Next Barn Over Farm
By Kristen Wilmer, CISA Program Assistant
Published in CISA’s February 2012 Enewsletter.
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When I first met Ray Young in 2009 she would talk about Hadley farmland with such longing passion that it brought to mind the sort of irrepressible excitement most often admitted by children, lovers, or poets. She would drool over soil maps of the area and declare it to be the best land for growing vegetables anywhere. After working in community justice and political theatre, Ray had gotten hooked on farming while at The Food Bank Farm in Hadley. She met her partner Tory Field there, and together they learned to appreciate the joy of hard meaningful work. Tory, committed to community organizing work, was driven by her ideal that all people should have access to healthy, sustainably-grown food. The pair came to view farming as a means to build community and contribute to a greater movement for food justice.
When an opportunity opened up to lease farm land and infrastructure in Hadley, just down the road from the former Food Bank Farm CSA distribution site, Ray wholeheartedly dived into the project of creating Next Barn Over CSA. With the tireless commitment required to succeed at first generation farming, she embarked on a winter of chaotic preparation. When the farm first opened its doors in the spring of 2010, loyal share members of the former Food Bank Farm jumped at the opportunity to sign up for shares just down the road at Next Barn Over.
Having a strong customer base and being able to lease farm infrastructure reduced start-up costs enough that Ray and Tory have been able to finance the farm solely through CSA share member payments. It also carries with it challenges, like the complexity of farming several separate parcels of land that are spread out all over Hadley and owned by different people. The farm currently has upwards of ten landlords and twenty abutting neighbors. Cell phones are indispensible for most crew communication, and Next Barn Over tractors are a common sight driving up and down Route 9 between fields.
The Next Barn Over crew pride themselves on offering choice to their share members. Picking up a weekly share affords almost as much choice as a traditional grocery shopping experience: members make their own bag of salad mix by choosing from among many different types of greens, and are invited to fill a grocery bag with any mix of ten or more other vegetables in season on any given week. But the community feel sets it apart – sunny afternoons find kids playing on the playground, members catching up on the week’s events, and families picking their own strawberries, peas, herbs and flowers.
Shares are more affordable than buying the equivalent foods at a grocery store, and the farm accepts SNAP benefits and offers a sliding payment scale. In 2011 Next Barn Over partnered with Gardening the Community, a youth-led food justice organization, to deliver subsidized shares to residents in Springfield.
Ray and Tory’s ideal of expanding access to affordable local food doesn’t always fit perfectly with their aspiration to provide a decent living and high quality of life for themselves and the farm crew. Now that Next Barn Over is entering its third season, the farm has established a strong track record for itself in the Valley and can claim great success by any measure. The work is undeniably hard, though, and the narrow economic margins and complexity of managing the CSA still leave little space for relaxation during most of the year. For Ray, seventy or eighty hour workweeks are the norm, without income to match such effort. Tory puts in three long days at the farm in addition to working with the organization Other Worlds during the rest of the week. Ray hopes that as the farm grows, margins will increase enough to make life a bit saner.
The strong community and diverse product mix of the CSA do give the farm protection from some of the risks inherent in farming. Despite two seasons of extreme weather – including hurricanes, drought and floods – Next Barn Over has continued to thrive and provide abundant produce to the local community. Moreover, the opportunity to build direct relationships with customers creates its own rewards. “Farming is a labor of love,” write Tory and Ray. “We are fortunate farmers in that we have chosen this path. We have chosen it because we love plants and growing food, we love working hard and being outside, sleeping deeply at the end of a long day, having dirt under our nails, a regular albeit poorly distributed tan. And mostly because we really love sharing food.”