Young Family Farmers a Growing Trend

By JAMES HEFLIN – Daily Hampshire Gazette

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

familyfarmMany parents can’t get their kids to eat their vegetables. Mountain View Farm owners Liz Adler and Ben Perrault, on the other hand, have to retrieve their daughter, Ollie Perrault, 8, and son, Nate Perrault, 5, from their fields in Easthampton where the kids can often be found, muddy feet and all, munching away at lettuce, peppers or ground cherries they’ve just plucked.

familyfarm2“They don’t want me to do anything to it,” Adler said. “They want just a pepper or a tomato, just like it is. Sometimes I come outside and say, ‘Get over here! We’re going to eat lunch,’ and I have to remind myself that they’re standing there with raw kale — they’re actually eating lunch already.”

Adler, 36, and Perrault, 35, have been together and involved with farming for about 17 years. They met in eastern Massachusetts and lived in several places as Adler pursued her education at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, the University of Vermont in Burlington and Harvard University in Cambridge. All along that route, Perrault was farming.

“It was a different farm every year for a while,” said Adler.

familyfarm3Perrault’s hands-on farming education led the couple to buy Mountain View, a CSA (community sustained agriculture) farm whose main outpost is on East Street in Easthampton. The 17-acre plot in Easthampton includes a couple of barns — one’s just for members’ produce pick-up — the farmhouse where the family lives, and three greenhouses. Mountain View also leases around 100 acres elsewhere in Easthampton, Northampton and Hadley. The couple employs 12 farmhands.

Adler and Perrault have made their living on the farm since 2005, exclusively growing food crops for member shares. “Nobody’s getting rich farming,” Perrault said. “But you can do pretty well.”

Part of the reason nobody gets rich farming is unpredictability, Adler said, as she and Perrault gave a tour of their operation on a recent Friday afternoon. “Expenses are so unpredictable. You never know when the truck might break down. You can’t ever feel really comfortable. Plus the Valley is super competitive (for farmers). But we’ve definitely always got enough to eat.”

Valley counter-trend

Farm families like Adler and Perrault’s may have been commonplace a few decades ago, but these days, farming is an unusual choice for young families to make.

John Gerber, professor of sustainable farming at UMass, says the turn from family-based farming happened in the middle of the last century. “After World War II, since around 1950, we’ve been moving away from family farms to more industrialized farming,” he said.

Traditional farming roles were accompanied or supplanted by professional management, Gerber says. “With industrialization, you got specialization, homogeneity and increase in size.” These led to cost savings that may be advantages for consumers, but the clichéd fresh-faced farm family of yesteryear was a frequent casualty of that transition.

The USDA’s historical data places the total number of Massachusetts farms in 2012 at 7,755. The 1940 Census, by comparison, puts the number of farms in the state at 31,897, with a large majority under 260 acres. In 1910, the total number was 35,917.

According to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs, however, things are looking up for farm families in Massachusetts right now. They report that 80 percent of Massachusetts farms are family-owned, and 95 percent fit the USDA-defined category of “small farms.”

Worcester County claimed the largest number of acres devoted to farming in 2012 with 101,808 acres on 1,560 farms. Franklin County came in second with 89,772 farmed acres in Franklin County and 780 farms. In 2012, Hampshire County boasted 53,951 acres and 799 farms.

Many contemporary Valley farmers are part of a counter-trend, says Gerber. Part of the reason for that, he says, is that this area is among the leading places in the country embracing sustainable farming. “Young people here are experimenting with new ways of doing things.”

dtThough Gerber doesn’t have data to point to, he says it is his sense that the fastest growing segment of farmers in the last 10 years is young families like the Adler-Perraults’ running small, “integrated” farms — that is farms incorporating crops and livestock.

“The younger generation is finding (farming) a way to have family and work life work out for them. I’m certainly seeing a lot of interest among students and people who’ve recently graduated,” Gerber said. “The young folks are not only looking for ways to make a living, but also to maintain quality of life. If you’ve got a good relationship, a good marriage, it’s a way of creating connection and being together.”

A look at area farms quickly reveals examples of the trend, including, among others, Caroline Pam and Tim Wilcox, who have two children and run Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland, Oona Coy and Ben James, who run Town Farm in Northampton and also have two young children, and Meghan Arquin and Rob Lynch, who, with their two children, run Riverland Farm in Sunderland.

Clearcut roles

Adler says one of the goals for her and her husband when they started out was to have their farm completely support their family through the winter. “And we have been able to do that.”

But farming was not the route she had expected to take earlier in her life.

“It’s Ben’s fault,” she joked. “I didn’t even eat vegetables until I was in college. I grew up in eastern Mass., in the suburbs. I have no idea how we ended up doing this.”

Even so, the division of labor between the two seems to be clicking.

“Doing this as a family works out because we have such clear roles,” Adler said. “He needs to be going all the time, doing the actual farming. And we need somebody doing the PR and customer relations, and so on.”

familyfarm4Since the children are still pretty young, their farm duties are minimal for now. Not that the kids necessarily prefer it that way: “They do help out when we have a big planting project or something like that,” Adler said. “As they get older I think they’ll be interested in doing things like working at the (farm share) barn. They’re really sociable, and there are always people at the barn. Ollie wants to run the cash register.”

For now, a typical day for the family starts early, at least for farmer Ben, who rises around 4 a.m. “We don’t see him in the morning,” Adler said.

Though their daughter attended her first two years of school at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley, now Adler homeschools both kids, an opportunity she looked forward to — she holds a master’s degree in education from Harvard.

“We usually do schoolwork for half a day, then extracurricular activities like martial arts, swimming, gymnastics. Ben gets home right at dinnertime.”

Though Adler says the children aren’t out in the fields or in the barns every day, there are lots of opportunities for learning on the farm — particularly how things work: Whatever breaks has to be fixed.

Much to learn

For Adler and Perrault, working together as a family has advantages, though they add that farming has its share of sacrifices and struggles. Chief among the benefits, Adler said, is that her son and daughter get to be part of a “micro-community.” Mountain View is exclusively a CSA farm, so share owners drop by regularly to pick up their bags of produce. “They’re exposed to hundreds of people,” she said.

And indeed, as Adler said that, Ollie and Nate disappeared into the barn, where they quickly engaged in conversation with one of the farm’s workers.

Perrault added that the children are learning a wide range of skills. “They can (plant) seed in the greenhouse, and they can learn to use tools.”

He recalls one moment in particular, several years ago, when farming became a total family endeavor.

“One day Liz was on the back of the transplanter with the baby, and I looked back and Ollie was behind us, covered in dirt, filling in holes we’d missed. The kids are growing up with a respect for work that’s not common in our culture.”

Perrault says the instant feedback of farm work is an advantage, too. “Ollie looks back and sees what she’s done right away.”

Choices like homeschooling, he added, give Ollie and Nate an unusual combination of freedom and close interaction with their parents, who are most always close-by, but often very busy, too. “It’s like we’re always around and we’re never around,” he said.

The seasonality of farm life also has its perks: “In the winter, we have a lot more family time together,” Adler said.

It also has its downside: “The farm is so unpredictable. Everything could be fine, then suddenly the fields could be getting ready to flood.”

For this family, farm life is a long-term commitment, at least until the kids are grown, says Adler.

“Once you’re down this road it’s hard to turn back,” she said. “If we wanted to do something else, we’d have to pay off a whole lot of debt. But you also get used to working for yourself. There are a lot of great benefits. Ben can come in from working and have lunch with the kids. He needs to be his own boss.”

It only takes a few minutes to see that the couple’s children are part of the farm in a hands-on way, but Perrault points out a less obvious impact they have on the operation.

Mountain View is not certified organic, not because their practices necessarily violate organic rules, but because of the added expense and trouble of keeping up with rules that, he says, change a lot. “We’re entirely a CSA farm, so our crops aren’t ending up in grocery stores. If we had other markets, we’d get certified.”

Nevertheless, Adler said, they have a good barometer to guide them in determining what chemical concoctions are OK to spray. “We use our kids as the measure if we’re trying to figure out whether to use something on the crops — would we want them exposed to it?”

It’s clearly an important question — Ollie and Nate are readily spotted all over the farm fields most days, happily muddy and taking chomps out of everything in sight. It’s a sight that’s worth a lot to Adler and Perrault.

“Sometimes we struggle — is this what we should be doing?” Perrault said. “But then we see what they eat. And, yeah, we want to keep doing it!”

James Heflin can be reached at jheflin@gazettenet.com.

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