Farmer Heroes | January 15, 2013

Kate Canney

When the average person thinks of a vegetable farm, tomatoes, garlic or cabbage might come to mind; suburbia probably not so much. But that did not deter Needham, Massachusetts local Kate Canney from pursuing her dream of farming.

Faced with the challenge of land access in a suburban environment just outside of Boston, Kate formed the idea to use private yards within the community as her starting ground. The idea has since sprouted into The Neighborhood Farm: nearly four acres of gardens spread among seven different spaces dedicated to growing produce that Kate sells at local farmers markets.

Access to farmland is a challenge that plagues prospective farmers nationwide. The 2007 National Resources Inventory Report found, “Every minute, America has been losing more than an acre of farmland to urban sprawl and development.” From 2002 to 2007, 4,080,300 of acres previously used for agriculture were adapted for developed purposes, an area nearly the size of the state of Massachusetts.

That was the reality that Kate faced when she started farming. “I wanted to be a farmer since I was a little kid,” Kate said. “I don’t really know why, but it just appealed to me.” Kate studied plant and soil sciences, focusing on sustainable agriculture, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst before taking on an apprenticeship at Keith’s Farm in Westtown, NY. Following the apprenticeship, Kate changed paths to travel and become a teacher. But in 2008, she decided to find a way to return to the world of farming again.

Not knowing how to find farmland available in Needham, Kate was forced to apply creativity. She formed the concept for The Neighborhood Farm walking her dog in the community, noticing all of the available space in people’s backyards that was not being used for anything other than lawns.

“It’s funny, I never actually did knock on anyone’s door,” Kate said. “I just sort of told some friends what I was thinking about and word spread. People came to me.”

Kate is currently utilizing approximately two thirds of an acre spread among six different gardens, each within 15 minutes of each other when driving a strategic ribbon-shaped route designed to minimize travel time. Additionally, Kate began a partnership with the Trustees of Reservations, which runs the Powisset Farm in Dover, Massachusetts. Through this partnership, she was able to acquire a 3-acre field as well as access to some of its infrastructure, including a greenhouse and space in a walk-in cooler in a barn.

Collectively among the spaces, Kate grows herbs, cut flowers and almost all vegetables except sweet corn. Additionally, she sells vegetable seedlings, hoping to encourage people to begin their own gardens. “Part of our mission,” Kate said, “has always been to encourage people to try gardening on their own. In our garden spaces we really do produce a tremendous amount of food in a small space and we like to demonstrate to people that it is possible and something they can do on their own.”

People who allow Kate to grow on their private land receive vegetables in return. The various plots of land are divvied up with a subset of vegetables, so a person’s individual garden doesn’t contain everything Kate grows. Kate looks for the best mix of crops to grow in each garden site, and rotates crops from garden to garden each year. People can go in their own garden and harvest what they want, in addition to receiving a credit with The Neighborhood Farm at farmer’s markets. The amount of credit is based on the square-footage of private land Kate uses for a garden.

Produce from The Neighborhood Farm can be found at three different farmer’s markets in the Boston area. Since the vegetables have been grown over so many areas of land, some customers have expressed concern about soil contamination, particularly lead contamination from proximity to buildings. Kate assures that all soil is tested before a site is approved and The Neighborhood Farm only grows on healthy soil.

Using the soil on numerous private properties still presents challenges for Kate, limiting her from becoming organically certified, though she does grow her crops without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Having considered organic when she first started the farm, Kate realized it was impractical to attempt to reach the requirements on so many sites, and since sites are added or dropped as people’s lives change.

Kate recently hired a crew to assist in maintaining the gardens in addition to the help of her wife and mom. Most of the members from her crew work for short periods of time, for example, while in need of work on a college break.

Whether it is through more gardens or more space in the field from the Trustees of Reservation, Kate hopes to soon expand to about five to six acres of farmland for her ideal crop rotation. For 2013, however, her focus is to improve the operations on the plots she already has.

For prospective farmers struggling to obtain farmland, Kate recommends that they think outside the box. “Don’t hesitate to just ask everyone you can think of,” Kate said. “Ask land trusts, ask private land owners, ask cities and towns. If you see land that looks like it might be useful, just ask. So many people that have land, it never even occurs to them that there might be people out there that want to use it.”

Further Reading

For resources to find food from family farmers in your area, check out our Find Good Food page.
To help put your yard to use growing food, check out the Plant and Grow 101s available on Farm Aid’s project.
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