Localvores face a big hurdle – buying produce during the off season. In mid-January it is easy to breeze past the sad colored vegetables in the grocery store. Or alternatively you may find yourself with a cart full of off season tomatoes and zucchini shipped all the way from Central America.
Luckily for the local consumer farms like Meadow’s Mirth Farm grow and sell vegetables all year long. In New England that’s something to be proud of. They are at the first seasonal farmers market, all the way until the last, and have a permanent spot at the bi-weekly Winter Markets.
I visited Jean and Josh of Meadow’s Mirth Farm for the first time in early April, and even then their greenhouse was vibrant. Emerald and purple plants sprouted up all around us, and there was plenty of work being done. The air smelled like spring, even though outdoors there was still slushy rain coming down.
“We’re selling vegetables in every month of the year. April is probably the thinnest month in terms of having products, but that’s impressive compared to when we first started. Back then we just grew veggies in the summer and a little in the fall. Now we have employees who work for us year round. We know there are people who want this local food and we want them to know it’s actually available.”
Farming appears to be a natural part of who they are, yet Jean and Josh didn’t always plan on their careers in agriculture. It wasn’t until after they had graduated college and moved to the Seacoast that the farming presented itself.
“We met Jeff and Renee of New Roots Farm over beers on a Friday night at the Press Room, and we just sort of hit it off. After that we’d meet up, and drink beers, and listen to music. They were just starting and they said they could use some help. I thought it sounded like fun, I always wanted to learn to grow vegetables. I thought of course I was going to have a garden someday.” Jean explained.
“It happened that we worked for them for a year at the Mill Valley Farm land, and then I rented a plot and grew cut flowers. Then the year after that we went to Kensington on our own, and things just snowballed and we became veggie growers.”
Two years into growing independently Jean and Josh began leasing the property that they’re on now in Stratham, NH. The land, previously active as Berry Hill Farm, is about nine acres. In addition to their produce, Meadow’s Mirth has a flock of chickens for fresh eggs, and raises pigs for sausages. It takes a small tight knit crew to run this farm, most of whom work full time during peak seasons.
“We pay real paychecks, we offer real jobs. There are so many people that want to volunteer on a farm, but we want to be a legitimate part of the community – creating jobs and that sort of thing. It keeps us aware of the balance of how many people the farm can support financially.”
Jean point about jobs is one that is sometimes overlooked. Creating jobs in a community is one way to energize a local economy. Even the four or five people hired by Meadow’s Mirth every year directly support local commerce. Josh explains how farms takes it a step further.
“It’s not just the jobs. At the farm we buy our fertilizer and our feed from Agway – so we’re supporting them and keeping jobs going their. I have my tractor so I go to the tractor supply and repair place. We’re supporting jobs there. Farms tend to generate a lot of money in the community, beyond just the job opportunities on the farm.”
Josh and Jean have been working this land for the last seven years. This, their eighth season seems to to come with a sense of tranquility. It’s nice to be at a place long enough to know your land, and start to develop better infrastructure. Even little hiccups with installing the new irrigation system don’t warrant too much fuss – just an understanding that the job needs to be done.
“This year is not going to be super crazy new, which in itself is a new thing for us.” Jean says with a hint of relief. “Every year we’ve felt like ‘Oh my gosh, we’re doing this crazy new thing!’ But this year it feels like – alright, last year was pretty good, let’s make this one even better. It’s just interesting to be in a place where I finally feel like we’re on the right track. Let’s go with this, see what happens and not change too much.”
If the ease they have working with land was better supported by consumers, Meadow’s Mirth Farm would be an even stronger business. Josh and Jean are great at creating relationships and sourcing to local restaurants like The Blue Moon, The Black Trumpet, Flatbread Pizza, White Heron Tea, and Cava, to name but a few. You can find their produce at Philbrick’s Fresh Market. But local farming still is not a mainstream source for food, and being an ‘alternative’ can present financial hurdles. In fact, farming aside, food isn’t always treated as important.
“Other cultures spend way more of a percent of their income on food. Here we spend a very small percentage on food. Buying local challenges people to make a subtle shift in their purchasing, but I know it’s a sacrifice. It always brings me back to this question that I ask myself – is this going to happen? Are people going to get to a point where they feel it’s important enough to make a sacrifice in some other area of their life so that they’re spending more on local produce?
I feel like the customers that I know that have made that change are happy. It’s good and healthy. I would encourage people to try it, do a little bit of a shift. So many people just don’t even buy produce altogether. We get so much of our food from a package or a box. Buying fresh and local is a sacrifice of time, but if you’re willing to cook your own food from scratch it is going to be cheaper than it seems.”
Ultimately, however, Josh and Jean enjoy farming. This is very clear. When I ask Josh about how he got into farming, he immediately counters with a different question.
“What about asking, what do I like about farming?”
Josh explains, despite the hard work, his job is fun. He likes being outdoors. He likes driving his tractor. The manual labor appeals to him. It’s striking how much he sounds like any one of my artist friends, completely enamored by their craft. An artist and a farmer both do what they love, despite the odds and the low pay, because it fulfills them in a way little else will.
“I know I didn’t get into this because of the money.” Jean points out. “I choose to live a simple life, but my vision would be that one day becoming a farmer is just like becoming a teacher or even a doctor – where people really understand and respect that farmers are making a living wage. That’s not quite the reality that we’re living in now”.
“I see all these young people becoming farmers and it’s easy when you’re young to ignore the fact that you’re not making much money. That’s because you love it, and obviously you should do anything because you love it. But my vision is that these people can get into farming, and not feel as though they have to take a vow of poverty to do it. You should be able to want to have a farm and raise a family and not have to stress about things the same way farmers do now.”
It seems unfair that this isn’t a simple, reasonable dream. Community is about supporting those around you, and it wasn’t so long ago that farming was a respected job where people made a living wage. Food is undeniably important and farms like Meadow’s Mirth are proving that it can be provided locally throughout the year. All it would take to give people like Josh and Jean an even better opportunity to do what they love would be a simple shift in the way we approach what we eat.