Her dream of a farm - in 11 suburban plots

Private yards produce a bounty

Kate Canney, who always wanted to work on a farm, operates the Neighborhood Farm, 11 small plots in Needham that produce fresh produce she sells at farmers’ markets and to area restaurants. Kate Canney, who always wanted to work on a farm, operates the Neighborhood Farm, 11 small plots in Needham that produce fresh produce she sells at farmers’ markets and to area restaurants. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2011

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NEEDHAM - When Kate Canney was very young, she had a dream. “I’d stand in my parents’ garden and squint and pretend I lived on a farm,’’ she says. That garden was in Needham, where, as in most Boston suburbs, farmland is scarce, and Canney hoped that one day she would live on a real farm.

She went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to study plant sciences and sustainable agriculture. She apprenticed at Keith’s Farm in upstate New York, famed for its rocambole garlic.

And then, life being what it is, Canney ended up back in Needham, but with no space for a garden. “I had planned on moving somewhere more rural, but for various reasons, I found myself back here. But I really still wanted to farm,’’ she says.

Canney wouldn’t let that dream die. “I kept thinking to myself when I was walking the dog, I’d see a yard and say, oh, if they would only let me grow vegetables there.’’ Finally, in 2008, she approached one of those homeowners whose yards looked so enticing, and before you could say E-I-E-I-O, Canney had her farm.

Today, the Neighborhood Farm has 11 plots under cultivation - 10 of them private yards in or near Needham, one a slightly larger parcel leased from the Trustees of Reservations - and Canney, 35, and her wife and fellow farmer Jude Zmolek, 44, are growing “pretty much all the vegetables you can think of,’’ says Canney, including 37 types of tomatoes and 37 varieties of garlic. They sell the most of the bounty at farmers’ markets - Dedham on Wednesdays, Roslindale on Saturdays - and the rest goes to local restaurants and the homeowners whose yards make up the farm; in exchange for donating space, they get a share of the crops. The farm isn’t certified organic, but Canney is rigorous about soil testing and uses no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Sites are required to have been managed organically for at least three years prior to being taken on.

When Canney started the farm, she says, she hadn’t heard of anything like it; since then, she’s come across similar models such as Rad Urban Farms in Arlington and the SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) Farming movement out of Canada. Now she sees it as the future of agriculture. “Small spaces are what we have, and we have to use small plots productively if people want fresh, local produce.’’

The scattered small plots offer some advantages, Canney explains, pulling carrots at a 1,500-square-foot garden near busy Great Plain Avenue. In this particular yard, she’s growing cucumbers, carrots, beans, and tomatoes; earlier in the season, the entire garden was sugar snap peas, and last year, it was all cruciferous vegetables. This kind of crop rotation is good for the soil and discourages pests and diseases, but it can be hard to do at a single location. Also, says Canney, each garden has its own microclimate, allowing her to tailor the crops to the location. At this sheltered and comparatively frost-free site, she gets peas in mid-May and tomatoes through mid-October.

Being small also allows the farm to be responsive to customer needs. “We’ve sometimes grown things just because people asked for them,’’ says Canney, pointing to the Diva cucumbers as an example. Her customers are knowledgeable and engaged: “It’s the heirloom junkie crowd. They’re just as excited about my vegetables as I am, and that’s all I can hope for as a farmer.’’

Right now, Canney and Zmolek (who launched the Neighborhood Farm together) have as many plots as they can handle. “We’re not looking to add,’’ says Canney, “but we encourage people to contact us if they’re interested, because one never knows what happens between now and next growing season.’’

Canney is the kind of farm evangelist who would like to see more people try their hands at growing something. That puts her in an unusual position: “One of our goals is that everyone should grow vegetables.

“And if people grow so much we put ourselves out of business, it’s a success.’’

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at

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