Visitors to next weekend’s Concord Farm and Garden Fair will have their choice of activities: They may wish to take a hayride, pet a goat, climb onto a tractor, sample a fresh-grown tomato, or dig up a potato.
But don’t be fooled into thinking this is just another quaint, old-timey New England fall festival, a few hours of old-fashioned fun on the farm before everyone returns to their high-tech, 21st-century lives.
No, the Concord gathering’s organizers have a mission and a message: Agriculturism isn’t just a relic from the past — it is alive and well. Many leading voices in the environmental movement believe local farming and gardening may be the key to solving some of the ever-growing problems of food distribution and climate change.
“The food system has become extremely complicated, but it wasn’t always like that,” said Brooke Redmond, chairwoman of the Concord Food Policy Council, formed last fall, and one of the event’s organizers.
“Growing food should be simple. It’s just become complicated because of politics and economics and culture,’’ she said. “In Concord, we have some of the most solid agrarian roots in the country, as well as a revolutionary spirit.”
And organizers hope that spirit will catch fire beyond the lineup of events Saturday and next Sunday.
“People here won’t stand for the status quo if it doesn’t make sense to them, and a lot about our food distribution system in this country doesn’t make sense,” Redmond said. “The Farm and Garden Fair is a chance for people to learn and understand and try to make changes.”
It was that philosophy that motivated Redmond and other members of the Food Policy Council, as well as representatives from the Concord Climate Action Network, the Gardeners’ Cooperative, the town’s Agricultural Commission, and other groups to put some thought over the past year into how to better bring their message to the public.
An annual farmers market called Ag Day has been going on for several years. Local farmers have picked one Saturday afternoon each September to sell fruits, vegetables, and other locally grown specialties in Concord Center.
But this year, that event is only the start to a full weekend of activities. The farmers market will run on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and will be followed by the Farm and Garden Fair, which will be from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.
Saturday afternoon’s focus is garden tours, and Sunday’s is farm visits. Highlights at the 24 locations on the program include gardening tips; cooking demonstrations; livestock visits; discussions on topics such as solar power, beekeeping, and community gardening; and a kids’ film fest.
The importance of local farming strikes close to the heart for Charles “Chip” Poutasse, a 65-year-old Concord native who is the sixth generation of his family to run Brigham Farm.
“From the point of view of a commercial farmer in town, sustainability here is all about how you survive economically when you are producing the same products that cost much less when they are shipped in from California,” Poutasse said.
“Most of the land that was being farmed when I was a child in Concord in the 1950s is now new houses or commercial development. None of that land is going to be returned to agriculture, so feeding the community exclusively from Concord farms is not an option. When we talk about sustainability for farmers, what we mean is how we preserve the small chunk of commercial farming that still remains here.”
Among the gardens to be featured on the tour next Sunday is one belonging to Melissa Hoffer and Robert Plotkin.
“We have about 900 square feet of crops in production,” Hoffer said. “With the use of hoop gardens, we can grow three seasons out of the year.”
This spring, they grew spinach, leeks, garlic, and early lettuce.“Then we rotated the crops to onions, beets, carrots, and tomatoes,” she said. “Now we are rotating over to . . . crops like kale, collards, and turnips.”
Hoffer and Plotkin are rightfully proud of their gardens as well as their small herd of goats, a source of milk and cheese, but it’s as much a philosophy as a hobby, Hoffer said.
“As we move to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate,” she said, “sustainable, decentralized agriculture and being able to sustain ourselves with locally grown foods is going to be increasingly important.”
Many people realize how fundamental farming was to Concord’s past. Earlier this year, the Concord Museum held an exhibition called “The Greatest Source of Wealth: Agriculture in Concord.” As Enid Boasberg, a member of the Concord Climate Action Network, points out, the Minutemen who won our nation’s freedom were farmers who put down their hoes and scythes to pick up muskets and fight the battles of the Revolutionary War.
But recently, farming has increasingly been stepping out of the shadows of history and taking center stage in the town’s collective consciousness.
Concord recently completed the purchase of the former McGrath Farm property, land that will continue to be devoted to sustainable agriculture. Gardeners at the Old Manse, former home of Nathaniel Hawthorne, have re-created the heirloom vegetable garden that was originally planted as a wedding gift by Henry David Thoreau.
The West Concord branch of the town’s public library set up one of the nation’s first seed lending libraries earlier this year. Concord is also home to Gaining Ground, a nonprofit organic farm that utilizes the efforts of hundreds of volunteers to grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers, all of which are donated to area meal programs and food pantries.
First Root Farm, a community-supported agriculture endeavor within the boundaries of the Minute Man National Historical Park, has expanded from 30 members at its start in 2010 to more than 100 this season.
And it’s not only home cooks who are benefiting from local crops.
Carolyn Johnson is the chef at 80 Thoreau, one of Concord’s most sophisticated restaurants, and at this time of year, the focus of her menu is whatever is growing in the fields just a mile or two from the restaurant.
“I work closely with local farmers to find out what they’re growing and what’s ripening as I design my menus,” Johnson said. “We get deliveries from six local farms weekly and another four sporadically.”
Jennifer Hashley, cofounder of Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds, is another commercial farmer who is happy to be taking part in the Farm and Garden Fair because of the attention it will bring to local farmers.
“This is a chance for people in Concord and surrounding towns to learn about their options for accessing locally grown food and to celebrate agriculture,” she said. “At our tour stop, we’re going to offer people the chance to collect eggs and learn about raising hens as well as to give them a look at how we use rotational grazing to restore neglected pastures. With two full days of events, everyone can attend what they want: They can meet the livestock, go on a hayride, buy some vegetables. But hopefully it won’t end there; hopefully they will continue to be aware of the value that farmers bring to the community.”
Events on the Farm and Garden Tour are free. Programs detailing the locations of the participating farms and gardens can be picked up in advance at the Concord Visitor Information Center, the Concord Free Public Library, and participating farms and businesses; or during the Ag Day Farmers Market on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, go to www.concordfood.ning.com.
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@ gmail.com.