Saturday, September 4, 2010

Local couple's season of learning pays off in Gourd & Plenty harvest

Many of us have probably daydreamed at one time or another, "Wouldn't it be great to have a farm of my own? Grow the produce I want to eat. Enjoy the great outdoors and fruits of my own labor?" But where to begin? And how to make sure that dream can be carried out practically?

Ayer residents Beth Suedmeyer and Takashi Tada have made their desire to farm a reality, thanks to the
New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (NESFP), a program sponsored by Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Community Teamwork Inc. of Lowell.

The husband-and-wife team work a quarter-acre that they've named Gourd & Plenty Farm at one of NESFP's plots of land in Dracut. Their produce -- several varieties of heirloom tomatoes, a rainbow of peppers, eggplants, French heirloom scalloped squash, and fresh basil, among many others -- is now for sale at Ayer's Farmer's Market on Saturdays in Depot Square.

A natural progression toward farming

Beth's interest in farming began early on. She was raised on a farm in southern Illinois where her family raised livestock, corn, wheat and soybeans, all on a part-time basis.

When Beth and Takashi came to Massachusetts for graduate school about 10 years ago, says Beth, "that's when we were exposed to local sustainable agriculture," which furthered her interest. "I always found pleasure in small-scale vegetable and flower gardening. That and the fact that we were both people with a strong sense of environmental stewardship, interested in preserving open space and growing good healthy food, made farming on a somewhat larger scale seem ideal."

As a next step, the couple became caretakers of a town-owned hay farm in Shirley, where they coordinated volunteers and sold the crop. Ready to move forward, the couple enrolled in some educational courses, eventually contacting the state Department of Agricultural Resources, where they learned about New Entry.

The New Entry mission

New Entry supports local agriculture by helping would-be small-scale farmers from diverse backgrounds get a start in Massachusetts. This program gives participants both classroom and field training in key aspects of starting and running a sustainable farm, from business planning to soil preparation to methods of organic gardening and advice on crops.

Participants get their hands into the soil by working a plot (most are in the Lowell and Dracut
area) leased to them by NESFP. Their yields are split between New Entry's World PEAS cooperative community-supported agriculture (CSA) project and local farmers' markets.

They can use this land for up to three years. After that, NESFP helps farmers find land of their own to purchase or lease.

Beth and Takashi began their field experience this past spring, hiring New Entry staff to help prepare their raised beds, then getting most of their crops planted around Memorial Day weekend.

The couple has spent the spring and summer heading to their Dracut field two to three nights a week and putting in 10-hour days on Saturdays and Sundays, feeding, weeding and -- now -- harvesting the crops. That's in addition to their respective day jobs: Beth's in Boston in the environmental section of the Department of Transportation; Takashi's working for an environmental and wildlife consulting firm in Boxboro.

Harvesting the experience

Beth and Takashi began selling their organically-grown wares (which, besides those mentioned earlier, include squash blossoms, kale, chard, ground cherries and others) at the Ayer Farmer's Market in August. They expect to continue through the fall, when they'll begin harvesting gourds and pumpkins, as well, and may bring some of the fall produce to an additional farmer's market or two. They also made an appearance at the Bolton Fair.

Asked what the program has added to her gardening knowledge, Beth says, "The biggest improvement to how we're growing is through the New Entry staff's guidance on pest control and disease management. I've really enjoyed learning to use non-chemical methods, such as mesh-type barriers and also a food-grade clay spray that protects the plants. We did have our fair share of insect damage, but we haven't lost much due to pests...knock on wood!"

Another eye-opening lesson from the program: "We definitely get a sense of not being able to charge a price [for produce] equivalent to our input. It costs a lot to produce food."

To other aspiring farmers, Beth says, "I would definitely encourage anyone thinking about this to contact New Entry or the Department of Agricultural Resources. Exploring the opportunities they offer helps put farming as a career in perspective. It's not for everyone. It requires significant commitment, time, passion and work. You don't want to go into it naively, but programs are available that can help you figure out if it's a good fit."

Of her mentors at New Entry, she says, "They make it all very accessible: the logistics and land and equipment and supplies they make available, and their technical assistance." "

Down the road, Beth says, "We would ultimately like to have our own land and make an investment in good healthy soil, and maybe to offer an educational program to help the next generation understand sustainable farming techniques."

Weeds, not too surprisingly, have been one of her least favorite parts of the experience -- especially since the field was formerly used for hay and is still inclined to sprout now-unwanted grass.

Getting to enjoy nature during their time in the field has been the most satisfying part of the experience, Beth notes. Besides the growth of their vegetables, she and Takashi were happy to have a chance to observe a spotted sandpiper's nest in their field that yielded several fledglings. "It's wonderful to have a piece of land that you're intimately familiar with, and to eat food that you've grown."

You can e-mail Beth and Takashi about their produce and their experience at Gourd&

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