Local farms in Easthampton, Sunderland, to expand and upgrade thanks to state grants

Monday, June 10, 2013
Daily Hampshire Gazette
Rebecca Everett

In the more than 30 years that William and Susan Chicoine have been raising grass fed beef cows at Chicoine Farm on Oliver Street, a lot has changed in area agriculture.

One of the biggest developments is the increased interest in buying local food, William Chicoine said. In addition to snapping up Hadley asparagus and Valley sweet corn at the now abundant farmers markets, customers are also seeking out grass-fed beef and other local meat.

“People want to eat healthy and they’ve discovered the benefits of grass-fed beef compared to commercial beef,” he said. “People are just becoming more educated about it, and that’s created more interest and more sales.”

The demand is there for the farm’s beef, he said, but it isn’t as accessible to customers as he’d like. Other than selling to local restaurants and at farmers markets, they sell directly to customers at the farm by appointment. But Chicoine said there isn’t a real farm stand; the meat freezers are located in the farm’s crowded workshop building, so it’s not a very customer-friendly spot.

Soon, thanks to a $50,000 grant from the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources, Chicoine will be able to add onto the building to create a farm store.

Chicoine Farm was one of nine farms in the state that received a total of $700,000 in Agricultural Preservation Restriction Improvement Program grants. The grants are given to farms with land that is protected from development through the state’s APR program. In the Pioneer Valley, Chicoine Farm and three others received a total of $200,000 in grant money.

Also thanks to a grant, Warner Farm in Sunderland is expanding its facilities to meet the demands for produce for CSA shares, as well as to better serve those visiting Mike’s Maze, one of the area’s first corn mazes. The farm received a $75,000 grant for an addition to the Corn Cafe at the maze, where patrons can buy food and soon, farm products. It will also cover the costs of retrofitting a garage into a more modern produce packing facility with more cold storage space.

“We’re trying to upgrade facilities around the yard here. Especially with the amount of traffic we get because of the maze, it’s important to have a nice, clean-looking operation,” said David Wisseman, Warner Farm’s field manager and son of owner Michael Wisseman. “And these were upgrades we really needed to make, so the grants are a big help.”

Thomas Farm in Sunderland also received $25,000 to build an addition to a dairy goat barn that will allow the farm to increase its herd and put in goat cheese processing facilities. A $50,000 grant will help a new farm, Ridale Genetics, get off the ground on a parcel of land off of Lyman Flat Road in Cummington. The funds will go toward building a barn to hold hay and equipment.

“These grants will help support our local farms in their efforts to ensure a sustainable future for their farms,” said Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rick Sullivan in a press release. “I am pleased to award these projects that will not only benefit the agricultural community, but the Commonwealth as a whole.”

Chicoine Farm

The Chicoine family has farmed the land around 116 Oliver St. since 1933 when Chicoine’s father, Henry, started a dairy farm. William Chicoine started building a herd of grass fed beef cows there in the 1970s, before terms like “grass fed” and “antibiotic free” were well known in the local meat market.

Now, he grazes between 60 and 70 cows on about 120 acres, mostly on Oliver Street. The cows, of various beef breeds, are fed only grass and are not treated with antibiotics, growth hormones or steroids, he said.

Chicoine said that as soon as the state grant money comes through, he will begin work on a 672-square-foot addition that will be the new farm store, as well as another 768-square-foot barn addition that is also supported by the grant. That addition will create more hay and equipment storage space.

The farm store, once it is built, will offer various cuts of beef during set business hours or possibly one day a week, Chicoine said.

He hopes that the more attractive farm store will draw people to the farm to buy meat. Selling meat at the farm is much easier than offering it at farmers markets, which require them to load the frozen meat in a truck and, while at the markets, to keep it cold no matter how hot it is.

“Getting the customers to come to you is the best scenario,” he said. “And they can come see the cows, the pigs, the chickens.”

Warner Farm

Since the 1720s, 10 generations of Warners have farmed the land in Sunderland, including fields on Old Amherst Road, the home of pick-your-own strawberries, and South Main Street, where Mike’s Maze is located.

The Warners of the 18th century probably would have been surprised to see the South Main Street corn field cut into the shape of the likes of Mona Lisa, Babe Ruth and the iconic Campbell’s tomato soup can. But the maze is an agritourism attraction that serves as an additional source of income for the farm, which can be especially important in years where too much or too little rain affects crop yields.

The thousands of visitors to the maze can grab a burger, hot dog and other refreshments from the Corn Cafe now, but with help from the APR Improvement Program grant, the farm will be able to offer more products there soon. Wisseman said the addition will double the size of the cafe.

“The hope is it will give us more space and allow us to add value-added products, like jams, or our frozen strawberries,” he said.

The second project they will undertake is to renovate a garage there into a produce storage and packing facility. Right now, Wisseman said produce is cleaned and packed in an old barn with a small cooler.

“We’ll be moving into the garage and it will be much nicer on the inside, with a new cooler, all stainless steel, and a new loading dock and other retrofits,” he said. The facility will comply with new government recommendations for packing facilities, he said.

One of the best features of the new facility will be the cooler, which will be twice the size of the current one and was made possible by a 2012 Agricultural Energy Grant from the state. Wisseman said the CSA the farm offers to residents in the Boston area requires them to clean and package a large amount of produce at one time.

“The night before we would head out to the CSA drop, the cooler would be maxed out with all the shares in it,” he said. “So the CSA is one of the big reasons this grant was so helpful,” he said.

Wisseman estimated that the $75,000 grant will cover almost all, if not all, of the costs for the two projects.