A Share of the Soil

Worcester Magazine (2000)

What would make a perfectly ordinary suburban family from suburban Boston with two jobs, two cars and three kids toss everything and go off and become farmers? Organic farmers, no less..?

"I really thought he was going through a mid-life crisis," recalls Karen Franczyk of the day her husband, Don, announced he wanted to buy a farm.

Eighteen months later, the Franczyks are beginning their second season on the Big Red Barn Farm, a 64-acre spread in Winchendon, hard up against the New Hampshire border.

"We’d never even heard of Winchendon," says Karen. "Now we couldn’t think of living anywhere else."

It was a tough year. They each worked two jobs -- Don is a sales rep for a high tech firm in the 128 corridor, Karen worked weekends -- and home schooled their children. In their "free" time, they started renovating the dilapidated farmhouse that they now call home.

"We bought the place for the land and this," says Don, standing in the small greenhouse, jammed with racks of seedlings almost ready for planting. "The house was not the best part of the deal."

The deal itself was extremely attractive, thanks to a Massachusetts program designed to preserve farmland. The development rights to the property are owned by a private land trust. The Franczyks own the right to use or sell the farm, but neither they nor subsequent owners may subdivide it. The goal is to prevent the property from being converted into a residential sub-division. And since that option is precluded, the Franczyks paid far less for the property than if development rights were not owned by a trust.

"It helps to keep farmland for farmers," explains Jack Kittredge of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. "When the last farmer dies it’s worth a lot of money to the kids, who may not want to farm it. This allows young farmers to buy the land at an affordable price."

The previous owners of Big Red Barn Farm ran it as an organic farm, which was an approach the Don and Karen were determined to continue. But it’s not easy fighting bugs without chemicals.

"It’s a balancing act trying to keep the whole system in balance," says Don.

Bacteria is released into the fields at just the right time to eat the potato beetle larve, synthetic cloth covers the cabbage to keep off another kind of beetle. Manure is used as a fertilizer, but it must be spread 120 days before harvest to ensure it doesn’t contaminate the produce.

"A lot of it is timing."

To support Red Barn Farm, the couple have turned to another innovative approach: They are selling shares to each year’s crops.

The concept is called Community Supported Agriculture, a practice first developed in Japan.

"Groups of women, who are the primary buyers for households, form co-ops and contract with farmers," explains Kittredge, whose own Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre has about 40 shareholders. "The Japanese term for the system translates as ‘food with a farmer’s face on it.’"

The idea spread to Europe as part of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful movement, which stressed the ecological and spiritual values of small-scale enterprise. Massachusetts and New Hampshire pioneered the system in the U.S. about a decade ago.

"We borrowed the idea and adapted it," Karen explains. Under the "pure" form of CSA, shareholders pay with a combination of cash and sweat equity, working the land, handling the bookkeeping or otherwise chipping in to make the farm run. The Franczyks opted to stick solely with the cash part.

"People are so busy, so just to get them to buy in [to the idea] is difficult," says Don. "And to say, ‘by the way, you have to come out six times a year to weed cabbage’ is pretty tough."

So their shareholders pay about $400 for a season’s worth of produce, available each week from June through September, with a couple of extra parcels at the holidays. Pickups are at the Winchendon farm or a drop point in Marlboro.

"We give people their money’s worth and more," Don says proudly.

The concept allows them to get around the fact that they are too small to interest supermarkets and a bit too large to depend solely on restaurants, like Winchendon’s Brass Pineapple, which use their produce. Getting paid up front also helps the cash flow.

"And it’s a good way to get in touch with people," Don adds, with an enthusiasm that makes clear he means it. The couple also sells produce to drop-ins on Saturdays.

At Many Hands farm in Barre, where about a quarter of the shareholders work the land, Kittredge has seen a sense of community and real ownership emerge.

"Some people just treat it as a bother, but others come out and work on weekends even through they have paid, bonding with others working the fields," he says.

For others, the idea of getting closer to nature quickly loses some of its charm.

"Most Americans are not used to their produce coming in fresh, when you get home with several shopping bags of fresh produce it involves a certain amount of preparation and work," says Kittredge. "Some people who enthuse in the beginning, find they just can’t deal with it taking that much time preparing food."

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