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Growing Organically Since 1982

Interview with Larry Najuch of Namac Farm in Haverhill

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 June Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson, Executive and Education Director

Larry Najuch of Namac Farm

Larry is one of six growers who will be participating in the Soil Technical Assistance grant that we received from the MA Department of Agricultural Resources. These six growers will work closely with Laura Davis and Caro Roszell on soil education through soil mineralization and carbon proxy testing and analysis. His path has taken him through both growing and supermarket produce management. He shares the insights and help he received from NOFA and his plans for his newly cleared farm for the long and short term.

Larry grew up on a dairy farm that has been converted to a veg farm. His grandmother came from Poland in the early 1900s and bought 65 acres in Haverhill. They first had Holstein cows and later converted to a wholesale vegetable farm. They sold into Haymarket in Boston, then went into retail. The farm is still in the family; his cousins farm it now.

When he graduated from high school he went to Essex Aggie and got an Associates Degree in agriculture. He then served in the Air Force during Vietnam – 1971-75. Then he went to Kansas State and got a degree in production ag. He and his family came back to the farm for a couple of years. He was a paramedic in the Air Force. With that in his background he went into a paramedic profession and bought an ambulance company and did emergency medical for 10 years. Then he sold it and went back into food as a produce manager at age 35.

He has been in the produce industry ever since. He was a produce manager working for Wild Harvest, started by Star Market by owner Henry Nassella. Henry was going to set up 10 of those. They opened the one in Medford, Saugus, Framingham, and one in Andover. Then Shaw’s came in and, according to Larry, “offered him more than he knew what to do with.” “Nasella sold Star and Wild Harvest to Shaw’s. Shaw’s was totally conventional back then. It was such a foreign concept – one truck load of produce and one truck load of dry goods. Wild Harvest had probably 40 vendors. Shaw’s sold Wild Harvest to Wild Oats. They were west of the Mississippi and had no infrastructure on the east coast. There were four stores and we ran them all differently. I could order from whoever I wanted to. There was different pricing in different stores. It was confusing for the customers. They wound up selling it to Whole Foods. That is when I left,” shared Larry.

From there Larry managed Green Meadows Farm which is owned by General Patton’s family. It is in Hamilton and has 265 acres. He purchased it just before WW2.  When Patton was back in the states that is where he went. He was killed at the end of the war. His son, George Patton III, went to West Point and became a 2-star general. He did two tours in Vietnam. He turned it into Green Meadow Farm. Larry managed that for about four years.

Larry then left there and went to Fresh Market. They are in Bedford, Portsmouth and Hampton, NH. That was a startup in 1999. He retired from there last year. He was the head produce person for all three stores. According to Larry, “The nice thing about Fresh Market is that the whole concept was to go organic initially. When you go into the Portsmouth store for example, you couldn’t eliminate conventional, but we mirrored everything. You could buy an organic or conventional potato or apple, for example. Over the course of time we ended up eliminating all of the conventional greens. All greens are organic. They still mirror the apples, potatoes, and a lot of the fruit. I have seen organic strawberries up to $17 and people were buying them. Over the course of time we went from 40% organic and 60% conventional to just the opposite. Every time I got the sales report you could see what people were going toward. Organic was creeping up ever so slowly. We couldn’t totally eliminate conventional over the 15 years.”

“We had Albert’s Organic as our main supplier and I dealt with 25 organic farmers in the area. They would bring zucchini, blueberries, and strawberries. We had people calling up to ask if so and so farmer’s stuff was coming. We had a fantastic organic apple supplier in Milton, NH. There were two of them who would come after the farmers market and give us what they had. We would buy as much local as we could buy.”

Larry went to the Produce Safety Grower Training by MDAR. It has all the ‘can do and can’t do’ things. While at the training he was talking to a couple of the grocery store chains VPs of produce. They said they could find all the conventional produce locally but not organic local because so many organic growers sell in farmer’s markets and CSAs.

Larry and his wife have a 7-acre farm in Haverhill. They bought the land in 1981 with the intention of someday turning it into a farm. It was solid woods – thick. They started clearing it last spring. They got it cleared in the middle of July. Though it was late he still wanted to see what they could grow. He found Banner Greenhouses in NC where they grow all organic seedlings. They don’t usually ship so far north but tried it. He ordered red and green leaf lettuce and kale. They planted it August 15. Everybody in the neighborhood came by to purchase things. They are in the middle of a densely populated area. There is a development of 150 houses and then another the other direction. They were coming through the woods. They actually sold kale until Christmas. Fresh Market was buying the kale and the neighbors bought the lettuce. They cleared the entire 7-acres of land that they own.

Larry has always been interested in organic, as was the family back to his grandmother. They used a lot of compost and cow manure and chicken manure. His father was always organic. Some of the organically approved chemicals back then are now off the market like Pyrethrin and Rotenone. Larry and his wife had four kids growing up on their place and even the lawn had always been organic.

All through my career, Larry has been going to many seminars. NOFA was always in the back ground, as well as the Farm Bureau. When it came time to actually start the farm, NOFA was the first organization that they joined. He appreciates the emails and the newspaper. He hasn’t gone to any of the conferences yet but is planning to sign up for the summer conference this year.

He wasn’t sure what they had for soil. That got him interested in the NOFA soil program, and he just got the soil amendment recommendations back from Laura Davis in early May. He had no idea about the soil fertility but that soil to which they did nothing last year did grow a nice crop.  Laura was extremely helpful and gave them nice recommendations.

I asked Larry about his game plan for this year. “I was certified last year with Baystate,” said Larry. Duncan Cox came down. He was unbelievable. We walked the whole place. The excavator was here. What he said was ‘eventually you will have a beautiful organic farm.’ He gave me a bunch of ideas. He was fantastic. All the paperwork is in for this year.”

“I put in to do 2-acres of mixed vegetables. Because I don’t have a greenhouse I went back to Bannon Greenhouses – I have 13,000 seedlings coming in two weeks - 3-4 inches, 72 plugs. They are shelled and wrapped in netting. I put them on the lawn for a couple of days and then planted them last year. I put in a grant from the state for a propagation house. What I bought these plugs for last year was $100 for 1500 plugs. This year I bought 13,000 for $900. That is pretty good. It will be all mixed vegetables.”

“Right off the bat, the soil testing that we did is invaluable. Now I can start to build up the soil. What I hope to do is to turn this into a real productive organic farm. I have a good market for it. It is a matter now of building it up to its maximum potential. I probably will never go over 2-3 acres. That will allow for crop rotations, a summer cover crop, and to till it under and use winter rye. I plan to put together a really nice rotation program.”

“The farm is always going to be here. It is in a trust. We will either lease it out as an organic farm or my daughters or my son will take it over. They are all successful scientists right now. In the family we have a biochemist, one who works at Dana Farber, one at Mass Maritime, and a psychologist. I don’t know whether they want to come back or not, but we have all the structures here to lease it out as an organic farm if they don’t. All these young farmers are leasing land. It is not cheap to get into. In this area you are talking about $10,000 - $15,000 for farm land. We made a decision a long time that it will always be a farm.”

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