Last year was a great year for tomatoes. I remember the New Roots stand happened to be stacked high with the juicy red fruit. I have this problem at farmers markets. Once I make eye contact with a farmer, I must buy something. I don’t like walking up to stalls and leaving empty handed. It feels rude. Renee was manning the stand. She smiled and I smiled back.
I bought a lot of tomatoes.
That was my introduction to New Roots Farm. I only later learned that they were from Newmarket, my hometown, and that one of our good friends worked for Jeff and Renee Cantara. I made a point to buy from them at both the Durham and the Exeter markets every week last summer. Whether it was Jeff or Renee, we always had a solid conversation. They were constantly generous with their time and food. Soon I considered them friends.
So, it felt natural to interview New Roots Farm for Local Courage. In the back of my mind I knew they were a really important part of my own local food history. As I talked to Jeff, I started to realize that I knew next to nothing about him. He and Renee have done such a good job making my story feel important, I forgot to ask about theirs.
“When I was a kid I was obsessed with pioneers. I loved kids that went and lived in the woods – like in books like My Side of the Mountain and Hatchet. Even then I was sure I was going to live off the land.”
This is Jeff, and when I look out his kitchen window land is what I see. Acres of sprawling pasture. During our interview we are at the farms center – a little human inhabited hub comprised of his house, the greenhouse, and the barns.
Jeff and his wife Renee both went to University of Vermont to study Forestry and Wildlife Biology. Neither of them had a plan to farm. The two of them graduated and moved from Vermont to Alaska where Jeff wanted to homestead, but in the wake of 9/11 they moved back to their New England roots.
The couple found an opportunity to lease land at Mill Valley Farm in Stratham, NH, where Maddie and Tim of Live Free Farm are currently starting. The Cantaras started with a 60 person CSA, which was an encouraging success. However, they found themselves working over 100 hours a week – they barely survived.
“The second year we made it our goal to not make the same mistakes twice. And we didn’t. Every year we started making fewer and fewer.”
Jeff and Renee moved on to the current location of Meadows Mirth Farm. There they worked the land while they were purchasing their current location. New Roots was one of the first conservation farmlands in the NH Seacoast. Prior to farms like New Roots land trusts would be made and the land would just sit lightly tended, unused. Now it’s become common practice to support farming on historically significant land.
“There are lots of younger farmers who want an opportunity to start, and there are plenty of older farmers who would like to be compensated for their efforts while they mindfully transition off their land.”
The land came fully prepared to house animals as well as produce. The only logical course of action was to raise livestock, something that Jeff and Renee had never done before.
“We knew it was the best chance we were going to get, but we had all this land that we had no idea really how to use. We had just been vegetable farmers on perfectly flat land and never even touched a pig or caught chickens. We knew if we bought this place we’d have to transition. We knew a lot about grass fed meats. We knew we’d have to learn, just like we did with vegetables. And we did. We’re now up to doing 100 pigs on pasture, 20 cows, 200 broiler chickens, turkeys, lambs and the veggies.”
As Jeff and I talk it becomes clear this is a really important part of who he and his wife are. They are two smart, capable people who make up in hard work any practical experience they might lack.
In the past this unswayable work ethic hasn’t always been healthy for Jeff who had a second job when they started at New Roots Farm. This is common among local farmers, especially among those just starting. He was working full time in a high stress office job.
“I’d go to work at five in the morning, work eight hours and get home around one. Then I’d farm until it got dark. I’d farm from five in the morning until eight at night on the weekends. I’d do it all over again Monday morning.”
Needless to say, when his son was born in 2008, he crashed.
“In retrospect it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Before the crash I think one of the words that people used to describe me was “massively intense.” It wasn’t that I was a super intense person by nature, it ‘s that the nature of what I was doing forced me to be super focused and have crazy momentum. It really required a full scale examination of myself.”
Balancing family, fun, relaxation and the farm became an important focus for Jeff. It became clear he couldn’t function in a way that allowed the farm to define who he was. Jeff admits that owning a farm is like having another spouse in many ways. Letting your personal identity get swallowed by the land can be dangerous.
Luckily, New Roots has become successful enough that Jeff doesn’t need to have another job. He and Renee are able to hire employees who they trust, and who become important parts of the farms function. There are a lot of sad stories of an older generation of farmers, completely burnt out by the lifestyle. These cautionary tales stay with Jeff, and help him keep his own mind in check. His story is shared by a lot of farmers his age.
“We’re all learning how to be whole, rounded people again. We were all so single minded, overwhelmingly more so than the average person. It’s an interesting time and I can really see these patterns with my peers.
I get up really early and surf all the time now. I do a ton of yoga. All this sounds cliché but it changed my life. I’m accessing a whole different part of myself.”
The Farm as an entity exists in a state of balance as well. Jeff and Renee spend a lot of time planning and developing a living soil. They are very conscious about bringing the livestock and the vegetables together in a full circle nutrient cycle.
“A diversified farm is awesome because it gives you the ability to both produce and recycle nutrients on the farm. It helps to close the circle as far as how much off farm input you’re bringing in. We’ll always be grazing. We have permanent pig pasture but we always keep fallow vegetable fields for a year at a time. We put cover crops on those and run the pigs through the fields in a way that doesn’t negatively impact them but brings nutrients. Then we cover crop it again to lock those nutrients in during the winter so we can turn it again for next years vegetable field.
Our perennial grasses in the pastures are mostly cool season grasses that slow with heat. If we have a veggie field thats sitting idle during the high summer we can plant warm season grasses or alternative crops and bring the cows through. We’re all about building a living soil. We’re about getting the above ground animal and vegetable total symbiosis going on with the soil microorganisms and floral and fauna.”
For the coming years, New Roots Farm is really starting to focus on the bottom line. As an alternative business in a modern time, there are hurdles. They still face the expensive realities of a modern family raising a child in America, but their business has traditionally survived in a more colonial setting. They are maintaining that delicate balance between running a viable farm without killing oneself.
Jeff is clear to state that he couldn’t be happier with his customers, or as he describes them “co-producers.” With so many farms starting up every year he knows that more co-producers need to be encouraged to join the local food movement. If every person who went to the farmers market each week brought with them just one friend, the customer base would double in size. There are simple ways of energizing a local food economy.
“I think everyone has this amazing gift. We’re human beings, which is awesome, but a lot of us have set that aside because of these messages we’re inundated with about not having enough time to prepare food. I think eating nutrient dense foods – whether its from a local farm or from your backyard – is the key to unlocking your potential as a human being. I will not say it’s necessary to eat from local farms because it’s important for us to make a living or anything like that. I don’t feel entitled to a living. I am honored that people allow me to make a living but local farms should succeed on their own merits, not out of guilt. I think local farms are largely succeeding on their own merits. Eat nutrient dense foods and then see how the benefits trickle out into other aspects of your life.”
Jeff and Renee’s tenacity and self awareness is inspiring. If it’s a result of the food they produce, I only hope that more people have the opportunity to experience being one of their “co-producers”. It’s not hard to find them, and farmers like them. And if you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to walk away from their stand without a lot of food.