The summer before my senior year in college, I traveled to Alaska with a group of friends to work at a salmon-processing plant. I soon found myself on a boat, working 20-hour shifts, endlessly gutting fish, somewhere along the chain of Aleutian Islands that jut out from the southwest corner of the state.
The trip was more adventure than it was career choice, as by the end of my three-month sojourn, I was quite ready to return to my pursuit of a vocation that would hopefully land me a nice, cushy desk job.
Chris Kurth, who today owns Siena Farms in Sudbury, also set out to work the summer before his senior year in college. There, however, the similarities end. His job working Hutchins Farm in Concord, a 65-acre organic farm, turned him into a real farmer. “I never turned back, and I’ve never done anything else,” he said.
When people think of farmers, they think of Stephen Verrill, now well into his 80s, still working his tractor, along the same Concord family farm he grew up on and worked for most of his entire life. But even at more than 200 acres, his farm is small by our nation’s standards. Massive factory-farms blanket the heartland, churning thousands of acres into produce that fill supermarket shelves countrywide.
But in cities — mostly, liberal blue-state cities — the notion of a farm is very different. Led by people like Kurth, today’s farms are small — 100 acres or less. They line roof-tops, fill city alleys, and even ride on the flatbeds of trucks. These micro-farms are part of the small-farm movement. An urban-fueled happening, where healthy, organic, farm-to-table food dominates demand. Where knowing your farmer is as important as knowing your chef.
The other factor driving small farms is community supported agriculture, or CSA, an economic model that started in Europe and arrived first in Massachusetts in the 1980s. CSAs are where non-farmers buy a share of produce from farmers in advance of the season and then collect a bounty of fresh produce across the growing season. CSAs are now popping up everywhere, and are an incredible boon to the success of small farms like Siena Farms.
The new demand has helped to launch apprenticeship programs where young college graduates are finding a pathway to the farm as a legitimate career choice, or at least an adventure. But it’s not just twenty-somethings working the long hard hours. It’s also mid-career lawyers seeking a change.
It’s also people like Susan Turner, a former graphic artist, in search of something different. Susan, at only 57, is the oldest person on Siena Farms. Her previous job involved the mind-numbing work of typesetting those financial prospectuses that are immediately discarded. At some point she was “cooked,” — as she put it — and took a nearly two-thirds pay cut to start working at the farm instead. She now runs the farm’s CSA program and delivers a sampling of nearly 200 possible varieties of vegetables in half-bushel shipments to participating members who pay more than $500 a season. Most of the participants are in Cambridge and Boston.
Sure, there’s a whiff of elitism in every bunch of kale that arrives in the homes of wealthy urbanites. But when scaled, such CSA programs will create more local farming jobs and expand healthy offerings to all.
That’s why companies like Alkermes, a biopharmaceutical company with its research center located in Waltham, and the Amherst credit union, UMassFive, deserve recognition. Alkermes enrolls participating employees into the CSA and gradually deducts smaller payments from paychecks over time. The credit union offers a no interest loan for a share at any local CSA, knowing that it will eventually benefit the economic health of the wider community.
Then there are nonprofits like Fair Foods that are offering bags of healthy produce to low-income Boston families for only $2. Convenient pick-up locations at local community centers provide excellent access to nearby residents.
There’s more that can be done. Chris tells me that right now he has 20,000 pounds of butternut squash just perfect for a large institutional kitchen like an area hospital or college. By shifting some of their produce buy to local small farms, Boston’s corporations and nonprofits would put people like Chris and Susan to work. Or perhaps, one day, it would make it possible for the rest of us to escape our desk jobs to till the soil and work the land.