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All of the HIP shares at Quabbin Harvest are weighed and packed by a cohort of volunteers, including (above, left to right) Anne Cutler-Russo, Deb Habib, Ramona Hamblin, Kimberly Scot, and Margot Parrot.

Though more weeks of winter lie ahead, National Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) week — Feb. 19-25 — marks the symbolic start of the CSA cycle, when member sign-ups start rolling in and participating farmers begin planning for the coming growing season.

The options for CSAs in our area are as diverse as the farms within the region, and collectively they offer vegetables, fruit, meat, mushrooms, medicinal herbs, and even wool. Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, CISA, hosts an online guide that lists CSAs in our area at bit.ly/find-a-CSA.

Some farms extend their CSAs into winter, such as Crimson & Clover Farm did this year, while others operate year-round, such as Quabbin Harvest Food Co-op’s CSA. Owner of Crimson & Clover, Nate Frigard, explains CSAs as “a different kind of relationship that an eater has with a farm. This innovative relationship provides security for the farm, and in return, the farm provides abundant food for their community.”

In general, participants register and pay for their shares in advance. Winter is commonly registration time for summer or main season CSAs. Crimson & Clover offers 20 weeks of organic vegetables from June to October. When customers come to pick up shares at the farm, there is an option to mix and match vegetables based on supply. Pick-your-own for some crops is also included.

Regular share pick-ups on the farm are Tuesdays through Saturdays, and shareholders come when it is most convenient for them. Crimson & Clover is one mile from Florence Center, and some members walk or bike to the farm. After the main season ends, winter CSA registration opens.

There are many ways customers pay for their CSA shares. Some farms, like Crimson & Clover, accept the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food benefits to low-income families. In Massachusetts, the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) puts money back on a client’s EBT card when using SNAP to buy local fruits and vegetables from HIP farm vendors.

Crimson & Clover offers discounted CSA shares for patrons who use their benefits to enroll. Through the registration process, the farm helps clients align monthly benefits

CSA members enjoy mixing and matching their produce at the C&C farm stand.

to pay for some or all of a CSA share. Many SNAP/HIP clients sign up for the season, and they can cancel at any time.

No matter how people pay for their share, everyone’s experience of the farm’s CSA is the same. Crimson & Clover delivers to Boston weekly, so families in the area can connect loved ones with local food, even if far away.

Usually, CSAs are offered directly from farms, but some retail stores and farms stands offer them too, including Quabbin Harvest. In 2023 through HIP, Quabbin Harvest distributed 2,029 vegetable shares and 1,219 fruit shares to neighbors through their co-op grocery store.

Communications Coordinator, Cathy Stanton, explains that the Quabbin Harvest CSA “follows the farm share model, where you get a share of the farm. Ours differs in that it’s year-round, and we source from many different farmers. We’re in the North Quabbin area: we don’t have as many farms as the Valley, and our farms are smaller.”

Quabbin Harvest Co-op was founded with a flexible CSA share concept in 2009, offering a year-round weekly CSA. To manage the volume of food, the co-op offers a full share, half share, or fruit share. Anyone can enroll in the CSA and pay for it. At $18 for everyone, their vegetable half share is the same price as when they began.

Members pick up their biweekly share at the store, which is “a big, huge box of vegetables,” says Stanton. The co-op offers rolling enrollment for the CSA program for everyone, and members can stop at any time. Currently the program feeds over 80 households who receive SNAP & HIP benefits.

Stanton continues, “We use Marty’s Local, a local distributor, to allow us to source beyond our immediate area. They are our extension into the Valley, allowing us to source from farms as local as possible while offering fresh, healthy food to members.”

QH CSA shares offer variety, nutrition, and lots of food in one beautiful box.

This partnership allows Quabbin Harvest to supply 4,000 CSA shares per year. Stanton continues, “We need a lot of food, yet we’re little. Very locally, we source from Seeds of Solidarity Farm in Orange, the Farm School in Athol, Red Apple Farm in Phillipston, and Coolidge Hill Farm in New Salem. But bigger farms won’t deliver directly to us. To get more fresh food for our members, Marty’s Local helps us source from farms further away, including Winter Moon Farm, Kitchen Garden Farm, Bardwell Farm, and Pine Hill Orchards.”

Many farms in our three counties also offer food access programs that are independent of SNAP and HIP. The relationship between farms and community is symbiotic, and partners emerge from unexpected places. For customers for whom paying for a season in advance is a financial stretch, customers can purchase their CSA shares with a zero-interest CSA loan through UMassFive College Federal Credit Union. This helps the farmer now while purchasing seeds and consumables or repairing equipment, while giving the client a way to distribute the cost in monthly payments.

Overall, both farmers and grocers express joy in feeding their community while leveraging SNAP and HIP through their CSA programs. Frigard says, “I got into farming for love of the work and how farming builds community. It’s always been a guiding principle of this farm to make food accessible to everyone; SNAP and HIP are natural extensions of those values. I love taking down barriers for people to access local, healthy food.”

MaryEllen Kennedy of New Salem is one of the share-packing volunteers whose involvement with the co-op goes back many years.

Stanton continues, “We’ve built a base of relationships with the people receiving HIP shares, where we’ve gotten to really know people and they know the store. Developing relationships around food with people in our community brings satisfaction and joy to co-op staff.”

Lisa Goodrich is Communications Coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, (CISA). To sign up for the Crimson & Clover and Quabbin Harvest CSA programs, see their websites. To find a CSA near you, check our online guide at buylocalfood.org.

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Terry Ragasa, owner of Sutter Meats in Northampton, gives Monte, Phil, and Kaliis the full scoop on their hyper-local butcher shop, putting farm-fresh meat on your table with the fewest steps in between. They talk about:

Coming soon from Sutter Meats: home-delivered butcher boxes. It’s like a CSA for lovers of local meat! Sign up for their emails to be the first to know when it launches at suttermeats.com

 

Phil, Monte, and Kaliis get sweet details on the upcoming maple season from Joe Boisvert at North Hadley Sugar Shack. Hear how both their business and the process of sugaring has changed a lot over the years. 

Plus, we taste test a bunch of ways to enjoy syrup, which you can too! The North Hadley Sugar Shack restaurant is open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 7am – 1pm. Full details here.

Looking for other sugar shack restaurants in or farms where you can see syrup making in action? We’ve got a list on CISA’s online guide here!

Published February 3, 2024 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

At Love Leaf Farm in South Hadley, small is beautiful – and delicious

By Jacob Nelson

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Love Leaf Farm in South Hadley, it’s this: don’t judge a farm by its size. Or the size of their crops, for that matter.

In the words of farmer-owner Michael Fredette, “Love Leaf Farm is a very small, indoor vertical farm specializing in microgreens and selling mostly at farmers markets.”

Love Leaf Farm photo

Fredette has grown his business using the resources he has available without taking on any debt. By recognizing the benefits of something small, he is adding a little value and joy both to his life and the local economy. For many of his customers, that’s the same reason they add microgreens to a meal.

“Microgreens,” he explains, “are a little bigger than a sprout and a little smaller than a baby green. They grow for around one to two weeks before we harvest and sell them immediately.”

Not limited to traditional leafy greens, a wide variety of plants from radishes to red cabbage also grow tasty microgreens. Across the board, microgreens tend to have highly concentrated nutrients and flavors, often similar to the full-sized plant they would grow into.

Fredette’s green thumb and appreciation for home-grown produce date back to his childhood. Growing up in a single parent household, gardening was a fun activity that also stretched their food budget.

“Later in life I worked in commercial flower greenhouses,” he says. “Then in 2017, I took a new farmer training program offered by UMass and Nuestras Raices in Holyoke for a summer. It was a great crash course, but I wasn’t at a place in life and didn’t have the capital to start a farm yet.”

By 2023, all the right ingredients were in place and Fredette took the plunge to start Love Leaf Farm. Deciding to invest most of his savings and time into a start-up came with excitement and trepidation. So far things are going well, thanks in part to a methodical approach.

For now, most of the farm fits into a few hundred square feet in Fredette’s basement. There, microgreens grow in trays stacked high on vertical shelves, living simply off water, light, and the nutrients in the soil they’re rooted in. Around them, the entire room has been outfitted to create a clean growing area and allow for fine-tuned climate control using a heat pump, humidifiers, and fans.

Farming indoors looks very different than farming outdoors and brings both tradeoffs and advantages. Growing inside tends to be energy intensive, with lights and equipment consuming a fair amount of electricity. At the same time, these techniques unlock completely new farming real estate, and open the door for year-round production of some crops. This brings economic development and local food to even more places on the map, particularly urban areas.

Love Leaf Farm photo

Careful adjustment of conditions in the growing room is important for plants to thrive, but with so many variables the process can be tricky. For example, “I learned when you have tens of thousands of tiny little plants respirating, it gets humid very fast,” says Fredette. “Airflow is important, and we stop watering 24 hours before harvesting. We also use super sharp knives to make clean cuts. All of that leads to a fresher product.”

Fresher microgreens have a longer shelf life in the fridge – sometimes even weeks – giving more time to enjoy them. Unfamiliarity with how to use a new ingredient can deter some people from trying it, but when it comes to eating microgreens, there really are no wrong ways to do it. Fredette encourages experimentation, and offers a few suggestions.

“You can make microgreens the hero of your salad,” he offers. “They’re great in sandwiches. I put pea shoots in stir-fry, and even sunflower shoots on pizza. We’re also growing micro herbs, like cilantro, basil, dill, and the cilantro on tacos? Oh my gosh. Dill on a cream cheese bagel? It’s incredible. Really any place you’d use a leafy green, you can swap microgreens for the extra benefits.”

Benefits meaning flavor, but also a nutritional upgrade too. Studies abound showing that, by weight, most microgreens contain concentrations of vitamins and minerals that far exceed the the full-grown versions of the same plants.

Love Leaf Farm’s microgreens are currently available every other week at the Easthampton Winter Farmers Market held Sundays 10 – 2 at the Eastworks building. During February, Fredette will be there on the 4th and the 18th. He also plans to return to summer farmers markets in Easthampton and South Hadley at a minimum, and maybe others too.

A cream cheese bagel topped with dill microherbs from Love Leaf Farm is one of farm owner Michael Fredette’s favorites (Love Leaf Farm photo)

Looking ahead, “now that I have the farming set up figured out,’ says Fredette, “I want to move from focusing on that to focusing on growing the business and expanding our market base. A home delivery option is in the works. Hopefully I’ll start selling to restaurants this year, and co-ops or grocery stores would be awesome too.”

While he’s excited about new market channels, he’s also grateful for the face-to-face feedback that comes from selling direct to customers at farmers markets. When things are tough, a smile and a rave review soothe some of the challenges.

“It’s just me doing this, wearing all the hats,” he says, “It’s a lot sometimes, but it’s been really fun developing relationships with people and seeing how much they enjoy what I’m growing.”

Fredette is also grateful for the social platform that farmers markets offer the farmers themselves.

“I’ve loved meeting people, bouncing ideas, and feeling the camaraderie of this farmer community,” he says. “Toni Hall from Song Sparrow Farm in Florence is awesome, I love them. Jen Krassler from Flora and Fauna Farm in Easthampton – who also manages the Easthampton and South Hadley markets – has been fantastic. Mike Madden from Grown Up Farm in Belchertown too.”

Farms and crops of all shapes and sizes play important roles in building a resilient local food system, one that feeds a healthy community and a healthy economy. In many circumstances, choosing to go micro makes great sense.

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local farms of all kinds in your neck of the woods, visit buylocalfood.org.

Executive chef Charlie David from Champney’s Restaurant and Tavern at the Deerfield Inn talks to Phil, Kaliis, and Monte about growing up in Hawaii, coming to cook in the Valley, and all the restaurant has to offer.

Check out Champney’s menu with weekly deals and upcoming special events at their website here. Wine tasting anyone (Feb 17)? Or just some burgers and fries after work or practice? They do both! 

Published January 27, 2024 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

New horizons for a small dairy farm

O’Brien Farm in Orange opt to strategize, not pasteurize

“We do a little bit of everything,” says Andrea O’Brien of O’Brien Farm in Orange. “But mostly we milk cows.”

Running a successful dairy farm requires commitment, perseverance, and creativity. That’s especially true in recent times, as the costs of farming have only increased while the price farmers get for their milk hasn’t followed suit.

At O’Brien Farm, Andrea and her husband Ed O’Brien have all these traits in spades. To provide a stable future for their young family, they’re leaning even further into creativity. The fruits of their labor are visible at their farm stand, open 24/7 at 505 Holtshire Road in Orange, from beef, fresh eggs, and compost to rich, creamy, raw milk.

Andrea O’Brien outside their farm stand with one of her three children.

“It’s just the two of us,” O’Brien says. “In the past 10 years we’ve had three children and Ed’s had back surgery and two knees replaced, but we’ve managed to keep things running mostly just ourselves.”

The rhythm of the farm is tied to milking and caring for their herd of 35 cows, a mix of Holstein and Jersey breeds. They all have names, and many of them trace their lineage back several generations on the farm. The twice-daily routine, beginning at 3:30 in the morning, is physically demanding and unrelenting, but they do it with care for each animal.

“From 1985 to 2013 when I met him, Ed milked every day and night, just him,” says O’Brien. “You can imagine all the things that happen to a person over that time. People die, people are born, and still the cows have to be milked, bedded, and fed every day. That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with Ed. You rarely find someone so dedicated to their animals like that.”

Bedding the cows means spreading fresh kiln-dried wood shavings throughout their barn. They add over four cubic yards of shavings each day to keep the cows clean and comfortable. Old bedding and manure are removed daily and composted to sell each spring, by the yard and by the bag.

“For a long time, Ed didn’t have any signs or advertising,” says O’Brien. “People just knew by word of mouth to come to the farm for compost, and he did an incredible business that way.”

Their bagged compost is seasonally available at Hamshaw Lumber in Orange and at the Greenfield Farmers Cooperative Exchange, but most of it is still sold from the farm. They’ve also started selling more of their milk straight from the farm too.

The O’Briens currently milk two dozen cows to produce about 100 gallons of milk each day. Most of it is sold wholesale, but they now sell on average 20 gallons of whole, unhomogenized raw milk at their farm stand each day. This stands out from your typical grocery store gallon in a few key ways.

For one, raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized at high heat, a process that denatures potential pathogens along with beneficial microbes and other nutrients. Massachusetts farms that sell raw milk follow rigorous sanitation standards in lieu of pasteurization and must sell straight from the farm. Many who buy raw milk do so for the nutritional differences, and for the direct connection and support for local dairy farmers.

Homogenization is a process that breaks up milkfat molecules to a size where the cream no longer separates and rises to the top. Leaving their milk unhomogenized gives people the choice to skim off the cream themselves, for things like adding it to coffee or using it for baking, or to easily shake it in to enjoy whole milk.

“Because we have so many Jersey cows in our herd, we’re testing at about 5% butterfat,” says O’Brien. “That means our milk is much richer, and I think it tastes much better.”

Selling raw milk is one way O’Brien Farm is diversifying their business, having seen that selling directly to their neighbors yields more profit for their hard work than other sales channels. This is a conclusion many small dairy farmers have come to, including other local farmers O’Brien has spoken to for advice.

“Cliff Hatch from Upinngil Farm in Gill invited me to see and talk about his business,” she says. “He helped me understand peoples’ perceptions of raw milk and the business side of it, and I watched him make cheese too. Almost every day I reflect on that conversation.”

Branching out in other ways, O’Brien also grows some crops for vegetable seed companies, and is interested in growing produce for sale at their farm stand or for a CSA program in the future. The latter remains a hope for now, but other plans are already in the works.

“Next summer I’m also offering a camp on the farm for kids ages 5-12,” she says. “Growing up on a dairy farm is considered an idyllic childhood, so I wanted to share that with other kids too.” More information is available at their website obrienfarmma.com

The economics of running a small dairy farm have always been challenging. Though every farmer’s strategy for making it work is different, most have one need in common: reliable customers. So far, O’Brien is encouraged by their neighbors’ support for their new ventures – raw milk in particular.

“It’s been touching how many people are coming out regularly, even with the snow and cold,” she says. “That’s what we need to succeed.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local farms and where to buy local food near you, visit buylocalfood.org.

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Riley Gilroy and Monica Hernandez of Go Fresh Mobile Market give Phil, Monte, and Kaliis a look at how their program makes a real difference in the lives of Springfield residents. They talk about: 

Learn more, and see a full schedule of their weekly stops here!

Published January 20, 2024 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

Farming in a winter wonderland: Lombrico Farm in Whately coaxes fresh produce from soil year-round

“The best carrots you’ll ever eat are picked in January or February,” says Erik Debbink, owner of Lombrico Farm in Whately. In the dead of winter, their sweetness shines through.

Lombrico Farms is one of a growing number of local farms working hard to coax fresh produce from their soil throughout the winter. Through traditional sales channels and a farm to food access partnership with the Hilltown CDC, Lombrico Farms is putting their harvest on as many plates as possible.

Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo.

“Our aim is to grow seasonally appropriate food year-round, with organic methods and without any supplemental heat or light,” explains Debbink. “We focus on resilience and creating more access for our community.”

The farm consists of two acres of mixed vegetables and another two of fruit and nut trees. The eight-acre property offers room to expand, though right now Debbink has his hands full as the sole fulltime farmer. His path here was not paved by family tradition, but rather his own curiosity and many years of learning while doing.

“I started at Prospect Meadow Farm, a therapeutic vocational farm in Hatfield, in 2012,” he explains. “I’d done some mental health support work, and Shawn Robinson (now the vice president of vocational services and day programs at ServiceNet, which runs the farm) took a chance on me as farm manager.”

After several years there, Debbink shifted to Bird Haven Farm in Southampton, managing their blueberry orchard, before he and his partner moved to England, where he spent four years overseeing a large market garden and selling to restaurants in London. While there, the couple began searching for land in the Valley to start their own operation. Despite several false starts and a global pandemic, they finally closed on land and moved back in 2021. Within a year, Lombrico Farm was up and running.

Linda Fletcher, a volunteer at Lombrico farm in Whatley, weeds Spinach. Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo.

“I knew western Massachusetts was where I wanted to start my own farm,” says Debbink. “There’s so much love in this area for local farmers. Whether it’s support from CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) or hearing farmers interviewed on the radio, like their voices matter, it feels good knowing people are invested in farmers’ success. ”

When it comes to winter growing, Debbink is drawn in both by the technical challenge of it and the opportunities it poses. For one, the supply of local food in the Valley is lower in winter compared to other times of year but the demand is mostly steady, creating a business opportunity. There’s also a resilience argument for investing in the equipment needed for cold weather farming.

As Debbink puts it, “in a world of climate disruptions, covered growing space is becoming like gold.”  Whether it’s large plastic-sheathed high tunnels and hoop houses or smaller structures that shelter individual rows of plants, more Massachusetts farmers are planting underneath equipment that gives protection from the elements and more control over growing conditions. If farms have this equipment already, extending the growing season or even growing year-round becomes much easier, and a smart way to make the most of that investment.

Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo.

Debbink also thinks increasing winter production is a straightforward way of increasing the total amount of local food we eat in New England. If local farmers’ harvests can take the place of food shipped in from elsewhere, local consumption goes up, regardless of customers’ buying habits.

“I think New England Feeding New England’s vision of 30% local food consumption by 2030 initiative is a great goal,” he says. “There’s no reason we can’t grow all our fresh carrots in Massachusetts in the winter, so Big Y doesn’t need to buy them from California. Obviously, there are economies of scale and logistics to work out, but absolutely it can be done.”

On his farm, Debbink uses a combination of high tunnels, low tunnels, and different insulating coverings to protect crops throughout the winter without artificial heat. This saves money, resources, and potential emissions. Leafy greens are a staple, with spinach, lettuce, kale, and more growing sheltered under a high tunnel. He has also found success with cold hardy scallions, and of course carrots.

Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo.

“We’re one of the few farms growing carrots all winter without heat, but it’s very doable and they taste incredible,” he says. “Every time it drops below freezing, they get sweeter as the plant consolidates sugars into the root to keep it from freezing.”

According to Debbink, maintaining a winterlong harvest in the northeast is all about dialing in the timing, because most crops grow much slower with a shorter daylight window. “We start stuff in late summer or early fall so it matures,” he says, “and then really we’re holding it to harvest through the winter. Once we get longer days in February and March, things start growing faster.”

Most of Lombrico Farm’s produce is sold wholesale through Green Fields Market in Greenfield, McCusker’s Market in Shelburne Falls, and the Hilltown Mobile Market run by the Hilltown CDC. They are also a vendor at the year-round Easthampton Farmers’ Market, currently running every other Sunday, 10am – 2pm in the Eastworks building at 116 Pleasant St. The next market will be Sunday January 21st.

In addition, Lombrico Farm recently joined as a farm partner in the Hilltown CDC’s newer farm to food access program, funded by a $75,000 US Department of Agriculture Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement grant.

“This is a really great program that pays farmers close to retail price to distribute food to people who may not otherwise have access to it,” says Debbink. “It’s been really easy to participate. I just add my two drop off points, the Goshen Survival Center and Williamsburg Council on Aging, to my delivery route, and then send invoices to Hilltown CDC.”

Whether it’s rethinking the links between farmers and eaters or testing the boundaries of the farming seasons, “I think we’re at the forefront of some radical shifts in thinking,” says Debbink, “and that’s really exciting.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA. To learn more about local farms and where to find local food in your community, visit buylocalfood.org.

Rosendo Santizo of Winter Moon Roots talks to Monte, Kaliis, and Jacob about his farm in Hadley, which is all about growing the sweetest root veggies around – and a lot of them!

We touch on: 

You can find their roots at the River Valley Coop in Northampton and Easthampton, Whole Foods in Hadley, and the Northampton Winter Farmers’ Market, and more.

Published December 30, 2023 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

Mass Food Delivery: bringing customers of all kinds even closer to local food

Farms are the foundation of our local food system, with farmers’ markets, farm stands, and community markets providing the predominant means of providing food to customers. For some members of our community, the ability to order fresh, local food online and have it delivered to one’s home is not only convenient, but a necessity.  

Jan Rolin (left) and Julia Coffey (right)

Mass Food Delivery was born in March of 2020 as farmers’ markets began closing in response to the pandemic. At that moment, Julia Coffey, owner-operator of Mycoterra Farm, knew that her farm relied on direct sales for about 80% of its revenue. Her organic mushroom farm frequented fifteen farmers’ markets across Massachusetts each week, and maintaining connections between her customers and the other farmers and vendors from those markets became her priority.  

The concept of home delivery seemed the best option, and Mass Food Delivery was born. Coffey’s cousin, Jan Rolin, became the Operations Manager. Rolin notes, “When everything shut down for the pandemic, Julia recognized that if we were in this shape, so was everyone else. Delivery helped save our farm, and we helped save other farms with this service.” 

Beginning with an email, Coffey asked for collaborators, and many local producers responded. Red Fire Farm, Winter Moon Roots, Queen’s Greens, Red Barn Honey, and Grace Hill were some of the early participants. By summer of 2020, many other producers joined, including Joe Czajkowski Farm, Kitchen Garden Farm, Mapleline Farm, Pine Hill Orchard, Reed Farm, Sage Farm, and Ground Up Grain.  

Initially, Mass Food Delivery covered the entire state except the Cape and Islands; that map has reduced to include all of western Mass. and the Berkshires, the North Shore, and Boston. Western Mass. farms and producers offered a balanced diet of local food for the community. The service boomed during the pandemic, revealing both unexpected reasons why customers seek home delivery, and holes to access in our local food system.  

Devon Murphy, weighs and bags Brussels Sprouts which will be included in boxes with fresh vegetables and loaded onto trucks at Mass Food Delivery (Gazette/Carol Lollis photo)

Home delivery allows people to order fresh produce delivered to family members or friends who live independently but require support from others, like parents aging in place or adult children with special needs. Some customers, particularly in Cambridge and Somerville, order for older family members who only speak Russian or Mandarin Chinese, eliminating the language barrier and providing high-quality food for their loved ones. Meanwhile, for some rural clients during the pandemic, lack of transportation meant Mass Food Delivery was their only source of food. “Improving food access has been important to us as a farm and from the start of Mass Food Delivery,” Coffey says. 

Mass Food Delivery also tries to keep financial barriers at a minimum, especially by offering SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps) as a payment option and getting approved as a HIP vendor. HIP (the Healthy Incentives Program) offers all Massachusetts SNAP recipients between $40-80 extra in benefits each month to spend on locally grown produce from approved retailers, helping stretch food spending further and directing more food spending to local businesses.  

Mass Food Delivery staff pack hundreds of pounds of food for home delivery each week (Mass Food Delivery photo)

As buying patterns have shifted since the early days of the pandemic, holding the line on financial accessibility has been an interesting challenge. Initially, SNAP and HIP customers were just 20% of their clientele, and the high total volume of customers subsidized home delivery for SNAP & HIP orders. Yet as the pandemic eased, initial high-revenue orders from households in affluent urban areas dissipated as shoppers returned to in-person shopping at farmers’ markets and farm stands.  

By the end of 2022, SNAP households amounted to 80% of home delivery orders, and they had to begin charging discounted delivery fees to SNAP customers to stay in business. Yet as Rolin shares, “We’ve tried hard to keep our prices the same, even though food prices have gone up very much.” 

While wearing her farmer hat, Coffey was delighted to return to face-to-face sales. At the same time, the pandemic had revealed to her pockets of people with more tenuous food access for myriad reasons: language, mobility, health, and transportation in both urban and rural settings. This awareness reframed Mass Food Delivery’s value as a company who could provide stronger food security for these populations. 

Coffey and Rolin remain passionate about local food access. Says Coffey, “I’ve kept Mass Food Delivery going for the people we serve, because we make a critical impact on their food supply.”  

Cost wise, Mass Food Delivery prices match those of local grocers. Customers shop their preferred frequency of weekly, biweekly, or monthly. Rolin sends a regular newsletter with delivery dates and updates. Unlike major corporate entities, small businesses and farms cannot process online payments for SNAP, and so customers place the order online, then meet the driver to make payment or swipe their SNAP cards.  

Mass Food Delivery Photo

Says Coffey, “Our policy has been to leave food even when we do not receive payment. Mass Food Delivery has subsidized over $38,000 worth of food and waived over $150,000 in delivery fees since our inception in 2020.”  

Making an impact brings joy to the cousins. Rolin adds, “spend their HIP dollars, if they are on that program.”  

Coffey concludes, “I couldn’t be more thrilled with our impact. We have established an impressive network of local growers and producers and a customer base that relies on our services. Yet it has become a labor of love that takes me away from operating Mycoterra Farm. I would love to find a non-profit or organizational partner to adopt Mass Food Delivery and operate this critical service so I can get back to my real passion: farming!”  

Lisa Goodrich is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local food businesses of all kinds, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally. 

This week on the Local Hero Spotlight, we’re joined by Joan Walker of Walker Farm at Whortleberry Hill in New Braintree, a nurse turned farmer and self proclaimed carnivore.

Hear all about how she raises over 60 head of certified humane, animal welfare approved,100% grass-fed cattle. The results? Flavorful steaks, roasts and even hot dogs that are second to none. (We got to try the hot dogs – oooooo boy….)

Note for accuracy: Walker Farm joins many other Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW and Certified Grassfed by AGW farms in New England. To find a full list of AGW-certified farms and the businesses that sell these products, check out agreenerworld.org/directory.

Published January 6, 2024 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

Leverett Village Co-op celebrates 50 years bringing people together around local food

This year, the Leverett Village Co-op turns 50. Over half a century, it has grown beyond a grocery store to become a cultural institution and hidden gem on North Leverett Road. For many it is an indispensable source of food to eat and food for the soul, and they don’t want to imagine life without it.

The Co-op’s current location on Rattlesnake Gutter Road. Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo

“Leverett Village Co-op is a member-owned co-op that serves many purposes,” says general manager Ken Washburn. “We are a grocery store, but also a coffee shop, a music venue, and a place where friends or groups can meet.”

Back in 1974, the co-op began as a bulk food buying club. Each week, members placed a combined food order with a wholesale distributor in Boston that was connected to regional farms and other suppliers. Delivery was made to Franklin County, and the order split among members.

Etta Reagan,2, Abel Reagan, 4, and their mother Samantha Spisiak shop at the Leverett Village Co-Op for after noon snacks. Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo.

In the 1980s the co-op moved into its first retail space in The Mall at Moore’s Corner, a diminutive building just down the street from the present-day co-op. A few years later the current building was built. Soon a bakery was added, and not long after a cafe and meeting space.

As a grocery store, “we focus on natural and local food while also trying to meet everyone’s wants and needs,” Washburn says. “We have Cheez-Its. We have ice cream. It’s not strictly a tofu and sprouts situation.”

Even in the winter, food of all kinds from local farms and businesses graces the co-op selves. Apples from Apex Orchards in Shelburne are still available. Fridges hold Diemand Farm poultry, Sidehill Farm yogurt, Mapleline Farm milk, ferments from Real Pickles, and eggs and ice cream from local businesses. Maple syrup from Kingsbury Farm in Deerfield and honey from Shelburne Honey Company offer some local sweetness. Bread and pastries from Berkshire Mountain Bakery are customer favorites. Katalyst Kombucha, bottled in Greenfield, as well as locally crafted beer from Berkshire Brewing and Progression Brewing can be found in the beverage case.

In the prepared foods section, Leverett Village Co-op now carries some of the most popular dishes made by the nearby Franklin Community Co-op grocery store in Greenfield.

“That’s brand new and very exciting,” says Washburn. “It was our buyer Kari Ridge’s idea to reach out to them – she and I co-manage most of our operations. The variety and quality of the food is fabulous, and the customer response has been amazing. And the idea of co-ops in Franklin County can support each other is incredible – we want to do more of that.”

Backed goods made at the Franklin Community Co-Op. Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo

The sunlit cafe remains the social heart of the co-op, with coffee, tea, hot soup and baked goods always close at hand. Local art hangs on the walls. Many evenings the space comes alive as events pull people in from surrounding towns, including live music and a weekly pizza night on Fridays.

“And this is something I really want people to know about,” says Washburn. “Not only do we have beer and wine for sale, we also have a pouring license. Whether it’s just you or you’re hosting a meeting or event, we can serve beer and wine by the glass.”

The co-op’s beer and wine selection is diverse for its size. Washburn, a professionally trained sommelier, curates it, and also contributes to a regular wine tasting segment on New England Public Media’s Fabulous 413 radio show hosted by Monte Belmonte and Kaliis Smith.

“That’s been really fun, and we’ve had people come ask for wines they heard about on the radio, which I love,” Washburn says.

Liz Etheridge, a volunteer at the Leverett Village Co-Op stocks shelves with a recent delivery of food items. Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo

That public attention is good, especially for a business that simply doesn’t have as much opportunity for customer traffic as other grocery stores.  “There’s not a ton of people who come through North Leverett unless you already live there,” Washburn acknowledges, “the exception being Lake Wyola in Shutesbury in the summer.”

The co-op has capitalized on seasonal visitors, scooping ice cream and enjoying higher sales that tide them over the slower months. Last year’s disastrously wet summer challenged that formula, as rain deterred lake visitors and a major washout caused road closures and re-routed traffic. Inflation didn’t help, raising costs for them and many local food businesses even as corporate profits reached new heights.

Still, there’s a reason the Leverett Village Co-op is able to celebrate 50 years running. At its core, it’s a creation by and for the community it serves. The many committed members, volunteers, supporters and shoppers crave the bright spot the co-op brings to this neighborhood. That enthusiasm keeps them running, and there’s no indication of it fading.

Roger Zimmerman, a volunteer a the Leverett Village Co-Op stocks shelves. In front of him are baskets which were part of a silent action fund raiser for the Co-Op. Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo

“Right now, there is so much energy and momentum,” says Washburn. “I love working alongside our wonderful volunteers, and their numbers have doubled.  We have re-energized membership and fundraising committees. We’re trying new things to mobilize our customer base, and things seem to be going well.”

Just last month, the co-op exceeded its $15,000 fundraising goal, unlocking another $15,000 from matching donors. Meanwhile, attendance at co-op events is growing. A Fall Festival last October drew more than 300 people and challenged the neighborhood’s parking capacity. Following that, a holiday fair in December featuring local artists, craft activities, and a book signing with a local author drew another lively crowd.

To mark the co-op’s 50th anniversary, plans are in the works for a special pop-up dinner and celebration later this winter. The date and details are still forthcoming but will be shared on their Facebook page, which people can also follow for regular news and product updates.

“Our 50th year also coincides with the Town of Leverett’s 250th anniversary celebration,” adds Washburn, “so it feels like this will be a year of celebration and reflection in multiple ways.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about where you can find local food in your neck of the woods, visit buylocalfood.org.