By Tara Taft
Sculpture by Yin Peet/ Photograph by Michael Piazza
When Linda Hoffman first saw the old apple orchard in Harvard, the farmhouse paint was peeling, there were no apples on the apple trees, and there was just empty bare land. “It was kind of a sad place,” she says. But there was something about it. “This place will keep me grounded,” she thought, and it has.
As holistic farmers, Linda and her husband, Blase Provitola, believe that all things are interconnected and have incorporated that philosophy into their farming and into their lives. They have created a place, Old Frog Pond Farm, where agriculture, art, and community come together.
The organic farm offers pick-your-own raspberries in late August and pick-your-own apples in the fall. Throughout the summer and fall, seasonal vegetables and berries are for sale at the farm stand. In September, visitors can meander among sculptures, listen as poets read their poems at their site of inspiration, or hear the music of West African drums. Visitors can take classes on agriculture or art or just enjoy the serenity of the farm. “I think people come here and sense peacefulness and quality. It’s not just to pick berries. It’s to enjoy the experience and the kind of connection it offers,” says Blase.
Now apples grow in the orchard along the side of a country road. The sign out front reads, “The sound of all hands clapping.” The pond is shimmering, and Linda, owner of Old Frog Pond Farm greets me with a warm smile. As I follow her through the orchard, I notice apples the size of small plums on the many trees. She points out a few of the different varieties, apples like Macintosh, Honey Crisp, and Liberty. This apple orchard is unlike any other I have visited. Instead of mown grass, beneath the apple trees grow comfrey, bee balm, echinacea, St. John’s wort, mountain mint, and even Jerusalem artichokes, to help re-mineralize the soil and to create biodiversity.
Behind the orchard, there are rocks piled in the shape of a giant turtle, a meditation hut where Linda goes every morning, and her own garden, which Linda calls the “Garden of Eden,” full of wildflowers and fruit trees and herbs. “The orchard has my whole body and soul,” Linda says.
Near the farmhouse, the raspberries are full and deep and not trellised, and also interspersed with herbs. There are Asian pears and dwarf apples, nectarines, and traditional pears, vegetables, and a hoop house.
Beyond the house and the orchard is a pond covered with lily pads. Linda tells me there is a wild apple tree growing near the pond; the farm’s first, planted by some bird. A dyke creates a waterfall and offers access to the land on the other side where the words “taste, light, twigs, token, ancient, and passion” are part of a stone garden and where some of Linda’s sculptures can be found.
Linda knew a lot about art but nothing about farming when she first visited the old orchard in 2001. “I am an artist first of all,” she says. So why did this artist become a farmer? “There’s something about apples that is intriguing. I was just determined to bring this orchard back, and I decided I was going to do it
The couple’s growing philosophy—feed the soil, heal the earth—is behind everything they do. As they practice nutrient-dense farming, Linda grows the fruit while Blase grows all the potatoes and vegetables for the farm stand. They believe that by getting the soil and the plants as healthy as they can be, the trees will take care of themselves. “I can see the difference,” Linda says. “I have stopped even the organic pesticides. The only thing I’m spraying is nutrients. I think that’s really exciting.” Blase adds,“The plant is the antennae and the soil is the conductor. … It’s a whole system, and we’re part of it.”
For Linda and Blase, neither of whom had any experience in farming, there was a huge learning curve. The farming community has been supportive, and Dan Kittredge of Bionutrient Food Association and Phil Jones of Jones Farm in Chelmsford are just two of the many who have helped along the way. Denis Wagner, who knew orchards because of his work at Nashoba Valley Winery, taught Linda how to prune. At a meeting of holistic growers, Linda met Michael Phillips, author of two books on holistic growing, and John Bunker of Fedco Seeds who offered to help her graft and create varieties beyond the farm’s original red delicious apple trees. In three years, the farm had new varieties, and in 2006, Old Frog Pond Farm became the first certified organic apple orchard in Massachusetts. The biggest thing Linda says she’s learned is to be patient, not to react, but just to wait and watch. “It’s literally unbelievable to watch what nature does.”
As Linda watches, she does so with an artist’s eye. “The orchard is a big complex sculpture to me.” Linda says. “Pruning is not that different than sculpting. You’re looking at a tree—the balance of it. You want to let light in so that all branches receive light. It’s that same eye and hand work.”
An artist by education, Linda spent two years just out of college living in Japan and studying classical Japanese musical theater. “I was so taken with Noh Theater. It’s very complex, deep, esoteric, poetic, visually truly alive and beautiful.” Back in the United States, Linda began creating Haiku-like poems on cloth, adding color and natural objects to the cloth. Eventually she turned to sculpture. Now she makes small figures in wax, casts them in bronze, and incorporates them into a sculpture with stone or wood and tools.
In response to the disappearance of farmland around Groton and her belief in the importance of farmland to the landscape, Linda made a series of sculptures using old agricultural tools. Then she bought the farm. “There I was doing all this art about the disappearance of farmland and suddenly I was walking the talk and becoming a farmer and using these tools.” Not long after Linda bought the farm, she met Blase. In May 2014 they were married.
“In 2006 we were certified organic, and we had our first crop … but we didn’t have the public because people didn’t know about us,” Linda laughs. “We made a lot of apple sauce and apple juice.” Now people drive from as far away as Maine and the apples are gone before Columbus Day. “There’s a population that really appreciates that they can come and pick organic apples.” According to Linda, there’s something mindful about picking, whether it’s raspberries or apples. “That’s the peace we can share with people. And that’s the part that is often not available in much of the world.”
Adults and their children come for more than just the picking and the organic fruit. They come for education, they come for art, and they come for community. “People come here, and it’s sort of an experience,” Blase says. This summer there were three workshops at the farm. Shelby Howland of Howland Tools demonstrated the use of the scythe. NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) Massachusetts offered two classes. Linda taught a class on organic berries and small fruit (with Charlotte Trim) and another class on organic apple growing. In September, the farm will host a workshop on native plant growing by Dr. Nicole Andrade.
For years, Linda and her friend, poet Susan Edwards Richmond, edited “Wild Apples,” a journal of nature, art, and inquiry. Now Susan edits the farm’s website’s poem-of-the-month and organizes its annual Plein Air Poetry walk. This year, 13 poets will read their poems inspired by locations on the farm on September 13. “It’s a wonderful event,” Linda says. “We all walk around, and the poets read. People realize the poem. They get it. They’re right there. They can feel what the poet was trying to capture.”
Also in September, the farm will host a sculpture exhibit Linda calls, “Around the Pond and Through the Woods” which evolved from an outdoor exhibit Linda did at Fruitlands Museum in 2004 and 2005. “I then had the idea to do it here,” she says. “I invited sculptors who are friends to bring their sculptures to the farm.” The public is invited to take a walk through the farm’s woods to discover the sculptures of over 20 artists in a natural setting. This year’s reception will be on Sunday, September 20 and will include live jazz and folk music.
Visitors can join in on some African drumming in late September or celebrate the winter solstice in December. “What’s fascinating here is how you create something with not just yourself in mind, but you open it up and people just show up,” Blase says. “I find it magical the way people are drawn here.”
When Blase isn’t farming, he’s conducting men’s workshops at local prisons, woodworking, or playing his West African drums. When Linda isn’t farming, she’s sculpting in her studio on the farm or working on her memoir. “It’s about bringing the orchard back and doing it organically,” Linda says.
When Linda bought the farm, her friends thought she was crazy. So when she was looking for a name for the farm, she sent out a postcard with a frog photoshopped onto a picture of the pond, and wrote, “Plunging into the unknown.” That photo helped name the farm. “In naming something new you commit to it. I wanted a name that was important to me, and there was this big pond,” Linda says. The farm ended up getting its name from a haiku poem written by the 18th century poet Matsuo Basho:
Old pond / frog jumps / splash of water.
“The name is good for what we do,” Blase says, and I agree. The name incorporates the natural beauty and simplicity of the farm with the art of a poem. Sometimes people call and ask, “What else do you have? Do you have a jumping room for children?” Linda laughs. “We don’t have any of that, but we have really great art.”
For more information on Linda’s art, go to lindahoffman.com.
Old Frog Pond Farm oldfrogpondfarm.com 38 Eldridge Rd, Harvard 978.456.9828
Tara Taft loves to explore new places, new food, and farmers markets. She is the author of a travel blog and co-author of a travel memoir, The Tucker - Tyler Adventure. You can reach her on Twitter @tara_taft.