By Rosie DeQuattro / Photos by Kristin Teig
“What’s the rule when we enter the hoop house, Naomi?” Elizabeth Almeida, 34, gently coaches Naomi, age 4. Naomi is learning farming in the Junior Farmers Program at Fat Moon Farm in Westford. Elizabeth restrains her exuberant, young charge from trampling the seedlings and waits for Naomi’s answer, which is, “We never step on anything green.” Yes!
Two days a week children like Naomi come to Fat Moon to learn about farming. The “class” is one in a constellation of programs at the farm offered to children and adults. Today there’s a lesson in using farm implements. It’s casual and fun and the children take away a positive notion about farming, and learn a little more about the connection between what they eat and how it got there.
Fat Moon at Meadowbrook Farm, which is its full name, is just off busy Route 40 where one moment there’s a car riding your back bumper, and the next, View Master-like, another world pops up—serene countryside, rolling hills with horses munching grass, an old barn, and a refreshing open vista. Amidst this pleasant scenery sits Fat Moon, a farm-within-a farm, a one-acre piece of Meadowbrook Farm.
On one of those endless numbers of cold and blustery days in April, I first visited the farm. Elizabeth was calling out to her own children, Elena, 3, who had just been playing in a serious mud puddle, and Michael, 5, to be careful with the trebuchet, a type of Medieval catapult, that was set-up in an adjacent field. The instrument had been used in a throwing game on family night on the farm—an organized event that happens 2-3 times a season, with campfires, hayrides, hikes, and games. On other days at the farm there are cooking classes, a flower maze, farm-to-table dinners, market day, and Junior Farmers.
Elizabeth could be considered Chief Farmer, Program Manager, and Volunteer Coordinator—all roles she performs and all titles you need these days to run a small, viable family farm. She’s the one who wrote the USDA grant for the hoop house, and another one (from Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources—MDAR) to cover capital purchases. In many ways, Fat Moon Farm embodies the new ethos of modern farming. Back in the day, with a bank loan, a few acres of land, and some able bodies, an independent farmer could feed his family and make a little extra selling or trading the excess. Today, it takes a resume of skill-sets to run a small family farm, not the least of which is growing crops. But along with the support of husband, Noel, 48, who has a full-time job, Elizabeth can manage Fat Moon as a viable business, perhaps even as a model for small young farms today.
The approach to Fat Moon is through a dusty parking lot where a few chickens scatter about. There’s a small barn used for farm-to-table dinners, and an 1850s schoolhouse now repurposed as the art studio of a local artist. A dirt track leads a short distance, straight through the acre, and trails off into a large open field. On one side of the track is the hoop house, where an intense amount of organic vegetable production goes on. Inside are hundreds (thousands?) of tiny green shoots carpeting the floor of the hoop house—beets, cucumbers, broccoli rabe, spinach, salad mix, pea shoots, baby lettuces, arugula, kale, radish, turnips, and scallions. It’s hard to keep from stepping on them.
On the other side of the track are outdoor raised beds growing more vegetables. There is also a blackboard listing what’s available today, and an old salvaged table displaying the day’s harvest. CSA members, 100 strong, come by here on Thursdays and pick up their bright orange bags containing their weekly vegetable share. Hidden under a big blue tarp off to the side is a funny-looking tractor.
In 1949, Harry Truman was president, a new Farm Bill was enacted by Congress, and in Gadsden, Alabama, Allis-Chalmers put the finishing touches on its Model G, rear-engine tractor designed for small farms. It was painted orange, a color the company patented. They made 29,000 of them and sold them for $970 a piece. One is still “hilling” after all these years, and it’s here at Fat Moon. Getting it to Westford from Alabama, and across decades of time, is part of a dream, really. Noel’s employer, Merkle, awards quarterly “Dream Grants” to its employees. These are $5,000 awards that come with extra vacation time and a year to accomplish one’s dream project. In search of one of these indestructible, small-farm customized tractors, Noel found one without an engine at a farm in Newburyport. He spent a year researching its history, taking it apart, sanding and re-painting it in its patented orange color. He outfitted the tractor with a rechargeable electric motor and debuted it this season at Fat Moon. It is quiet and peppy, and suits Fat Moon’s needs perfectly.
As with so many New England farms I’ve visited, their long histories lay just below the surface. And there is usually someone around who doesn’t need an invitation to talk. Henri LeDuc, 65, a long-time Westford resident who was visiting Fat Moon with his young grandson on the day I was there, was that person. He recalled how the area looked when he was five years old. “It was a cow farm before old man Gould passed away.” The land all around Fat Moon Farm, about 128 acres, was in the Picking/Gould family for over 200 years. LeDuc worked for Mrs. Picking. When Mr. Gould passed away, the family estate kept part of the acreage and converted it to home development, and the rest was purchased and split between the Town of Westford and two private residents. Fortunately, as stated in the land agreement, some of the land will always be farmed. LeDuc told me a story about a ghost in the basement of one of the buildings on the property, but that’s a story for another article.
This is Fat Moon’s fourth season. “Even if we give up on this venture in 10 years, it’s worth it to have raised our kids here. They know where their food comes from. Having them in this environment justifies the effort,” Elizabeth says.
Back in the hoop house Naomi and I are gobbling down all the tender, delicious vegetables Elizabeth is willing to pick and patiently name for us. Wood sorrel was a new one for me, bursting with lemon and pepper flavor.
The Almeidas moved to Westford a little over three years ago in search of an educational business to start. They found Westford to be receptive to their passion for preserving farming as an occupation and imparting to kids a love of the profession. With Westford’s label as “bedroom community,” many in Westford are deeply concerned about the loss of agricultural land and about the preservation of what remains. In 2012, the USDA funded a study about land access in New England for beginning farmers. The study showed that “good farmland is increasingly difficult for farmers to access…purchasing land is prohibitively expensive in many parts of New England and sometimes substantial amounts of good farmland are sold for development and lost forever.” The Almeidas approached the owners of Meadowbrook Farm with their idea to lease one acre of the land to grow vegetables and offer educational classes to children and adults. The owners agreed. One evening, five-year-old Michael looked up to the wide-open space of sky above the land and exclaimed that the [full] moon looked fat. The name stuck—Fat Moon Farm it would be, and what better metaphor for a farm than the moon.
Elizabeth says, “It’s easier to teach life lessons about money when you’ve got carrots to deal with. Michael knows what $9 is worth because he knows you can buy three bunches of carrots for $9. Kids get tangible financial lessons growing up on a farm.” The kids are with Elizabeth a lot and she involves them in the farm. In the summer, when Elizabeth is at the farm full-time, there is a nanny at home and someone to watch them on the farm. “For us it’s a lifestyle that we want the kids to be exposed to. It does get stressful at times, but in the long run, full-time child care wouldn’t be worth it for us.”
There was a big learning curve when they first started—learning where the rocks are and where the water is and building a customer base—they are now up to 100 CSA members! They didn’t anticipate that the vegetables would become such a hit. “It is really the quality of the produce and the personal connection our customers feel to our family that keep folks coming back.”
In season, Elizabeth coordinates a big group of volunteers who help with planting, harvesting, packing bags, and other farm tasks. They become part of a team and learn valuable life lessons from the group experience. The volunteers work about 6 hours per week for the season in exchange for about $600 worth of vegetables.
The CSA at Fat Moon is a twist on a conventional program. Elizabeth calls the program “Farm Bucks.” With Farm Bucks, rather than pre-paying for a share and taking whatever is offered from the farmer to the customer each week, customers purchase credit at a discount in the beginning of the season and use the credit to buy products at the farm stand throughout the season. If a customer goes away on vacation, for instance, they can keep their credit to use when they get back. CSA farms have been responding to their customers’ needs with these bespoke arrangements. For example, Farmer Dave’s in Dracut offers CSA customers a variety of pick-up locations—18 throughout Middlesex, Essex, and Suffolk counties. Similar to Fat Moon, Mainstone Farm in Wayland uses a system where CSA customers pre-pay then shop at the farm stand for whatever they want, in whatever quantities they choose.
Elizabeth wants to own her own land one day. But she also wants to improve what she’s already got. “There is a lot of land conserved but not in agriculture.” She would like to get involved with the Agriculture Commission in Westford and hopefully persuade land developers to include land to be cleared for farming in their negotiations for building housing. She feels that Westford has the land, the inventory, to create a vibrant farming community—it just needs the will.
Farming is in Elizabeth’s blood. She grew up in Ohio, the daughter of beef farmers. She has a younger sister who has a PhD in Meat Science. Both grandfathers were farmers. She still calls her 91-year-old grandfather for advice: “He loves to hear about what I’m doing. He sends me articles or seeds. He gave me starts of horseradish, tells me about his new favorite vegetables (daikon radish is the latest), and anything else of interest.” She remembers clearly her other grandfather “wearing overalls, working in the garden, and always sending us home with something: vegetables, flowers, or something he made in his workshop.” She had a grandmother who “at age 70 could sling hay bales faster than a high schooler.” And she adds that this is all “part of who I am and what brought me to farming. It is also a reason that I feel very grounded when farming, not just working the earth, but doing something that my ancestors have done and something that we all innately know how to do: to nurture and grow things.”
In her conscientious, intelligent way, Elizabeth has created a farm that not only produces the tastiest of vegetables but also serves as a laboratory, demonstrating and teaching farming skills to the next generation. At Fat Moon Farm, Elizabeth has crafted an intentional life for herself and her family, and, many would agree, built a lasting community treasure.
Fat Moon Farm 5 Gould Road, Westford 978.496.9606 thefatmoon.com
Rosie DeQuattro is a freelance writer and long-time contributor to Edible Boston. She is the process of building a house in Maine. You can reach her at Rosiedquattro@gmail.com, or in rehab at a program for recovering (house-of-your-dreams) dreamers.