Snow was falling on the bare fields of Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, MA when Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson took time out from their “off season” activities to chat about their farm, their lives and the future of family farming in New England.
In 1982, after years of living in Boston, Jack and Julie decided to take a radical step to transform their lives and their futures: they would pull up roots, leave their home and work of many years, move to the country and plant the seeds of a new and different future that could hardly have been predicted at the time. At the heart of their decision was the desire to raise their children with a deep connection to the land. They sold their house in Boston and moved to a rural area in central Massachusetts. They began to homestead on a piece of land that would later become their farm and livelihood.
Within a year they had built their house, planted fruit trees and a large garden and slowly got used to the rhythmic cycles of rural life. At the outset, they had no clear vision of how their new life would develop. Life was busy enough growing the food they needed to feed themselves, cutting the timber they used to cook and heat the house throughout the year and raising their four young children.
In 1985, through getting more involved in the surrounding community, Julie tapped her community organizing skills to re-organize and rebuild the local farmers market. “It was really out of self interest,” says Julie. “Like any farm, we needed cash income to make it work. I knew we could make money by selling our surplus produce to local customers, but getting to them was the problem.” Julie pulled together local farmers and community members to build the farmers market to what is now a thriving local market.
Each year Julie and Jack added new crops and livestock to their farm. In 1986 they started raising turkeys and hogs, and the next year they added chickens and eggs. They continued their work to strengthen the farmers market and sold some of their products through a local retail store.
It wasn’t until several years later that they decided to begin their own CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Julie says she was doubtful when CSAs came onto the scene in the mid-1980s; she wanted to see some success before making the necessary changes and investments to begin one of their own. But after seeing the CSA movement grow, and more importantly how they helped provide a consistent market that helped farmers stay on their land, Julie and Jack decided to take a leap of faith and begin their own. To do so, they would need to add buildings and equipment.
They quickly got to work: they built a new barn with a walk- in cooler they had been given by a food co-op in Boston that was going out of business. They planted new crops to appeal to food buyers and potential members crops that would provide fresh, organic produce from June to November. While they toiled to build their on-farm capacity, they also had to sign up members. They went directly to the area newspaper and told their vision of a local and sustainable food economy. Soon news spread of their farm and CSA. In 1992, with twenty members of “investors,” Jack and Julie opened their new CSA. Now, some 13 years later, the CSA is thriving.
Their fields now covered with snow, Julie and Jack spend their “off-season” organizing workshops and conferences for farmers throughout the region. Julie is the Executive Coordinator of NOFA/Mass (The Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association) and Jack is the Coordinator of the NOFA/Mass Social Action Program, which gets involved in policy and regulatory issues to protect the future of organic agriculture.
“There’s a real future for organic farmers in this area,” said Jack. “Twenty years ago organic farmers were laughed at we were seen as a bunch of hippies who didn’t know what we were doing. But now, with more people demanding safe, organic food, we’ve moved up a peg in respectability. And there’s a huge opportunity for farmers who want to meet this growing demand.”
Through their own farming operation and CSA, and their roles at NOFA/Mass, Julie and Jack are busy people working for a hopeful future of New England agriculture. As they warm themselves besides the woodstove throughout the cold New England winter, choosing which seeds to plant this coming season, they can also take credit for planting the seeds of a family farm food system that is slowly, but steadily, taking root.