By Margaret LeRoux / Photos by Katie Noble
Herbs were not part of the business plan when Lynn and Peter Hartman bought their 23-acre farm outside of Barre in Central Massachusetts 40 years ago. It was serendipity that Lynn noticed some wild garlic, chives, and catnip growing on the property. She dug them up, potted them, and took them to the farmer’s market on the Barre town Common. “I sold them all and came back again the following weeks,” Lynn said. “People started calling me the herb lady.”
Since then, Hartman has seen her locally grown herbs go in and out of fashion. “When the supermarkets and Walmart started selling them, it about destroyed local herb businesses,” Lynn said. But now herbs and plants from area greenhouses are back with a vengeance. “People who want to cook and eat locally and sustainably are rediscovering us,” she added.
A combination of skill, luck, and grit propelled the Hartmans as they developed the family business that now includes mail order dried flower and herb arrangements and wreaths, a venue for weddings and events, a bed and breakfast operation, and a CSA. Not to mention a gift shop in a renovated barn and a few pigs that produce meat for a growing number of customers in Central Massachusetts. Although Hartman’s is not certified organic, Lynn notes that the family follows organic practices in the farming of their plants and animals.
The youngest Hartman daughter, Carissa, works alongside her mother. She also creates and produces locally sourced menus for events hosted at the farm. “All my children learned to cook at an early age,” Lynn said. “Back then, the only way they could get out of weeding chores was to cook dinner.”
Carissa and her husband built a home on the Hartman acreage. Their two children help out at the farm and at a roadside fruit and vegetable stand in the neighboring town of Oxford. That’s where their grandmother, Lynn, grew up; her family farm is still in operation. Ever since she was a child, Lynn picked corn and apples on the farm and helped sell produce at that same roadside stand. Unlike the typical farm-raised tomboy, however, she’d occasionally dress up to take tea at four o’clock with her Scottish grandmother, who lived next door. But the young lady was back in blue jeans to milk the cows at 5:30. Farm life was an endless series of daily chores. “When I was 18 I couldn’t wait to get away from the farm, so I left home and took a job working for IBM,” she said.
A few years of working in an office all day gave Lynn a better appreciation for her bucolic childhood. By then she’d married and had two children. “I wanted my kids to have the same kind of farm upbringing that I had,” she said, “a simple, more natural lifestyle.”
She and Peter searched fruitlessly for affordable acreage. Then one day in 1974 Lynn spied an ad for an abandoned farm near Barre. Built in 1770, the house had no indoor plumbing and hadn’t been lived in since the 1920s. The fields were overgrown. But the price was right. “I made Peter write a deposit check right on the spot,” Lynn said. “We bought a couple of goats to clear the land and raised pigs and vegetables for food. “Their third child, Carissa, was born shortly after they moved to the farm. “The five of us lived on $10,000 a year,” Lynn added.
When the children were small, Lynn got a job as a gardener for three estates in southwestern Massachusetts and across the border in Connecticut, supplying them with plants she grew on her farm. “The children worked with me. I learned a lot while gardening,” she said.
Lynn also taught classes on herbs and wreath making at area churches and women’s clubs. “I’d be out three nights a week giving my talks and selling herbs. I’d get $10 a lecture,” she said. Lynn had learned about herbal remedies from her great grandmothers,who both lived until she was in her teens. “I always treated my children with herbs when they were sick;” she explained. “We couldn’t afford to go to the doctor.”
Disaster struck when a chimney fire on Christmas night in 1989 destroyed the Hartmans’ house, although the original barn was not harmed. “We lost everything in the house,” Lynn said,” even the Christmas presents under the tree.”
They couldn’t get a bank loan to rebuild the farm, but they could qualify for funds to start a bed and breakfast business, so that’s how the family got into the hospitality field. They rebuilt the house and barn to look like the original structures; Peter found wide planks of pine for flooring and wainscoting at a local sawmill.
A small country store decorated with dried flowers and herbs occupies the main floor of the barn. Lynn and Peter live next door, sharing quarters with three guest rooms for the bed and breakfast. A light and airy addition at the back of the house opens into an herb garden. It’s a picturesque venue for summer and fall weddings, showers, and other events.
The Hartman farm is gaining popularity as a site for small weddings; the function room can accommodate up to 120 people. Carissa’s menus include herbs and vegetables grown on the farm, and pots of herbs often are used as favors or centerpieces. “Brides also like to use some of the flowers and herbs we grow for their bouquets,” Lynn said.
The Hartmans supplement their field-grown herbs and flowers with four greenhouses. One is devoted to starting seeds and also holds stock plants such as large bay trees and rosemary. They grow hundreds of basil plants, including the popular Genovese variety that Lynn uses for pesto. The other greenhouses are for heirloom tomatoes, peppers, flowering annuals, hanging plants, and perennials. Hartman’s grows over 100 herbs, including 16 different thyme plants, a dozen varieties of lavender, and 10 different varieties of sage.
In early spring the greenhouses are busy as Lynn, Carissa, and a small crew of part-time employees transfer flats of herbs and flowers into four- and six-pack assortments for sale on the farm, at the roadside stand in Oxford, and at farmer’s markets. With a grant from the USDA, the greenhouses are being upgraded and a new heating system installed. The old oil furnace will be replaced by a propane gas system that will be more energy efficient.
Like many other small farmers in Central Massachusetts, the Hartmans had to learn how to diversify and merchandise. Lynn notes the importance of selling value-added products such as her homemade pesto, salsa, and dried herbal seasoning mixtures.
The Hartmans also market personalized service. Their handcrafted, dried herb and flower arrangements and wreaths are listed on the farm’s website, but you have to make a phone call and talk to Lynn or Carissa to order them. Lynn notes that each arrangement or wreath has sprigs of fresh herbs “that are meaningful as well as fragrant, such as rosemary for remembrance, thyme for bravery and lemon balm for sympathy.”
For now, being a local and sustainable business is Hartman’s farm’s comfortable niche. But 40 years of farming have taught Lynn that comfort is fleeting. “I watch trends,” she said. “Every 10 years or so I reinvent myself.”’
Hartman’s Herb Farm 1026 Old Dana Road, Barre 978.355.2015 hartmansherbfarm.com
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Margaret LeRoux is a regular contributor to Edible Boston who writes about good food and the people who grow, prepare and appreciate it. Salad greens and herbs from the garden define summer at her dining table. You can reach her at: email@example.com