Valley Bounty: Dancing Bear Farm
Tom Ashley and Trish Crapo are busy preparing for the beginning of their fig harvest season. As one of the only farms in the Valley growing figs, Ashley and Crapo fill a niche market providing figs, along with other veggies, to restaurants throughout western Massachusetts and directly to customers from Dancing Bear Farm, their 10 acre farm in Leyden.
Ashley explains that the main challenge with growing figs in Massachusetts is the humidity, which can cause the fruit to rot. “Since they aren’t in their natural habitat, there really aren’t many pests you have to worry about,” he explains. Kept in a greenhouse to protect the plants over winter, “we control the humidity by ensuring good air flow and crossing our fingers,” Ashley says with a laugh.
Ashley and Crapo’s six mature fig trees were all started from cuttings, small twigs cut off of mature trees. Growing a variety of fig species, harvest will start in mid-August and continue through October and into November if the season allows. Averaging 10-15 pounds per day, Ashley and Crapo will harvest thousands of figs by the time the season has ended. “One of the nice things about figs is that they freeze well, so even in the midst of the season, we really don’t have to worry about losing them if they don’t sell fast enough. Depending on what the restaurant will be using them for, some even prefer them to come frozen,” Crapo explains.
Now in their 12th season of growing figs, Dancing Bear Farm grows a variety ranging from the most commonly known white fig to Turkish brown, black, and a variety of white fig with a honey color interior instead of the widely recognized red. This year, they are also experimenting with a few new varieties, including one with a dark purple inside.
In addition to figs, Ashley and Crapo grow a variety of other crops. You may have seen and tasted Dancing Bear Farm’s award-winning cherry and heirloom tomatoes at Magpie or Hope & Olive in Greenfield, or their sweet peppers and onions at Great Falls Harvest in Turners Falls. Other wholesale customers include The Gill Tavern, TJ Buckley’s in Brattleboro, and the Greenfield Coop.
Ashley explains that they also planted a row of summer squash to donate to The Center for Self-Reliance which has been providing food to the community through free meals at the Federal Street Elementary School in Greenfield. “We saw a need in our community for a little bit of extra support as people were dealing with the implications of COVID-19, and we figured that this was one way we could help show up for our neighbors,” Ashley says.
Every Memorial Day weekend, Dancing Bear Farm holds a plant sale. This year, to help keep customers safe, they set up an online pre-ordering system. While this did not allow people to make last minute impulse purchases, it was a blockbuster year for plant sales. They theorize that the increase in sales was due to their successful marketing of the event, and more people spending more time than ever at home and experimenting with gardening.
When you purchase from Dancing Bear Farm, or find their produce at the restaurants you love to frequent, you can rest assured that they are grown with the health and safety of the land and of customers at the forefront of Ashley and Crapo’s minds. Dancing Bear Farm used to be one of only two certified Organic farms in Franklin County back when NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmers Association) was founded in the 80s. Crapo and Ashley even helped to write the NOFA standards, but found that being organically certified no longer fit the needs of their small farm when the USDA took over the program. With a long list of requirements, Ashley explains that the organic certification “is a good thing, especially if you’re trying to sell to larger grocers, it just no longer fit what our farm and customers were looking for.”
Ashley explains that his future plans for the farm are to , and to move production into the greenhouses as much as possible to provide a more controllable environment. With COVID-19 causing some customers to order less produce this year, Crapo and Ashley have had to call around a bit, to secure his restaurant customers. “I’m happiest when I have figured out what to grow, how much of it to grow, and where it will all be going,” Ashley explains. “We work hard to grow what we grow, and to grow it really well.”
For more info, or to place an order from Dancing Bear Farm, visit dancingbearfarm.com. To find other local farms and businesses near you visit buylocalfood.org/farmguide.
Emma Gwyther is the development associate for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.