Keegan Pyle’s Story Place: Home is Where the Farm Is
The Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 8, 2016, by Keegan Pyle
As a youngster growing up in Philadelphia, Ray Young had never set foot on a farm. Now, at 37, Young is the owner of Next Barn Over, a 40-acre farm in Hadley.
Fifteen years ago, when she was a student studying political theory at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Young lived in a communal house on Route 9 in Hadley with activist friends. It was there that she grew her first pepper.
“I remember it well,” Young said. “I was completely amazed in this obvious process of where food comes from.”
After that first growing experience, she adds, “I was completely hooked.”
In 2005, shortly after graduating from UMass’ Social Thought and Political Economy Department, Young applied for, and received, a paid apprenticeship to farm at Hadley’s Food Bank Farm.
“I sought out the apprenticeship because I wanted to learn more about growing food for myself, my house and my community,” she said.
She says it was the first time that she felt she could make a living doing “really honest work. … It feels like it is in line with my values.”
Young continued to work at the Food Bank Farm, eventually becoming a manager. When it closed in 2009, she started looking for land to start her own farm. But, after a months-long search, she hadn’t had any luck. At 29, her farming prospects looked dim, and she started to rethink her path. Finally, Michael Doctor, Ray’s apprenticeship mentor, offered to rent her some of the old Food Bank Farm’s land, and Young started Next Barn Over.
From day one, Young says, the farm was a success.
“We never took a loan out,” she said. “The CSA model completely worked for us from the very beginning.”
Young says most people who start farms have to take out significant loans to pay for equipment, seeds and land. But Young and Doctor had 300 share members sign up from the start because many knew Doctor from the Food Bank Farm.
Now, six years in, Young and her dedicated team of nine farmers has proven to be very adept. Some 500 loyal members belong to the farm in Hadley, as well as to satellite locations in Boston, Westfield, Springfield and Holyoke.
From the outset, Young says, she learned how to make the most of the resources she had. She has put in place spring and summer crop management plans and a summer CSA membership, and has created other markets for the produce.
Doctor shares the barn in the winter for his own business, Winter Moon Roots. “By rotating the land, sharing the tractors, and even the employees, Michael and I have this really nice cooperative relationship that maximizes the value of the barn and our resources,” Young said.
When the growing season comes to an end, things slow down only minimally for Young. “In the winter, I have to plan for the next spring season,” she said. That includes ordering seeds, making crop plans, filling out organic certification paperwork, hiring new employees, coordinating membership fees, costs and taxes, and buying new equipment.
Come spring, it will be time to get her hands in the soil again. It’s a busy life.
“We are surrounded by so much delicious produce, but none of us really has time to make anything with it,” Young said with a laugh. They do, she admits, enjoy raw vegetables they pick and eat on the run.
Young says it takes a certain personality to be dedicated to farming: The profit margins are small, and there are great challenges, like weather and pests, but successful farmers get used to these unknowns, and quickly learn that they don’t have control over everything.
“The hardest thing about farming is not the physical aspect,” she said. “It’s the emotional and mental rigor of it — figuring out how not to over-worry about all the things that could go wrong.”
But, stress and worry aside, Young says, she is grateful for what she has.
“I don’t make much money, but I get to do something I really believe in.”
Keegan Pyle can be reached at ValleyStoryPlace@gmail.com.