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LILAC HEDGE FARM:  TWO YOUNG FARMERS WITHOUT A FARM
PHOTOS BY KATIE NOBLE

What do you do when you’re a young farmer without a farm of your own? You cultivate relationships as carefully as landowners till their soil. That’s what Ryan MacKay and Tom Corbett, two 24-year-olds in central Massachusetts are doing as they establish their meat business, Lilac Hedge Farm.

Ryan and Tom pasture their cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens on a 200-acre farm in West Boylston. They raise 500 turkeys on another farm in Spencer and keep steers with Ryan’s cousin in Rutland; breeding cows and ewes spend the cold winter months at a barn in Lancaster. They store their meat in 10 freezers at yet another farm in Berlin.

Getting their meat distributed is as complex as their grazing plan. They run their own CSA, and have agreements with delivery services including Something Gud in Somerville to sell their meat to customers throughout the greater Boston area, Mass Local Food Cooperative, an online farmers market in Worcester county; also a few retail stores featuring local products such as Simpson Spring in Easton, How On Earth in Mattapoisett, and Indian Head Farm store in Berlin also sells their meat. Last but not least, they have signed on to have a permanent store at the new Boston Public Market where they will sell fresh meat directly to the public starting in the spring of 2015.

To add to their busy lives, the two young farmers could be found selling meat and eggs at 11 farmers markets over the summer and will be at eight markets this winter. To say their days are fragmented is an understatement. “We spend a lot of time hauling things from place to place,” says Tom.

“Farming is all we do,” adds Ryan. “We even drag our friends into it.”

Their most enthusiastic salespeople at farmers markets are friends who work for them on weekends. Late last summer, when plans for a rare evening out were threatened by the impending birth of a litter of piglets, a group of friends joined them at the farm to toast the newborns with a beer.

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Ryan and Tom represent the growing numbers of landless new farmers in Massachusetts who cobble together a variety of lease and share agreements in order to get their businesses up and running. Without family farms to fall back on, they face a daunting real estate market where two acres of unrestricted land can carry a $100,000 price tag.

Young farmers like Ryan and Tom have to be entrepreneurs, according to Tim Wheeler, owner of Indian Head Farm in Berlin where Lilac Hedge Farm stores its meat. “They’re not just growers, they have to develop great connections,” he says.

Ryan grew up in Berlin and played soccer on the same team as Tim’s son. When word got around the small town that Ryan was looking for space to store his freezers full of meat, Tim’s extra storage space adjacent to his farm store was a natural match.

Another pivotal connection for them was a fortuitous encounter with Michele Padula at a 2012 statehouse reception celebrating the Commonwealth’s farming industry. Ryan was there as a member of the Mass Farm Bureau’s Young Agricultural Leaders; Michele, a regional planner with the Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) Program of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources works with farmers in Worcester County.

“Ryan asked me if I knew of any APR land available for rent,” says Michele. “I immediately thought of Dennis Minnich’s property in West Boylston.”

Michele had been involved in the sale of that land, a particularly complicated deal that stretched over several years. “Dennis wanted to ensure that the land not become developed, and worked with us to buy the property when the original owner declared bankruptcy,” Michele explains. Willing though he was, Dennis’ background is in law enforcement, not farming; he’s the town’s police chief and was looking for someone to help manage the farm’s 200 acres. Michele told Ryan about Dennis’ situation; the young farmer called on the police chief the very next day.

“Ryan came to visit me at the police department and I was very impressed,” Dennis says.  “He was very polite and had all his ducks in order. He had a plan in place and knew exactly what he wanted to do.”

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Ryan’s plan evolved over years while he was raising his own animals—several goats, a horse, two water buffalo, and a camel—and caring for the farm animals of others. Neither he nor Tom grew up on a farm, though Ryan’s 90-year-old grandfather, Donald MacKay, was the last of four generations to own the former Lilac Hedge Dairy in Holden. Donald occasionally helps his grandson with farm chores; Ryan named the business in honor of his grandfather’s dairy.

Ryan studied agriculture at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. While working at Davis Farmland in Sterling, tending the animals in the petting zoo, Ryan met Tom.

“A few years ago we realized we had gone as far as we could caring for other peoples’ animals; we wanted a farm of our own,” says Ryan. “By then our own collection of animals had grown so large it was time for them to start generating some income.”

After they met with Dennis, they came to an agreement that benefited everyone. The West Boylston acreage has spacious pastures for the Lilac Hedge herds of 50 Black Angus steers and 200 sheep—a mixture including Katadhin-Dorper cross, St. Croix, and Tunis. There are birthing pens and grazing land for the Tamworth, Berkshire, and Hampshire sows and their piglets. The farm is also home to a flock of 300 Rhode Island Red layers.

In return for housing Lilac Hedge’s livestock, Dennis gets help maintaining the 200-acre farm, which lay fallow for many years before he purchased it. Ryan and Tom cleared land and fenced the perimeter of rolling fields where the animals graze. “We mowed every field to get them back into production and installed fencing along the perimeter,” Ryan says. They even convinced Dennis to buy a tractor and attachments to brush hog the fields and haul 250-gallon tanks of water out to the animals.

The two young farmers have befriended Dennis’ 12-year-old son Denny, who raises vegetables and sells them at a roadside stand in front of the farm. Denny used the proceeds to buy three alpacas; his father added a fourth and also some miniature goats as a reward for perfect scores on math tests.

The relationship with Ryan and Tom has been a good match, according to Dennis, although both sides realize it may not be permanent. “I know that Tom and Ryan want to have their own land and if they find a place they can afford they’ll leave,” he says. In the meantime, he adds, “It makes me happy to see the land going back to its full potential.”

 

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What is the APR:

The Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) Program is a voluntary program that offers farmers a payment up to the difference between the “fair market value” and the “fair market agricultural value” of their farmland in exchange for a permanent deed restriction, which precludes any use of the property that will have a negative impact on its agricultural viability.

Currently there are approximately 850 APR parcels in the Commonwealth totaling over 70,000 acres.

“That’s land that is going to be open and undeveloped in the community forever,” noted Michele Padula, a planner with the APR program. “People should be proud of that.”

For more information, check out the APR website.

 

 

MARGARET LEROUX is a regular contributor to Edible Boston who writes about local food and the people who grow, prepare and appreciate it.