By Margaret LeRoux
Winter used to be the slow season on New England farms, a time to peruse seed catalogs and plan for the summer ahead. Now that is so over, as increasing numbers of small farmers try to stretch the growing and selling seasons with strategies from new crops to buying clubs. They’re trying to hang on to customers cultivated at farmers markets in the spring, summer and fall.
Some, like Linabella’s Gourmet Garlic Farm, a micro-agribusiness in Oakham, are altering their marketing plans. Jeff and Michelle Howard founded Linabella’s—named for their two daughters, Angelina and Isabella—as a specialty food business eight years ago. Since the recession they have struggled to grow sales of their gourmet pesto, so they have refocused on the agricultural side of their enterprise.
The couple left corporate jobs for a three-acre farm where they planted and grew basil and garlic, using organic methods. “Everyone who tasted our pesto told us we should sell it,” Jeff said. The couple put their master’s degrees in entrepreneurship to work researching the market.
“We went to Whole Foods and bought every pesto they sold and taste-tested them at home,” said Michelle. “We knew we could beat the competition with our product.” They developed six varieties of Linabella’s Gourmet Pesto: traditional and versions with extra garlic, maple syrup, vegan, garlic scapes and one without cheese.
The pesto-making process in Linabella’s commercial kitchen is an assembly line of two: Michelle preps ingredients and washes the basil leaves, Jeff handles the three-quart food processor. They set up a website for online sales and had their pesto accepted by Whole Foods for sale in the frozen foods section.
The Howards launched their pesto in 2003 at the North Quabbin Garlic & Arts Festival during a rainstorm. Ever since, weather has been a major factor in the growth and development of the farm and the specialty foods business. Jeff and Michelle have planted and harvested garlic in the rain and they watched helplessly one summer as storms pummeled much of their basil crop. They’ve sweated through Indian summer days of garlic planting—last year the two of them put 34,000 cloves into the ground; it took three solid weeks.
The Howards have booths at the Dewey Square farmers market in Boston and Klem’s market in Spencer and they also participate in garlic festivals throughout the region. When it rained for two of three weekend garlic festivals this fall, they saw sales drop by almost 25%.
Linabella has also been hit with big increases in the price of ingredients. In the past two years the cost of cold-pressed olive oil, Parmesan and Romano cheeses and pine nuts has soared. Pine nuts more than doubled to a high of $19 a pound last year before settling at $15. The cost of the plastic containers and labels for the pesto has also doubled in the past 18 months.
Three years ago the Howards began an expansion plan to add other crops such as heirloom tomatoes and salad greens. They invested in a well, irrigation system, two high-tunnel hoop houses and solar panels to power the entire operation. Grants from the Agricultural Management Assistance program of the United States Department of Agriculture, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources energy grant program and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center will help pay for the improvements to the farm. Still, the couple had to put up more than $60,000 of their own money.
Last winter, they planned to grow salad greens and spinach in their hoop houses. Disaster struck when one of them collapsed during a snow and sleet storm.
“That set us back about four months,” said Jeff. “If we’d lost both hoop houses, I was ready to give up farming,” adds Michelle.
This season they planted 10 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in the remaining hoop house. They also grew sweet potatoes and eggplant as well as strawberries and watermelon on their own land plus five acres leased in the neighboring town of Hardwick. Michelle baked scones, cookies and fruit crisps to sell at their farmers market booths.
As they look to the future, the Howards are hopeful that new crops of spinach and winter greens will help grow their farm business. Demand is high among farmers market customers. If the weather would only cooperate…
Open Meadow Farm
Well before farmers markets in eastern Massachusetts closed for the season, customers of Open Meadow Farm were asking owners Charles and Robin Dance how they could continue to buy grass-fed beef, beefalo, pastured pork and chickens during the winter.
The Dances, who farm in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, have been selling frozen meat and chickens at markets in Billerica, Groton, Marblehead, Marshfield and Middleton for the past two seasons. Starting in December, they will deliver directly to members of a recently launched meat buyers club. A $500 fee to join includes six months of meat delivery and a $80 credit every month from December to May 2012. Members can select individual cuts of meat from Open Meadow’s online store.
Robin Dance explains how the couple arrived at the cost structure of the club. “All of our costs have increased this year—insurance, feed and website maintenance, to name a few—and we felt that incorporating a fee to join the Meat Buyers Club was a better choice than to raising our prices across the board. If you break down the fee to join, it comes to only $33 dollars a month to choose what members want for their families delivered to their door monthly. In addition, some of the meat products offered to members of the Meat Buyers Club will not be available to the general public.”
The Dances emphasize that their meat prices are significantly lower than some of their competitors. “We charge $7.49 for smoked bacon and there are others who charge $12.99,” Robin said.
“The meat buyers club is different from a CSA in that customers choose what they want, not what we select for them,” added Charles.
It’s been a challenge for meat farmers like the Dances to educate their customers about the expenses involved in raising grass-fed meat in a climate where grass doesn’t grow for at least four months of the year. “There’s a disconnect between what customers want and what they’re willing to pay,” says Charles. “I want my customers to have consistent quality, whether they’re buying meat or chicken in July or December.”
The couple’s first foray into the marketplace early in 2009 ran up against a combination of New England frugality and the recession. The Dances had raised a small herd of pigs on their two-acre farm and tried to sell the meat to wholesalers. “The prices we were quoted didn’t even cover our costs,” Charles said. They next advertised in local newspapers hoping to attract retail sales, but found no takers among their neighbors in north central Massachusetts.
With five calves on order for spring delivery, the couple had expected the pork sales to pay for them. Charles began researching demographics and realized they needed to target a different base of customers. They started with a booth at the farmers market in Milton and joined Mass Local Food, an online co-op. Suddenly they found customers much more appreciative of grass-fed meat and willing to pay premium prices for it.
Like their counterparts on much larger farms in the Midwest and West, farmers in New England have to be flexible and adaptable in order to survive. But the small scale of operations such as the Dances’ magnifies the challenges. They raise Cornish Cross chickens in a mobile pen that keeps the grass in their backyard grub-free all summer. The pigs, cows and beefalo live on rented acreage in Lancaster and in the neighboring town of Templeton.
The Dances hadn’t intended to become farmers when they moved to Lunenburg in 1997. Charles grew up in Holbrook, hearing stories about his grandmother’s life as a sharecropper in Illinois and Indiana. Robin grew up in Beverly; the couple met in Bridgewater, where they both attended college. With plans to build a home, they looked west for affordable property and found the two acres where they now live with their four children.
A few years ago Charles bought a side of beef from a farmer. “We were amazed at how much better it tasted than store-bought meat,” he said. A friend convinced them to join him in a small pig-raising venture, moving the pens around their huge backyard. Within months the pigs had decimated the vegetation and escaped more than once.
While Robin learned the intricacies of electric fencing at the local Agway, Charles surfed the Internet for ways to build better pigpens. “I stumbled upon an article about pasturing pigs and it just blew me away,” he said. The article was written by Jack Kittredge, an organic farmer in Barre who also is policy director for the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Charles phoned Kittredge for more information and became convinced of the value of pasturing. “Better for the pigs and better meat for the customers,” he said.
Today, the Dances’ pigs—a variety of breeds including Poland China, Landrace, Yorkshire, Berkshire, Large Black and English Old Spotted—live on 200 forested and fenced acres they rent a couple of miles from home. The herd of 26 cows and beefalo graze on land that’s a combination of pasture and forest. The cows, beefalo and pigs stay outdoors year round; there are shelters in the pastures.
Two years ago the Dances started raising chickens, a meat crop that’s had the biggest growth potential of all their animals. “We sold 400 chickens last year,” Charles said, “and this coming year we plan to raise 1,000 in flocks of 300 at a time.”
So far, customers have not balked at the price, which ranges from just under $20 to $25 per chicken. When Charles came to that figure, Robin thought he was crazy. “Who’s going to pay that much for a chicken?” she asked. But her husband set it all down on paper: the cost to buy and raise the chickens, the price of gasoline to make the 100-mile round trip drive to Vermont to have them processed and the $5 fee per bird that goes to the USDA-approved slaughterhouse.
Charles explains, “One-third of the cost goes to buying the chickens, one-third is the cost of processing them and one-third goes to purchasing more chickens. Somewhere in that equation we need to make a profit.”
Misty Brook Farm
Down a winding and hilly road off Route 122, the route to the pickup site for Misty Brook Farm’s CSA is scenic in the fall. A few miles from the central Massachusetts town of Barre, the road is lined with colorful maple, oak and birch trees. Although the same drive can be treacherous in January, customers in Misty Brook’s year-round all-organic CSA were undeterred even during last winter’s many snowstorms.
“We had very few problems with people missing the pickups,” said Katia Holmes, who farms Misty Brook with her husband, Brendan, and their two young sons, Allistair and John.
The farm has a loyal base of customers who come from all over New England and as far away as New York. They willingly pay a premium price for organic produce, grass-fed beef, veal, pastured pork, chickens, eggs, grains, cheese and raw milk.
The year-round CSA shares are $10 per person per day and include “all the food a family needs,” said Holmes. Unlike other CSAs, this one allows members to select from bins of produce in the barn at the pickup site and from the dairy cooler and meat freezer in the farm’s store.
Holmes says they never have met any resistance to their prices. “Once people taste what we produce, they don’t mind the cost,” she said. “We price our products on what we need to make a living. We want our food to be affordable and accessible; we keep that in mind.”
The organic practices of Misty Brook Farm’s owners and employees (one full-time, three part-time and additional help in the summer) originated at the Biodynamic Agricultural College in East Sussex, England, where both Brendan and Katia studied.
The couple started their own organic farm operation in 2005. It’s now 250 rented acres spread out over four towns and 14 different landlords. They raise a herd of 25 Jersey cows for milk in addition to beef cows, 60 hogs, 200 laying hens and broiler chickens. The cows are grass-fed in pastures during the spring, summer and fall; in winter they’re fed hay. The rooting pigs are the natural rototillers of the pastures.
Misty Brook’s year-round CSA has 20 members; in addition there are meat-only CSA members who pay $800 for six monthly selections or $550 for four months. A summer CSA is $650 for 22 weeks of produce. During the summer and fall CSA members are welcome to take one of the farm’s tote bags out to the field and fill it with vegetables or flowers.
The big draw, however, is raw milk sold by the gallon in glass bottles; Misty Brook is one of the few farms in the area that is licensed to sell it.
Chelsea Whipf drives almost an hour from South Hadley in the Pioneer Valley to buy produce and raw milk. “I have two children and it’s important to me that the food we eat is healthy,” she said. Whipf says she’s eaten many new vegetables since joining Misty Brook’s CSA. “I learned to love beets,” she said. “The CSA has inspired me to try many vegetarian recipes.”
On pickup days, Holmes shares recipes, links to food blogs and makes conversation with CSA members while her children and theirs play near the barn and snack on husk cherries, small berries with a paper-like covering similar to tomatillos. They taste a little like pineapple.
While she was growing up, Holmes says she wanted to be a veterinarian. “I’ve since realized I’d rather keep animals healthy through good land management practices than try and fix sick animals,” she said.
Margaret LeRoux is a freelance writer in central Massachusetts who occasionally exchanges her laptop for a hoe, although from the looks of her backyard garden, she better not give up her day job.