming, Chuck mentioned that his parents had a garden and his grandmother had an even better garden and some chickens. He grew up just north of Boston. When he spoke with his guidance counselor in high school, farming was not listed in the 300 careers that were on the standard list. He remembered that when applying to colleges, he was interested in chemistry and biochemistry and thought he would work hard in that field and retire and buy a farm. He studied that for two years and then started taking classes in plant and soil. He took a sustainable ag class with John Gerber who changed his life. “We just visited some small farms, including your farm and NESFI. I knew that being a first generation farmer was what I wanted.”

Chuck has a serious goal to try to figure out some sort of financial sustainability in his own life. He feels he can no longer work as many hours as he could 10 years ago. He wants to figure out how to make the farm exist – financially and socially. He is making a lot of sacrifices in his own life to make it work. They are producing more value added products as a potential to help with finances. They are building more greenhouses and switching up vegetable production to a smaller scale more intensive style – mostly for the environmental but also for the quality of their lives. They have been doing 10-15 acres in vegetables. They want to move to 5-7 acres with one or two by hand.

From a personnel standpoint, Freedom Food Farm is Chuck, his partner Marie and a great vegetable and kitchen manager – Doug Higley - who has a background in culinary stuff.

Marie does the CSA management, manages the marketing and the farm store. Additionally, Melanie staffs the farm store year round and there are a couple of positions that are in transition. Chuck takes charge of the livestock, the hay, the tillage, and overall management. He has day to day management of the farm, and most of the infrastructure building and repair.

I asked him about his experience with no till. “I have always known since I started farming vegetables that vegetable production is destructive to the land,” shared Chuck. “I want to find a way to make it not so destructive and grow food for people. All farms have a place but we need some larger ones. Larger scale and more mechanized is hard with no till.” In his experimental area he wants to start with greens, Hakurei turnips, radish, and use a broad fork to prepare beds.  

He would like to experiment with growing and cutting clover and grass mixes to use as mulch a la Jan-Hendrik Cropp, a consultant from Germany, and get more ground cover. He is hoping to get into a roller crimper with larger crops like winter squash and maybe even brassicas. “We are really interested in sequestering carbon, by lowering vegetable production, doing less tilling, and building more permanent pasture with animals that will sequester more carbon.”

“We are not quite at 40-50 animals, but are moving them every day or every other day. We have beef cows and sheep for meat, Katahdins, and goat for meat. We followed with chickens too and noticed a big difference. We raise 200 egg layers, 600 broilers and 100 roosters each year.”

I asked Chuck where he turns for resources on no-till. He answered that he goes to on farm workshops, watches webinars and said that Rodale still has a lot of information. He has listened to Bryan O’Hara and went to Vermont for a workshop with Jan-Hendrik Cropp on transferred mulch this past summer.

Freedom Food Farm is Certified Organic – except for the beef. They also raise pigs and turkeys, and feed the poultry and pigs Green Mountain feed. They grow barley and peas and graze the pigs and chickens on that. It cuts their feed in half. All of their ruminants eat their farm grown hay. His goal is to grow their own grains for pigs and chickens.

How does Chuck hope to improve farm viability? He would like to be able to sell more product from the farm and increase local interest amongst the 18.000 people who live in Raynham. He finds it to really be a challenge to get and retain customers. Raynham is a bedroom community. People are driving their kids around to soccer and don’t even have time to cook. Chuck and staff are hoping to do more outreach, have more workshops there, provide hayrides and tours and community events. They hope to build a commercial kitchen for more on-farm products.

Chuck and Marie have pretty much just been living enough to get by. He hasn’t drawn a salary in six years. They built a tiny home. They have no electricity. They had some savings. Previously they hadn’t gone in debt. Chuck bought equipment when he started in Raynham and took on debt to build greenhouses and buy hay equipment. They are slowly trying to crawl out. The infrastructure development they do themselves. They don’t take a salary, and invest every nickel back into the business.

I asked Chuck about extra employment to bring in cash flow. Chuck said, “I couldn’t bring myself to do another job. Marie did have a job for a while, but as the farm got bigger we needed another dedicated person to handle the CSA and the little things that fall through the cracks. At this point it would be hard to do without her on the farm. I don’t want to go down that road. We are farming year round; the farm store is open year round. We do two winter farmers markets. We start greenhouse tomatoes on January 1.”

Always curious, I asked Chuck what value he gets out of NOFA. “I like the community of it – other farmers out there facing the same struggles,” he said. “It is really nice to connect with people in the farming community, to support great ideas, share hardships. I like technical aspects – webinars, on farm workshops. I went to the summer conference. I haven’t been to the NOFA/Mass winter conference.”

I asked about Freedom Food Farm’s fertility plan for 2018. “I will use a lot more compost next year. We buy in a lot. We are trying to get our composting into better shape. It is not the highest quality that we buy in. We are cutting down the total number of acres in productivity each year. We are doing more resting, more pasture or cover crop. Overall, I want to treat the farm like an organism. I am a big fan of biodynamic principles.”

Regarding Chuck’s source for inspiration, he appreciates NOFA and our various on farm workshops. He also likes the Young Farmer Night, Craft and SEMAP and reading. He enjoys reading some of the older books, Wes Jackson, Newman Turner, mostly pasture-based stuff, Greener Pastures On Your Side of the Fence by Bill Murphy on Voisin management, and Sarah Flack’s work.

Chuck and Marie are trying to figure out how to make the farm not take up their entire lives or force a choice between farm and family. This is not an uncommon challenge for farmers of all ages, one that many of us struggle with.

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