CONCORD — Farming requires more than dirt, seeds, water, and sun. “It’s actually a lot of math and spreadsheets,” says Laura Olive Sackton, owner and cofounder of First Root Farm.
Sackton, 28, is part of a growing number of young farmers who are trading college acceptance letters for apprenticeships on the land. Officials from the Department of Agricultural Resources estimate that of the 419 millennials farming in Massachusetts, 288 own and operate their own properties. Sackton, a Lexington native with a friendly smile, a smattering of freckles, and plenty of dirt under her fingernails, started the nearly 4-acre vegetable farm with a single acre in 2009.
Located within the Minute Man National Historical Park, First Root Farm offers Community Supported Agriculture to 175 members. The farm received its initial land and housing grant, renewed annually, from Battle Road Farms, an agricultural venture in which the Farm School of Athol partners with Minute Man to increase agricultural activity within the park. As more parcels of land within the park have become available Sackton has slowly expanded.
First Root is scattered across several fields on Lexington Road and is run like a collaborative. Rather than giving herself top billing , Sackton and two co-farmers, Nina Zinsser Booth and Cheryl Nunes, both also 28, troubleshoot problems and manage operations as a team. “We’re here, there, and everywhere,” says Sackton, gesturing toward different areas.
The fields are at their height right now. One PYO flower field, with snapdragons and black-eyed Susans, is brilliant with colorful blooms. White butterflies dart in and above rows of eggplant and pole beans. Edible weeds grow along the perimeter of the fields and barn, greens like lamb’s quarters, Queen Anne’s lace, wood sorrel, and dandelion greens have a peaceful coexistence beside traditional summer produce. Insects and the occasional roar of a passing car provide the soundtrack for the farmers and two apprentices as they harvest organically grown produce in preparation for a CSA pickup. “We give out $700 to $800 of produce to a customer who paid $650 for their share, as a thank-you for paying up front,” says Sackton.
This season, First Root began offering half-shares for $350, which appeals to first-time members, couples, and cash-strapped college students. The farm also offers a limited number of work shares, in which members help out one morning a week, earning their harvest share. “We’re experimenting with different revenue streams,” says Sackton. The farm also offers a flower CSA, and is currently selling shares for late autumn crops, as well as winter shares that will feature cellared root vegetables. There are PYO vegetable fields and a farmstand. Concord restaurants Haute Coffee and 80 Thoreau buy from the farm, which also sells at the Tuesday market in Lexington, and offers CSA pickups in Somerville.
First Root’s bouquets decorate 80 Thoreau’s dining room, and the farm will be working closely with the restaurant on a root vegetable campaign in the fall.
A big white barn, which serves as a welcoming, cool respite from the unrelenting August sun, is where the CSA pickup happens. Neighbors swap eggplant recipes and commiserate about making pickles with the whopping 4 pounds of cucumbers in this week’s share. Chalkboard signs implore members to fill their totes with the day’s bounty. Among the scallions, hot peppers, and summer squash, the stars of the week’s harvest are heirloom tomatoes.
With their curious shapes and colors from burgundy to gold, each is a sight to behold. “The pickup each week is just so artistic. You come into this dim barn, and the vegetables are beautiful with nicely displayed signs. There’s just something very appealing about it,” says CSA member Kathy Mislan, a technical writer.
“My kids have really grown up going to the farm,” says member Betsy Martel. “Picking out their vegetables gives them a lot of ownership over their food. First Root is a great venue for hands-on learning about local farming, sustainability, and healthy eating. My kids think of Laura, Nina, and Cheryl as their farmers.”
Jonathan Jackson, a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience at Brandeis University, agrees. “The farmers are so enthusiastic and personable, and we swap stories and recipes,” he says. “Knowing the people growing your food somehow seems to make it taste better. You’re a part of their lives, and they’ve really changed the way I think about food.”
Sackton began farming at 17 during a semester at the Mountain School in Vershire, Vt., in the Northeast Kingdom, an academically rigorous boarding program for high school juniors interested in agriculture. “That’s what got me hooked,” she says. She spent a few summers during and after high school working on vegetable farms, then a year at Oberlin College and a semester at Sterling College before deciding that farming was her calling. “I wanted to be doing my summer job all the time,” she says.
She enrolled at the Farm School in a yearlong apprenticeship program for about a dozen students. The curriculum covers tractor repair, food preservation, and business management. The group runs the school’s CSA program, mends fences, and visits nearly two dozen farms to look at marketing strategies. Instructors teach budding farmers that agriculture is a business where the savvy survive. Farm School director Patrick Connors describes Sackton as “always upbeat, ready for anything,” traits he considers necessary for farmers.
When she graduated from the program in 2008, Sackton hatched a business plan and founded First Root with Ariel Berman, a fellow Farm School alum. Berman is now in a psychology master’s program. “It was always understood that I was going to help start First Root and then Laura was going to run it,” says Berman, who is helping with a Saturday harvest with his rescue dog, Lucy. He still works one or two days a week on the farm, taking fresh produce as payment. “Laura decided that I am Farmer Emeritus,” he says.
In their first year with 1 acre, Sackton and Berman were able to get through without major equipment purchases. “We did things on the fly our first season. We borrowed tools and tilled the fields by hand. The neighboring farmers have been helpful from the beginning,” says Sackton.
In 2012, First Root raised over $10,000 on Kickstarter, and used it, among other things, to purchase a walk-behind tractor and plow. In early spring, the farm shares greenhouse space with Gaining Ground, a nonprofit organic hunger relief farm. Sackton introduced herself to the farmer next to her in the national park, who now tills First Root’s fields each spring. “The better we all do, the healthier the agricultural scene is in general,” says Sackton.
First Root’s three co-farmers live together in West Concord. Zinsser Booth majored in environmental science at Vassar College and had her sights set on an acting career before she farmed one summer. “I’m trying to learn all I can about running a business,” says Zinsser Booth, who is leaving at the end of this season to start a farm in her native Virginia.
Nunes got her start on an urban farm in Brooklyn, and built community gardens in New Orleans before attending the Farm School in 2011. Like the other women, she takes turns preparing lunch for the team, which they eat during a mandatory hourlong break. “That’s probably the best part of working here,” says Nunes. “There are so many farmers that don’t eat the food that they grow, because they don’t make time to enjoy it.”
“It’s a women-run farm, and we love that,” says Sackton. She is adamant about maintaining a healthy work schedule. Employees begin at 7:30 a.m. and call it a day at 5 p.m., even during the height of the season. “It’s all about balancing work and life in a healthful way,” she says. “If our quality of life is better, we’re able to work more efficiently.” Sackton insists that each farmer take a week off every summer.
Excess farm produce is donated to the food rescue organization Lovin’ Spoonfuls, who received over 1,500 pounds last year, and the food pantry Open Table (different from the restaurant reservation site).
At night, Sackton engages with customers on social media, updates the farm’s website, and analyzes data to increase yields. “As a child, I was convinced I would become a writer,” she says, so she’s happy doing the weekly member newsletter, writing recipes, and updating the blog. During winters, Sackton used to do odd jobs, but now that First Root is breaking even, she no longer needs to walk dogs, baby-sit, or scan groceries. “I’m paying myself a salary I can live on. It’s not enormous, but now I can support myself,” she says.
After the harvest, she’ll start enjoying the 70-odd jars of produce she preserves each August. “I make more pickles than I know what to do with,” she says. “That’s one of the best things about farming. I eat vast quantities of fresh vegetables in the summer, and I eat vast quantities of preserved food in the winter.”
And she finally gets to wash the dirt off her hands.
First Root Farm, 955 Lexington Road, Concord, 617-504-8055, www.firstrootfarm.com