Monday, August 02, 2010

A surprising growth sector in Massachusetts: farming

An expanding group of immigrants, recent college graduates and young, energetic entrepreneurs/idealists are hopeful that by taking advantage of growing consumer demand for locally produced foods, growing non-traditional crops and marketing them through alternative systems of distribution they can make a living as farmers in -- of all places -- Massachusetts. (GW)

Farming surges in state with new crop of devotees

By D.C. Denison
Boston Globe
August 2, 2010

DRACUT — Midway through her first growing season, Rachael Potts, 31, pointed to long rows of thriving peppers, scallions, and Swiss chard. The tomatoes, however, have been “a challenge,’’ she admitted, adding “and the heat has had its way with my arugula.’’

Potts, who has a day job as an interior landscaper in office complexes, recently joined a surprisingly fast-growing occupation in Massachusetts: She’s a farmer.

After decades of decline, farming is resurging across the state. New farmers are graduates fresh out of college, immigrants with farming backgrounds, or former professionals starting second careers. Many begin as part-timers while hanging on to day jobs to supplement their incomes.

Those looking to make a new living from tilling the soil begin at training programs run by the state, universities, or nonprofit organizations — and the skills they learn have as much to do with running a business as with harvesting a crop.

In Massachusetts, where farmland is scarce, most lease their acreage from the state, private owners, nonprofits, or farmers with more space than they can cultivate.

From 2002 to 2007, the number of farms in Massachusetts jumped by about 27 percent to 7,691, according to the US Department of Agriculture census. That’s a reversal from the previous five years, when there was a 20 percent drop in the number of farms and, presumably, farmers, many of whom sold land to developers.

But the start-up farms are smaller than the family enterprises of the past. The average farm in Massachusetts, 85 acres in 2002, was 67 acres five years later.

The next census won’t be until 2012, but Scott Soares, Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture, said his department can see the growth continuing. “We keep seeing an increased demand for’’ training, he said.

The state ran a record six farming courses this year, serving 120 students in total. “Last year, we broke the record for attendance,’’ said Rick Chandler, director of the training program, “and this year, we broke the record again.’’

The new, smaller farms capitalize on demand created by environmentalists and “locavores,’’ people who favor locally grown food, as well as the creation of new outlets for local produce. Small farmers can sell their modest harvests to community-supported agriculture programs, farmers markets, and restaurants that value fresh ingredients from nearby farms.

It is still a challenging way to make a living. On a field next to Potts, Adisson Toussaint, a 2004 immigrant from Haiti, was carefully weeding rows of cucumbers and summer squash. He has been growing vegetables on his half-acre plot for three years and selling his produce at a weekly farmers market in nearby Lowell.

Although he farmed in Haiti, Toussaint took classes sponsored by a Tufts University agriculture program to sharpen his understanding of marketing, land use, and business practices. Like a number of the state’s other new farmers, he is still not making enough money to own his own farm or quit his day job; he works at a nearby research laboratory, leases the field he cultivates, and works his farm every weekday night.

More established is Dave Purpura, a former engineer at Nokia who started Plato’s Harvest, his Middleborough farm, in 2005. He leased a single field from the nonprofit Soule Homestead Education Center, which manages a 120-acre former dairy farm. He has since expanded to six acres, all leased.

The farm was “a miserable failure at first,’’ Purpura said. But now the farm is his full-time job, although it is not yet profitable “on paper.’’ Seventy subscribers pay $675 annually to buy his vegetables and meat, and his community-supported agriculture program is sold out. The subscription gets them weekly boxes stuffed with the farm’s produce, which last week included potatoes, carrots, chard, and squash. Purpura said he is having trouble finding land for expansion, and “getting good farm help is always a challenge,’’ but he feels lucky to have gotten into farming when he did.

“It’s been very satisfying,’’ he said.

At Langwater Farm in Easton, now in its first growing season, 60 community-supported agriculture subscribers are paying $525 a year for fresh food, and 60 more are on the waiting list. Langwater sells at farmers markets in Easton, Dorchester, and Hingham, and operates a stand on Route 138.

“We weren’t prepared for how busy it’s been,’’ said Alida Cantor, one of the four cofounding farmers. The partners aren’t taking salaries for the first year, and two have full-time day jobs. But they are “deciding how big we want to get,’’ said Cantor, “with the goal of starting to pay ourselves next year.’’

At the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts — Potts and Toussaint are graduates — director Jennifer Hashley said the classes of aspiring farmers include “retirees, career changers, the unemployed, and young people.’’

That’s a change from the past. “It used to be that young farmers grew up on farms, and learned from their parents and relatives,’’ said the state agriculture department’s Chandler. “That’s not the case now.’’

James Corven, a biology professor who helped start an organic farming program at Bristol Community College in Fall River last year, said young farmers in Massachusetts are brimming with energy and intensity.

“The enthusiasm is fantastic,’’ he said. “There are so many farming courses, workshops, and activities around here, you’d think you were in Iowa.’’

One workshop, organized by the nonprofit Eastern Massachusetts Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training, was held on a hot afternoon last month in Dracut, a stone’s throw from where Potts and Toussaint were working in their fields. Nearly 20 aspiring farmers gathered in a large hoophouse, spending the day’s fading hours bent over notebooks, listening to instructor McKenzie Boekholder outline the fine points of creating a farm business plan.

The two-hour session continued without a break well past the scheduled end, as the group hungrily traded strategies for getting access to farmland, how to price vegetables, and creating crop timelines.

After one dense explanation of how a break-even analysis works, Boekholder asked, “How many of you would rather be thinning carrots right now?’’

The question got a few laughs, but no one raised a hand.

D.C. Denison can be reached at


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