Valley Bounty: Runnymede Farm
The Norris family has operated Runnymede Farm in Westhampton for 104 years, with now the fifth generation of family members becoming stewards of their land. Currently, Karl and Lisa Norris with their three adult children and son-in-law balance the care and keeping of the cattle and the land.
For many years until 2009, the property was a full-time dairy farm. Then the family was at a crossroads, with an antiquated dairy barn needing modern equipment and technology to allow the farm to remain competitive. In that year of collapsed milk prices, the family evaluated their place in the dairy industry.
“In our minds, it was more important to remain sound financially to keep the farm and maybe venture out into new things,” explains Karl Norris. The family returned to maple sugaring in 2018 with a new sugarhouse. Maple sugar season kicks off the year at the farm, from mid-February to mid-March.
All members of the family have jobs off the farm. The Norris family balances the early morning care of animals with attending the fields in the late afternoon, with everyone taking a turn based on their schedules. Karl Norris notes, “we each have our role.”
Today, the farm supports a farm stand with offerings that vary with the seasons. Currently, Runnymede Farm offers pumpkins through Halloween at their self-serve stand at 109 South Road, Westhampton.
In the spring, Runnymede Farm offers composted manure for home gardeners in bags and bulk, with local delivery. During spring planting season, community members interested in buying it can call the farm or contact them using Facebook Messenger.
The farm stand then becomes quiet until early August, when blooming sunflowers adorn their farm stand and property. Lisa Norris adds, “We have been selling to some florists, and people buy them for events. We also sell to other local businesses and farm stands. We continue to grow and change the varieties every year.”
“The sunflowers came as an experiment,” notes Karl Norris. “We just wanted to try it, partly for looks. They give the farm a “wow” factor. We can’t sell nearly as many as we grow for cut flowers. We have had people ask to use our patch for photography.” Just as the sunflowers finish, pumpkins ripen next through fall. Karl Norris says, “we grow one acre of sunflowers and one acre of pumpkins, all for sale here at the farm.”
The Norrises have a modest herd of Holstein cows. The family sells some cows as breeding stock. They do not currently sell milk or dairy products to the public, although they may pursue that in the future. Karl Norris comments, “The wholesale milk market just doesn’t work for small farms anymore due to the economies of scale. I truly believe that farms need to sell directly to the consumer to make a good return on their investment. With everything we do, we are looking to sell directly to the consumer.”
Alongside cattle, Runnymede Farm grows 24 acres of corn, and produces wrapped, round bales of hay. They sell half to neighboring beef and dairy farms and keep the rest to feed their cows.
The entire family works on the farm. With their kids in their 20s, they are actively planning the next direction for the farm. Lisa Norris comments, “We’re proud that our farm has been in the Norris family since 1919, and that our kids are involved in the farm on a daily basis.”
With the strong foundation that a century of farming experience offers, the Norrises can take the long view, and discern what works now while planning for the future. Restoring the farm to a full-time operation for the younger generation is a long-term goal.
Offering agritourism remains under consideration because “families don’t just want to go somewhere and buy a product. They want to go somewhere and experience something. Families are looking for planned activities, like pick-your-own, breakfast restaurants, or corn and sunflower mazes,” says Karl Norris.
Lisa Norris comments, “We’ve done maple wedding favors that people enjoy. Every year, we try to expand the varieties of our sunflowers and maple products in spring. It has been a lot of fun. We enjoy it. If you didn’t really love farming, you would not do it. We really do love it and are happy to do it with our kids and son-in-law. It’s a lifestyle more than a job.”
As climate change impacts the weather, the Norrises have leaned into adaptations to maintain the land for the future. Karl Norris says, “We do cover crops on the fields to hold soil, fix nitrogen from the air, and prevent erosion. We have begun no-till planting.”
Growing crops or pasture without disturbing the soil through tillage requires a different approach and different equipment. The family purchased a no-till corn planter through a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture. The family has navigated the learning curve offered by excessive rain this season in their hard, gravelly soil. Karl Norris notes, “It saves fuel with fewer passes on the tractor and conserves the soil. I see us sticking with no-till in the future.”
While the family works together to manage the farm, community is essential for Runnymede Farm as well. “It’s always fun to have a network of farmers in the immediate area,” Karl Norris states. He shares anecdotes of farmer neighbors helping each other with broken-down equipment or finishing hay before the rain. “You never know when you’ll meet a time of need on your farm, and so it’s important to reach out and help other farmers.” he says.
Runnymede Farm is a source of joy for the family. Lisa Norris shares, “being able to farm with our kids while working toward a viable farm operation on open land brings us joy every day.”
“What brings me joy is being a steward of the land, being the one to help transition it from my great-grandfather to my grandfather and father, to carry that on as a viable option for my children. I’m just the current caretaker, and my job is to pass it along to my kids, so they can pass it along to the next generation,” concludes Karl Norris.
Lisa Goodrich is communications coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, (CISA). Learn more about local farms, harvest favorites, and seasonal fun in CISA’s online guide at buylocalfood.org.
Photos courtesy of Runnymede Farm