April 18, 2020
My dad was a landscaper. I remember sitting on his lap as he operated the backhoe, and we'd shake as the yellow metal dinosaur did its thing. Even after we lost touch, memories of being a young kid in my sweatpants-with-holes-in-the-knees, shoveling fresh mulch into the faded company truck on the nursery lot still stick with me. With its ripe, earthy stench, and its moist, chewy feeling, these red clumps of wood sinew in my hands gave life. Later on as a Boy Scout, I spent a lot of time in the woods, making fires and using a compass to find the nearby river with my troop. And then I got educated, professionalized, moved to the city, and somehow lost touch with the Earth. Now, I feel a returning. It's time for me, and I feel sense of responsibility to my fellow human beings, to my unborn twin children, and to the ecosystems around the world, to reconnect to Nature.
And it was in this spirit of connectedness that I reached out to Mark Smith, co-founder of Canton, MA's own Brookwood Community Farm. I saw Mark speak at a recent webinar on food systems and local farming, and I thought, this is certainly a time to know the people and the cultures that keep community going. Since 2006, Mark has been dedicating himself to the cultivation of Brookwood. While talking, he gave voice to the spirit of local food systems and their importance in the larger picture of environmentally sustainable progress and conservation. I hope you all take something special with you after reading this, and that you consider investing yourselves more in local agriculture and food systems.
In late 2005, my friend Judy Lieberman called me up and said she wanted to start a community farm on some state land in the Blue Hills and asked if I would want to be involved. At that time I was working at the national family farm advocacy organization Farm Aid and was inspired by so many examples of local food projects around the country that Farm Aid was supporting. Judy and I got together one cold, late afternoon in December to measure the fields at Brookwood Farm, a state-owned historic farm, and come up with a plan and a proposal to the Mass. Dept of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) which managed the property. After a number of frustrating attempts to meet with local DCR staff, I contacted the agency’s Commissioner, Steve Burrington, who I had met through my work at Farm Aid. He invited Judy and I to meet with him. After sharing our idea and showing him our plans, Steve gave us the green-light with a few conditions: 1) the state's archaeologist would need to walk behind the tractor when we first broke ground - if he saw any evidence of native settlement or artifacts, the project could not go forward; 2) we were given a one-year, 1-acre piece of land to see what we could do. With no money, no staff, no equipment - we put in motion our plan to form a board (really more like an organizing committee) and get the first crop in the ground by spring 0f 2006. After a lot of sweat, blood and tears, at the end of our first growing season (2006) we had gross sales of $21,000. At year’s end, DCR renewed our agreement to a 5-year lease and were given an additional acre for the following year. So, Judy and I are the farm’s co-founders, and I served as president of the board for the next 11 years. Currently, I support the farm through a variety of ways, as a CSA member, advisor and volunteer.
Brookwood has certainly grown past it’s “adolescence” and has evolved into a well-run and efficient farm thanks to good farm management by the lead grower and farm crew. There were a lot of growing pains in the early years, and some times it felt like the farm might not make it. But with a committed board, a hard-working staff and lots of volunteers, the farm has continued to grow and meet the demands.
I am most amazed at how many people over the years have been moved and inspired by the farm to be active participants in shaping the future of our food system. Whether it’s through volunteering to plant seedlings in the spring, or weeding the beds during the summer, or bringing fresh produce to our partner food pantries, or choosing to buy local food to feed their families; or just attaining a deeper understanding of the role local and sustainable agriculture plays and will play to foster a livable planet for our kids - I am just so proud of the farm’s role to engage people to be part of a larger movement to build and strengthen our local food system.
One of the outcomes of the COVID pandemic I believe will be a new critical look at globalism, our global food system, and our dependence on complex supply chains and their vulnerability. When I was young, I worked on a dairy farm in northeastern Connecticut that also produced the best apples anywhere - all the local varieties as well as as some heirlooms. The apples were sold and shipped into the New England market - apples three or four days from being picked were on the store shelves. Several years later, the orchards were cut down because the farm couldn’t compete with cheaper - and less fresh and less flavorful - apples from Washington state. The Washington apples were then displaced by apples coming from further and further away - today, you are much more apt to find apples from China than from Massachusetts at our stores. These global supply chains are vulnerable to disruptions from a variety of causes - pandemics being a good example. The alternative, of course, is to protect our local farms and keep farmland in sustainable and regenerative production - and by doing so, we are preserving our capacity to feed ourselves in the years to come. I think we will see a lot more consumer interest in knowing where our food comes from, how’s it grown and by whom. Brookwood Community Farm is located six miles from where I live in Roslindale. We are a vendor at the Roslindale Farmers Market - and the food we sell there is one day from bring harvested. Market-goers ask questions about the food and develop a relationship with the growers - and by doing so become more deeply connected to the local food system and invested in its survival. As Wendell Berry said, “Eating is an agricultural act.” If we are conscious and conscientious eaters, the local and regional food systems have a fighting chance for survival - and our own survival is inextricably connected to it. Because of agriculture’s ecological footprint world wide, what we need to realize is that what we choose to eat will determine the fate of the planet. Berry puts it this way: “how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.” So, we’ll see if the COVID pandemic raises our collective consciousness about the centrality of food production in our fight for sustainable world. A lot will depend on consumer demand for food produced in synch with the natural world, as opp'ed to a food system that is killing the resources we need to feed our ourselves - soil, water, land, etc.
The Boston area has made significant progress to strengthen local agriculture - one example is the growth of farmers markets throughout the area. Two of the big local issues facing us today is preserving farmland from development and increasing access to land for young farmers who want to farm but lack the capital to acquire land. We are losing farms and farmland in New England at an astonishing rate to housing and other development - in Massachusetts about 15,000 acres each year!. Every acre lost decreases our ability to be self-reliant to feed ourselves and the region, making us more dependent on the global food system and supply chains.. There needs to be more aggresses land preservation measures at the state level. Why not put a moratorium on the sale of prime farmland for five or ten years - giving us some and space and time to come up with better ideas and solutions about how we manage that land and use it for productive purposes. Secondly, there are thousands of young famers who want grow food and preserve our soil - but do not have the resources to buy farms from aging farmers. There are efforts to link young people with farmers who are aging out of farming, but much more needs to be done to bring this to scale. Time is not on our side, as many older farmers, often in debt themselves, are selling their land to developers who are only interested in making a fortune by building 1-acre MacMansions. As Joni Mitchell sang, “…they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Farmland lost to development is lost forever. Saving farm land and transferring it to the next generation is vitally important to our local and regional food system.
Know your farmer. Know where your food comes from. Know how the food you feed your kids is grown. Buy fresh. Buy local. Be a conscious eater.