Land in the Pioneer Valley, the alluvial plain along the Connecticut River, is arguably the best farmland in the state of Massachusetts. In fact Hadley loam, a deep, well drained soil formed in the silty alluvium of level flood plains and considered one of the premier agricultural soils in the nation, is named for the town of Hadley, which is adjacent to Amherst, Massachusetts. Adding to the quality of the soil there are the valley’s moderate elevation (mostly under 300 feet) and ample rainfall (approximately 48 inches per year) which make land in the Valley a Mecca for Northeastern farmers.
Two young farmers originally from New York and Vermont, Missy Bahret and Casey Steinberg, migrated to the Valley over a dozen years ago by different paths — but ended up running a farm together in Amherst.
“I’m from New York – the Hudson valley,” says Missy. “We met in college at the University of Vermont. We were friends there but didn’t plan on farming. But we worked together on projects. I was studying environmental education and Casey was studying outdoor education.”
“Basically that is outdoor adventure mixed with ecology and environmental education,” inserts Casey.
“Then I started working summers on a farm,” Missy continues, “and fell in love with that. I grew up with big gardens and no TV and lots of time outside. So my parents weren’t surprised that I headed into farming. They have been very supportive of it. They were high school biology teachers.”
Missy spent time hopping around on different farms with a goal of learning more about farming and where her food came from. She eventually moved to the Pioneer Valley because it was a vibrant farming area. She had been on a farm for 3 years previously, and thought she should keep exploring. Having interviewed at 3 places in the Valley she was dismayed at the wages she was offered.
“I had most recently been on a farm in Chilmark, on Martha’s Vineyard,” she relates. “Certainly Chilmark is in a place where prices are high, as is the cost of living. So they were able to pay more than most people. But I couldn’t believe that here someone with my experiences and my capabilities was offered a stipend of just $50 plus housing, or $8 an hour. I knew I could offer so much more value than that. So I thought, somewhat out of defiance, that I could run my own farm and get more money than working for someone else. So I started this farm on another property in Amherst . But all I got for the first few years on my own was what they would have paid me anyway.“
Casey grew up in southern Vermont and Connecticut, his mom in Connecticut and his dad in Putney, Vermont. He also moved to Chilmark, independently of Missy, and did a bunch of garden work — gaining outdoor growing/manual labor experience there.
“I had moved away from experiential education,” he says, “because although I loved being outdoors I wasn’t enjoying facilitating that experience for others. I knew it was important, but I didn’t enjoy it. I got tired of group process (which is ironic now that we run a crew of a dozen!) But at the time I wasn’t into it.”
He apprenticed for a season, then was assistant manager for two more years at Brookfield Farm in South Amherst. From there it was a small step to join Missy at her farm a year after she started it. He has been there now for 12 years and co-manages Old Friends Farm with Missy.
“I come to farming with my systems approach to things,” she observes. “Casey is really, really good at details and the goings on at farms. So we find that we have complementary approaches.”
They lease their land from Bramble Hill Farm — which is owned by the Open Field Foundation, a nonprofit private operating foundation created in 1996 by Gordon Thorne and Anne Woodhull to hold the assets of Bramble Hill Farm, to protect and sustain the unique and diverse ecologies associated with open land, and to explore alternative uses for productive agricultural acreage.
Bramble Hill Farm was the location of a dairy farm on Route 116 in South Amherst. It was a highly visible farm, abutting the town golf course among other properties, and was the first in Massachusetts to be set up under the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program — to prevent it from ever being developed.
“Starting up as we did,” says Casey, “it would have been impossible for us to buy this kind of land in Amherst. It has been a great incubator for us. We began with less than a quarter acre when Missy started the farm, and now we lease around 30 acres. We pay a market rate for the land and each building — $200 per acre per year, as well as a monthly rent for the buildings plus utilities.”
Casey and Missy are at the end of a 5 year lease right now and talking with The Open Field Foundation about a 99 year one.
The pair primarily raise salad greens, although they also have vegetables and flowers. About 25 or 26 acres are in active production.
“The salad greens are land hogs,” says Missy, ruefully, “and take up a huge amount of space. We probably have only an acre or so in flowers — a little more if you count sunflowers — and a couple of acres of veggies. We also have an acre under cover.”
“The vegetables are all hand harvested,” points out Casey. “We do use tractor cultivation with them and use black plastic for all the hot crops – peppers, egg-plants, early zucchini, and some flowers. If we have a plastic-covered bed where the crop is done we will try to use the space again to get the most use of the plastic.”
They take the plastic up every year — it isn’t too much of a hassle if they have done their weeding. The plastic lifts up and comes off pretty easily. They don’t use biodegradable plastic because it is not approved in organic production.
“Carrots we do all season long,” Casey adds, “beets we do early spring and late fall, but we don’t do a whole lot of root vegetables and we don’t do winter stor-age crops. Neither of us really has any interest in dealing with root cellars and lugging 25 pound bags of roots around all winter.”
A half acre or so of salad greens are seeded each week, and since the crop takes only four weeks until harvest the beds can be reused three times in a season.
“These are not permanent beds,” says Casey, “but they pretty much stay the same. The bed and pathway width are based on our tractor, the number of beds that can be covered by row cover, how many beds irrigation will reach, etc. We use bags filled with compost to hold the row cover down (it is windy) so that when they break it is compost on the bed, not something you don’t want there. We used to mix lettuce varieties in beds but if for some reason one performs poorly one time you don’t want to have to throw the whole mix out. We have many various standard mixes we put together.”
All the farm’s tillage and bed formation and seeding is tractor-based. They use a high density seeder which requires a perfectly level bed.
“We used to do this in a different way,” Casey explains, “where we made our beds and sowed individual lines with a seedway seeder. Then three to five of our crew would spend three or four hours on their knees tending them. We figured that wasn’t sustainable – everyone would need knee replacements. But we have no intention of using up our workers. We want them to be able to be farmers for life, and not aching or groaning. So we decided to make changes to our work-place so that it is a positive experience and safe and healthy for our workers. We said let’s put this to the forefront and if we can’t make it we can’t make it.
“For salads we don’t cultivate,” he continues. “We plant so densely and prepare our beds so that weeds aren’t a problem. We use stale bedding. We harvest an area and turn it over for two or three weeks and then get another week or two of weed suppression, and then plant it. The weeding can be done in the form of tillage, but there are other ways to deal with weeds. In preparing the soil you can make the bed really shallow and let the bed former scrape the top layer off the bed, including weeds. Or we have a basket weeder we can use, or a flame weeder. But it is an issue that we think about all the time. Because we have a land crunch and we need to support ourselves and our crew, we trade our crew’s quality of life and physical wellbeing for tillage.
“Salad is the only thing for which we have mechanized harvesting,” he concludes, “although we will also dig roots with an under cutter bar instead of using a pitchfork. We bag by hand, though, and processing is not mechanized. That probably is next. We triple wash in three tanks and spin dry the greens. Then we pack by hand.”
Pests are a problem for Missy and Casey. They say they have lots of flea beetles, aphids, and tomato hornworms. Row covers are the main things they use for control, but they’ll spray for hornworms in the greenhouse. Mostly they try to use crop rotations and spacing to prevent pests.
“We make our own compost,” says Casey, “and everything gets cover cropped.” This fall we have oats and peas growing, and that section that is bare ground now was rye and sunflowers. That is going to be our garlic. We try to use cover crops as much as we can.”
Last summer, of course, Massachusetts experienced an extended drought. Old Friends Farm was heavily impacted by it, being without their staple crop – salad greens – for six weeks! Some spotty storms came by and some farms got precipitation, but not Old Friends.
The farm has two ponds for irrigation, but both ran dry (or got so low it was below Missy and Casey’s threshold of a respectable ecological level). The pair had to contract with the town to get water from fire hydrants.
“We haven’t received the bill yet,” Casey sighs, “but it is going to be very expensive. The water goes for $3.60 per hundred cubic feet, which turns out to be about $30 an hour. It is not potable water, so there is no chlorination. But the kicker is that the price includes use of town sewers!”
Irrigation for the salad greens is overhead because drip would be too much of a hassle. It would have to be moved from fourteen 300-foot beds — 4 to 6 lines per bed — every time they were seeded.
Casey estimates that the farm sells 60% of its produce wholesale and 40% retail. Missy thinks it is even more wholesale, probably like 75:25.
The retail sales are primarily at two farmers markets – Amherst on Saturday and Northampton on Tuesday.
“Farmers markets used to be all we did when we were first starting,” says Casey. “We did 5 a week and sometimes two on one day. We slowly pared that down to just 2 for our peace of mind. To load the truck at 6 am and go to Boston and sell all day and not get home until 11 – that is a hard day to put anyone through.
“The Saturday market wasn’t always on our lists,” he continues. “We couldn’t get into it for awhile and because of that we looked a little further – to Boston. When we finally did get into Amherst we were able to stay a little closer to home.”
“That was a key to the puzzle for us,” emphasizes Missy. “Once we got into Amherst it really changed things for us!”
For almost a decade Old Friends Farm has been certified organic, through BayState. Casey feels being certified organic means a lot to both their wholesale ac-counts, as well as at the farmers markets. Missy agrees.
“It is fair to say we certify as a marketing tool,” Casey explains. “We are using those practices anyway, keeping those records anyway. But being certified or-ganic proved to be the only way to prove it. It was the only way people could trust it. It is still very important for our retail customers, especially our new ones. Once they get to know us it changes. Being certified is maybe the foot in the door, but once they know us it is the soul of who we are that keeps them. And one of the things they learn about us is the workplace or the positive experience working here.”
Most of the salad mix is sold wholesale. It ships in 3 lb. cases for $21.75 per case for large orders. Whole Foods and River Valley Coop are among their best customers.
“For the most part,” Casey says, “when it comes to pricing we have a wholesale price and all the distributors pay it. It is based on our knowledge of the costs of production and what we need to recoup that, plus some profit. We try to keep that price such that it can pay us what we need and also be acceptable. We talk to people and look at prices at the store to get an idea what the competition is charging.”
After so many years at it, Steinberg and Bahret are no longer starry-eyed about farming. If asked to characterize their attitude now, they say, it might be some-thing like wanting to ‘work smart’.
“There is a cultural mentality,” says Missy, “that you farm from dawn to dusk, that you don’t treat this as a business, you don’t have hours. That it should be all-absorbing is the cultural norm. It is part of our goal to not do that. A lot of people don’t have that goal or else they would stick to a stopping point. If a pro-ject can’t get done they would change their operation next year or not grow that crop.
“It is the same with finances,” she continues. “If people really looked at finances they would stop growing some crops that weren’t cutting it. I think it is a bit of a comfort zone of oblivion that a lot of people take on. They will figure that their situation is unique or come up with another reason to continue.”
“I think pride is a big part of it,” asserts Casey. “When I was a newer, younger farmer I was proud that we did all these markets in Boston. We worked 70 or 80 hours a week. That was a source of pride. A few years into that I started seeing that pride as a little foolish, a little misdirected. Now I feel really proud that I am less of a workaholic than I used to be, I have other things going on, I feel proud that we are able to identify our limits instead of pushing to do more and grow bigger.
“For example, we used to have chickens for eggs that we rotated around the field. We were doing it on a pretty large scale. We charged $6.50 or $7.00 a dozen. But we tracked the costs of that over the course of a couple of years and found that we were losing money on them when you figured in start-up costs and slaughter costs and moving 30-foot mobile houses. We treated them really well and were subsidizing them with our labor.”
“Ultimately that comes from wages,” Missy inserts. “We’re trying to create a workplace that isn’t subsidized by low wages. We actually try to work smart with a goal in mind and be ruthless, like with the chickens. We enjoyed them, we loved having the eggs, the customers loved them, they had so much going for them. But we rode it out for too many years.
“We were known for them,” recalls Casey. “They were that good! But as soon as we were, like, we don’t need to be known for that anymore, we can let that go, we can let somebody else be the ‘best eggs at market’ person, it was good riddance. “
When held up against the pair’s goal of meeting a triple bottom line — a healthy environmental, social, and economic result — they were not making it eco-nomically. They had to be changed.
“We time tracked the labor to measure them,” relates Missy. “We did it for a whole year. That seems like a big deal, but all it is is a pocket notebook and a pen-cil. We give everybody a watch and they can write down how long they spend when we are time tracking something. There is really no other way of gauging it accurately.
“QuickBooks will tell us what our receipts say,” she continues, “but labor is hard to track – unloading feed, washing eggs, moving houses, anytime you are do-ing anything relating to the chickens, write it down. One person would compile the little pieces of paper with notes of 2 minute here and 5 minutes there. And that person’s wages would be counted, too!
“There is a ruthlessness to that approach,” Missy concludes. “This doesn’t sound profound, but when it comes from a farmer it is profound – Our lives, all the aspects of our lives, are as important as our farm! We still put our hearts and a ton of time into it. But our pride is coming from a more truly sustainable place.”
Old Friends Farm has hired more employees as its business has grown. Counting Missy and Casey, the crew is now 13 people — one works for the full year and the rest work March through December. During January and February some will travel and some pick up other work. All are post college, with the youngest being 26. The farm has a high worker retention rate and the employees are getting older. Wages range from $11 to $16.50 per hour with a systematized sched-ule of increases.
“The starting period is based on experience,” Casey explains. “If they come back the following season it is an automatic one dollar increase, with another 50¢ when they have been there a month. So they get $1.50 more each year. We will keep going with that until we can’t afford it anymore. I think the longest time anyone has been here is five years.”
The employees get a week off unpaid during the season, an educational stipend of $100 which can be spent for professional development like a conference or a book, a free lunch on Mondays, and produce from the farm. The day starts at 7:30 and ends at 4:30
“We feel if the day isn’t done at 4:30 and they are held for whatever reason,” Casey says, “then that is a management error on our part. We have lives outside of the farm and want the crew to be able to have that as well. If they make a doctor appointment or want to go to a yoga class or a concert of go for a walk while it is still light they should make a plan and be guaranteed they are going to be able to do it. That feels like just basic respect on our part.”
‘In any other workplace environment,” adds Missy, “it would be a given that you clock in and out at certain hours. In farming it seems like there is an excep-tion made. But that can lead to a lot of resentment. If we can’t make our business work by respecting basic principles of how you treat workers, we have no interest in having a business.”
Many years there are no jobs available at Old Friends Farm because of its good retention rate. So the owners have to make an effort to let people know when one opens up. They will scope out other farms just like baseball scouts to find good candidates. But mostly, Missy says, applicants hear about jobs there through word of mouth from current workers.
One of the reasons workers stay there may be the high level of communication between workers and managers that both Missy and Casey try to maintain.
“We encourage our crew to press for what they want – higher wages or whatever – so we can understand what they need,” says Missy. “We want them to push from within and tell us what they need to survive, to create a retirement account, to get benefits. In order to do that you have to understand your own finances first, and where you spend and need money. Then you have to ask for what you need.”
“It is not their responsibility to understand the farms finances,” adds Casey, “and whether it can pay more. That is ours. We can choose to include them in that conversation by giving them the farm books and numbers. Then everyone can see what the current situation is, when we might be able to offer more, what we can offer instead now. All of that can be an open conversation, but it won’t happen until someone says: ‘Here is what I need.’ They just have to know what they want. Then it is up to us to say: ‘Can we accommodate this?’”
Beside encouraging workers to express their financial desires, the farm also tries to accommodate their professional interests.
“Where possible we try to give people tractor work if they want,” explains Casey. “If we have a really great employee we will try to meet their needs if we can. We’re pretty set with tractor operators right now. But we might give an employee who wants to learn a chance. We could give them a few beds to manage and they could pay us their professional development fee to teach them to run the tractor there, or go to a weekend workshop on tractor operation.”
As an example of this responsive flexibility, the farm will be growing more this winter to support an employee who wants to work there year-round.
“Just because Missy and I are not interested in growing year round does not mean that we don’t want to have employees all year round. If what it takes to keep them year round is having an aspect of the farm that we might not be passionate about, but that they are, that is great.”
Right now, according to Casey, wages for all 13 workers represents about 21% of the farm’s budget. Although by normal standards that is considered a suc-cessful ratio, Casey and Missy are trying to get it higher!
“We got some financial planning consulting through CISA,” he says. “We’re trying to find out how to pay people more. A $15 an hour minimum wage could work here.”
“If other farms are having to do that too, it would help with the customer education,” adds Missy. “We would raise our prices and explain why we raised them. We’ve done it before. ”
“Once we bumped everything a dime,” Casey recalls, “and over the course of a season that was $15,000. That’s half an employee right there. If the minimum wage was raised we’d just have to figure out how to cover that cost.
“In setting prices we rely on our time tracking to show what we have to get,” says Missy. “We pick a few crops and time track them for a year. We also look at what the market can handle and our goal of increasing worker wages, including ourselves. So with that in mind we will never go lower than what we need to get for the crop.”
“That is a downward slope, to lower prices, Casey insists. “You do it and the next person does because he thinks he has to and so forth. Then the farmers are subsidizing the food. We’re not going to do that. The risk is being seen as elitist. Having people say ‘Oh, your food is not accessible to everybody.’”
“So what is at the root of that,” Missy asks? “It is not true that we are elitist. The work we do with the food stamp program and accessibility have helped this food to be accessible. And I don’t feel good about running a workplace where my employees’ ability to cover their costs is cut in order for someone else to get cheaper food who maybe have put their kids through college already and have a retirement plan!
“Customers and farmers alike,” she continues, “are out of touch with the real cost of making food. There is the cultural mentality of ‘woe-is-me poor farmer, uneducated, don’t stand up for yourself’. So we sell stuff dirt cheap. It is similar to being at market when someone balks at a price. Stand up for it! This is helping you get money to raise a family, to put your kids through college. Don’t lower that price! That negative, self deprecating mentality does not help the local food movement.“
Both Missy and Casey feel that communication lines are important to making employment successful. They check-in with new employees after a month of work, then do a mid-year check-in, then a check-in at the beginning of the new year about how people feel about returning, what they want, what are their needs. They also do a closing or exit interview whether the employee is coming back or not.
“Our daily morning meeting varies from 2 minutes to 20 minutes,” Missy relates. “It is a chance for everyone to be together and see what each other is doing. That is the time for anyone to pipe up about changes or needs they have.”
“There is also a monthly meeting,” adds Casey, “where we activate our ‘wheel of appreciation’. That is a dry erase board in a circle which spins. It is divided into pie pieces. You can nominate anyone and say why you appreciate them. At the end of every month we read each one out loud, there are probably 16 slots, we spin it and whoever it lands on gets a free massage. The reading of it out loud is important – you hear what others do which contributes to a culture of ap-preciation.
Both Missy and Casey say a key aspect of managing is respecting that everyone works best in positions they have an interest in. When you cater to people’s interests they are more productive. They stay engaged more and have a better work experience. So it is a 2-way win.
Different people also learn in different ways,” Missy elaborates, “and we have done a bit of work on learning styles and how co-workers can learn to relate with each other in a style that will be received best. We do a monthly recharge meeting. We have some sort of theme and it is really a sort of pep rally. We do some group team building activity that is applicable to work.
“The situation is best when trust goes both directions, too,” Missy says. “If they understand the need for efficiency then maybe they will suggest areas of time track certain crops where there might be problems. They can do calculations as they are working – harvesting or whatever. They can do a calculation to decide if what they are doing is worth it. If we are going through the turnips and pulling so many that it is taking so long they can do a quick calculation and say: ‘Wait a minute, is this worth it?’
Casey and Missy are active in the Agricultural Justice Project and its effort to campaign for living wages and worker empowerment, certifying farms and busi-nesses throughout the food chain which meet its standards.
“The AJP has been a great help in getting us to get together a lot of our thoughts,” attests Missy. “They have thought through most of these issues. One of our employees is very active in AJP and is trying to get someone up here to train a certifier. We are trying to get enough producers onboard to fly someone here to do that. They want three farms to participate.
“I don’t know if the AJP certification will change our practices,” adds Casey, but it will help us be accountable, it will help other people have some sort of basis to evaluate what it is to be a worker here, and maybe spread so farm workers in other places will have good workplace environments too.”
As the farm gets bigger, both owners are aware that it has become more complex and difficult to manage. That is another reason to have active, involved work-ers. Casey has even mused about turning the farm into a workers cooperative.
“But I don’t know if a workers coop could run a farm,” he worries. As an outsider I respect that model. To be successful, though, you have to have a lot of really competent people and each person has to be able to step up and let go at the same time. Letting go is hard for me — giving up control! We had some friends who changed their business to a workers’ coop and they have been clear about the results: their quality of life has gone up and their income has gone down!”
Before I left I had a chance to sit down with Casey and a number of the farm workers during their lunch break. They were primarily young women, mostly in their twenties, without children. They were clear that working at Old Friends Farm was a positive experience. Among the comments were:
“They [Missy and Casey] have been very flexible with scheduling. If something comes up in your personal life they are willing to work with you on that.”
“Another excellent fringe benefit is all the extra top quality organic produce we get. That would cost a lot at Whole Foods. “ (general assent to this)
“Earlier in the year I was interested in a class offered by another small farm in the area doing medicinal herbs and processing them mostly by drying. So Missy and Casey paid for me to take that class which was offered through NOFA to see how their operation was set up. I learned a lot about how I could apply that here and use it if I wanted to start something like that on my own later. I thought that was great.”
“They’re good at listening to what we are interested in and finding ways to fit our position to our interests. I started here washing salads, now I work in the field more. But that said, it is not a teaching farm. It’s a business, primarily.”
But when I asked about the more fundamental issues of income and benefits, and whether they could survive on these for the long term, the comments were a little more muted:
“It would not be easy if this were your only income.”
“I would like to, and say 5 years ago I was way more convinced that I could do that. That it was a financial future that made sense. But now I’ve had enough experience in the world and it seems more iffy. It is a lifestyle commitment. But that said, I still think about it all the time.“
“When I think of being a farm manager as a financially palatable future I like to think that is a good option. But I want to make enough to live comfortably. And I think that would be hard.”
“I’ve been thinking of that $15 an hour goal as being a funny place to be in terms of income. As your income goes up benefits get taken away – health care, food stamps — for being near the poverty line. So that would have to change, too. In 15 years I’d like to be making $25 an hour in today’s dollars. With me and my partner working we could send kids to college, have a house. Would I be doing this? Maybe, maybe not. That would be sweet because I love doing this.”