Valley Bounty: Intervale Farm

Published July 15th 2023 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

Picked by hand, grown with heart

By Jacob Nelson

For the Gazette

Last week western Massachusetts endured both hellish heat and high water, as many rivers flooded banks following days of hot, muggy air and rainfall that felt almost tropical. As the climate changes, we can expect the intensity and variability of weather events to increase, particularly summer rainfall. Farmers are among those most directly impacted.

Luckily, Intervale Farm in Westhampton escaped the worst it. Their vegetables and cut flowers, which supply most of their income, were largely unscathed.

“The only thing to flood was our pasture beside the brook,” says farmer Maureen Dempsey. “We had some erosion but nothing serious, and all the sheep are safe.”

PC Elizabeth Solaka

Dempsey has farmed alongside her husband Rick Tracy for decades, continuing the farming tradition on 200 acres of land that Tracy’s family purchased in 1936. Today they raise veggies and flowers on about 10 acres, bedding plants for home gardeners in three greenhouses, chickens for eggs, and a small flock of sheep.

“We got the sheep kind of by accident,” says Tracy. “I picked them up from a friend on a whim. But they’ve proved helpful, keeping the pastures clear without much supervision while we focus mostly on the vegetables.”

When it comes to growing vegetables, variety is the name of their game. It provides insurance if some crops struggle, and it keeps customers curious and engaged.

“Rick might drive me a little crazy with how many kinds of tomatoes he grows,” Dempsey says. “And it does take more work, but then our display at the farmers market attracts people with all these different colors. People are curious what they all taste like, and the conversation goes from there.”

Amid this diversity, their fresh-picked peas and beans stand out, from shell peas to snap peas, green beans to edamame.

“Not as many farmers take the time to hand-pick these crops,” Tracy observes. “Frequently we’re the only ones offering those at farmers markets.”

Intervale Farm sells at the Northampton Saturday Farmers Market (8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Gothic Street), the Florence Farmers Market on Wednesdays (2 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Civic Center parking lot), and the Hilltown Mobile Market. They also have a farm stand on South Road in Westhampton and offer about 50 community supported agriculture (CSA) memberships each year. CSA customers pick up a weekly share of fresh produce, herbs and flowers throughout the growing season, with milk, cheese and skyr from Mayval Farm’s cows just over the hill available as add-ons.

In addition to their own CSA program, Intervale Farm participates in the Senior FarmShare program run by Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), which connects lower-income seniors to fresh produce from local farms in their communities at a greatly reduced cost. This year Intervale Farm is providing shares to 18 senior households through the Huntington Council on Aging and another 14 through the Chesterfield Council on Aging.

“We’ve been partnering with CISA on that for years,” says Dempsey. “It’s a smaller part of what we do, but it’s always felt important, and the seniors are incredibly appreciative.”

Cut flowers offer a special accent to all of Intervale Farm’s CSA shares and a splash of color at their farm stand and farmers market display. They also take orders for individual arrangements and special events.

“I’ve done wedding arrangements for a long time,” Dempsey says. “Recently people have been asking more for fresh-cut local flowers by the bucket. I love that. It’s less work for me, and they get quality flowers to arrange exactly how they want.”

Maureen Dempsey (left) and Rick Tracy (right) – PC Elizabeth Solaka

As the calendar flipped to July, the veggie harvest really started to ramp up.

“We just picked our first cucumbers and garlic this week,” Dempsey says. “We’ve got tons of summer squash and greens – kale, lettuce, bok choy – and we’re deep into peas. The beans are close, and we’ll be a little later with tomatoes and corn. We always are.”

Some farms race to be first to the market each year with any crop. Intervale Farm doesn’t. In the early spring they prioritize greenhouse space for bedding plants over vegetable starts. They also contend with cooler nights than lower elevation farms, as cold air from the surrounding hills settles into the slight valley of their fields.

“Instead, we try to have great stuff late in the season,” says Tracy. “When everyone else has moved on to fall things, we hold onto cucumbers, beans and squash until the last frost.”

Every farmer’s job is to thread the needle between what nature will yield and what people will eat. Since they sell straight to their customers, Dempsey and Tracy get direct feedback about what they want just by talking to them.

“Seeing our customers face to face also encourages us to bring our best produce to market and stand behind it,” says Tracy.

When produce isn’t perfect, they offer it as “blemished beauties” rather than relegating it to the compost.

“We won’t charge top price for it, but it’s still great food,” explains Dempsey. “There was one time when our cauliflower was struggling during a wet fall, and Rick put up a sign that said, ‘cauliflower with issues.’ I thought that was so funny.”

“People were taking pictures of that sign,” Tracy says. “They thought it was hilarious.”

Dempsey and Tracy have interacted with hundreds of customers over the years, weaving Intervale Farm into the fabric of their local community one personal relationship at a time. Besides allowing them to share a joke, those relationships are foundational to the recognition and respect they’ve earned from their neighbors.

“People are invested in maintaining operating farms in Westhampton,” says Dempsey, “and that support is wonderful.”

For Dempsey, it’s moments of shifted perspective that show her the value of farming the way they do it. Sometimes that’s doing farm chores with their grandchildren, appreciating what they’re learning about the world and who their grandparents are as farmers. Other times, a little distance helps.

“The other day I was high on the truck stacking hay, and rather than the ground level details of what’s wrong I could see how all the work we’d done was paying off. Smelling the hay, feeling the heat, seeing all of that, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is worth it.’”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA. To learn more about local farms and where to find local food near you, visit buylocalfood. org/find-it-locally.