by Rosalie DeQuattro
If you’re a food tourist, or a farm stand junkie like me, you’ll want to head out this fall toward the quiet, overlooked farm country of Boxborough, in search of the no-frills Burroughs Farm. A little difficult to find (but worth the trip), Burroughs grows vegetables, fruits and grain—organically grown, basic edible goodness from the earth. You won’t find cookies or jams or frozen turkey pies—just a satisfying variety of fresh-picked produce. And if you get really lucky, you may find the farm’s owner, Bryon Clemence.
Clemence, 56, wiry and twinkly eyed, is every bit the weathered, laconic New England farmer. But you can get him talking. He knows fascinating things about the farm’s past, and what he relates paints a realistic picture of a life in farming. He can trace back his family’s history in Massachusetts for generations. He knows where his great, great, great (that’s three greats!) grandfather lived in Acton. And he’s a pleasure to talk to.
Burroughs Farm has been in Clemence’s family since 1848. He tends the 50-acre farm (four acres are under cultivation at this time) with the help of an organic farming expert and farm manager, Ed Skricki; a marketing manager, Kathie Becker; and four fieldhands. This is Burroughs Farm’s second year of full production. “I’d say I put a lot of effort, with my family, into preserving the farm and then it seemed time to put my money where my mouth was, to walk the walk.”
Clemence, who is an environmental engineer by profession, uses organic practices on the farm. He feels optimistic that in today’s climate with the premium placed on “local,” his farm can attain sustainability. “I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t make a good business case for it.” He and five other nieces and nephews inherited Burroughs Farm from their aunt, Sylvia Sheehan, who lived on the farm her whole life. She and her father ran the farm as a dairy, delivering milk as far away as Andover. Clemence remembers helping out when he was a boy. The property included a rambling old farmhouse, circa 1750, attached barn and 50 acres.
Sheehan died in 2000, and in 2003 Clemence and his family sold the house and barn but kept the land.
Long before she died, Sheehan began the legal process to preserve her land as farmland forever. Clemence told me, “The farm could have easily ended were it not for my aunt and her plain stubbornness.”
To honor her wish after her death, the family continued the process she had begun. “Preservation brought this family together in a big way,” Clemence said. The family worked through the Massachusetts estate planning laws and the agricultural restriction program guidelines. Sixteen years later, in 2001, Sheehan’s wish was finally granted and Burroughs Farm became a farm in perpetuity.
The Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program, under which Burroughs Farm operates, is a voluntary program managed by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR). The program’s purpose is to preserve farmland and to protect it from being built upon for non-agricultural uses. Essentially, the Burroughs Farm Estate donated its land-development rights (there can only ever be one house built on the property—that of the farm owner) in return for an estate tax benefit and the privilege of keeping the land in farming forever. I call that a win-win.
And by the way, if you bushwhacked straight out the back of Burroughs you’d eventually come to Stow Street in Boxborough, the site of another “startup.” There, on about 65 acres leased from the Minute Man Airfield, Bob Stanley, 40, has started Stanley Farm. Last year, he installed the farm infrastructure. This year he has about 25 acres of vegetables to sell. Stanley tells me he is part of a growing trend of farmers who lease properties for farming, since land prices and taxes are out of reach for most these days. He also leases farmland in Leominster and in New Braintree.
Someday he’ll build a barn on the farm (he’s saving up), but for now the farm stand is a canopy that frames a lovely, unobstructed view of farmland and forest spreading out from the road to the horizon.
Rosie DeQuattro is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Edible Boston. She writes the occasional food blog Food and Wine With a Story (www.rosiedequattro.com). Contact Rosie at firstname.lastname@example.org.