PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
Attention, please: John Lee has left the farm. But the farm itself—130 picturesque acres straddling Boston and Brookline—isn’t going anywhere. There are still tomatoes and cucumbers to pick, flowers and shrubs to grow, hayrides to host and Christmas trees to sell.
In the mid 1980s, Lee teamed up with the family that owns and had farmed the land for generations to create Allandale Farm as we know it today: an oasis of agriculture, horticulture and nature still within city limits, a welcome anomaly in an urban area. A New England leader in farming issues and the author of the Edible Boston “Farmer’s Diary” column for the past decade, Lee spent more than 35 years as Allandale Farm’s general manager before finally retiring at the end of 2016. Yet while the farm may no longer have Lee’s day-to-day oversight, his influence endures.
We spoke with Allandale Farm’s new leadership: General Manager Helen Glotzer, who has been working at the farm since 2004, primarily on the horticultural side; and farm Co-Managers Steph Moran and Will Morningstar, who both joined the team in 2016.
EDIBLE BOSTON: Growing up, did you expect to someday work on a farm?
HELEN GLOTZER: I wouldn’t say that I necessarily envisioned this trajectory. I worked on farms—vegetable farms, horse farms—as a kid and a young adult. But I had a long stint of working as a social worker. I was working with at-risk adolescents in outdoor programming—those three-week multi-element backpacking, hiking, canoeing, climbing [programs]. Then I went on to get my master’s degree in social work. I had taken some time off [after my second child], and when I was getting back in the workforce, I thought, “Let me plug into something while I’m looking for my real job.” Allandale Farm was hiring. The rest is history.
STEPH MORAN: I never meant to be a farmer. Will got me a job when I was 18 and still in school. I caught the bug. I never formed another plan and never really wanted to.
WILL MORNINGSTAR: It wasn’t part of my plan either. I happened into it [while still in school], because my brother was a farmer. I started prioritizing farming over getting in shape for doing sports. [Then] I left [farming] for a quick stint to work with at-risk adolescents [in] group homes.
HG: We have a lot of overlap between social services and farming. We see it all the time.
WM: Idealists. You gotta change the world. [Farming and social services] are the two places to start, right?
Speaking of changing the world—tell me about John Lee. Is he really as wise in person as he sounds in the “Farmer’s Diary” column?
HG: John has all of the years of wisdom of Allandale Farm that have existed, because he began this business [with the support of the family that owns the land and farmed it for generations before]. So, that’s a yes.
SM: Even when he doesn’t know the answer, he’s eager to help you find one or find one himself. None of us ever has all the answers, but he never stops looking.
What have you learned from him?
HG: We had a big retirement party for John. As I was writing my remarks, I was thinking about that very question. [First], that “no job too small” mentality has been a hallmark of success here. This is a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of industry. [Second], he’s given us the autonomy and the opportunities to succeed and fail and reflect on those successes and those failures. [That] has ultimately made us a better business, and shaped the way I think about managing a team.
SM: People [here] take a lot of responsibility and pride in what they do. It’s everybody’s true and honest and hardest work because you have that ownership over what you’re doing, even though it’s not your farm and it’s not your land. You care about it because you’re allowed to grow and build in your role.
WM: “No job too small” is so correct. [John] still picks up corn—by hand, into the bags, drops them off at the store.
SM: [When] the lawnmower is [broken], he takes it to get it fixed.
Do you have any favorite memories of John that stand out over the years?
HG: What floods into my mind is all snapshots of John touring prospective camp parents around the farm, or realizing that somebody mistakenly threw something away in the dumpsters and [going to retrieve it]. On more than one occasion, I [saw] his head pop up out of the dumpster—[he was] full-on [inside of it].
WM: “Cardboard only!” He was in that dumpster on a regular basis.
HG: Also, he’s got many involvements in various organizations and on boards. He’ll occasionally show up to work all dapper with his bow tie, but then something will go wrong and he’s pulling on his waders. It’s [a mosaic of] snapshot moments.
So tell us about working at the last working farm in Boston proper.
HG: Let us correct that! For a long time, that was our tagline: “Boston’s last working farm.” It’s a great tagline from every metric, except for the one that it’s [no longer] true. It was true for a hot minute when it was crafted, [but] now, [there’s the] concept—it’s hard to remember that it ever wasn’t a concept—of these less-than-an-acre farms, or greenhouse food-growing. It’s different from this, but it’s a farm.
Are we the last classic New England hardscrabble farm in the city limits? Sure. But that’s splitting hairs. We would much rather align ourselves with all the good farming work. We redesigned our logo and have a new tag now: “Your farm in the city.”
Do you still encounter people who don’t know that Boston has a classic New England hardscrabble within the city limits?
SM: All the time!
WM: I worked on a farm for, like, seven years before working here. [I grew up in the Boston metro area.] I lived in Somerville. And then—whoa! There’s a farm in Boston and Brookline?
SM: A lot of people who hear that you work at a farm in Boston assume that it’s a more traditional version of an urban farm, either rooftops or lots. You have to [explain], “No—actually, it’s a large acreage of continuous farmland.” That shocks people.
As much as everybody wants farm-to-table food nowadays, how hard is it still to convince them to pay for it?
HG: We see small farms start up and fail all the time. It’s hard work, of course, but it’s also really thin margins. Trust me, there are no farms getting rich out there. It’s the real cost of food, [which is] the next most important conversation we all need to have.
SM: A lot of farmers [stay] out in the fields and don’t get [many] chances to actually communicate with their customers. But we have access to our customers right here on the property. [As we’re bringing items into the store], we’ll catch people and chat with them about what’s coming in and out of season. [As savvy as our customers are], that’s still a shocking conversation for a lot of people. We have a lot of opportunity to build relationships.
With regards to building relationships, John Lee wrote in his 40th “Farmer’s Diary” column that “[t]oday’s successful farmer must, first and foremost, be entrepreneurial by nature and a bit of an extrovert even if working at one of the many not-for-profits.”
WM: It’s a small business too. People think, “I’m going to get into farming and I’m going to grow stuff!” That’s half of it. You can grow beautiful things, but can you get people to notice you?
HG: I think there are probably more introverts than there are extroverts in farming, maybe even by a long shot. I might buffer the word extrovert with “advocate.” I think it’s as much about advocacy as it is about extroversion.
WM: You have to be the face. People want to “know your farmer.”
What are the best and worst aspects of the job?
WM: The most challenging part has to be the unpredictability. Stuff just dies and gets sick and gets buggy. But it’s also kind of the good part of what we’re doing. It’s always changing [and] fast-paced.
SM: The good sides and the bad sides are almost always one. To be a farmer, you have to be a lot of things: not just a person who grows food, but also someone who [watches weather patterns, studies the life cycles of pests, learns about diseases, etc.]. There is ample opportunity to grow and to fail at any given moment.
HG: [For me, the best part of farming is] the constant challenge. Just being prepared for it, embracing it, feeling ready to move forward in the face of and alongside that unpredictability.
WM: Talking in sports talk: You gotta have a short memory when things go wrong. [Ask], “What are you going to do in the fall? What can you seed?” instead of crying over what could have been for the butternut squash.
What do you wish people knew about Allandale?
HG: Not to toot our own horn, but we are really good stewards of this land. That is a high priority. We take care of our soil health. We think hard about the people who work here, shop here, go to school at the Apple Orchard nursery school on the property. We grow ornamental garden crops sustainably. We don’t use conventional chemicals even on our greenhouse pot crops for the garden center. There are not a lot of people around that can say that. We certainly don’t use [chemicals] in the field.
Because we’re not certified organic, we get that question a lot. We’re tripping over [terms like “certified organic” and “sustainable”], because those terms are not interchangeable. [We do spray things, but] we spray organic things, and we’re happy to talk to anybody about what has been sprayed or whether you should feed this to your kid on the way home. We’re always trying to create transparency about what it means to grow in this place.
People who don’t know much about farming project so much onto those labels.
HG: There are so many layers. Are you eating organically because you’re worried about exactly what is happening to that piece of fruit, or are you also thinking about carbon footprint? Would you rather an organic tomato that traveled from Mexico or a sustainably grown tomato that traveled 500 yards? Maybe the answer is Mexico, and that’s OK. But there are important nuances.
With John putting the farm in your hands now, how much is going to change?
HG: I think he’d be the first to say things never stay the same, so I don’t know why moving forward would be any different. We’re always growing and trying to work smarter, not harder, as they say.
SM: We have to keep working towards our goals of sustainability and stewardship. As the bar moves up, we want to be chasing that bar.
WM: [But for customers], on the surface, it might still stay the same [in a lot of ways].
So in pursuit of those goals, what’s on the horizon for Allandale Farm?
HG: [We want to] extend our season in ways that include growing some more crops under cover, increase our yield of storage crops; [and improve] our storage facilities so that we can provide crops later into the year, right up through Christmas and even beyond. We would love to have Allandale Farm produce 12 months a year. We’re on that trajectory.
NICOLE FLEMING is a metro correspondent for the Boston Globe and a columnist for WGBH's Craving Boston. She is also the author of The Girl Who Ate Boston food blog at TheGirlWhoAteBoston.com. Follow her on Twitter @ GirlEatsBoston.