Profile by Katie Trudeau and Margaret Christie
Published in CISA’s January 2012 Enewsletter.
Click here for more content regarding Sangha Farm.
Derek Ritchie began working on a farm in Northern California in 1995. On the first day “[another farm hand] handed me a stirrup hoe, pointed to an acre of garlic and walked away.” Derek never looked back, and since then, he and his wife Maribeth have farmed in California, Maine and Massachusetts. The Ritchies credit “divine intervention” for steering them to farming, and they have recently taken several bold steps to build a successful and enduring farm business. “I couldn’t walk away from farming now, it’s so ingrained in my life,” Maribeth explains. This fall, the Ritchies moved their farm to Plainfield and purchased a farmstead cheese business from another local farmer.
Maribeth and Derek started Sangha Farm in Maine, but moved to rented land in Ashfield in 2004. Over time, their vegetable CSA operation expanded into fruits, fresh and dried herbs, goat and lamb meat, and the goat cheeses that have become their signature product under the Tava Cheese label. As Derek and Maribeth discussed options for expansion in order to achieve a year-round income from their farm business, Maribeth received a call from John Miller, the owner of Goat Rising in Charlemont. John was offered a job he couldn’t pass up and asked Maribeth if she’d be interested in buying the Goat Rising cheese business, including goats, equipment and recipes. The Ritchies had recently closed on farmland in Plainfield, and decided to purchase Goat Rising to expand their line of cheeses in their new location.
In December, Maribeth, Derek, their children Maia and Jayden, and their goats, sheep, oxen, chickens and dogs moved to their new land in Plainfield. They also began managing the Goat Rising herd and making Goat Rising cheeses in John Miller’s cheese plant. Over time, they plan to build a cheese facility and an aging cave in Plainfield. There, they willl make Tava Cheese from sheep’s milk, and Goat Rising fresh goat’s milk cheeses. The product line will include Maribeth’s chevre, feta, and famous chocolate-covered goat cheese truffles as raw goats milk and lamb and goat meat. Eventually, Maribeth hopes to produce aged cheeses using recipes given to her by John Miller. Sangha Farm will continue to sell Goat Rising cheese both wholesale and retail, though they may limit sales to a smaller region than John Miller did. “Local is important to us,” Maribeth says. “We don’t want to be a processing plant, we want to be local farmers who know our customers.”
To Maribeth and Derek, farming is about family, community and self-reliance. In fact, the name Sangha means “community”. The origins of their goat chesse business, and the purchase of Goat Rising, provide good examples of the ways that Maribeth and Derek built community in the hilltowns of western Massachusetts. During the family’s first year here, Maribeth noticed that her asthma medication was effecting her baby’s sleep cycle. A solution she tried involved feeding her son goats’ milk, purchased from John Miller of Goat Rising. When Maribeth bought her first goat, Benevolence, she turned to John for advice in caring for the animal. Soon, the Ritchies bought a second goat, then more. When their landlord, Tamsen Merril, built a barn, Tava Cheese was born, named for a sheep which the family watched fight for its life as a lamb. The lamb’s success and growth encouraged and inspired the Ritchies to fight through hard times and never give up.
Derek and Maribeth look forward to farmers’ markets when they can interact with their customers, and enjoy the relationships they have with their CSA members. Despite the expansion of their cheese business, they’ll continue to grow produce. “We have a sense of obligation to our customers, who love our vegetables,” says Derek. They’ve hired a produce manager to work with Derek, and note that “it’s nice to be able to help another young farmer get started with vegetable production. Tamsen Merril gave us a lot of support, and we’re happy to be able to help someone else out.”
The Ritchie family’s focus on community extends beyond their farm. Maribeth’s involvement with the local school’s PTO led to an expansion in the school’s after school opportunities. With other parents, Maribeth created a program in which community members teach classes in subjects such as cooking, basketball, photography, outdoor skills, vernal pool exploration, yoga, and print making. The program costs $15 for four weeks, but the PTO offers scholarships as well.
Derek’s favorite part of farming is “having a whole life in one package… [I] enjoy the fact that what I do supports my family and I get to see my family at the same time.” He also like the good food and, “the appreciation people show for it.” Maribeth “absolutely love[s] the animals—I have since I was a child!” The couple aims to create a farm that is as self-contained as possible, limting the use of off-farm inputs. Sangha Farm produces its own hay and feed and has two oxen, Moses and Abraham, for farm work. Although the growth of Sangha Farm might bring about challenges, it is certain that the Ritchie family will embrace it with the enthusiasm that has gotten them this far already. Cheese and vegetable lovers look forward to their successes!
Sangha Farm products are available at farmers’ markets, including Ashfield, Florence, the Northampton Tuesday Market and the Amherst Kendrick Park market in summer, and the Northampton and Amherst winter markets. Retailers around the valley, including Cornucopia, River Valley Market, State Street, Hager’s and Atkins Farm Market, carry Sangha Farm Products. Sangha also sells to many area restaurants.