Valley Bounty: Harvest Farm Greenhouses
By JACOB NELSON, For the Recorder, February 24, 2021
Even as ice blankets everything at Harvest Farm Greenhouses in Whately, signs of spring are already starting to peek out of the soil — in their heated greenhouses that is. Here, the first batch of seeds were planted in January.
“We get the early stuff going then, like the cabbage and the kale,” says owner David Wojciechowski. Once these cold-hardy veggie seedlings — or “starts” — are large enough to be sold and transplanted outdoors (perhaps under row covering or other cold-weather protection), “that’s when we move in the tomatoes, peppers and eggplant,” he says.
Wojciechowski knew his life’s calling from the moment he watched a handful of bean seeds his father gave him sprout and reach for the sky. “Then my whole younger life was spent trying to amass a small fortune so I could afford to buy a farm,” he says.
In the late 1970s, he was able to purchase 20 acres and launch Harvest Farm of Whately with friend and business partner Gary Gemme. The farm found its niche growing produce from their fields and starts in their greenhouses for a wholesale market.
Through it all, Wojciechowski always was drawn to the greenhouses. “I’m a natural there,” he says. “It comes really easy to me. So, when I turned 65 a few years back, I said, ‘I’ve had enough of this rain, wind and scorching heat,’ and focused my full attention on that part of the business.”
In 2015, the farm and greenhouse operations legally split to become Harvest Farm Greenhouses and Harvest Farm Produce. Though separate, the two businesses fit together like peas in a pod.
Says Wojciechowski, “Gary and I talk to each other every day, we share the same facilities, and many of the same staff who work for me in the winter and spring then move outside and work with him.” And as far as greenhouse sales go, “Harvest Farm Produce is my biggest customer,” he says.
Because Harvest Farm Greenhouses is entirely a wholesale operation, he doesn’t sell directly to home gardeners, who can find his plants at local farms and retail garden centers around the Pioneer Valley. This lets Wojciechowski focus on what he loves — growing plants, not dealing with the front-of-house needs. “I deal with well over a hundred customers, and that’s enough,” he says.
That doesn’t mean that Wojciechowski isn’t concerned with what happens to his plants once they leave his care. On the contrary, he is quite invested in ensuring they reach their potential, and that the local farms who are his customers have the horticultural knowledge and resources to succeed.
“When I sell to farmers, especially those that are just getting going, I try to coach them,” he says. “I often ask if they have any irrigation, and if not, we talk about whether they might need to invest in that. If they want tomato starts early, I remind them they’ll need protection from the cold to survive.”
Another way Wojciechowski and Harvest Farm Greenhouses support local farmers is by renting greenhouse space for seed starting to farmers that don’t have to have their own.
“We have about 12 guest growers every year now, with Crimson & Clover Farm (in Florence) being the biggest currently,” he says. “Guests rent the space and bring their own seeds. We provide some care on a day-to-day basis, while they check in on them and transplant when needed.” For farms without the means to invest in their own greenhouses, an arrangement like this can make a lot of sense, especially when it comes with some guidance from an expert like Wojciechowski. This uses only a fraction of Harvest Farm Greenhouses’ space, but it’s an invaluable resource for the smaller farms that participate.
Over 40 years ago, Harvest Farm began growing in one greenhouse. Now, Wojciechowski oversees a whole acre of them. As the business has grown, his faith in its value hasn’t wavered.
“It’s something meaningful to do, it’s how I get my strength, and I know it matters,” he says. “I grow food, keep myself busy, follow the rules, earn a living for myself and my family, and employ 10 other people. It all comes together pretty well.”
While farmers are getting started in the greenhouses now, it won’t be time for home gardeners to plant vegetables outdoors until after the last frost, which is usually in mid-May. Still, this is exactly the right time to be dreaming about a summer garden and making plans.
For more information on Harvest Farm Greenhouses and to find local retailers selling vegetable starts this season, visit CISA’s Find It Locally searchable online guide at buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).