Columnist Claire Morenon: Valley farms in their teenage years at a critical juncture

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 25, 2020

In the farming world, there’s a lot of focus on two groups: family farms that have been sustained and adapted through generations, and fledgling farms that are just getting started.

But here in the Valley, there are a number of farms that are somewhere in between the two — they’re first-generation farms and still new in the context of agricultural businesses, but they are no longer beginners, having been at it for over a decade.

These farmers have overcome serious hurdles: a limited and costly land base, a steep learning curve on everything from crop management to building markets, and a competitive and changing marketplace. Many of them are managing heavy debt loads and a sense that the future is both promising and full of unknowable challenges.

Sarah Voiland, who owns Red Fire Farm in Granby and Montague with her husband, Ryan, spoke to the unique position her business is in after nearly 20 years in operation: “When you don’t start out with land or infrastructure, it’s quite an effort to find good land and the equipment you need, and to set up all your systems. It’s taken us years to set up our packing facility just so, and get our land in better shape, and add solar panels and our geothermal system — it’s just so much effort. Once you have it all working well, that’s a beautiful thing, and it takes a lot of creativity and learning and effort.”

Many of the most visibly innovative farm businesses in our region are these farms in their teenage years. Farmers who are 10-plus years in are still figuring things out and willing to experiment, but they’re established enough that they have the staff, capital, land and other resources to launch new projects.

Caroline Pam and Tim Wilcox, who established Kitchen Garden Farm in 2006, have implemented a major change in their business pretty much every year that they’ve been in operation. At the beginning, they sold their vegetables at farmers’ markets and through a farm share program. Today, they focus on selling wholesale. In 2013, they added a line of farm-grown sriracha and salsas, and last year they opened an on-farm commercial kitchen.

Caroline says, “We’re still evolving, innovating, still responding to the rapidly-changing marketplace. We’re all in, because we’ve taken on a lot of debt at this point, and we need to continue to strategize for the long term. Early on, direct sales seemed to be the answer for small farms. As that market matured and farms like ours adapted to meet that demand, it shifted so that that there was more demand from grocers and resellers, and we tried to stay ahead of that curve by setting up our business for wholesale. Now, because our business is so labor-intensive — we’re organic and grow such a range of crops — our costs continue to rise, but the price point for what we’re selling hasn’t gone up. So, we’ve been thinking about what’s next, and how we can stay ahead of the curve.”

Some farms continue to mature and change, even as farm ownership shifts. Meghan Arquin and Rob Lynch took over Riverland Farm, an established CSA farm in Sunderland, in 2007. Over the following 13 years, they expanded their land base from approximately 10 to 45 acres, and grew from a small CSA to a much bigger operation that ran year-round and also sold produce wholesale.

Rob and Meghan further refined their business model in 2017 by ending the summer CSA and focusing on their growing wholesale business — but they were starting to wonder whether the farm was the right path for their family. This winter, Rob and Meghan announced that Emily Landek, who has worked on the farm since 2016, will take over the business, and Meghan will stay on as operations manager.

Meghan says, “Farming is really mentally draining, and that model of running the business together and raising a family wasn’t working for us. It’s hard to come to terms with having built something up, realizing that one of us really wants to step away from the farm, and figuring out what that means for the future. We’re still going through this transition, but mostly what I feel is happy that the farm has a new life, and here’s the third “generation” to be taking it over and continuing its legacy.”

These maturing farms are at a critical juncture — they have put in the work and built the equity to be positioned for decades of success, but they maintain many of the vulnerabilities of beginning farms. Ultimately, though, they need what all farms need: to keep a close eye on the bottom line, a willingness to continue to adapt, technical assistance, and a community that is committed to keeping them going.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).