Published November 20, 2021 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Jacob Nelson
For the Gazette
The power of food on display at Red Fire North
“We’ve got to rethink agriculture,” says Paul Voiland of Red Fire North farm stand and bakery in Montague. “It’s not a just system to get food into our mouths with few other considerations.”
Voiland sees food — and how we grow, transport, sell, cook and eat it — as deeply linked to many of the world’s big challenges. As such, our actions around food can contribute to powerful solutions, if enough people decide to use their economic and political power that way.
Red Fire North models Voiland’s idea of a responsible food supply chain, and the store presents an opportunity to encourage shoppers and community members to approach food more intentionally themselves.
Though managed separately, Red Fire North the store is closely tied to Red Fire Farm (run by Voiland’s son and daughter in-law, Ryan and Sarah Voiland) using and selling a lot of the farm’s produce and serving as a CSA pick-up point.
Founded in 1990 as a Red Fire Farm produce stand in Voiland’s backyard, the store has since expanded into its new location on Federal Street and become an outlet for local produce and food from across the Valley. They’ve also begun making prepared foods out of local ingredients, from pre-made meals to breads, pizzas and pastries.
All of this is done with an eye toward the bigger picture.
“We think of ourselves as a low carbon footprint food store,” says Voiland. “We feel that locally-produced, minimally-processed, plant-based foods are the most environmentally responsible.”
Seasonal local produce fills much of their shelf space, a lot of it still coming from Red Fire Farm, which Voiland says grew over 300 kinds of fruit and veggies this year. Milk, cheese, cider, honey, maple syrup, and seasonal produce from other local farms fill things out.
In the kitchen and bakery, “we use whole grain flour milled in New York from heirloom grains,” says Voiland, “and we use maple syrup or honey instead of white sugar, because it’s better for local agriculture and I also think it’s healthier.”
The store composts what they can and sells some products in reusable glass bottles that can be returned, sanitized and reused. “All that is part of making what we do sustainable,” Voiland says. “It takes a bit more work, but we do the work.”
“We also have a bunch of different locally crafted things like soaps, beeswax candles, things like that,” he continues, “and we feature a local artist of the month with an open house and refreshments. We want to support these connections so that hard-working craftspeople who are underappreciated — yet contribute so much to the well-being of the community — can be valued.”
Voiland’s view of craftspeople being undervalued for what they offer society clearly extends to the local farmers he works with. Approached intentionally, agriculture can improve a region’s quality of life in many ways. But these benefits often aren’t acknowledged, he says — not if you look at where the money flows.
“On the one hand, farmers aren’t making much growing food,” says Voiland. He points to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture data, which shows Massachusetts farm owners earned only 96 cents income for every dollar spent growing food. While not a complete economic picture, it illustrates the point.
“And on the other hand,” he continues, “a third of Americans can’t afford enough food. I mean, what’s going on?”
Another group of people getting financially squeezed is farm and food workers, something Red Fire North recently addressed in their case by raising wages. In the short term this might raise prices too — a more accurate reflection of the true cost of food.
In the long term, Voiland is hopeful that these financial mismatches can be corrected by an economic system that recognizes farmers for the public services they provide.
“There’s so much local agriculture gives us that’s not measured financially,” he says. “Biodiversity, protecting clean water, preserving open space — these benefits are not listed on any ingredient label, but they’re worth something.”
Compensating farmers better would give them more leeway to take care of their land and grow a diversity of crops to feed people locally, rather than exhausting soil fertility growing cash crops. “We have the capacity here in the valley to grow so many different things,” says Voiland. “But I’m afraid with these economic pressures we might lose that.”
As broader systems change slowly, those able can support the local businesses that model their vision of a better future in more immediate ways. “We just need more local support for what we’re doing,” says Voiland. “We need people to come in and buy things.”
“Try the new radishes or the funny greens you’ve never considered before,” he continues. “Farmers are working hard to grow them, and they’re delicious and nutritious. So please, try them!”
At Red Fire North, the late fall harvest brings a huge diversity of local crops. “We’ve got so many vegetables people might want to cook for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays coming up,” says Voiland. “Potatoes, onions, garlic, cranberries, dozens of varieties of winter squash and apples, root vegetables like carrots and radishes of all kinds, lettuce, herbs, greens — it’s just amazing. And we’ll have many of the storage crops and fresh greens all winter long.”
They’re also offering holiday gift baskets of local items, and pre-orders of special baked goods ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.
“We’re making an apple strudel that’s been popular, with Red Fire Farm apples for the first time this year,” says Voiland. “We do a vegan version and one with butter.”
Orders close Nov. 23, but Voiland says the earlier the better, giving them time to prepare. Red Fire North is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The store accepts most forms of payment including SNAP-EBT and Common Good points, a local currency used by many Valley businesses. For a small fee, shoppers can become Red Fire North members, earning a small discount and other perks.
“We’re trying to tell people how local agriculture produces a lot of benefits beyond food,’ says Voiland. “They can help that continue by just supporting the farms and supporting us.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) To connect with more local farms and stores offering up the fall harvest, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.