Growing Market Spurs Innovation by Pioneer Valley Agricultural Start-Ups

September 13, 2010 : The Republican, by Barbara Solow

NORTHAMPTON – Besides organic tomatoes, flowers and vegetables, Ryan Voiland has been growing something else for the past few seasons on his 80-acre farm in Granby.

Two bright blue solar panels that can generate half of the farm's electricity have been installed on the roof of a shed and are now ready for final hookup. Voiland, who founded Red Fire Farm in 2001, built the panels with the help of state and federal renewable energy grants that covered about three-quarters of the project's $200,000 cost.

“We're always looking for ways to do things better,” he said. “As farmers, we're really interested in the environment and one of the values we like to push is renewable energy. From a strictly economic standpoint, we also wanted to save money.”

A similar combination of principles and pragmatism is fueling a wave of innovation at other small farms in the Pioneer Valley. New business models, ranging from year-round farmers markets to circuit-riding “veggie buses” to cutting-edge crops, are emerging to help farms survive while meeting the rising demand for locally produced food.

“The public interest in food that's grown locally is a huge resource for farmers,” said Ruth Hazzard, chair of Amherst's Agricultural Commission and a vegetable expert at the University of Massachusetts Extension Service. “It's a really different atmosphere from where we were even 15 years ago in the valley.”

Among the area's newer farm ventures:

  • Pioneer Valley Heritage Grain, a community project that provides varieties of wheat, oats and dried beans grown in Shutesbury, Hadley and Gill to 100 area households.
  • The new Next Barn Over Farm in Hadley plans to offer solar-powered electricity to customers, along with vegetables from the fields.
  • Goldthread Herbal Apothecary in the Florence section of Northampton sells healing herbs grown on four acres of a former apple and peach orchard in Conway.
  • Allard’s Farms on South Maple Street in Hadley has just introduced a new premium brand of ice cream made from milk produced by local cows. The new “Hadley Home Run” flavor – which was taste-tested by local elementary school students – is now sold at 25 stores in the region.

Experts and farmers alike credit the work of organizations such as the nearly 20-year-old Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture with creating the infrastructure needed to support such ventures. The organization provides marketing, technical support and training to small farms. Also, the growth of community-supported agriculture includes ventures in which residents buy annual membership shares in farms in exchange for an edible share of the harvest.

“The idea is very powerful because then it's not just us out there as a farm,” said Dave Jackson, owner of the 80-acre Enterprise Farm in Whately, which has been a member of CISA for two of its 26 years as a certified organic farm. “We are very excited about using this as an opportunity to galvanize our community.”

The valley's small farm community is also gaining recognition from state and nonprofit funders looking for ways to invest in what is now a growing sector of the economy. MassDevelopment, an agency that finances projects statewide, recently announced that Barbara and Ronald Weaver, of Deerfield, are the first recipients of a new loan program targeted to small and organic farms in the state.

The Weavers will use the $10,500 low-interest loan from the program to expand their backyard sweet basil-growing business, which applies a scientific growing system reintroduced by a University of Massachusetts researcher. The loan program is also supported by two nonprofits: the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Strolling of the Heifers and the Somerville-based Carrot Project.

Robert Culver, chief executive officer of MassDevelopment, said the program aims to help a sector of the state economy that now produces between $5 billion and $6 billion in revenue each year. And, he added, small farms are responding to rising consumer interest in locally grown food. “We hope that these loans ensure that our farmers can meet that demand.”

Meeting the demand is the reason that Joe Swartz decided to launch an online ordering system four years ago for the greens, root crops and farm products produced by his family's farm in Amherst, and other local farms. In late May, Swartz organized a year-round farmers market that features products from 15 local farms.

The North Amherst Farmers Market operates in the parking lot of Watroba's Market on Sunderland Road every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. In the winter, Swartz said, it will move inside a building at Swartz Family Farm on Meadow Street.

“This just seemed like the way to evolve,” he said. “There's a big demand from the public and we have such great farms. Our biggest challenge is to find ways to let people know what we're doing. Right now, we're a best-kept secret.”

In addition to new venues, the small farm community is creating new products.

For example, Hadley resident Andrea Stanley and her husband, Christian, are launching a business that will offer locally grown malt to area breweries and bakeries.

Backed by loans from the Western Massachusetts Enterprise Fund of Holyoke and income from the Stanleys' day jobs, Valley Malt aims to have its first malt available for sale by November. The couple doesn't own a farm. Instead, they have contracted with farmers in Hadley, Plainfield and New Hampshire and Vermont who will grow seeds for them.

Their ultimate goal is to revive the tradition of local barley-growing and local malt houses. “In researching this, we found there were no malt houses east of the Mississippi,” said Andrea Stanley, who works part-time as a vocational rehab counselor. Her husband is a mechanical engineer. “We bought a lot of our equipment from auction houses out west and a lot of it is from the 1930s and '40s.”

Their biggest concern in starting the business was finding local farmers able to grow barley seed. But Stanley said they soon discovered a willing community of both growers and farm-support organizations that have helped with issues like pricing and marketing. “I feel pretty blessed to have that infrastructure,” she added. “There are lots of people here who are excited about bringing this kind of venture to fruition.”

It's that larger sense of community that Jackson, of Enterprise Farm in Whately, wants to preserve as the valley's locally grown food movement matures.

When his family started its organic farm in the early 1980s, it was difficult to find anywhere to sell their products. “This was the dawn of time when organics was considered a fad,” Jackson said.

Over the next few years, they created a distribution system, providing vegetables and farm products produced by a half-dozen area farms – and ultimately farms in other parts of the country – to food co-ops and grocery stores. In the end, they decided that distributing directly to consumers “was a better fit,” Jackson said.

Today, Enterprise Farm is a 770-member CSA with three delivery routes in the Pioneer Valley and 12 in Boston.

To prevent organic farming from becoming “a niche for the rich,” in Jackson's words, his farm has begun a cost-share program in which members invest in special food projects, such as a subsidized delivery route to local senior centers and safety-net organizations such as the Northampton Survival Center.

Enterprise Farm is also putting the finishing touches on a new “veggie bus” that will travel to “urban areas that are food ghettos,” Jackson said. The retrofitted school bus will deliver fresh food to parts of the valley that lack easy access to food coops or farmers markets.

Farmers say the region's small growers face many challenges – notably the scarcity of affordable land for start-up operations. For them, innovation is as much a survival tactic as it is a principle.

Jackson, for one, is hopeful about the future. “If you had told me 20 years ago that people would come to the farm and help with cost-sharing, I would have thought you were crazy,” he said. “The community realizes that by investing in farms, they have more power than just buying a box of veggies at the store.”

© Copyright 2010 The Republican.