When I was little my family lived in Western Massachusetts. We were surrounded by several liberal college towns and rolling acres of historic farmland. My family was part Food Bank Farm’s CSA in Hadley, MA. We had the option to work for part of our share. I can remember picking food straight from the ground and my mom buying freshly baked foccacia bread from the store. The farm was an impressive expanse of land as well as a fun place to spend my childhood.
At the end of the growing season the farm held a huge harvest potluck. The food was not only amazing but it was planted, tended and picked by us. All the members went. There was live folk music. The kids ran around the freshly picked fields, explored the barns and played by the river. Though most of us only saw each other in passing once a week, everyone seemed like old friends. We were our own community.
When I talk to Kate Donald of Stout Oak Farm about the work that she does, I can’t help but think of that potluck. Stout Oak Farm carries with it a strong sense of community.
“I want to grow food for the people who live right here.” Kate says simply. That is exactly what she is doing. One of the farms biggest successes during its first year was establishing their farm store. Although she has a CSA and goes to local farmers markets her biggest customer base are the people who are driving by.
“The farm store feels like a really important aspect of our farm because that’s the way we’re connecting to our neighbors. I was really encouraged that the first year, even though we didn’t have a sign or a clear parking area, people showed up.”
Stout Oak Farm is located on historic Brentwood farmlands. Kate and her husband Jeff purchased the farm in 2011, after previously leasing land in Epping. She has also farmed locally with Meadows Mirth Farm, and Willow Pond Farm.
Communities have been a theme in Kate’s life. Out of college she joined AmeriCorp in Oregon, where her project was to help with an urban garden. She has also worked for a school gardening project in NYC. Then Kate spent years working as a manager for the Green Guerillas in New York.
“I had a plot at the community garden, and was gardening in that sense, but I was working more as a community organizer. I started hanging out with CSA farmers outside the city who were delivering their shares to New York. I began to think – I want to be doing what they’re doing.” Kate went to UC Santa Cruz for their farm and garden apprenticeship program, where she learned about organic farming and biodynamics. She ended up staying for two years, visiting farms up and down California. She then moved back to New England in 2000 and has been farming ever since.
As a native it is fitting of Kate to plant her roots in New Hampshire. Stout Oak Farm is built on a CSA model which dictates the crops that are grown. Stout Oak has a lot of crop diversity. Leafy greens and fresh herbs are a staple of the farm stand and CSA. They also plant potatoes, peas, roots vegetables tomatoes, eggplants, squash, and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. This year they are introducing alliums, blueberries and Kate has plans to develop more fields and a small orchard.
Diversity does come with its share of challenges. New varieties of fruits and vegetables often require different skill sets. Last year they introduced melons, and if they want to grow those to at a larger scale Kate and her staff will need to learn new techniques. Other crops are challenging by nature, like tomatoes, that can suffer from natural diseases and pests. Everyone seems to want them, but they’re high risk. Making organic farming a balancing act.
“Our goal is to be able to grow a lot of food. To run a viable business. To create as many efficiencies as we can in our systems. The work is by nature labor intensive, that’s actually what we like about it. Between four and five acres is what we’re going to be farming this year. We’re trying to find a balance of growing enough so that we can meet the demand that’s there, without stretching our resources beyond what we’re capable of.”
This season Stout Oak Farm has six fields, and the new orchard. The new field that they’re introducing will provide an opportunity to implement cover cropping techniques. This means that they can grow a summer vegetable like arugula, harvest it, and before they plant a fall crop they’ll introduce something like buckwheat to diversify the soil. Planting these sorts of crops during the interim greatly increases field fertility, and Stout Oak will be capable of producing more throughout the year.
“What I’d like to eventually do is have even more space, and be able to take a field out of the rotation for a year – to really try and build organic matter. And we’re still figuring out which spaces on the farm are good for cultivating. We have rocks, we have hills, we have wet areas. The first year we just started with the logical flattest places.”
“If you don’t feed your soil, it’s not going to feed you.” This is Joanne, assistant manager at Stout Oak Farm. She’s friendly and outgoing and incredibly hard working.
“When I was a kid I always thought I was going to have a farm in Montana, or something epic.” Joanne is one of two other full time seasonal employees, a reflection of how local farms are aiding the community in other ways. “I didn’t actually get into farming until I was a part of the UNH Organic Gardening Club, and then spent a summer on a farm in Missouri.” Local farms bring jobs to people like Joanne. Some farms even keep people on year-round.
“The previous owner of this land was Lawrence Lyford, he was the ninth generation in his family to work on this farm.” Kate explains. “His family had been dairy farmers since 1803, when the house was built. The farm had been quiet since it stopped being a dairy farm in the 70’s, so it’s been nice to bring activity back to this place and create a reason to come to the farm. It gives people a chance to enjoy the space as well as interact with active agriculture. I really like that we are a gathering place in the neighborhood.”
Kate returns to this sentiment often. It’s this way of thinking that reminds me of the farms my family was involved in when I was a little kid. When Kate talks I remember the potlucks and the happy people. It’s inspiring how focused and committed Kate is to her neighbors. Running an organic farm is a brave act. It requires faith in yourself and your land. Running an organic farm for your community takes another kind of faith. You have to not only trust the earth you work with but the people who surround you as well.
Trust in people used to be commonplace. Back when the farmhouse was built in 1803 “local farm” was not a distinction that needed to be made. Farmers were growing food for their neighbors. It made sense.
“There’s this basic concept.” Kate tells me. “If we want to eat good, healthy, fresh food, then we need farms that are in our communities. In order for those farms to do what they do, they need their neighbors to buy the food. Not just once in a while. Not just at the farmers market. Really, if everybody made local purchases a larger part of their food budget, we’d have even more farms. The farms that are here trying to make it work would be thriving. We’re not quite there yet. We need more of our neighbors to feel like what we are offering has value.
Once people come to the farm, or they grow their own food they’ll realize that this is really different than going to the grocery store. This adds to the experience. This is a more positive experience in so many ways. They seek it out. We all have got some work to do – inviting more people to be engaged and a part of this. It’s just win-win.”
People need to know that this healthy, fresh food exists. It takes just going to one farm like Stout Oak and talking to a farmer like Kate Donald to really inspire a person to change how they think about food, and how they think about community.