Spring has finally snuck back into town and I am getting excited about the local, organic produce that will soon be gracing our shelves! On one especially stunning Monday morning, I had the chance to chat with Max Jiusto, the Harvest Manager at Red Fire Farm‘s Montague, MA location (they also have land in Granby, MA).
So what about this winter? Max explained that the extension of winter that we have all been bemoaning set Red Fire back about two weeks in their planting schedule. Even when the top layer of soil started to thaw, the lower layers remained frozen, so water couldn’t drain down into the ground and would just pool in the fields, making planting impossible. They started the plants in the greenhouse at the normal time, however, so even though they will be going into the ground about two weeks late, Max is hopeful that with a little cooperation from the weather, the plants will be able to catch up in their growth and end up maturing right on schedule.
The real challenge, he says, was for Red Fire’s employees. A regularly busy season was held up for several weeks, which meant that there were lot of staff who were expecting to be able to get started with regular work, who had to wait. “Everyone understands that this is farming – it doesn’t always work out how you plan.” As we talk, though, it becomes clear that it’s not simply that farming has its risks and unexpected hiccups – it’s that organic farming in particular puts you entirely in the hands of Mother Nature.
I asked Max about the challenges and benefits of growing entirely organic. As he explains it, the challenges and benefits in many ways overlap: “Ryan, who’s the farm owner, started this 15 years ago and has wanted from the beginning to keep everything entirely organic and has always taken the approach of treating the land with deep respect, in order to be able to continue to maintain its quality and its ability to support continued farming.” Max explains that not using chemicals and taking care with what they put into the ground (i.e. things that won’t damage the land) are critical for helping the land remain as it is – healthy for growing and able to sustain farming for the foreseeable future. As part of the farm’s philosophy to maintain the quality of the land they’re using, and so it can continue to be used for organic farming purposes, they have entered into a land trust – almost final – that will dedicate the land to organic farming for 99 years. (Why 99 years? As it turns out, you legally can’t have a “contract in perpetuity,” so you have to set some kind of end date.)
Another mixed challenge/benefit is that they have to rely on handwork for a huge portion of what they do – in particular because they grow such a broad variety of crops. They use tractors for what they can, but have to hand-harvest everything else. This means that they have to train people to handle all kinds of different crops – unlike larger, commercial, non-organic farms – which typically handle a single crop. Red Fire Farm, for example, will need 30 staff to handle what a larger farm could do with three workers and automation. Max emphasizes that there is, “much more uncertainty with growing organic crops – when you’re not using chemicals to control things, you are much more at the whims of nature – and this affects staffing, in particular.” It strikes me, once again, how many people quietly sacrifice job security in order to put beautiful, healthful, environmentally sound produce on our tables.
Ultimately, though, with the market for high quality organic produce “blowing up,” as Max puts it, organic farming is worth the risks and challenges. “We’re working hard because we believe in it and we value the people who buy our produce, because they believe in it, too.”
Now that spring seems to be winning out, it’s all hands on deck! Staffers are working long days and through the weekend to plant and tend to the huge variety of vegetables, fruits, and flowers that Red Fire grows, trying to get the farm back on schedule and make up for the lost two weeks. Max told me, “our farm grows pretty much everything we can grow in this climate – what sets us apart from a lot of the other farms, especially the larger farms, is our huge diversity.” This year, he tells me – with both enthusiasm and the smallest touch of apprehension in his voice – they are trying their hands at growing some challenging new varieties of lettuce – smaller, fancier heads – as well as Jerusalem artichokes. (He cautions me to not get too excited yet, though, because we have to wait for the fall to see if the artichokes work out.)
I ask Max what he is most looking forward to this year, of all the crops. Without a moment of hesitation, “I’m really excited for the tomatoes in late July, early August – for looking out into the heirloom tomato fields and seeing 30 different varieties – so many different sizes, shapes and colors.” I and I know many of our customers are also very much looking forward to seeing them, fresh from his fields, on our produce shelves in only a couple of short months!
Note: all photos are of produce and fruit we have received from Red Fire Farm in the past but do not currently have in stock at the moment – however, we look forward to receiving their tomatoes, melons, berries (and more!) in the coming weeks and months!
Marianne Staniunas is a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen South End, Boston.