Living an Endangered Life
Jennifer Cermak & Berlin Farms
by Julia Rappaport
A decent way down Route 62 stands Berlin Farms. Just off the road, the place smells like old memories from the moment you open your car door.
Especially on wet days, the parking lot hangs heavy with the aroma of wet wood and damp hay. The old farm store door jingles as it opens and inside the air is filled with something sweet and cinnamony and laced with butter-a full-fat smell from a forgotten era.
And it's not just the smells, but also the sounds (the splatter of oil from the kitchen, the ka-ching of the old cash register) and the sights (warped wood floors, farm store shelves stocked with maple syrups and honeys, seven-pound cans of blueberries for pies and jarred pickles from Maine) that seem straight out of another century.
The storefront is empty on this particularly rainy, bitter fall day, but a racket comes from the kitchen. Behind white swinging doors, farm owner Jennifer Cermak is frying up cider donuts the old-fashioned way-by hand, in a single pan, drowned in oil.
It's a timeworn way of cooking-not the fastest method, but it preserves the history of the donut and the result is a cakey, light treat that tastes a heck of a lot better than the ones from Dunkin' Donuts.
"My mom was a stay-at-home mom so she was always cooking," an apron-clad Cermak says as explanation. She carries on conversation while simultaneously flipping the donuts in scorching oil and checking off items on that day's to-do list: clean stalls, feed ducks, fry donuts.
It's fitting that at this farm, just shy of 24 acres in one of Massachusetts's last real working farm towns, everything from the taste of the donuts to the smell of the parking lot feels nostalgic. And there are a few reasons for it.
First, there's the long history of the property itself. Previously called Berlin Orchards, a 200-acre establishment where owner Barry O'Brien reportedly grew 22 varieties of apples, the land has been farmed since the 18th century. It's a tradition that runs deep here.
Second, there's Cermak's undying commitment to preserving that agricultural history. The 37-year-old is a study in contrasts. She's a Boston University graduate with a master's degree and PhD from Harvard. She has a deep-seated love of agriculture and horses. She lives in North Reading and works 60-hour weeks at a biopharmaceutical company. She bought her 23.8 acres of land in 2006 (it included the old 1867 farmhouse), a few months after the land was parceled up following O'Brien's death. The whole thing was in disrepair and Cermak spent months restoring the land, the orchards and the farm store, which had once been a popular ice cream joint. She replaced the old fencing, repainted the farmhouse, recovered the old high-bush blueberry and strawberry patches and graded the soil.
"It was not in great condition," she said. "The one thing we did do is keep the original kitchen with all its old equipment." And the people of Berlin welcomed her. "As an agricultural commission, we certainly support that kind of activity in town," said Carl Wickstrom, a member of the town's agricultural commission and owner of Golden Skep Farm.
"A lot of people remember this as a cow farm," Cermak said. "They'll come in and say, ‘Not much has changed.'"
Well, there is one big thing that's changed since Cermak took over. Today, Berlin Farms is a no-kill teaching operation that specializes in preserving and protecting endangered and heritage breed animals from Friesian horses to Toulouse geese.
"These are breeds that people grew up with and were common in the late 1800s and the early part of the 20th century," Cermak said on a walk around the property's perimeter, her pockets stuffed with apples for the various animals. "To people that grew up with these varieties it's shocking to hear that the numbers of certain breeds are so low. To farmers, hearing that the Guernsey cow is on a livestock endangered list is like pet owners hypothetically learning that the bulldog had become endangered."
Cermak is a fourth-generation farmer. Her great-grandparents and grandparents owned a 1,000-acre farm out in Western Massachusetts where pigs wandered into the kitchen and her grandmother killed rabbits by hand hours before they showed up on dinner plates. Her mother left the farm in her teens, moving to Washington, DC, and eventually marrying Cermak's father. But Cermak returned to the farm often-it was where, at age 6, she started riding horses. Eventually, the family bought its own farm in Maryland. Cermak considers herself an owner of that farm, along with her parents. Cermak opened Berlin Farms in part because she needed a home for a side project she runs: a luxury dog spa called the Yankee Dog Retreat. But it provided a way for her to take action against what she considers a defining problem in America-the declining numbers of once-popular farm breeds and the loss of the agrarian way of life.
"Many of these breeds are only recently and rapidly diminished in number as the number of farming households has declined toward commercialized farming," Cermak said. "So heritage breeds are not novel. They're the breeds-like those Guernsey cows-that people my parents' age grew up with. Simply, I purchased the farm and started stocking the farm with breeds I knew and liked."
And those breeds are: Chocolate, Black, Royal Palm and Narragansett turkeys, all smaller and thinner than the cartoonish birds we picture strutting around a family farm; Friesian horses and South Down sheep; ducks (Cayuga, Ancona and Rouen) and geese (Exhibition Dewlap Toulouse) that greet visitors at the parking lot. In a coop beyond the lot there are "too many chickens to count," Cermak said. Among the bunch: Sumatra, Polish, Lakenvelder, Cochin, Houdan, Campine, Dominique and Sultan. In addition to the endangered breeds, Cermak also has an adopted horse, Patriot; two ponies, Sugar and Little Dude; an alpaca (Ferdinand) to protect the sheep; a pig named Belle and three adopted, floppy-eared rabbits.
"It's certainly important," Wickstrom said of Cermak's efforts. "If somebody doesn't do it, it won't be long before those breeds are extinct. We need to preserve those gene pools and if she's into doing something like that, then she deserves praise for her efforts."
Cermak's goal with the farm is simple and twofold: 1, to teach people about farms, and 2, to breed and preserve these endangered animals so that one day they will once again be staples on family farms.
"People don't have interaction with agriculture anymore," she said of her first goal. "They don't drive tractors. They don't have animals. They come here and sometimes they don't even know what they're looking at. They'll think a goose is a duck."
As for her second goal, Cermak sounds almost like a brochure as she recites it emphatically. "The goal is to maintain breed diversity in reasonable numbers and in various locations," she said. "I don't see this as an impossible cause. Since I've been doing this, I've seen improvements. You can look at the numbers and see."
She cites as an example, the heritage breed turkey. When the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy first began working to preserve the breeds-of which Cermak has many-in 1997, there were only 1,335 breeding birds of all the varieties combined. In 2003 that number was up to 4,412. In 2006, the date of the most recent census, numbers of breeding birds were up to roughly 10,404.
To accomplish both her goals, Cermak turned the farm into a teaching operation. She encourages families to sponsor an animal-it remains on the farm, but funds are used to feed and house it and the sponsoring families are encouraged to come visit. She's had families from overseas contribute, as well as one couple who, for their wedding, asked guests to sponsor animals at the farm rather than buy gifts.
She also encourages like-minded individuals to buy her animals-mainly the chickens and ducks-and take them home to raise them. "People like coming here and they visit and they think, ‘Maybe I can have a couple in my backyard,'" Cermak said. "Many customers are people with an agricultural history who want to get back to it. Others are well-educated and concerned, or have a background in another green cause."
Chickens cost $10 and ducks are $20, as long as they go to a good home. "We're not opposed to meat eaters, we just want to establish a breeding program to get these numbers up again," Cermak said. "It's important that people start these programs themselves and not just come to [farms] to eat the meat."
The operation takes a lot of sweat, energy and, of course, money to run. Cermak's out at the farm every weekend mucking stalls and frying donuts. She relies on a tiny staff of two farm managers-both young women who are tough as nails-to run things when she's not there. On winter weekends, the farm opens for a country breakfast (think apple crisp pancakes, potatoes Gruyere and chocolate bacon pancakes, all of which Cermak cooks herself ) to bring in extra cash.
There's a storefront, too, full of penny candy, local apples and chicken, goose and duck eggs from the animals. Plus, neighboring farmers use the farm as a storefront to sell their goods. "We provide a space for other people to sell," Cermak said. "We provide a selling point for other farms." It seems to never end. In the summer, she runs a riding camp and in fall, there's a fall festival complete with corn mazes and a moon bounce. All of it brings in extra capital and brings people to the farm that otherwise might not make the trip.
Though things at the farm can get bustling, the operation isn't immune to the recession.
"When times were good, we had 11 people working the fall festival," Cermak said. Now, it's down to the three women. When she started the farm, Cermak said she'd sell 300 pounds of cider donuts every weekend during the fall season. Today, that number's down to 60 pounds. She refers to those days as "when times were good." In another sign of the times, people are increasingly stopping by and dropping off animals, like the farm's three rabbits, that they can no longer afford to keep. "People are broke," Cermak said, "and when you're a farm, people just drop things off."
But Cermak remains optimistic. She's seen her small effort make a difference in the world of heritage breed animals. "It's about the relationship to animals and the repurposing of animals, too. We like teaching and providing information to the general public about our way of life in agriculture. It makes us happy."
And, closer to home, she's seen her operation have an impact on the Berlin farming community and in the lives of families who come to visit. "It's about preserving the breeds, but also the family farm," she said. "Farms in Massachusetts are very expensive now, prohibitively expensive. There are issues of zoning and people need to push back to continue the right to farm. We were handed a fixer-upper and we went in there to create jobs and provide a space for other people to sell."
And Cermak isn't slowing down. She plans to finish the large basement so she can teach horseback riding in the winter. She wants to continue to bring new people to the farm and increase the number of animal sponsors. It's hard work, she says, but someone's got to do it.
"Farming hasn't been bad for me," she joked. "It's a good work ethic and it's very fulfilling. I want people to get enough exposure so that they, too, can choose this lifestyle if they want to."
Writer Julia Rappaport is assistant Arts and Lifestyle editor at the Boston Herald. She cut her chops (and learned how to get dirty, slaughter a chicken and fish in the dark) as a farming and agriculture reporter on Martha's Vineyard. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, Edible Vineyard, the Vineyard Gazette, Martha's Vineyard Magazine, Vineyard Style and Island Weddings. You can follow her at twitter.com/Julia_Rappaport.