Menu

Published August 13th, 2022 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

By Jacob Nelson

Alan Surprenant holds box of Waneta plums grow at the orchard

“These apples have soul,” claims Alan Suprenant, owner of Brook Farm Orchard. Rooted, appropriately, on Apple Valley Road in Ashfield, the orchard grows nearly 60 varieties of apples, peaches, pears, plums and other fruit too.

Suprenant established the orchard in 1990 and currently runs it with his partner Hana Martin, who’s also an assistant manager at Old Friends Farm in Amherst. “There are 125 trees here, producing 400 bushels of fruit per year,” he explains. Apples are primary, with 45 varieties that ripen on a staggered schedule from now through the first hard frosts of November.

The size of the orchard fits his land and his life. “I drive a propane delivery truck in the winter and paint houses in Ashfield here in the summer, and have for 35 years,” he says. “It lets me be flexible to work in the orchard too.” Eventually he plans to pass the land and orchard on to Hana.

Hana Martin, orchardist at Brook Farm Orchard in Ashfield and assistant manager at Old Friends Farm in Amherst.

After working on conventionally managed orchards in the 1980s, Suprenant had enough of spraying trees, and inadvertently himself, with chemicals. “I wanted to grow food that I felt was healthier for people,” he says. Now he and Martin manage land with biodynamic practices. Developed by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner and advanced by farmers around the globe, biodynamic farming promotes gentler inputs and a more holistic view of plant health.

“I learned so many tasks in conventional orcharding that still apply here,” Suprenant says. “What’s different is what we feed the trees, and how we approach caring for them.”

Rather than focusing on eradicating pests and diseases, they concentrate on growing resilient trees that have the best chance of weathering any adversity. This starts by using nature’s playbook as a guide.

“There’s a whole ecosystem that already exists here in this orchard,” he notes. “We’re just trying to orchestrate different pieces of it to our advantage. Like when you plant comfrey beneath the trees, its deep taproot accumulates all these minerals. When it dies in the fall, it leaves them higher in the soil for the trees to use. We don’t have to do anything.”

They also add natural fertilizers to the soil each fall and spray plant and seaweed ferments on the leaves as another way of delivering nutrients. As Suprenant puts it, “we feed the tree both from above and below.”

Biodynamic farming emphasizes aligning tasks with nature’s yearly cycles, both to maximize the intended benefit and ideally making the farmer’s life easier. For Suprenant, the cycle begins in winter.

“That’s when the Earth breaths in,” he says, “so I fertilize around trees in November. Winter weather works it down into the soil, and in spring it’s there for the roots to absorb.”

In March it’s time to prune the still dormant trees. Pruning creates space between branches, which improves airflow to decreases disease risk.

“Then we lay the pruned branches in rows between the trees and chop them up with a mower so they can decompose back into the soil,” explains Suprenant. “It’s another way to feed the trees in the spring.”

Come May the orchard bursts into bloom – stone fruit first, then apples. As pollinators arrive “the trees actually hum, which is really beautiful,” he says. “A lot of honeybees come from my neighbors at Red Gate Farm, and I try to give them apples every year as a thank you.”

Next, around the summer solstice, apple trees are thinned to encourage larger fruit and more balanced harvests year to year. “We thin by hand rather than with chemicals, and try to keep one apple for every six inches of branch,” says Suprenant. “That leaves about 100 leaves to ripen each apple to a decent size.”

“Then we start harvesting plums and peaches in late July and pears in early August,” he continues. Apples start ripening in earnest right about now, though a few of their varieties were ripe by the end of July.

Now is when they start selling their fruit at the Ashfield Farmers’ Market, which runs 9-1 every Saturday on the town common. They’ll start attending next week, August 20th, bringing peaches from their farmer neighbors at E & J Scott Orchards along with their own plums and some early apples.

“It’s the only Saturday market in the Hilltowns,” states Suprenant, noting how the weekend schedule encourages a leisurely atmosphere that allows friendships to gel. “People come just to hang out. Bread Euphoria is there with sweet treats, someone else makes breakfast sandwiches. At our table, since we have so many varieties of fruit, people can try all kinds of different colors, tastes and textures throughout the season. They’ll come back and ask ‘what’ve you got this week?’”

Brook Farm Orchard will also be part of Ashfield Fall Festival, October 8-9, and Franklin County CiderDays on November 4-6.

Suprenant also teaches classes on orcharding techniques for homeowners in the winter and spring, and consults for commercial orchards in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

“I like doing all of that, and you make a lot more money consulting and teaching than growing apples,” he says. “But you don’t get the connection of watching kids eat your apples and watching their face light up.”

In a way, Suprenant’s desire for both rootedness and connectivity has grown as he observes the same qualities in his beloved trees.

“Biodynamics teaches that trees connect the earth to the sky,” he shares. “The way I care for them connects me spiritually to the work too, and gives me energy.”

Weaving in the human relationships, “I treasure the retail side of the business, and how it connects me to the community through food,” he adds.

“Nobody’s grumpy when they’re buying apples,” he says. “And if they are, they can sit down at the farmers’ market table and we’ll talk about it.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about what’s in season at local farms and markets near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

“I’ve noticed kids are much more inclined to try something if they’ve made it themselves,” says cook book author Deanna Cook, “and they’re proud of what they made (and so are their parents.)”

“I’m super excited to participate in CISA’s Making Food Fun free event for kids at Look Park!” she continues. “I’ll be making quesadillas and corn salsa with fresh, local ingredients, and kids can come up and help.” 🌽

That’s THIS THURSDAY, 10-12 at Look Park in Florence. Afterwards, enjoy a free popsicle from Crooked Stick Pops and berry tasting with Nourse Farms!

Learn more here.

Published August 6, 2022 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

By Jacob Nelson

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the status of the transition of ownership at Bub’s Bar-B-Q from Andrea and Chris Moroney to Andrew Garlo. The deal has not been legally finalized, though both parties hope it will be soon.

Fingers sticky with barbecue sauce. Belly full. Smoky, spicy flavors lingering on your tongue as you lean back and sigh, the light fading on the fields around you. It’s a recipe for a summer night done right at Bub’s Bar-B-Q in Sunderland.

This summer Bub’s is transitioning as Andrea and Chris Moroney, owners since 2011, hope to pass the reins to longtime chef and restauranteur Andrew Garlo. Brimming with enthusiasm, Garlo hopes to put a locally influenced style of barbecue on the map, all while honoring the traditions and legacy of this community favorite.

“Bub’s is kind of like a time machine,” explains Garlo. “It’s been there since 1979, and very little has changed. When you walk in, the first thing you see is the big neon “Bar-B-Que” sign. The booths are original, and in the back there’s the old free juke box and a kids arcade game that costs a dollar.”

“All over the walls are accolades and knick-knacks that have been collected during the past 43 years,” he continues. The pig motif is prominent amid the decorations and large menu adorning the far wall.

Indoor seating is tight. You wouldn’t know there used to be a tiny dance floor where couples would dance to country western from the juke box. Outside, picnic tables under tents provide much more elbow room – a necessity in recent years and a great setting for their finger-licking food.

Garlo has worked his way up in the food service industry since he was 14, from dishwasher to executive chef and culinary school instructor. Him winding up at Bub’s is a case of aligning passion and circumstance.

Andrew Garlo, hopeful new chef-owner of Bub’s Bar-B-Q

“When I first moved right down the road in Sunderland,” “I told my fiancée, ‘If I ever own a restaurant, I want it to be just like Bub’s,’” he says. “Then last spring my friend who knew the current owners, Andrea and Chris, told me they were thinking of closing. The pandemic hit the restaurant hard, and they wanted to spend more time with family.”

“I didn’t want Bub’s to close,” says Garlo, “so I connected with them and started talking. Me stepping in seemed like a great match. I told them keeping the place going just required some energy, and I have plenty of energy to spare.”

As a style of cooking, modern American barbecue owes its roots to Indigenous cultures from the Caribbean. As the practice spread to the American south, distinct styles emerged as customs influenced by the availability of local ingredients in different locations. For example, Texas-style barbecue highlights beef and spicy dry rubs, while Memphis-style barbecue plays up pork and sweet and tangy sauces.

Where does Bub’s Bar-B-Q fall? “Right now, it draws from all over and doesn’t fit neatly into any prominent category,” says Garlo.

As they look to use more local ingredients, could Bub’s help grow a new branch of the barbecue family tree? Garlo sees the abundance of New England farms, forests, and fisheries as prime ingredients for a style unto itself.

“We could use more apples, maple syrup, and New England seafood,” he suggests. “I’ve also talked about doing our own kielbasa. My background is Polish – like many people around here – and I want to bring that into the equation too.”

These maple apple smoked spare ribs from Bub’s Bar-B-Q. celebrate New England ingredients fused with traditional barbecue

“There’s so many local farms and suppliers to work with around here,” Garlo adds. “Already I’ve been in touch with Warner Farm in Sunderland, Apex Orchards in Shelburne Falls, Pekarski’s Sausage in South Deerfield, and Sutter Meats in Northampton. I’ve bought from Szawlowski Potato Farms in Hatfield in the past, and I’ll probably do that again. And I just had a phone call with Berkshore Seafood (who delivers directly from docks on the New England coast) about getting steamers and other local seafood.”

Cooking barbecue often produces heaps of food at once, suiting it perfectly for feeding large groups in backyards, restaurants, or community events. Watching the chef cook can be entertainment in itself. Bub’s Bar-B-Q has offered catering for many years, and Garlo has no shortage of dreams for how he might expand their repertoire and inspire celebrations of local food and culture if opportunities allow.

“I’ve always thought it would be a cool idea to work with one farm on a farm-to-table dinner on-site,” he says, “using all their own produce and meat to create a 3-4 course meal.”

Another dream: “A Summer Days in Sunderland festival day,” Garlo explains. “I could sell pulled pork and ribs. Warner Farm could show off their produce. Maybe Blue Heron Restaurant could make food too, and we could get some live music. Just bringing more people to enjoy the area – that’s the goal.”

For Garlo, ideas like this are seeds to sow and wait to see what grows in the future. Today he’s focused on hopefully run Bub’s Bar-B-Q much the way longtime customers have come to love it, with a few tweaks to keep the business afloat.

“A lot of customers tell me I can’t change a single thing,” he says. “But the world has changed a lot in the past few years, and Bub’s almost just closed for good. I will have to adjust some things, and I hope people understand why.”

The side bars are a good example. “For in-person dining, there’s always been a cold and hot bars of sides that come with any meal, and you can eat all you want,” he explains. “That’s pretty unique.” Those aren’t going away, but the menu of sides – which was set years ago – might shift to account for rising costs of different ingredients.

“Ultimately I hope we’re known for how good our food is, and how authentic our smoking is,” says Garlo. “You put hours and hours into seasoning things, getting the timing just right – I hope that people see and understand the love and effort that goes into this.”

Bub’s Bar-B-Q is located at 676 Amherst Rd. in Sunderland, open Wednesday to Friday, 4-8, Saturday 12-8 and Sunday 12-7.

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). For examples of other restaurants cooking with local ingredients near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

Great local food, friends, and community support. 🌽 🙂 The Chicopee Farmers’ Market is just one of many programs run by the Valley Opportunity Council, and a way to connect with all of them.

In season now? Corn, blueberries, cucumbers, and so much more! Every Wednesday, 10-2 at 767 Chicopee street (nestled under the I391 overpass). Don’t miss it!

The Valley Opportunity Council serves all of Hampden County, offering connections to fuel assistance, food and nutrition programming, child care, and much more. Says VOC’s Nicole Balthazar, who oversees the market, “This is just a great way to reach out to the community, and that’s what we’re all about.”

The market is also a place to buy fresh produce with HIP, which gives all MA SNAP users an added $40-80/month in benefits to buy locally grown fruits and veggies. “It’s wonderful,” says Nicole, “because it helps our farmers have more people purchasing, and it helps these folks access more local fruits and vegetables.”

Published July 22nd 2022 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

By Jacob Nelson

Valley Bounty: the Old Creamery Co-op – come for the local products, stay for the hang

What does the Old Creamery Co-op in Cummington have in common with Preservation Hall, a celebrated jazz venue in New Orleans? More than you might think.

They’re both social institutions in their respective towns, livening old buildings steeped in history. They’re both important meeting places of people and culture. And they’ve both been managed at different times by Lloyd Miller, current general manager at the Old Creamery Co-op.

Admittedly, the parallels end shortly thereafter. But the comparison proves an important point for many Hilltown residents and out-of-towners who frequent this Cummington landmark presiding over the site of an old dairy cooperative. More than a grocery store, it’s a hub in the local food economy and a social watering hole too. With plans to revamp their outdoor gathering space, they’re making sure they can still be a safe and inviting venue, even in the time of COVID.

Jeremiah Reagan stocks shelves at the Old Creamery Co-op (PC Jesse Massaro)

Across New England, small town grocers and general stores have long been junctures for commerce and conversation, often built at literal crossroads. Yet today, as society has become more mobile, the landscape of where people shop has shifted, in many cases to the outskirts of towns where specialty stores and supermarkets dominate shopping plazas. The impacts of this change are both significant and complex, but one thing is for certain: in most communities, small town grocery stores have faded as the gravitational center of town.

Most communities, that is, but not all. That’s what makes businesses like the Old Creamery Co-op and other locally-minded stores stand out. They still attract farmers and makers looking to sell their products, people looking to buy them, and anyone hoping to engage with their neighbors and hear the day’s news.

Today, “the Old Creamery Co-op has a dual mission,” says Miller. “First and foremost, we’re a full-service grocery store, providing high quality and, in many cases, organic and locally-sourced products, from produce to meat, dairy, and even soap,” says Miller. “We have all your basics, prepared foods, a deli counter, and even a walk-up ice cream window.”

PC Jesse Massaro

They aim to remain an affordable option for nearby residents, who have few other options for groceries nearby. “We’re also a stopover on the Route 9 between Pittsfield and Northampton,” explains Miller, “so especially in the summer, we get a wonderful bump from tourists and locals too out enjoying the area.”

Many items on the shelves come from farms in the Hilltowns or the Valley. “We have a great relationship with Sawyer Farm in Worthington,” says Miller. “They have such a broad range of produce as well as eggs. And we have a really wide variety of small local producers who sell to us throughout the year too.”

The secondary mission of the Old Creamery Co-op, facilitating community gathering, was always tied closely to their indoor café space. With a coffee shop atmosphere, it was a place for friends and groups to meet, and art and music to be shared. A “third space” that wasn’t work or home but felt like home to many. Yet since the onset of the pandemic, the indoor cafe spaces has remained closed to gathering, and Miller says it will likely stay that way until COVID fades further into the background. Instead, like many in the food service industry, “we’re doing our best to recreate that space outside,” he says.

The current front of the Old Creamery Co-op in Cummington, graced by Camille the cow, will soon be revamped to encourage outdoor gathering (PC Jesse Massaro)

Their vision is simple but transformational, aiming to create an invitation to gather in their front yard. “We want to put in a split rail fence, so customers feel safe and comfortable separated from the road,” says Miller. “Add a few new picnic tables, a new awning, and then leave a large area open as a play space for kids, where parents don’t have to worry about them running off into the street.”

Miller has a lot of experience with arranging things and coordinating people to bring new life to an older space. Prior to moving to the area in 2020 with his family, he visited Cummington often but lived in New Orleans. There he worked his way from bartender to bar manager, working with jazz legends at the aforementioned Preservation Hall, and opened his own farm-to-table burger bar, among other things. The throughline for him is creating opportunities for his neighbors to enjoy where they are.

“To me, it’s not worth doing if it’s not mission-based, and everything is about community,” he says. “The best we can do in this world is live by example, and work for the people who surround us.”

Board members of the Old Creamery Co-op include from left, Jesse Massaro, Martin Schotz, Ilse Godfrey, Steven Schiff (president), Seva Water (and son Rohan), Amy Tessier and Sadie Stull (VP). Not pictured are Paul DiLeo (treasurer) and Katy Eiseman (PC Jesse Massaro)

Much of his experience translates well to managing the Old Creamery Co-op. There’s also a lot to learn. “The retail grocery business in general has an operational model with a 1% profit margin,” he explains. “For every $100 worth of product we sell, we get to keep $1. That requires a lot of attention to detail to not lose that 1%. But as a mission-driven business, our goal really isn’t to make money either. If we’re turning a big profit, we’re doing it wrong.”

As such, they don’t have much money set aside for capital improvements like what they have planned. Instead, they worked with Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) to secure a grant through the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation, and crowdfunded matching donations from the community. The donation period for that campaign closed yesterday, the 22nd. As of this writing, they had nearly reached their goal of $12,686 thanks to over 100 donors.

“People driving by only have a few seconds to get an impression of the place,” says Miller. “When they see people playing and enjoying the area out front, it communicates what this place is – it’s more than just a grocery store.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA. To learn more about local farms, stores, markets, stands, and other places to buy local food near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

Jim and Jan Golonka of Golonka Farm and Farm Stand in Whately join Phil and Monte to talk about:

XXX

“There’s a good variety on the stand right now,” says Jan. Not just corn, but also cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, beets, carrots, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower. “We pick all our produce fresh all day long from the fields right behind the farm stand, and if we get low, we just go pick some more.” A great deal for the 600-700 customers (!) they might see on a busy weekend day.

What’s the biggest challenge they’ve faced in their decades of farming? “Dealing with climate change and the effects it has on our produce,” says Jim. “There’s nothing normal anymore. We’re experiencing new diseases and pests which are a lot tougher to deal with and coming earlier…and of course extreme weather. Last year we were flooded out, this year we’re in a drought. The thunderstorms seem to be two, three inches at a time instead of half and inch, and the droughts seem to be longer. From one extreme to the other, you don’t know what to expect.”

There have been some helpful developments over the years too, he says, like CISA. “When CISA started, I thought it grow competition, promoting other farms. But what it’s done is increase awareness of local farms and locally grown food. Now even more people understand the importance of buying local. Especially with supply chain issues now, I think it’s going to be more important that we understand this.”

How do they like their corn?

“Lightly boiled, lots of butter, lots of salt,” says Jan. “It makes the sweetness pop.”

“I wind up eating most of my corn while picking first thing in the morning,” says Jim. “I pick an ear, rip it open and eat it raw. That’s really the only way to know when it’s ready.”

Try some yourself! Golonka Farm is open every day at 8 State Road in Whately, mid-June through mid-October.

Mon – Thurs 10am – 5:30pm

Fri 9am – 5:30pm

Sat & Sun 9am – 5pm

Community members in the Northampton area started with a vision in 1997 for a consumer-owned store to foster a healthy local food system and contribute to the local economy. The River Valley Co-op opened its doors in Northampton in 2008 and welcomed the public into their Easthampton store on July 1st, 2021. Led by Jonathan Wright, of Wright Brothers Builders, the Easthampton store was designed, built, and opened with a vision of generating all electricity on-site, on a net zero annual basis.

Since the beginning, the guiding vision for River Valley Co-op has been fostering a healthy local food system that contributes to the local economy. Natasha Latour, Director of Marketing observes, “It takes committed individuals and organizations to support people in need, champion a sustainable environment, and develop a strong food system that contributes to the local economy.”

Both stores amplify CISA’s work to connect local community members to local farms and food sources. The co-op acts upon their commitment to buy as much local food, products, and goods as possible. According to the FY21 Annual Report, the co-op bought from over 142 local farms and 203 local vendors. Purchases in 2022 should reach nearly $10 million this year! Even the timber used for part of the construction of both stores was harvested locally in partnership with Hilltown Land Trust “in a way that reflects our values,” notes Latour.

River Valley Co-op supports local farms and food producers consistently across marketing, whether in-store signs and features in the weekly flyer, monthly social media features, and using local ingredients for prepared foods. Partnerships with regional organizations that promote local food and local farms, such as Grow Food Northampton and CISA, extend the work of the food ecosystem.

With a membership structure where anyone can purchase a share and every share is equal, farmers and restaurant owners are shoppers and members too. Local farmers are recognizable within the community because the co-op works diligently to introduce community members and consumers with the people that grow and provide their food. “We could not build this co-op community without the support of our local farmers, producers, vendors, co-op op owners, staff and customers,” concludes Latour.

Trivia question: What’s the name of the River Valley Co-op’s bear?

Answer: It’s Ursula, and she was introduced in 2015.

Published July 16th 2022 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

By Jacob Nelson

Meghan Hastings has a secret to share about sweet corn. “The variety really doesn’t matter,” she says. “What makes corn taste great is that it’s picked fresh every single day.” At Dave’s Natural Garden, that’s what she and her partner Dave Kaskeski do for their farm store in Granby.

Dave’s Natural Garden is a small, diversified farm and greenhouse that Kaskeski founded 20 years ago. Mostly they grow plants, with the business split between growing ornamental and vegetable starts for farmers and gardeners each spring and farming nearly 7 acres of fields and greenhouses themselves using organic practices. They raise some poultry for eggs and meat too.

At their farm store, open year-round at 35 Amherst Street, “pretty much everything we sell is local,” says Hastings. A lot comes straight from their farm, where something is ripe for eating most days of the year. The balance – veggies, fruit, meat, cheese, staples, and sweet treats – they source mostly from other producers in the Valley or else in Massachusetts where possible.

“The two things we are probably most known for are hanging flower baskets (a popular spring item) and corn,” she says. “And it’s interesting, the corn thing, because we actually don’t grow it here.”

Hastings explains how the arraignment stems from Kaskeski’s first job as a teenager picking corn for Henry Ziomek in Hadley. “He just never stopped. Even after he started this business, he’d still pick corn there in the mornings before coming here up until Henry passed away.” At that point an agreement was made to keep planting corn on that land, and Kaskeski and his staff would tend and harvest it for Dave’s Natural Garden. “We call it our corn co-op,” says Hastings, and the agreement seems to work well for everyone – especially local corn lovers.

“We’re starting to be known for our garlic too,” she says, speaking as she works cleaning the nearly 18,000 heads of garlic they harvested last week.  Another story of mutual support: “we had 6 boys from the Granby boy’s lacrosse team – one of them my son – help us harvest, and we’ll donate to their uniform fundraiser.” Most of it will be sold for eating or for planting next fall, but they also make some black or fermented garlic too.

Overall, “we strive to not be boring,” Hastings jokes. “We’re always trying new techniques and growing specialty produce with lots of variety.” White cucumbers, vibrant hot peppers, broccolini, pearl onions, heirloom tomatoes, fingerling potatoes – Dave’s Natural Garden usually has something to satisfy customers’ curiosity, she says.

This year they hope to actually harvest most of the interesting crops they planted. Last year, as Hastings puts it, “we got taken for a ride – a very wet boat ride.”

Heavy rains last summer flooded fields at Dave’s Natural Garden in Granby. Climate change is expected to bring increased rainfall and extreme weather to New England (PC Dave’s Natural Garden)

The summer of 2021 was the wettest on record for much of western Massachusetts. According to the National Weather Service, some areas got over 12 inches of rain in July alone – more than twice the average in many cases. “Our soil doesn’t drain well,” says Hastings, “so when we get that much rain so quickly, that’s real bad. In the end, we lost about 90% of our crops in the field.”

This time a year ago, all they could do was react to the situation with ingenuity. “We started planting things in bulb crates in our greenhouses, and by late August were able to harvest some late-season tomatoes, cucumbers, greens, and even some radishes,” says Hastings. “But in the meantime, we needed to stock the store from somewhere, so we leaned on other farmers. Four Rex Farm in Hadley sold us melons. Bardwell Farm in Hatfield had lettuce. Plainville Farm in Hadley had a lot of things.”

“That’s one of the nice things about farmers around here,” she says. “You compete sometimes but you can still be friends. Last year our friends were lifesavers.”

Now they’re redoubling efforts to prepare their farm for the future. This region is projected to experience increasing rainfall, greater weather variability, and more frequent and intense extreme storms as the impacts of climate change accelerate. Hastings is one of many farmers who see adaptation as necessary. “Welcome to the new New England,” she says.

Meghan Hastings of Daves Natural Garden in Granby, seen here giving a farm tour last fall (PC Paul Shoul)

Adaptation is also urgent because the farm would struggle to survive two bad years in a row. Dave’s Natural Garden was one of 7 farms impacted by last year’s rains that received a zero-interest Emergency Farm Fund loan administered by Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), a nonprofit that seeks to strengthen the local food economy. “That moved us back towards even footing,” she says, “but if something happened again this year, a disaster loan wouldn’t be enough.”

What does adaptation look like at Dave’s Natural Garden? “The biggest thing we need to do is control moisture,” says Hastings. “For us, that means growing more in greenhouses and reducing how much we till our fields.”

“Transitioning towards no-till means will help us treat the soil in a way that will drain better,” she explains. In general, less tillage allows creatures living in the soil to better aerate the soil and increase soil organic matter. Both things help the soil absorb more water and hold it longer, which is beneficial in wet and dry years.

PC Paul Shoul

Growing in greenhouses gives them more control over rain and dew hitting plants and infiltrating the soil. They also extend the growing season for many crops, giving them more chances to replant a crop if it fails and diversifying what’s available in the farm store throughout the year. That’s good for their business and their customers, who, for example, can often buy tomatoes from Dave’s Natural Garden from April through December.

There are many organizations farmers can turn to for technical assistance and funding as they adapt to climate change. “CISA even has a Climate Program Coordinator focused on helping farms with that,” shares Hastings. “He helped connect me to others and get a grant from the Lookout Foundation to cover some of this work.” They’ve also received grants from the Grinspoon Foundation and American Farmland Trust to buy equipment for experimenting with no-till and funding from the Natural Resource Conservation Service for another high tunnel greenhouse.

Today, the US Department of Agriculture lists most of western Massachusetts in a moderate drought. That’s a stress on many local farms, but “you don’t have to worry about us,” says Hastings with a wry smile. “We’ll probably do fine.” Their farm store is full of fresh summer veggies from the field, locally raised meat, and other treats waiting to fill plates at the dinner table or barbecue. It’s open year-round, currently from 9-6 Monday through Saturday and 9-5 on Sundays.

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA. To learn more about local farms and where to find fresh, in-season local food near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

Published July 9th, 2022 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

By Jacob Nelson

“Berry season is a wild ride,” says Rachel Monette, a longtime employee of Nourse Farms in Whately. Every summer it hits with intensity, like a sweet red raspberry bursting on your tongue. Then, too soon, it fades, leaving memories like blueberry-stained fingers and cheeks still puckering at the thought of tart currants popping in the back of your mouth.

A snapshot of the local berry season, featuring (front to back) red currants, blackberries, red gooseberries, green gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries (PC Janna Thompson)

Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, currants – local farmers grow dozens of varieties of berries like this, offering an amazing diversity of taste, color, size, and availability throughout the summer. Many of these berry plants began life at Nourse Farms, which, since owner Tim Nourse moved the farm to Whately in 1968, has grown into an unassuming giant in the berry business.

“Nourse Farms supplies small fruit plants to commercial growers, retailers, and home gardeners across the US and internationally, and provides technical support and advice to anyone growing our plants,” explains Monette. This time of year, they also sell their own fresh-picked berries at the Nourse Farms Berry Tent on River Road in Whately.

Each year the farm sells more than 40 million plants, propagated and raised on over 1,000 acres of lab space, greenhouses, and fields in Whately, Hatfield, Deerfield, Northfield, and Montague, and another 75 acres in Washington state used for growing rootstock. They sold to over 1,200 customers in Massachusetts alone last year – from homeowners buying a few dozen plants to farmers buying enough to cover acres.

“I don’t think most locals realize how big we are,” Monette says, “but if you purchase berries from a local grocery store, there is a very good chance the berries came Nourse Farms plant stock.”

In the plant world, propagation refers to the methods by which new plants are derived from existing plants. That definition is necessarily vague because, compared to other organisms, there are a surprising number of ways to nurture a new plant. Most Nourse Farms berry plants begin their journey in a lab, born from tissue cultures taken from parent plants.

Senior Lab Tech Aimee Hudon records plantlets to be sent to the greenhouse where they will be planted and acclimatized to a non-sterile environment (PC Janna Thompson)

Monette says this strategy of “micropropagation” helped Nourse Farms establish their reputation as a producer of healthy planting stock. They’ve been perfecting it since the 1980s, when Tim Nourse saw these techniques used to grow orchids and later strawberry plants at the USDA research labs. He decided to apply them to other berries too and built the farm’s first tissue culture lab soon after.

Lab propagation at the start gives Nourse growers significant control over growing conditions and sterility, and lets them screen for certain diseases, pests, and defects. These lab-grown plants then provide material for further propagation in their greenhouses and nursery fields, growing the final plants sold to customers. These techniques tend to produce very vigorous plants. So much so that, “We guarantee they will grow,” says Monette. “If not, we’ll replace them.”

With this system, Nourse propagates and sells dozens of varieties of berries – and other local favorites like asparagus and rhubarb too. “We consistently work with breeders and researchers to explore new varieties,” says Monette. Those that provide something new and needed make the cut for the Nourse catalogue. “The most appealing ones are often varieties that ripen on the bookends of the season, either early or late, and have high production and disease resistance,” she continues.

July is for eating berries, not planting them – that’s an early spring activity for most varieties. But for those inspired by the sweet harvest around them, Nourse Farms is already accepting pre-orders for 2023 delivery, strictly over the phone. Their catalogue is readily available online, and online ordering will begin in October.

Raspberries grow in careful rows in a Nourse Farms berry field (PC Janna Thompson)

After receiving plants from Nourse, anyone can call their customer service line for advice. “People can have a really small order, and we’ll still hold their hand through planting and caring for everything,” Monette says. “And our website has so much to offer to home gardeners all the time.”

Most berry plants take a few years to establish and produce fruit. With the Nourse Farm Berry Tent, no one needs to wait that long to sample some of their most popular varieties, all grown within a few miles of Whately.

“Right now, it looks like a rainbow, ” Monette says. “Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, black raspberries, red and green gooseberries, and red currants are here now, but every week the options change.”

“When I go to barbecues, I bring a flat with containers of all different kinds of berries for people to try,” she says, excited to introduce her friends to something new. “Most people haven’t had the chance to compare the taste of a red gooseberry to a green gooseberry. Or to see how, if you roll them between your fingers before popping them in your mouth, they get a bit sweeter.”

Berry season evolves quickly, and the Nourse Farms Berry Tent on River Rd. in Whately has new locally grown berries each week from mid-June through July (PC Janna Thompson)

“Yellow raspberries are a delicacy in my house,” she continues. “My kids prefer them over any other fruit and fight the birds for them in our backyard.” Another less common choice are currants, delicate orbs ranging from pale pick to deep midnight purple depending on the variety, all packing a tart punch. “They ripen around early July and can be eaten fresh, though most folks prefer to make them into juice, jelly, or wine.”

The timing of all these berry seasons shifts each year depending on conditions. Most are ripe for a few fleeting weeks. “It’s always a little different every year,” remarks Monette, “and before you know it, we’re wrapping up. This year the season might end a little sooner than we’d like, so get them before they’re gone.”

The Nourse Farms Berry Tent is open from early June to mid-July, Monday-Friday 9-5 and weekends 9-4, depending on conditions. To confirm hours and availability on any given day, call ahead at 413-665-2650.

To learn more about local farms and places to buy or pick your own locally-grown berries, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)

Leslie Harris of Quonquont Farm in Whately joined Phil and Monte to talk about:

PYO and the Quonquont Farm store are open 8:00 – 5:30 Tues – Fri and 8:00 – 4:00 Sat & Sun. For PYO, call ahead to confirm hours and availability (413-575-4680). You can also check out their website for a full line-up of public events.

PC: Elizabeth Soloka

Phil and Monte talk with Lucy Damkoehler, chef-owner of Sweet Lucy’s Bakeshop in Bernardston, about:

Sweet Lucy’s new classroom is funded in part by a Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation grant, which CISA helped them secure, and in part by donations from bakery boosters like you. Learn more and support their vision here.

Published July 2nd, 2022 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

By Jacob Nelson

“They’re not part of the Valley. They’re not covered by the Berkshires. The Hilltowns really are their own thing,” observes Seva Water, who coordinates the Hilltown Mobile Market for the Hilltown Community Development Corporation.

The Hilltowns straddle the western reaches of Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties and the eastern edge of Berkshire County. Life here is characterized by things being spread out – people, jobs, food – more than anywhere else in the state. It gives rise to the area’s beloved rural character. When you’re a local farmer, though, it does make it harder to find customers.

Barring exceptions like the Ashfield Farmers Market (Saturdays, 9-1) and Shelburne Falls Farmers Market (Fridays 2-6:30), most Hilltowns lack enough customer concentration to support stationary farmers markets. Instead, says Water, “many Hilltown farmers pack up and drive down to farmers markets in the Valley, where they might be selling to their neighbors who hopped in their cars and drove down too.”

Addressing this connectivity issue, in 2019 the Hilltown CDC and other partners launched the Hilltown Mobile Market. Run out of a van, this farmers market drives everywhere so farmers and Hilltown residents don’t have to. They’ve grown each year, and in 2022, they hope moving to online ordering can help them expand service even more.

As Water explains, “it started with the Hilltown CDC asking farmers what support they needed to succeed and learning that most would benefit from marketing their products together. And second, we wanted to expand access to local food to anyone who wants it.” The mobile market is a way to do both.

Initial funding for the project came through a partnership with Healthy Hampshire, a public health-focused nonprofit that helped leverage state funding to open 3 mobile markets in the region in quick succession – Grow Food Northampton’s Community Food Distribution Project in 2018, the Hilltown Mobile Market in 2019, and the Amherst Mobile Market, run by Many Hands Farm Corps, in 2020.

That first year, “we had two stops and ran the market out of the back of a Subaru,” says Water. “The second year we got a grant to purchase a van, which was a game changer, added two more locations, and almost doubled sales. We had something and we kept running with it.”

Year three, 2021, again brought huge increases in sales. Preparing for their fourth year, organizers realized they’d need to be creative to expand sales for farmers and customers without adding vehicles or staff. So, they’ve shifted from offering market-style, in-person shopping during a given time window to asking customers to order in advance from an online menu.

With people ordering in advance, they can buy exactly what’s needed from farmers, remove any will-they-still-have-tomatoes-by-the-time-I-get-there anxiety for customers, and reduce food waste. This year they’ll start selling local meat, dairy, and pantry items too – tripling the number of local producers they buy from and extending their season into November as they sell items with longer storage life. Pick-up locations will increase from 4 to 16, stretching from Blandford to Cummington and from Westhampton out to Chester.

Anyone can buy food from the Hilltown Mobile Market – it’s not exclusive. “Even if it’s just for one week, you can make an account, see what’s for sale, and place an order,” says Waters. Yet Market Operator Monica Guzik estimates 80-90% of their customers sign up as shareholders, buying some amount of market credit up front to spend down over the season. That’s appreciated, says Guzik, because, “it ensures the market has customers to start, and gives us working capital for up-front expenses.” Shareholders can spend their balance any weeks they choose on any items in stock.

The Hilltown CDC tries to make shopping at the market affordable to all. Anyone who receives food assistance through SNAP – and therefore also receives Healthy Incentive Program (HIP) benefits from the state for purchasing local produce – can combine both to pay for a Hilltown Mobile Market share. Senior Farmers’ Market and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) coupons are also accepted. Customers paying with these methods still order online but must choose from 4 pick-up locations to pay in person per program requirements.

The Hilltown CDC also distributes vouchers to tenants in the low- and moderate-income housing they manage and offers subsidized shares to low-income community members who don’t qualify for these other programs. One way or another, “we can make this food accessible to pretty much anyone,” says Water.

Online ordering poses its own barrier, “especially for older customers and those not comfortable using a computer,” says Water. To address it, “we’re offering tutorials, sign up events, and visiting groups and individuals directly to help them learn the process. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. We really want people to feel comfortable with this.”

What’s the impact of this big idea so far? In terms of supporting local farmers, in 3 years the Hilltown Mobile Market has purchased 5,750 Lbs. of Hilltown-grown food totaling $22,969. Water’s assessment: “we’re not making a huge difference in any farms’ annual sales yet.” But many farmers say if the market can find more customers, they’re eager to sell more food.

Overall, continued support from funders and partner organizations like local community health centers, councils on aging, and food policy councils confirm a broad consensus that the Hilltown Mobile Market serves the public good. It’s certainly made a difference in the lives of its customers, 71% of whom said in a recent survey that their produce consumption increased moderately or significantly during market season.

“At the end of the day, we want people to eat more local food,” says Water. “This helps make that possible.”

Hilltown Mobile Market’s website (hilltownmobilemarket.info) has full details on pick-up times and locations, how to purchase a share, and how the process works. That’s also where prospective customers can register for an account, which is needed for online ordering. Ordering opens July 16th for pick-up the following week, but registration is open now.

A last suggestion from Water: tell your friends. “Word of mouth is still the best way to spread the word – that’s the way things work here in the Hilltowns.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about farmers markets near you – mobile or otherwise – visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.