Valley Bounty: Chamutka Farm
As the month of May ripens, it’s rhubarb’s time to shine. While asparagus is a more celebrated harbinger of spring in the Valley, rhubarb has a lot in common with the famed “Hadley grass.” Both are long-lived perennials that thrive in local soil, storing energy in underground root systems called “crowns” to shoot up new stalks each spring.
And while the two plants’ flavors are vastly different, both can be enjoyed straight from the field.
“I love rhubarb — I could eat it all the time,” says Linda Larsen, farmhand and office manager at Chamutka Farm in Whately. “A lot of people dip the stalk in sugar, but personally I like to just pick it, wipe it off, and eat it.” Just the stalks, it must be noted: The inedible leaves contain oxalic acid, which is poisonous to humans and other animals.
Larsen has spent the last 13 years working at the farm, which owner Dave Chamutka has run for decades. As Larsen explains, “He’s been farming since his teens. He bought this place (50 acres in Whately) in ’83, and it’s expanded from there.” It now encompasses almost 30 acres of rented land across Whatley and South Deerfield too.
For Dave Chamutka, the farm is a lifetime labor of love, and he’s assembled a supporting cast of Valley dwellers who’ve also caught the farming bug.
“For the most part it’s Dave, me, and another gentleman named Adam DePretto,” Larsen explains. From June through early winter, they’re joined by a handful of part-time seasonal workers, many of whom return each year.
Together, the team grows a handful of tried and true crops for wholesale to local grocers and value-added producers. They also sell some to the Pioneer Valley Growers Association, a member-owned marketing cooperative and distributor run by local farmers.
“Our biggest crop is butternut squash,” Larsen says. After the fall harvest is stockpiled, squash are processed and sold already peeled at Big Y stores in the Valley throughout the winter. “The next biggest are our organic pickling cukes and cabbage,” she says, “and our main buyer for those is Real Pickles in Greenfield.”
They grow summer squash too, but that’s months away. In a few weeks they’ll be picking strawberries, while the season for fiddleheads, which they purchase from foragers, pack and resell in bulk, has just ended. For now, it’s rhubarb time.
Chamutka Farm grows 2½ acres of certified organic rhubarb, harvesting thousands of crisp, crimson stalks from MacDonald variety plants that have been there for years. “Longer than I have, that’s all I know,” Larsen says with a laugh. “We’ll start to pick this week, and the peak harvest will be around Memorial Day.”
Harvesting rhubarb is simple, Larsen explains. “We cut the stalks at the base, trim the leaves off, wipe it down and bundle it,” she says. “And it’s got a darn good shelf life” — especially when kept in a refrigerator’s crisper drawer.
The plants will grow all spring long and into summer, but toward the end of June the tender stalks become tougher and more stringy. That’s when they cease harvesting them, allowing the plant to grow and store more energy for next year.
Rhubarb plants don’t demand complex care, and have few pests or predators in this region. Says Larsen, “It really doesn’t have any enemies besides the person who’s picking it.”
In the coming weeks, Chamutka Farm rhubarb can be found at River Valley Co-op, Atlas Farm Store, Big Y and several smaller retailers throughout the Valley. As Larsen points out, the season overlaps with Chamutka’s own strawberries, also sold at the River Valley Co-op in June. “They’re a nice compliment in a local strawberry rhubarb pie,” she says.
Beyond pie, rhubarb is delicious in other baked goods, makes a great sauce for desserts and meat dishes, and can even add a fresh bite to cocktails. The internet abounds with recipes for all of these.
But if you’ve never chomped down on a stalk of fresh rhubarb, Larsen encourages giving it a shot. “Try the narrow end,” she says, “and peel the stringy fibers off the outer curve of the stalk. It’s the inside that’s really tender.”
As Larsen begins another season at Chamutka Farm, she’s reflective about the challenges facing local farms, navigating a changing world and usually operating on thin margins. In many cases, community support dictates whether they remain viable.
“Local farms are fewer and farther between now,” she says. “Fuel prices are increasing, and the cost of packing materials is going up. There’s a cost to rent land and pay workers, and our income reflects all of that.”
Larsen continues: “Sometimes people go to farm stands or farmers markets and balk at the price of locally grown food, not recognizing what goes into raising it. And people often take it for granted that food will always be on store shelves, but the pandemic taught us that’s not true.”
As Larsen and the rest of the local farming community seek to remind people, choosing a reliable local food supply means supporting local farmers, most of whom relish the opportunity to provide for others.
“It’s a tough job to be in,” she says, “and you have to love farming, but we do it to feed our community. That’s the love of it.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). To find more local farms, farmers’ markets, and retailers selling seasonal local food near you, visit CISA’s searchable online guide at buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.