Local Hero Profile: Left Field Farm
By Jenny Miller Sechler
Published in the CISA April 2014 ENewsletter (Sign up here!)
Left Field Farm is an intimate place surrounded by forests full of life, with small greenhouses connected by stone walkways and a farm field alive with songbirds. “We didn’t grow this place,” says Maureen Sullivan, who, along with her husband Mitch Feldmesser, has been building Left Field’s farm and nursery in Middlefield since 1991. “It evolved with guidance from us.” This feeling of humility and respect for their land has brought moments of grace, such as the time a porcupine nursed her baby while Sullivan worked in the garden, showing no fear of her, even while she stood with a hoe in her hand. In action, Sullivan and Feldmesser’s feeling for their land and plants translates into noticing details, and making small, gentle adjustments to keep the balance plants need to thrive. In practice, their guiding principles translate into produce and plants that are fresh, vibrant, and delicious.
When Sullivan and Feldmesser moved to western Massachusetts they brought with them a lot of experience in horticulture and, as Sullivan describes it, “a lot of stick-to-itiveness.” The former came from Feldmesser’s years managing a farm and greenhouse operation near Boston and growing on land he rented from the larger farm. But Feldmesser and Sullivan’s ability to stick-to-it proved to be just as essential as their growing experience. First came the long process of finding the right piece of land. Then came the longer and more arduous process of building their farm. “We spent the winter of 1992 clearing out a small area for the garden,” Sullivan remembers. “We had a two-man saw that was about 6 feet long. Mitch would be on one side and I would be on the other.” As if they didn’t have enough to do, Sullivan ran a baking business in Great Barrington, and Feldmesser started developing the greenhouses, which would keep them in the black while they developed their garden. “Produce is so different,” Sullivan notes. “You have to develop the soil and slowly expand your garden. But produce sales are growing and catching up to the greenhouses.” In fact, Left Field’s business eventually became steady enough that Sullivan was able to retire her business and devote herself full time to the farm.
Sullivan and Feldmesser’s guiding principles include keep it simple, work with natural resources, and above all, pay attention. “We decided early on that we don’t want to be bothered with all that equipment and spraying or dusting,” explains Sullivan. She and Feldmesser, along with their employees, tend the garden with hoes, rakes, and spades, and all the transplanting, thinning, and harvesting is done by hand. They take advantage of natural resources, including land rich in microbial material and minerals from the rocky New England soil. The woodland setting of the farm also has advantages. “The biggest effect is the birds,” explains Sullivan. “All farms have birds, but perhaps not to the extent that we do. When you walk in the garden in the fall, there’s a flush of birds and they are eating all sorts of things and they do an amazing job. In the spring, they are right along with us, picking up the cutworms, picking up the grubs. They clean the soil out.”
Good tools, good employees, and strong natural resources are essential to the operation of any farm; however, if the farmer isn’t paying attention, nothing works, and Sullivan and Feldmesser have made paying attention an art form. Sullivan refers to this practice as “a unconscious consciousness,” and describes it with eloquence, using her work in the greenhouses as an example. “When we are walking down the aisle in the greenhouse, we think we’re looking straight ahead, but we’re actually looking all around. Humans are set up to see patterns. That tells us what’s safe, not safe, healthy, not healthy. For instance, if one of us walks by and sees a crinkle on a leaf, we can turn it over and find the aphid.”
Left Field Farm thrives on the connections Feldmesser and Sullivan have made through their many years in the community, dating back to the time that Sullivan worked in Great Barrington and the two of them started peddling their first flats of plants to local vendors. The farm grows and sells several varieties of greens, as well as scallions, zucchini, and summer squash, while the greenhouses sell close to 300 varieties of flowers and vegetable starts. Sullivan and Feldmesser’s customers include Guido’s Fresh Market Place and Bella Flora in Pittsfield and Great Barrington, Berkshire Coop Market and Windy Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Peace Haven Project Farm in Becket, and the Blantyre Inn in Lenox. They sell wholesale to landscapers, local markets, and nurseries. Customers are also encouraged to stop by the farm, peruse the plants, and buy directly from Feldmesser and Sullivan. While the farm may be off the beaten path, its peace and beauty along with the quality of Left Field’s plants, make it well worth the drive. No matter how many times one visits Left Field, coming upon it on a hilly road in the Middlefield woods feels like a discovery.