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Aidan Davin carries a ewe
Aidan Davin carries a ewe at the Central Massachusets livestock farm he runs with his wife, Kate Stillman. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

Staying down on the farm

A new breed of young farmers, Kate Stillman and Aidan Davin are heirs to a tradition of working on the land

HARDWICK -- As Kate Stillman tells it, "We were rolling down Route 2 with a load of pigs headed for the slaughterhouse, and this woman gave us a thumbs-up as she was passing us."

"Must be one of the pigs standing up in the back," remarked her husband, Aidan Davin.

"They can't jump out?"

"No."

"Then, a few miles on," she continues, "we were rolling along at 60, someone flagged us down and said one of the pigs was back along the highway. I was mortified. I called my dad and he said, 'You have to turn around and find it.' And I called the State Police on 911. My brother actually found it, but the trooper had to shoot it.

"But that was OK," she continues. "The pig was going to the slaughterhouse anyway."

This is the characteristic let's-make-it-work attitude that Stillman and Davin have had since they bought their 90-acre farm in this Central Massachusetts town late last summer.

Now, with the season's first lambings last month, the couple are gearing up to market their livestock -- pork from Yorkshire pigs, lamb from their Icelandic sheep, goat meat, chicken, and turkey at Thanksgiving. They're already selling by subscription through their Community Sponsored Agriculture program. Along the way, Davin, 30, and Stillman, 26, are charting a definition of what it means to be young farmers in 21st - century Massachusetts.

The couple met at the Copley Square farmers' market, where Kate was manning her family's Stillman's Farm stand and Aidan was working for another farmer. And they took an agriculture course together at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where two of their grandparents were in the same class in the '30s.

Stillman comes from a family of farmers. One of her grandfathers had a dairy farm in Lunenburg and her father , Glenn Stillman , has expanded its operations to include a second farm in Lunenburg and another in New Braintree where, in addition to corn and other produce, he raises heritage Belted Galloway beef cattle.

The Stillmans are familiar figures at area markets. Kate started helping out when she was 12 and took over her own stands when she was old enough to drive the truck. The family now sells at 16 markets during the summer.

Glenn Stillman is active in the region's farm organizations, and Kate's stepmother, Geneviève Stillman , manages the family's CSA program, which last season had some 250 people who paid between $250 and $1 , 000 for weekly deliveries of boxes of in-season produce.

With a degree in agricultural management and a dozen years selling fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, Kate Stillman would seem an unlikely candidate to run a livestock farm. But Davin, with his own streak of independence, wanted something that would "be theirs."

Even as they were looking for a farm to buy, back in the fall of 2005, Davin edged them toward livestock with the purchase of 10 Icelandic sheep, nimble animals that look like fur rugs on stilts, and was extolling the benefits of raising heritage pigs like Yorkshires and Gloucester Old Spots.

"I'd put my pigs on pasture, just like the sheep," he said back then. "And I'd feed them good food, what's left over from the markets."

One morning last spring, still looking for their own place, with their sheep pastured on her father's Lunenburg farm, Stillman got her baptism as a livestock farmer. The sheep started lambing over the Memorial Day weekend. "I was at the farm stand with 10 customers in line," she recalls, "when I got a panic call from my father out on the farm. 'You'd better get down here quick,' he said. There was a lamb all twisted around in its mother's womb, and he told me, 'You're the only one with hands small enough to get it out.' It was pretty bloody, but I got it out and they're both doing well."

It was early summer when Stillman and Davin found their own land, an old turkey farm in Hardwick, a mile or so in from the main road, with an 1830s farmhouse, a large weathered barn -- and a swimming pool.

The extra attraction, beyond the pool, was that the owners would let them move all their livestock in, even while the sale was being negotiated.

By late fall, after the farmers' market season had ended, Stillman and Davin were at home with some three dozen pigs, three dozen sheep -- along with an eager, if not quite trained, herding dog -- 98 chickens, and 47 turkeys being readied for Thanksgiving.

"This place had all we wanted," says Stillman, and, her father adds, "We're all going to make it happen."

That meant setting up a CSA program for meat, a system similar to the well-established programs for produce. The meat CSA got underway last month with the first deliveries in Brookline and Jamaica Plain. People who buy shares will receive a mixture of frozen beef, lamb, pork , and chicken cuts from USDA-certified slaughterhouses delivered once a month, year-round. Initial prices are half-shares (10 pounds a month) at $450 for six months or $870 for 12 months, or full shares (20 pounds a month) at $870 for six months or $1 , 680 for 12 months.

"A year long drop-off with meat," says Davin, "gives us cash flow for the whole year."

And once the farmers' markets resume in late spring, the couple will join her family's stand and sell meat along with produce.

"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," Stillman says. "It's hard enough to get going, but we've made a start because people know us from the farmers' markets. Now with our own place, we can do something different -- our own lamb and pork. The more you can put out at a market, the better you do."

Stillman's Farm will sell at farmers' markets in City Hall Plaza, Copley Square, Charlestown, Jamaica Plain, Brookline, and Cambridgeport. For more information go to stillmansfarm.com.

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