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GFN Community Farm: A Farm For and By the Community

By Francie Lin, GFN Writer-in-Residence

As a non-farmer, my idea of farming has always been limited to one of two images: a cozy little farm on a hillside with a single happy farmer pitching hay in overalls while children pick apples into a wooden bushel basket; or endless impersonal acres of corn and wheat punctuated by huge grain silos. The first comes from picture books; the second comes from news reports on farming as it exists in so much of the U.S.

But down in the fields of Florence, a different vision of farming from either of the above has been quietly building over the last decade. Those who have biked or driven down Meadow Street may have noticed the cultivated fields to the south of the road, or, beyond the soccer fields, the rows of corn and other crops that extend far behind the wooden fence.

All of these parcels together — once Nipmuc, Pocumtuc, and Nonotuck land, more recently the Bean and Allard Farms — comprise the Grow Food Northampton Community Farm. Not to be confused with the Community Garden, which leases small plots to individuals who want to garden or grow their own food, the Community Farm leases land to small farmers in the area with an eye towards supporting both the needs of the local community and the farmers’ interests, as well as allowing farmers from historically marginalized groups an opportunity to build equity and gain land security.

What does that mean in practice? A little tour of a few farms across the Community Farm’s 121 acres reveals the many different ways, big and small, that the Farm’s novel approach to land stewardship encourages a diversity of both crops and farmers.

Aerial view of Song Sparrow Farm

Song Sparrow Farm, on the south side of Meadow, occupies three-quarters of an acre and grows a large variety of vegetables and edible flowers, offering its produce through a small CSA, a farmstand, and at the Easthampton Sunday market, among other places. Diego Irizarry-Gerould founded and ran the farm from 2020 to 2022, eventually selling it not because the farm was doing poorly but because it was doing so well that he either had to expand or sell (“go big or go home,” as he put it). He is unequivocal about the Community Farm’s role in Song Sparrow’s success, highlighting Grow Food’s commitment to the farmers’ needs. Without infrastructure like irrigation access, cooler space, and electricity, farming as a livelihood becomes infinitely harder, if not impossible, and the Community Farm provides all of these things — something that Irizarry-Gerould points out is not typical of a more traditional landowner, whose interests aren’t necessarily aligned with the farmer’s.

Tony Hall, who bought Song Sparrow with their partner Roisin Kirby, adds that land access in general, let alone land access with necessary infrastructure, is difficult to come by in Massachusetts, as the cost can be prohibitive. Hall used to homestead in Franklin County, but was looking for land closer to Route 9. In their search for a new plot, they found that there was little available in Massachusetts for lease rather than purchase, and the purchase prices were mostly over $500,000, which was not in their budget.

The leasing fees also can be high; while, according to CISA, the average Massachusetts fee per acre is about $307, Hall found prices as high as $2400 per acre annually just for the land itself. Grow Food has allowed them to lease for substantially less, and on land with access to frost-free water sources and other infrastructure improvements.

In considering its lessees, Grow Food is also mindful of the ways in which history and structural circumstances have impacted farmers. To that end, the Community Farm offers a sliding scale fee to farmers from historically disadvantaged groups as well as those encountering individual or structural obstacles to affordable land access. Courtney Whitely, who sells the produce from his farm — Ras Farm — to River Valley Market, occupies a couple of acres on the north side of the Farm. Whitely arrived in the Pioneer Valley by way of Jamaica. He worked in Eastern Massachusetts and New York, and then worked for another Community Farm lessee, Joe Czajkowski, for a while before striking out on his own.

When asked if it was hard to find farmland here, he echoed something that Hall said earlier, which is that if you grow up in a farming community in Massachusetts — that is, if you come from a family of farmers who know other farmers — then land acquisition is less difficult. But if you’re coming to the area from somewhere else, finding farmland that’s not completely remote but is also affordable is hard. As Whitely put it, “you got to have connections.”

The Community Farm, located as it is in town and along with its flexible fee structure, goes some distance toward balancing that social power disparity. This is Whitely’s first year on the Farm, but already he is considering trying to consolidate some of his other fields — he farms land in Belchertown and Hatfield as well — in Florence next year in order to save on the time and expense of traveling between far-flung plots.

But the benefits of Farm policy also ripple outward. In the field across from Ras Farm, the New Family Community Farming Coop, comprised of a group of Somali Bantu refugee farmers, grows a variety of crops to sell in underrepresented communities in Springfield and Connecticut, giving their friends and neighbors easy access to fresh produce.

Piyush Labhsetwar

And, back across to the south side of Meadow, some Community Farm land is taken up with a project of potentially wide-reaching environmental impact. In a plot abutting the Mill River, Piyush Labhsetwar, affiliated with Smith College, is testing out an interplanting of perennial wheat and pawpaw trees. Most wheat grown in the U.S., he explains, is annual, but a perennial variety, with a 4-year yield, would require less tilling, and thus has the potential to reduce erosion and improve soil structure, among other things.

Labhsetwar’s research goes a step further in sustainability; along with the wheat, he’s planted pawpaw trees, which are, surprisingly, native to parts of the United States, including the eastern region. The hope is that the two crops, which have different growing seasons (pawpaws: summer; wheat: spring and fall) and root structures (pawpaw: deep taproot, wheat: shallow-rooted), are complementary enough that they won’t compete for resources. The success of this kind of agroforestry could reduce the loss of soil, which Labhsetwar points out is a non-renewable resource, and also reduce erosion near rivers in places like the plot he currently grows on, which has the potential to flood.

On a recent fall day, after I finished chatting with Labhsetwar and Whitely, Ali, a farmer from the New Family collective, strolled over to Whitely’s field to say hello. Earlier Whitely had been singing the praises of the New Family’s bean plants, which had grown lush, making Whitely consider growing beans on his plot in the future. Ali, hearing this, started scrolling through his camera roll to find a photo of the beans. He mentioned that they had a surplus of butternut squash, and Whitely told him to box it up and bring it to River Valley Market; River Valley, he said, would take the squash and give them a good price.

When I left, the two of them were still chatting, Ali in his aviator sunglasses scrolling through his phone, Whitely gesturing. It was neither the storybook picture of the happy farmer with the pitchfork nor the vast dehumanized landscape of industrial farming but a picture of farming as it might be: shared and supported, benefiting farmers, their communities, and the environment all at once — farming on a community scale.

Originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on October 29, 2022

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