Valley Bounty: Yellow Stonehouse Farm
Many paths lead to a life of farming. Some are born into it, others answer the call decades later, bringing past experience and skills to a new challenge. For Connie Adams and John Keilch, co-owners of Yellow Stonehouse Farm in Westfield, their story is a mix of both.
“John was born here, and I mean that literally,” says Adams. “He was born upstairs in the corner room of this house, which his grandparents bought in the 1920s, and raised here. I first visited when we got married in the ’90s, and never imagined it would be ours.”
For most of their lives, Adams and Keilch were entrenched in ever-evolving white-collar careers, far removed from the soil. “John was a very successful country western music promoter in his early life,” says Adams. “Then he was a marketing mogul for a while, and later a general contractor.”
“I, on the other hand, went to school for computer electronics in the ’70s and was one of the first female computer field engineers in the country,” she explains. Her career then unfolded with similar diversity, as she spent time selling computer equipment, as a lobbyist, and working as an interior and landscape designer, among other things.
Then in the early 2010’s, Keilch’s family farm was left to them, along with decisions about its future. “I had mixed reactions, to be perfectly frank,” says Adams. “We had a house in West Hartford, CT we loved and I had a job in metro New York. I may have been a master gardener, but I had never farmed.”
Eventually, the land won them over. “It’s such a gorgeous place,” says Adams. “There’s the farm fields, but then there’s another 50 acres of meadows, beech groves, and wetlands, the Manhan River runs through the back acreage … and the idea that it might fall out of farming seemed like a crime.”
So, Adams and Keilch each began another professional transition, rehabbing a farm to steward the land and encourage the surrounding community to connect to food in new ways, particularly families and children. With that in mind, they settled on a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm, where anyone could buy “shares” of the farm’s harvest distributed regularly over the season. This model invites a more direct connection, farmer to eater.
Getting this vision off the ground “took a lot of work,” says Adams. Keilch began farming and offered their first CSA shares in 2011, while Adams retained her off-farm job. “I came up on Friday evenings from New York, still wearing a suit and heels, just as people came to pick up their shares,” she recalls.
They learned a lot from others, be they experts, relatives, or both. “I actually took a beginning women’s farmer class with CISA that year,” says Adams. The couple also attended farming workshops with the MA Department of Agricultural Resources, and gratefully accepted advice from Keilch’s many Polish relatives who farm in the Valley. “They’ve been really helpful to us,” she shares.
Yet some pieces of their past lives were easily transferable. “John and I are both pretty experienced businesspeople, problem-solvers, and planners,” says Adams – all important traits in running a farm business. As challenges arose, like a very wet spring in their early years, they adapted, digging drainage ditches and purchasing pumps and a lighter tractor to work the land more gently. This year, despite historic rainfall, things haven’t been as bad.
Looking back, Adams is proud of what they’ve accomplished. “We developed a fairly detailed business plan, and it worked!” she exclaims. “We’re sustaining the farm, and it’s supporting us fairly well. John has learned to be a marvelous farmer, and after I quit my off-farm job in 2016 I took on marketing, communicating with members, and other front-of-house things.”
Their farmland is also nearing permanent preservation, as they shepherd 14 acres through the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program. “Basically what that does is restrict this land to agricultural use in perpetuity,” Adams explains.
Meanwhile, their certified organic CSA has grown to over 250 members purchasing one or more of the farm’s four seasonal shares. “Ours are market-style CSAs, where people choose what they want from what’s available week,” explains Adams.
The year begins with a spring share in April and May, featuring wild edibles like ramps and fiddleheads. A traditional summer veggie CSA runs June through October, a winter share runs November through February, and a “Harvest share”, from September through February, offers a bit of both.
“We’re currently accepting sign-ups for the Harvest share,” says Adams, “which starts September 3rd. That includes two months of seasonal produce, followed by the standard winter share of storage crops and fresh greens from our greenhouse.” More info is available at yellowstonehousefarmcsa.com.
Members can buy shares with cash, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) and HIP (Healthy Incentives Program). HIP is a state program that automatically reimburses Massachusetts SNAP users up to $80/month in benefits when they spend them on local produce. Yellow Stonehouse Farm is one of a handful of local CSA farms accepting HIP, lowering financial barriers to healthy local food. For a complete list, see buylocalfood.org/hip-map/.
Adams enjoys offering a rich experience to those who pick up shares on-site. “We have pick-your-own options (including flowers, herbs, and some fruit and veggies) and walking trails throughout the wetlands and meadows,” she says. Delivery is also available in some circumstances.
Members are also supported in using their abundant seasonal produce. “I used to just give out recipes,” Adams says, “but this year I’ve also been giving advice on how to process and preserve different veggies by type – especially in bulk.”
“I’m not sure if what we’re doing – starting to farm later in life – would be right for everybody,” Adams acknowledges. But she has enjoyed the change of pace and focus. Between this or an office job, “well, it’s much more fun doing this.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To find more local farms connecting you with this season’s bounty, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.