Valley Bounty: Just Roots
Published March 26th, 2022 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Jacob Nelson
The ground is thawing. Days are more light than dark now. Songbirds call it out – spring is here.
“This is my 20th year farming,” says Meryl LaTronica, “and even though we’re working pretty much year-round, I still get that feeling like, ‘ok, it’s go-time!'”
For the last few years, LaTronica has been Director of Farm Operations for the non-profit Just Roots, based in Greenfield. The farm at Just Roots, sometimes called the Greenfield Community Farm, is the anchor for the organization’s efforts to create equitable access to local food in the surrounding communities.
“We lease 60 acres from the city of Greenfield, which used to be the Greenfield Town Poor Farm,” says LaTronica. She explains that, before government safety net programs like Social Security, towns often set aside ‘poor farms’ to provide shelter, land, and work for people who didn’t have other means of supporting themselves – often people who were differently-abled, elderly, or without family. “Honestly, I’m not sure where on the spectrum from care to exploitation many of these farms operated,” she says.
The poor farm has been gone for decades, but the land remains in farming. In 2009 Just Roots took over and began writing a new chapter. “The old dormitory building now houses Just Roots’ offices, and we also lease the old poor farm barn,” says LaTronica.
Their farm, now entering its 10th year, has seven acres of vegetable fields alongside two heated greenhouses and two unheated hoop houses used to extend the growing season. They also sublease land to four other groups. Sage Farm raises pastured pork there, and the Greenfield Tree Committee, Blue Crow Botanicals herbalism company, and The Compost Cooperative, who offers curbside food waste pick-up, are all tenants. Yet another section of land is devoted to a community garden with 65 growing plots.
On the main farm, the 2022 growing season is underway. “On March 1st we planted our first onions, spinach, and lettuce in the brand-new greenhouse we put up in December,” she says. But for them and many local farms, spring is less a beginning and more a transition to a new chapter.
“Our programs never really stop,” she says, pointing to their 275-member community supported agriculture (CSA) program that distributes most of what they grow to members throughout the year. “Next week we’ll give away the rest of last year’s garlic, and with any luck we’ll see the sprouts of this year’s garlic coming up (overwintered from planting in the fall). It’ll be a cool overlap.”
Describing a CSA, LaTronica says “basically, it’s a subscription to vegetables.” Rather than a newspaper or streaming service, members sign up for regular distributions of farm-grown food. CSA programs can sometimes feel unfamiliar or exclusive. Just Roots tries to make theirs very accessible financially, culturally, and transportation-wise.
“If you’ve never done this before, I think we’re a good beginner CSA,” she continues. “Our goal is to be ‘farm-to-every-table.’”
Just Roots offers weekly CSA distributions from June to October, then monthly from November to May. In the summer and fall they give mostly fresh produce grown themselves. When that runs low, they bring in produce they preserved, like bottled tomatoes and frozen veggies, and items from other local farms, like greens from Wellspring Harvest in Springfield, root veggies from Winter Moon Roots in Hadley for root veggies, and other things from the distributor Marty’s Local.
For full-pay CSA members, they offer sliding-scale pricing and the option to pay by the month (the historic CSA model asks members to pay upfront). “We also offer a subsidy for some members,” LaTronica explains. “They pay a much lower price, and Just Roots finds business sponsors and donors to cover the rest. About 100 of our members do this, but publicly no one knows who paid what. You just pay what you can and participate with everyone else.”
Members can pick up their food on the farm, where they have free choice of what to take, or grab a pre-packed box of food brought to downtown Greenfield. “We set up on the sidewalk one afternoon each week for folks who don’t have transportation to the farm,” says LaTronica. “We also deliver to people that truly can’t make either option work.”
Culturally, “we try to make our CSA as inclusive as possible,” she continues. “We do lots of food demos, give out easy recipes, and stick more to produce that people are already familiar with. If something’s new, we do a lot of education talking about what it is.”
One of the reasons Just Roots can prioritize “farm-to-every-table” is their non-profit business model. They fund their work with farm revenue, but also grants and other income. This allows them flexibility to create value for their neighbors and community, not just their bottom line.
For example, LaTronica says, “we just hired a community-engagement coordinator to network with schools and other groups to bring people to the farm. That’s a gift, which we likely could not afford if we were strictly a for-profit farm.”
They encourage anyone to visit their land and get involved in what they do, whether it’s attending workshops, volunteering, applying for a community garden plot, or just walking around the farm, which is open to the public.
“There’s a lot of social interaction here, which isn’t how it is on all farms,” shares LaTronica. “We host school groups often and farm volunteers many Saturdays during the growing season. And if community organizations want to have an event or a class here, we also serve as a venue for little to no money.”
For LaTronica, that blend of people and plants is a sweet spot. “I still think farming is the best job in the world,” she says. “I love building, making, and producing something tangible. And farms – especially these types of community-centered farms – have, for me, been an amazing tool for connection and healing. For literal and emotional growth.”
Jacob Nelson is Communications Coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To get involved with local food and farms in your neck of the woods, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.