Longtime manager at Valley’s first CSA steps down, leads fundraising campaign to buy farm

Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 25, 2021
By Steve Pfarrer, Staff Writer

AMHERST — If there’s one thing Dan Kaplan’s learned about being a farmer, it’s that you have to expect the unexpected.

“It’s a completely chaotic way of life,” he said with a laugh. “The earth wants to wipe you out. You have drought, you have bugs, you have excessive rainfall, you have equipment breakdowns.

“Things are going to go wrong,” added Kaplan, “so you have to get up every morning and be positive and think, ‘What can I accomplish today?’”

Yet Kaplan has pretty much been able to maintain order through all that chaos. More than that: He’s thrived.

Since the mid-1990s, Kaplan, with the help of his wife, Karen Romanowski, has managed Brookfield Farm in Amherst, one of the oldest CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture project) in the country and the first in the Valley.

Started in 1986 with just a relative handful of supporters, Brookfield today has 700 supporting households, including some in the Boston area; shareholders pay an annual fee to help finance the farm and in return get a weekly pickup of fresh, organic vegetables from June well into the fall.

Brookfield, located off Hulst Road, began with just four acres under cultivation, but it now raises produce on over 30 acres and also tends livestock (the farm has 120 acres in total, including pastures and woodlots).

Kaplan, who with his wife arrived at Brookfield in 1994, looks back almost with disbelief on how the operation has not only grown but become a key part of a region that sees the value of supporting local agriculture and preserving land.

“When we came here, I never could have imagined that we’d find ourselves where we are today,” he said. “You know, CSAs were still a really new thing, and it wasn’t clear how many (shareholders) we could find to be part of this, how we could grow the operation, though that was our goal.”

But fast-forward 27 years, and after raising two children on the farm and watching Brookfield grow as well, Kaplan and his wife have entered a new phase in their lives — and so has the farm.

Kaplan and Romanowski, who are both 56, have stepped down from managing Brookfield — Romanowski has worked for years as a nurse in addition to assisting on the farm — and have turned the reins over to Kerry and Max Taylor, a married couple who attended college in the Valley and have previous experience at other farms, both in the Valley and elsewhere in New England.

In addition, Kaplan has spent the last several months leading a capital campaign to raise funds to buy all of the 30 acres that Brookfield tills. Only about 20 percent of that acreage is owned outright by Biodynamic Farmland Conservation Trust (BFCT), a nonprofit group established in 1987 by the farm’s founders, the late Clare and David Fortier, to oversee the operation. The rest of the land is leased from neighboring farms and property owners.

But with three of those neighbors in “some type of transitional place in their lives,” as Kaplan puts it, it made sense to make a serious effort to raise money to buy all the farmland outright; the plan quickly won the approval of the BFCT’s board of directors, he says.

And in what Kaplan sees as a mark of Brookfield’s solidity, the dedication of its shareholders, and the importance many Valley residents place on preserving farmland, the campaign has already earned $529,125 in pledges to buy the farm’s remaining acreage — 96% of the total amount that’s being sought, $550,000.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t have any experience in fundraising, and I would approach people and explain what we were trying to do … (and) I’d get a bit into my speech and someone would say, ‘Oh, that’s fine, Dan, of course, I’ll support you — how about $500?’ My jaw would just drop.”

“Karen and I thought creating some more capitalization for the farm could be our way of giving back for all the support we’d gotten from so many people over the years,” Kaplan added. He points in particular to other farmers in the region, who he says lent advice, equipment and technical know-how, welcoming him and taking him seriously when he arrived in the Valley.

Building a communityKaplan says he and his wife had both done agricultural and environmental work in different places in New England, and also in Europe, before they heard about the opening at Brookfield Farm. Both were looking, he says, “for a place where we could sink our teeth into the land, put our sweat and bodies into this and be outside the mainstream.”

Yet they didn’t know how long they’d stay. They came to Amherst in part so that Romanowski could attend a nursing program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst — “We figured one of us should have a real job,” Kaplan quipped — and they didn’t see any immediate way to buy more farmland and expand Brookfield in a major way.

But through building connections to other farmers and residents, Brookfield steadily increased its shareholders and helped spur the creation of other CSAs in the region, in part through an apprenticeship program, begun in 1995, that trains people in all aspects of farm work and management. Kaplan says former Brookfield apprentices have gone on to start farms in the Valley and elsewhere or work in related fields as educators, agricultural service administrators, chefs and more.

“Dan’s a good grower, a good community builder, and a good leader,” said Casey Steinberg, co-owner of Old Friends Farm, another Amherst CSA. “He’s helped a lot of people make a start in farming

Steinberg, originally from Vermont, was a Brookfield apprentice in the early 2000s and stayed for another couple of years as assistant manager before building Old Friends with business partner Missy Bahret.

“I learned a lot (at Brookfield), and I also got plugged into this great support network of other growers,” he said. “That was as much a part of the experience at Brookfield as anything…. If I have a question now about something I can’t figure out (at Old Friends Farm), I have a whole list of people I can call for help.”

Kerry Taylor, the new co-manager at Brookfield, also previously worked on the farm as an apprentice and assistant manager.

Longtime shareholders at Brookfield like Catherine Newman are grateful that Kaplan and Romanowski stuck with the farm. Newman, of Amherst, joined Brookfield with her husband around 2000 when they came to the region after attending graduate school in California.

“We didn’t really understand what a CSA was,” said Newman, a writer. “I think at first we thought (Brookfield) was kind of like a big farmers market, but we came to realize we were part of this much bigger community, really invested in the land. It’s been great the whole time.”

She joked that she also learned how to can and preserve produce for winter use after sometimes being flummoxed by the amount and variety of crops she would get in her weekly share.

“I would think, ‘What the hell is this?’ I didn’t know what half the stuff was at first … but you learn to use it, and you appreciate the variety.”

Brookfield also has an intimate connection to the Hartsbrook School in Hadley. The independent school, which follows the Waldorf education model, began on the farm in the early 1980s as a single kindergarten class before moving to Hadley; Nikki Robb, Brookfield’s first manager, later developed a land stewardship program for Hartsbrook students.

Kaplan’s future plans aren’t set, though he says he and his wife, who live next door to Brookfield, will be available to help as consultants in whatever manner needed; members of the board of BFCT, along with Kerry and Max Taylor, will oversee negotiations for purchasing land from the farm’s neighbors.

Romanowski currently works as a hospice nurse, and the couple’s children, Anna and Jacob, now in their 20s, are pursuing different careers out of the area after working at Brookfield as they grew up. But the family has been granted a lifetime share in the CSA, Kaplan noted, so they’ll continue to be part of Brookfield as shareholders.

And in whatever future work he takes on, he said with a chuckle, “I do know I want to do something where I’ll have my weekends off.”