Starting a small organic farm may be the pipe dream we green-thumbed and eco-minded urban dwellers all share, but Alida Cantor and Rory O'Dwyer are actually living the dream. Last summer the two, along with Rory's brother Kevin and his wife Kate, were chosen from a pool of farmers vying for the right to start Langwater Farm, an 80-acre property nestled right in the middle of small-town Easton, Massachusetts.
The historic, picturesque farm is owned by a family trust who sought to return the land to production after many years of disuse. It has a pedigree too, containing stonework elements originally designed by the architect of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead. After the four young farmers were selected by the trust, the only challenge left for the intrepid bunch was to re-build a working farm from the ground up.
Between looking after seedlings and picking rocks, Rory and Alida recently took time out to speak with me about the hard work and careful planning that has gone into building their brand new farm on a centuries old plot of land.
How exactly did this start? Rory: The Ames family owns the property collectively—its called the Ames Reality Trust. About a year ago they decided they were interested in returning the farm to agriculture. So they basically put out a request for proposals through a bunch of different channels, matching services like New England Land Link and Land For Good. I saw it late March last year, I called my brother and said this looks like a perfect opportunity. It really sort of fell into our lap.
It's pretty amazing property to have fall in your lap. Alida: Yeah, seriously. This place is beautiful. It's all these little fields that fit together really nicely.
Rory: The property is roughly a rectangle with about 40 acres of woods in the middle, and these fields circle the woods around the south and come up to the east and west. Looking at an overhead shot of the farm it looks like this beautiful necklace of fields surrounding the woods.
So when did you start? Rory: The proposal process went on for several months and then we found out July. Afterward, we spent a lot of time writing up a really solid lease. We started breaking ground in September, I got back in mid-November and started greenhouse construction and farm planning, which has taken all winter.
What did your farm planning involve? Rory: It was a lot of crop planning, harvest distribution schedules related to crops for this season. We got a budget and got a picture of where we want to go in the next three to five years.
Alida: In our crop planning we started with how many CSA members we have and what we want to feed them every week. From there we knew how much we needed to grow and could make our seed order from there.
Rory: The number of spreadsheets I have produced this winter is mind boggling. There are definitely major management elements that are not the kind of happy-in-the-sun theme songs and weeding images that you think of.
What's going to be available this first season? Alida: Just about every vegetable imaginable—onions, scallions, lettuce, kale, broccoli. We just put in peppers and eggplant, bok choy, radishes, peas. The lettuce is growing like crazy and we have a bunch of herbs starting to get ready.
Rory: For the rockier field that we have turned up right now, it's in annual vegetables this year, but the plan is to take it out of annual vegetables as soon as possible so we stop turning up rocks. We're going to put perennial berries, some flowers, and a big blueberry bush field in there. We'd like to be expanding into blackberries and some of the weird blackberry hybrids like olalliberries and marionberries. We're going to do strawberries this year; they will be ready in the fall, spring planted. And then we'll do another planting of strawberries later in the year that will be bearing next June. After that we will be in strawberries every spring, for ever after.
What else is scheduled to go in this year? There are plans for an orchard? Rory: Yeah. Cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums, pluots, Asian pears. We are hopefully going to start building our farm stand in a few weeks. We're going to get permission from the town on April 5.
Alida: We're building it in our northernmost field, which is where we're also going to be putting the cherry orchard. It's this really cute field with a stone wall on one side and is part of this old stone foundation coming up. It's little and enclosed by trees.
Being right in the middle of town, do you see yourselves become a hub for the community? Alida: I hope so. There is a project right across the street called the Natural Resources Trust. They have a farm day-camp and a hobby farm with animals for kids. I feel like that educational farm niche is already being covered, to some extent, which is good because we can concentrate on producing food. But I hope that people will want to come to the farm stand to hang out—we would love that to happen.
What are you guys feeling at this point? Rory: It's pretty exciting. Its cool to wake up and be your own boss every day. But there is definitely the nerve-wracking part. Especially with the CSA—these people have already paid us for summer share of vegetables and now its like, "Okay, you have to deliver," so it's a lot of pressure. I mean, I think we'll be okay, but there is always the 'what if' factor that keeps you awake at night.
What advice do you have for other aspiring farmers? Alida: Working on farms before you hop into it yourself, of course, is really important. I feel like having a good community of resources has been really key for us. There's just a ton of organizations out there; their job is to help small farmers.
Rory: I think when you work on farms you meet people who become your resources but aren't necessarily an institution—they're just someone who has good knowledge of whatever subject you need. Another thing is, I started a farm a few years ago on a real shoestring budget, and it was really tough. So coming into this now we've saved some money and we have a good chunk of working capital to throw at the enterprise. That's made a big difference not only in what we're able to do, but there is less of us feeling a panic every day. But that's really hard coming from an apprentice background, if you've been working on farms for years learning how to do this, you don't have that much money in the bank to then turn around and start this yourself.
Thats a bit of a catch-22... Rory: There is an element of foolhardiness you have to have to start a business like this.
About the interviewer: Carson Poole calls the Finger Lakes home but is living in New York City trying hard to maintain his farm boy credibility. His first job, at age 10, was in roadside corn sales. He is known to enjoy fresh local food and handcrafted spirits and liqueurs.