The Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. NOFA/Mass welcomes everyone who cares about food, where it comes from and how it’s grown

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Beginning Farmers

Zach Zeigler in High Tunnel

Zach Zeigler in High Tunnel

NOFA/Mass is in year two of a three-year grant that we received from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) to focus on high tunnel education in Massachusetts. There are 6 mentor/mentee pairs who work together and we have held a few workshops for the general public on greenhouse growing. Zach Zeigler is paired with Derek Christianson and shares his experience in the program.

Guy Steucek

Back in the era of the Salem witch trials most of the residents were farmers and farming was a primary use of the landscape. Today, the only farm in Salem feels almost as if it’s on trial, struggling to gain acceptance as a commercial agricultural operation. Maitland Mountain Farm has been producing agricultural products for about a decade without issue. Now they are in a pickle, navigating the future of small farm viability in Salem as they encounter roadblocks in their need to build a packing house on the property to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act and grow their business.

Tristram Keefe

This month it was my distinct pleasure to interview Tristram Keefe. First I had to ask him about his name. He said his parents were never very clear about why they named him that, but as he kid he just asked folks to call him Max.

Julie Rawson: How did you get into farming?

Tristram Keefe: I got my start farming with City Growers in 2011. I didn’t have any training in agriculture; I worked as a cook. My work in food led me there. I never really previously thought about it more than for a couple of plants on the porch. What they were doing was a novel concept and pretty cool. I got in touch with them and started volunteering with them on a regular basis. I grew up on Beaumont Street – near Ashmont Station on the Red Line (Dorchester).

Hiring apprentices?

Take advantage of exposure by listing your opportunity in the NOFA/Mass Apprenticeship/Farm Employment Directory. The listings are free for members and $45 for non-members. The goal of the 2018 directory is to create an extensive list of farming jobs in Massachusetts to provide interested candidates detailed information about a variety of opportunities and increase the number of interested and qualified candidates applying for farm jobs.

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.

In my monthly search for interesting stories amongst our NOFA network, I came upon Elizabeth Daniels. Elizabeth is an urban gardener in Springfield who signed on with NOFA/Mass staff member Anna Gilbert-Muhammad as one of six gardeners who will build their gardening skills with an eye to sharing what they learn with others in their community. I asked Elizabeth how she got into gardening.

Elizabeth Daniels: I grew up with my grandparents. They always had the idea that you can grow it yourself. They grew the collard greens. When I moved to Springfield and I saw people gardening outside, I said: “I need to be a part of that.” I want to go to the yard and get some greens and tomatoes and it tastes so much better.

One of Jeuji’s nutritious wild salads

Julie Rawson has worked with lots of beginning farmers over the years. But this year is her first time being partnered with a permaculture mentee. Jeuji Diamondstone of Worcester, with her urban backyard of Jerusalem artichokes, hazelnut bushes, and dandelions, is developing something quite unique. In the third season of the developing of her permaculture oasis, Jeuji, a NOFA/Mass member and avid learner, sought out some help from the NOFA/Mass beginning farmer mentorship program. Over the winter, we looked far and wide for the right fit for Jeuji, not an easy task. Yet, with 40 years of growing experience and experimenting with "a lot of things on her farm," Julie offered. Jeuji says, "I wasn't sure about it at first because Julie admitted that permaculture wasn't her strong suite, but it has been awesome getting to know Julie and her farm, and any time that I am in a place that is growing things, it is beneficial. I am learning."

Green Team staking the tomatoes in test plot #1

Though the word “farming” is in its name, NOFA does more than just work with rural farmers. Much attention is paid to ways more traditional, production farmers can use techniques like cover cropping and mineral amendments to enhance their yields, but there are few resources and little knowledge for using these tools on smaller scale and urban sites.

NOFA/Mass is partnering with The Trustees Boston Community Gardens and Groundwork Somerville on a three-year project to improve the fertility and production of compost-based soils, funded by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR). Compost is often free and used-widely by many city growers. Though considered non-toxic and safe for growing in, compost does not provide all that soil needs to produce healthy and sustained crop growth.

High tunnels directly contribute to the local economy and food supply by improving the square foot productivity of agricultural land during the regular growing season, and by extending production into the late fall, winter and spring. Fresh greens, like spinach, mustards, lettuce, kale and chard produced in winter provide a high value complement to storage crops sold through increasingly popular winter farmers’ markets and winter CSA programs. Grafted greenhouse tomatoes can produce exceptionally high yields of blemish free fruit. With proper management, high tunnels increase farm viability by increasing the profitability of farms both in square footage and annual output.

In 2009 the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) launched a program to subsidize the cost of purchasing and constructing high tunnels for farmers, in order to assess their viability. Many Massachusetts farms have received this funding and built high tunnels, or they have purchased them on their own. Many farmers build simple structures with recycled materials and affordable supplies.

Overwintered onions

All too often, I’ll visit a farm in late fall or winter to find their high tunnels without any crops growing. Many growers don’t have the time, energy, or experience to get a crop in after their main summer crop has bit the dust. But high tunnels are simply too valuable to be unproductive for a full season or two. With good crop planning and preparation, you can grow an incredible diversity of vegetables throughout the winter and early spring.

If you want to learn more tips and tricks to enhance your farm’s year-round high tunnel production, join us for an advanced seminar at Stonehill College on February 6 on organic high tunnel production featuring expert farmers Michael Kilpatrick and Andrew Mefferd. Learn more here.

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