Posts from the “Farm Profiles” Category

Earth-friendly agriculture: Soluna Garden Farm

Posted on October 17, 2015

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The next stop on our tour of farms that use earth-friendly growing techniques is Soluna Garden Farm in Winchester, MA.  Seth was unable to make this visit, but I met with Amy Hirschfeld, one of the farm owners, to see how they grow their products.

Clocking in at 1.5 acres, Soluna is a small farm like Stearns that doesn’t pursue organic certification, although they use organic practices.  The folks at Soluna grow herbs and flowers for CSA and farmers markets. They also custom mix numerous dried spice and tea blends, which they sell at their store in downtown Winchester, their stall in Boston Public Market, and at farmers markets across Eastern Massachusetss.

I was excited to head to Soluna because I love herbs. I’ve never been to an herb-only farm before, so I didn’t know what to expect. Soluna didn’t disappoint! The farm is tucked behind a row of private houses on a busy street in Winchester, and when you head down the driveway of an ordinary house, you’re greeted by a greenhouse, a high deer fence, and an expanse of tidy flower and herb beds beyond.

IMG_0964 IMG_0962Soluna has been in business since 2009, although the land has been worked since the 1970s when Amy’s father purchased the plot to create an organically-minded hobby farm.  After he passed away, Amy continued to grow at the farm and eventually decided to start Soluna with a CSA for herb and flower lovers.

Soluna uses a permanent bed system across the majority of their land.  This means that at the end of the season they don’t till the beds into the ground like a typical vegetable farm, but rather delineate where crops grow with permanent raised beds. This has the downside of preventing the farmers from using mechanical cultivation like tractors to suppress weeds. On the upside, the raised beds warm more quickly than fields in the spring, which means you can get plants in the ground sooner.  They also have the benefit of preserving soil structure, provided you don’t completely turn the soil over when planting.  Soil structure is important!  Soil has different strata, and each layer hosts a level of microbial and animal life, all of which make nutrients more readily available to plants.

That’s not to say Soluna doesn’t use standard measures tillage and like black plastic weed suppression.  They do!  They just use these practices judiciously, in plots where they grow annuals.  Amy told me that Soluna invested in reusable landscape fabric this year and, combined with drip tape for irrigation, this saved them a ton of weeding and gave them some very happy plants.

IMG_0957 IMG_0955While many of the herbs at Soluna are perennials, some of the plants don’t enjoy a New England winter.  Can you blame them?  This is where Soluna’s farmers strike me as particularly brilliant.  Each winter, they dig up certain whole plants like rosemary, or the root corms of other herbs and flowers, and store them in the greenhouse or cellar where they stay dormant until they’re ready to be planted again.  This isn’t something that a large farm can attempt unless they have a massive amount of storage space and a lot of hands on deck.  But for a garden farm, it seems to work.  As a bonus, the plants that grow each Spring are already used to the soil and pests at Soluna, which makes for stronger crops all around.

I wish I had a month to spend working with Amy and the plants. We talked about all sorts of neat things like using compost as an energy source (something that they’re hoping to implement this winter), and developing a line of herbal liqueurs to supply some of Boston’s bars. There was the conversation about seasonal herb salt or tea blends, and inspiring a taste for adventure in customers.  And of course, the herbs themselves, the walking and touching and smelling and tasting.  My friends, this is earth friendly agriculture at its best.  I’m thrilled to have taken a tour of Soluna Garden Farm.  Thank you again Amy!

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Earth-friendly agriculture: Stearns Farm

Posted on July 7, 2015

Greenhouse tomatoes, with lettuces beyond

Greenhouse tomatoes, with lettuces beyond

Meadow sage flowers in the remembrance garden

Meadow sage flowers in the remembrance garden

As part of our continuing quest to prep ourselves for the farm in our future, Seth and I will be visiting farms that use sustainable practices and writing profiles of the farms and farmers. In a lot of cases that will mean organic farming, but there are other methods out there like crop rotation, no-till planting, companion planting, and more that we’re dying to learn. Good thing farm folk are friendly! I’ve never met a farmer who wasn’t willing to share as much information as we wanted.

Our first stop on this Earth-friendly agriculture journey is with Stearns Farm in Framingham, Massachusetts, which is the farm where Seth works as an Assistant Grower.

When Seth first began hunting for a farm job, he looked specifically at organic farms so he could learn the basics of growing food without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.  No surprise there, with our history.  Thankfully, Seth found Stearns, an organic vegetable farm that grows on four acres.

Stearns is a little different from most farms in the area.  For starters, they grow vegetables without USDA organic certification. Other farms are either certified organic or use pesticides, but Stearns opts out of that dichotomy. The reason that Stearns — and many small farms — didn’t get organic certification is because it costs a lot of of money and time, and on a small farm those resources are needed elsewhere. However, the farmers at Stearns are committed to environment health so they use organic practices, and they welcome all of their their clients to the farm to see for themselves how the crops are grown. This is one reason why it’s good to know your farmer! You know where your food is coming from.

One perfect strawberry

One perfect strawberry

Looking down the main path toward the greenhouses

Looking down the main path toward the greenhouses

Stearns was incorporated in 1994 as a nonprofit organization, but prior to that it had been worked as farmland since 1723, and possibly earlier! Stearns is a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, which means that anyone who wants vegetables buys in at the start of the season, and then picks up their vegetables every week once harvests start. And here’s what else makes Stearns unique: People who buy shares are asked to work 12 hours in the field throughout the course of the season, as well as picking certain labor-intensive crops like berries or beans on share pickup days. Stearns is one of the only farms in the area where you do farmwork for your vegetables, and it’s a huge draw. People love to come to the farm and spend time planting seedlings or harvesting squash, or any myriad of tasks that come with farming. It’s a good way to connect with your food.

Susan Peters, Farm Manager

Susan Peters, Farm Manager

Stearns grows vegetables and fruit under the tutelage of Farm Manager Susan Peters. Susan is in her third year with Stearns, and previously began farming in Vermont in 2005. She knows just about everything I want to know about farming, and she’s got a wicked sense of humor to boot. I love hanging out with her on the farm (and by “hanging out,” I mean, “weeding together while picking her brain”). She always seems to have a sense of the weather, what needs to get in the ground, and how many people-hours it will take. Susan is a large part of why Stearns is successful. She connects with the CSA sharers so naturally, I’m amazed that this isn’t her own land and she hasn’t been doing this all her life.

I asked Susan once why she switched from being a librarian to being a farmer. Susan grinned at me and said, “Because I realized I didn’t want to spend any more time indoors.” Amen, sister.

The third staff member of the Stearns farming team is Kenneth Hacker, the Assistant Farm Manager. Kenneth has an infectious love of all things food and farming, and is very busy this season. I only see him at lunchtime when I’m there. He waves to me as he rides by on the tractor though, so we’re good.

And of course, Lily the dog serves as the official greeter of farm guests.  She also patrols the fields for pests like rabbits and groundhogs, and acts as a general deterrent for deer and birds. We’re able to send Lily to the farm with Seth every day because Lily takes care to walk in between the rows and poop in the woods instead of in the fields.

Looking out over greens to the field tomates

Looking out over greens to the field tomatoes

Lettuce and cilantro seedlings

Lettuce and cilantro seedlings

Susan, Kenneth, and Seth know that farming is a balance.  You need good soil, and you need good people.  On a piece of land that has been farmed as long as Stearns, it’s important to maintain fertility for the long haul. The farmers use cover cropping in the winter, which means planting a crop of rye grass, hairy vetch, or winter peas in late fall, and then turning that crop back into the soil in the spring. This serves a twofold purpose. It prevents snow and rain from washing away the rich topsoil, and also fixes nutrients back into the soil. Besides that, the farmers soak every seedling in a fish fertilizer emulsion before planting. Fish fertilizer is fermented ground fish mixed with water, and it gives the seedlings a huge boost. And finally, the farmers lay down drip irrigation every year, which prevents soil runoff by delivering water only where it’s needed.

The other half of farming at Stearns is good people.  Over the past two years, Seth and I have come to realize that Stearns Farm is a booming CSA because they cultivate community along every step of the way. They train their CSA sharers to look beyond imperfections, to take part in the process of growing foodstuffs, and to think even a tiny bit more like a farmer.  It’s not just picking up your vegetables and running out again like at a grocery store, it’s participating in how the food gets to your plate.  It’s appreciating that your lettuce was alive and growing that morning, or getting dirt under your fingernails.  It’s people who care a great deal about what they’re growing for you. And that kind of enthusiasm is contagious.