Local farms benefit as more suburbanites buy food grown close to home
The Natick Community Organic Farm was hoping for a few dozen takers when it scheduled a recent workshop on how to make mozzarella and ricotta cheeses from scratch. It drew more than 120 students. Another several hundred people are expected on March 8 to collect sap from maple trees and learn traditional sugar-making techniques.
When Chestnut Farms owner Kim Denny added monthly drop-offs in Natick and Waltham to her regional meat cooperative last fall, she sold out and accumulated a waiting list of area residents clamoring to buy meat from her grass-fed, humanely raised animals in Central Massachusetts.
Laura Tangerini hasn't even advertised the vegetable co-op that her family's Spring Street Farm in Millis plans to launch in mid-June, and she's already got 25 subscribers for the program offering weekly bags of fresh produce and cut-your-own flowers.
The suburbs have for decades been seen as a sort of food purgatory - too far from city greengrocers and fresh fish markets, yet still removed from the rural goodness of farm life. With a few exceptions, most food came wrapped in plastic on a 18-wheeler from somewhere distant and sat under the harsh lights of a supermarket.
But new concerns about food safety, and an awakening to the environmental problems associated with factory farming and imported food have created a diverse and vibrant market for local meats and vegetables - and even a hunger for reconnection with the source, the farmers themselves - said Jeff Cole, executive director of the Waltham-based Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets.
The eat-local movement has been gaining steam for many years, accelerated, say local farmers, by the publication of books such as last year's blockbuster, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life," Barbara Kingsolver's memoir about her family's experience growing their own food. Also helping connect consumers with the nation's farming culture have been "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, and his follow-up book, "In Defense of Food," published last month. They both featuring harrowing tales of Midwest industrial farming practices and the environmental waste involved in shipping food long distances.
At least 70 percent of the people who paid $50 for the workshop by Ricki Carroll, founder of New England Cheesemaking Supply Co., were new faces at the Natick Community farm, said administrator Jane Harvey.
"I was thinking we'd be lucky to get some people," said Harvey, who convinced Carroll to host the workshop after reading about her cheesemaking expertise in the Kingsolver book and attending a class herself.
Carroll demonstrated her "30-minute mozzarella" recipe, heating milk, citric acid, and rennet, and stretching the hot, shiny bands of cheese to the delight of her students, including Newton 12-year-olds Jennifer Davis and Amelia Williams.
"I love cheese," Amelia gushed. "I really want to be able to make it myself."
Carroll has been selling homespun cheesemaking kits and supplies for 30 years, but her business doubled starting last May, when Kingsolver's book describing her as "the Billy Graham of cheese" was published.
The interest in homemade cheese goes hand-in-hand with the current passion for local food and farming, she said.
"This is not a fad that's going to burn out," said Carroll, who lives in Ashfield, in Western Massachusetts. "People want to eat locally, and I think it has something to do with how out of control people feel about things in this country and the world. They want something they can control."
Jen Kittell of Boston, who attended the workshop, said she felt the cultural wake-up call: "I think people finally realized how removed we were getting from our food."
Farmers markets also are experiencing skyrocketing popularity, growing from 90 markets statewide in 2000 to nearly 150 last year, with 20 to 30 new ones expected to start up this growing season, Cole said.
There also seems to be an upswing in so-called community-supported agriculture agreements, or CSAs, under which customers contract regularly for produce, meat, or other products and accept a batch of whatever is fresh at the moment.
Sometimes that means Swiss chard and ground beef instead of strawberries and steak, but the arrangement is a boon to local farmers, who benefit from a stable revenue source and a customer's willingness to share the risk and rewards of their work.
Not everyone can stop at a weekly farmers market, so the on-farm pickups, generally at night, are more convenient, said Cole. His operation, the Silver Mine Farm in Sutton, plans to launch a small CSA with two other growers this year, adding to the approximately 50 CSAs statewide.
In Millis, Tangerini's Spring Street Farm is launching what family members hope will be a 100-member CSA, costing members $595 per season for a weekly bag of produce of 12 to 20 pounds from June to November. The plan will get the fresh produce out the door during the week, in addition to weekend visits to farmers markets, Tangerini said.
The pay-ahead commitment makes farming a more viable business model, an appealing prospect for farmers who too often cannot compete with massive corporate farms, said Tangerini, who took over the 65-acre farm with her husband and children in 1995.
Tangerini said she decided to take the CSA plunge after reading "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" in her book group, and quizzing friends as to why they didn't get their produce from local farms.
"I heard, 'It's not really convenient,' and 'It sounds hard to do,' " she said. "People aren't in the mindset of going to a farm stand and thinking ahead about their meals, but there seems to be the willingness out there to change."
Denny, of Chestnut Farms in Hardwick, has been running a meat CSA since 2006, and added Natick and Waltham last year to her other eight drop-off locations. On the second Thursday of every month, she pulls her van into a parking lot in Natick Center to distribute about 35 shares to members who pay $70 for a 10-pound prepackaged assortment of beef, chicken, lamb, and pork.
For $3 per carton, members may buy fresh eggs collected by her 9-year-old son, Sam, from the farm's 150 laying hens. They can also visit the farm and her animals, Denny said.
The idea of limiting her meat consumption to local animals who were kept in clean, natural surroundings was what provoked Marilyn Bergoli to join, the Natick resident said as she picked up her share last week.
"I wanted humanely raised meat, and I really like the idea of supporting a local agriculture and a local farmer. It feels like a positive thing."
Erica Noonan can be reached at email@example.com.