Valley Bounty: Quabbin Hill Farms
Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 22nd, 2022
Every farm looks a bit different. Some have fields full of plants rooted in the earth, while for others, their “fields” are soil-filled trays, set indoors under lights, bursting with little green shoots. At Quabbin Hill Farms, where four young farmers are making their mark in Pelham, it’s a bit of both.
“We’re a diversified farm growing all kinds of local produce on our 17 acres, but the crux of our business is our greens,” explains business manager and co-founder Sadie Trombetta. “Especially our microgreens that we grow indoors all year round. We also raise hens and sell eggs, and a few years ago we got into hemp production and making CBD products.”
Quabbin Hill Farms was founded in 2017 by Michael Vilcans and his partner Molly Crookes, who were quickly joined by Trombetta and her partner Jason Awerman. Yet the idea was seeded years before.
“Michael and I started growing microgreens in our basement 8 or 9 years ago when we lived near Boston,” explains Crookes, who now serves as farm manager.
When the farm first took root, microgreens became their foundation. “There’s a lot of local food around here in the winter, but less fresh green stuff,” says Trombetta, “so microgreens seemed like a great niche.”
What are microgreens? It’s not a dumb question, stress Crookes and Trombetta. The two women enjoy unveiling the mystery for customers at local farmers’ markets, where they make most of the farm’s sales.
“Microgreens are what they sound like,” says Trombetta. “They’re small versions of many kinds of produce you know and love, from kale and arugula to less expected things like broccoli and carrots.
“They’re different than sprouts, which grow in a dark, wet environment,” adds Crookes. “We grow microgreens in small trays of soil under 24-hour light, adding a little water and nutrients.” With the right conditions, a batch of microgreens grows from seed to selling size in just 10 days.
How do you eat these nutrient-rich shoots? “Our nickname for them is vegetable confetti,” says Trombetta, “because you can throw them on anything. They’re a great way to experiment with different flavors, colors, and textures in things you’re already eating.” She also mentions sneaking them into dishes is easy – a healthy boost that picky eaters may not mind as much.
During warmer months microgreens and other salad greens they grow indoors are about a third of their sales. This time of year, it’s more like 70%, says Trombetta. “It really is our bread and butter, while our CBD is up and coming.”
Quabbin Hill Farms started growing hemp and making CBD products in 2019. Says Crookes, “my partner Michael – and Jason too – have such a good sense for growing hemp, figuring out what will grow well here and what strains have the cannabinoids we’re looking for.”
“Cannabinoids” refers to all the various compounds found in the cannabis plant. These include the better-known THC, with its psychoactive properties, and CBD, known for therapeutic qualities like reducing inflammation and calming feelings of anxiety – but there are hundreds of others as well.
Quabbin Hill Farms only grows hemp, meaning cannabis varieties with a full spectrum of CBD and related cannabinoids but hardly any THC. To isolate these, they first harvest and dry the hemp plants’ flowers, then extract these compounds into a carrier oil.
“Then I use that oil to make all our products,” explains Crookes. “Salves, roll-on oils, lip balms, and other things too. The whole process happens on our farm, so we’re really bringing you a product that’s seed-to-shelf.”
These products aren’t food, but Trombetta emphasizes how they’re an equally important part of the local farm economy. “Buying local is important not just for what you put into your body, but also what you put on your body.”
Trombetta and Crookes say farmers’ markets have been wonderful places to sell and meet customers, and also to talk shop and find support from other local farmers. Says Trombetta, “It feels like we can compete with these folks and still help each other out. In other industries that hasn’t been the same.” She and Crookes list Ziomek Farm in Hadley, G.O. Farm in Hatfield, and Stoneybrook Cider in South Hadley as just some of the farms they’ve leaned on.
This support is especially helpful as the four Quabbin Hill farmers look to grow into farming fulltime. Since they started, most of them have kept working off-farm jobs too. Trombetta also works in publishing. Crookes has long worked for a well-known cafe chain. Part of the reason they grow microgreens, raise chickens, and make CBD products is because they can do these things outside of mainstream work hours.
Says Trombetta, “our goal in the next 3-5 years is to become financially sustainable so we can walk away from our other jobs, focus on the farm, and to expand our crew – hiring people and contributing to our community in that way.”
Crookes also envisions an expansion of their CBD production and on-site farm stand, and hopefully licensure for growing cannabis beyond hemp.
Quabbin Hill Farms and the people who run it don’t quite fit many of the region’s farming stereotypes. They see that. They’re happy with it.
Says Trombetta, “I think a lot of millennials have a certain image of farming, and don’t think it’s the most ‘respectable’ job. But in reality, it’s incredibly challenging and rewarding – growing food and connecting with our community in ways that matter to people.”
“We’re a small farm,” adds Crookes, “but we have plenty of customers that keep coming back, and that feels like success.”
Quabbin Hill Farms sells at the Winter Farmers’ Market at the Hampshire Mall in Hadley, Saturday’s 10 – 2, some local retailers, and via their online farm store where pick-up or local delivery are available. They also have summer and winter CSA shares of greens, eggs, and produce, and can be found at the Amherst Farmers’ Market during the summer.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To explore more local food and farms in your neck of the woods, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally