On borrowed land

By Renee Ciulla

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire estimate that only 6% of the New Hampshire (NH) food supply is being grown within the state. For those concerned about food security, this presents a blatant red flag. However, access to land is one of the biggest challenges facing young farmers today, often dead-ending potential food producers before they even get started. Fortunately, New Hampshire is brimming with fallow land that only requires meeting a willing land owner. And consumer interest (especially along the seacoast) for local, organic food is burgeoning.

With all this in mind, I decided to fulfill both a personal dream and crucial need for more local food production by working with two seacoast landowners who have agreed to let me grow food on their property. But my process started long before seed went in the ground this past spring. My inspiration for making that final leap across the land access gap were several young farmers tirelessly working to meet the rising demand for New Hampshire-grown food on borrowed land.

Thirty-three-year-old Maggie Donovan manages a 60-family CSA at Willow Pond Community Farm in Brentwood, NH. The gracious landowner has an unwritten contract with the community for the land to produce crops indefinitely without any exchange of payment, including the shared use of his trusty tractor. Maggie, a recent graduate student from Cornell University’s International Agriculture and Rural Development program, saw the Farm Manager advertisement in a NOFA publication and immediately applied, placing her thesis on hold in order to begin farming in Spring 2009. Three years later she is a devotee to this widely respected chunk of land, often enthusiastically riding her bike 30 minutes from where she lives in Exeter before beginning her work day. This year marks the eighth year of production at Willow Pond—a unique community-based farming arrangement that has succeeded for nearly 10 years.

Willow Pond Community Farm

As Maggie pats the last row of planted carrot seeds and stands up to stretch her strained back, she heaves a sigh of contentment and exhaustion joking that she, “needs a wife.”  She is referring to the challenges of managing three acres alone and wishing there was someone home to make dinner, and keep house. “I don’t have enough hours in a day to make a living doing this” she lamented, admitting that she should be analyzing and tracking all her expenses and hours (for each individual crop). The added time necessary for such a task seems dauntingly impossible in addition to a large weekly farmers market and juggling the varied needs and motivations of the CSA families (such as finding age-appropriate jobs when toddlers come along).

Regardless, there is a lot of passion at Willow Pond. Several public events and fundraisers occur throughout the year initiated by the CSA members as well as a harvest dinner and raffle, potlucks and youth farm education programs. When it comes down to it, Willow Pond Farm not only feeds but educates numerous community members on the challenges and joys of growing food and continues to be a beacon of hope and opportunity for others.

The dirt driveway at Stout Oak Farm in Epping, NH leads visitors back in time. On one side stands a 19th century shingled icehouse with its peculiarly steep and narrow roofline. Across the lawn waits a proud, graceful farmers’ porch snugly wrapping the 1800’s Colonial farmhouse. In 2008 the owners leased the farmhouse and surrounding farmland to Kate Donald, a female farmer superhero. Although Kate didn’t come from a farming background, she became enamored with the power of local food production while working with urban agriculture projects in New York City. She went on to complete a certificate program in Organic Farming at UC Santa Cruz and eventually returned home to New Hampshire for more practical experience. Seven years later, Kate efficiently manages three acres of farmland by herself with occasional help from friends and one part-time employee.

Kate Donald at Stout Oak Farm.

A bewildering variety of greens are grown from her greenhouse, an infrastructure that she highly recommends for young growers. Not only do greenhouses provide farmers with practical projects during the otherwise bleak winter months, but she feels that without one it is difficult to make a substantial profit for certain crops such as tomatoes that are expensive to buy as plant starts. Kate also advises young growers who don’t have their own land to find their “peers” to see what has worked and to spend plenty of time at farmers’ markets scoping out prices and products, asking questions and making friends with fellow farmers.

Kate finds the most profitable crops to be herbs, head lettuce, kale and Swiss chard, and prefers selling her edible gems through a 30-family CSA and three weekly farmers markets where she can “move food off the farm.” If money wasn’t an issue, Kate dreams of a day when she can use draft horses as a less invasive way of tilling and planting in the fields (although her 1981 bright blue tractor is truly adorable), and she would like to buy more greenhouses, cold storage and a root cellar.

Pausing to munch on sweet strawberries after a dusty weeding session in the promising garlic bed, Kate shares, “One thing that has surprised me year after year is that in spite of all the challenges we New Hampshire farmers face every season we all return for the next summer. The winter seems to refresh and completely renew our motivation for growing and doing what we love.”

The Jennings have been farming for six years on leased farmland they named Meadows Mirth Farm.

The award for farming-duo-extraordinaire on the New Hampshire Seacoast would most likely go to Josh and Jean Jennings, an astounding couple farming together for six years in Stratham on leased farmland that they named Meadows Mirth Farm. There is always a beehive of activity streaming in and out of the magnificent barn, meticulously maintained white New England farmhouse, and greenhouses overflowing with verdant life. The Jennings originally began small with a few fields dedicated to cut flowers and have since expanded to nine acres of vegetable production, four greenhouses, a 40-family CSA, three employees, beehives, five pigs, a charming self-service farm stand, sales at several farmers’ markets and impressive winter vegetable production. Furthermore, there is a local chef growing vegetables for his Portsmouth restaurant on a plot of land at Meadows Mirth in order to educate restaurant employees and ultimately diners on the connection between food production and delectable meal creation.

Although Josh and Jean understand the importance of tracking every expense on the farm, these ingenious growers choose to not get overly hung up on which crops are the most profitable and instead emphasize diversity every year. Rows of flowers still greet drivers along the road and Jean believes in the value of educating consumers at markets and CSA members about different flavors and ways of enjoying underappreciated vegetables such as turnips. The social and educational components to this farming operation are two of the pulses that keep them devotedly optimistic. Selling a select few crops wholesale would alter the magical biodiversity they have created in the sense of both plant varieties as well as farm activities. Jean emphasizes certain valuable infrastructure such as moveable high tunnels, cold storage facilities, increasing the number of greenhouses and a stronger tractor to open more fields for further production.

As an attempt to keep the local food torch burning, this year I intensively planted a ¼ acre in Newington, NH that belongs to the historic 1830s Frink household, traditionally a dairy, honey and egg farm. Seeing their treasured land back in production has motivated the family to search for greenhouse funding through the NRCS for future years. The vegetables coming off the land are being sold to several local restaurants, a grocery store and families who have asked for weekly deliveries or farm pick-ups. In the town of North Hampton there is an additional ¼ acre where I am growing potatoes and a variety of squashes and pumpkins. There are plans to supply a new brewery that wants to experiment with a Squash Ale this fall. The family has been incredibly supportive, going so far as to uncover an abandoned well in a nearby forest and rig up a pump on top. Soon after the discovery, an old 60-foot water-holding tank arrived from a neighbor on a flatbed which was placed vertically near the well (chained dauntingly to a tree) and now has a complete irrigation system attached to keep the crops happy.

If you’re considering beginning your own farming venture, a good place to start is stepping slowly away from your computer…and…knocking on farmhouse doors. One knock leads to another and another and, before you can grow a zucchini, you’re a professional networker. Speaking with other farmers is also a great resource, as well as making use of your local cooperative extension service, state land trusts and projects such as New England LandLink which matches available farmland to those seeking it. Before you turn over your dirt, read The Organic Farmer's Business Handbook by Richard Wiswall, who stresses farming “for profit and not production”. It’s true that we can easily get lost in the beauty of the act of food growing while loosing sight of the importance of keeping a tight grip on financial realities. Wiswall and many growers here in New Hampshire demonstrate that not only is it possible to grow organically and make a decent profit, but it is a meaningful lifestyle and career that feeds your community and soul.

Renee Ciulla is a vegetable grower, teacher and writer based on the New Hampshire Seacoast. Besides growing and eating local food, she loves being in the mountains and finding mountain goats.

3 Responses to “On borrowed land”

  1. Vicki

    I would love to find some entrepreneurial folks to do this on my farm. This land is so productive and so underutilized. .

  2. Stan

    We have had land available for 4 years here in Northern Wisconsin, but no takers.


Leave a Reply