If you were raised as I was, to the bedtime sounds of galloping anapestic feet as Paul Revere rode to alert the countryside about the redcoats, or to Emerson waxing eloquent at North Bridge on the shot heard round the world, you also might undertake a visit to Concord and Lexington’s Minuteman National Park with a somewhat reverent mien.
It turns out, of course, that on closer inspection it is just another park (although sitting on some pretty good farmland!) I visited it on the trail of Laura Sackton, proprietor of First Root Farm, which occupies four and a half acres of that park’s farmland.
Laura, who grew up in Lexington, worked at Lands Sake Farm in Weston throughout high school and decided it was the life for her.
“I went to college for a year,” she explains, “but quit because I wanted to do farming. I found I couldn’t stay interested in reading and research. I can’t focus in a classroom. It has to be practical – here is a problem, how can we solve it!”
She went to Vermont for a while, then worked at the Farm School in Orange, Massachusetts. While she was there she learned that Minuteman National Park, back home in Lexington, was looking for a farmer!
“The idea was,” she relates, “that they would make the park land available to farmers. The park had some sort of partnership with a non-profit organization to handle the details. Since I was there and I grew up in Lexington, I volunteered to be one of the farmers.
“They gave me four fields,” she continues, “as well as free housing. This was in 2010. But the non-profit lasted only about 2 years and then disappeared. It was supposed to do educational programming, but they just had one staff person for a year. I think the idea was to be an incubator, with each farmer having a three year period to get up and running.”
Since then Laura has dealt directly with the park, renewing her year-to-year license, or special agricultural use permit – for which she pays $25 per acre each year. At first they started charging rent for Laura’s housing, then discontinued it altogether. The Park owns several houses on the land that they use for housing interns and other purposes.
Established by eminent domain in 1959, the park has rented to conventional farmers for some time. One raises sweet corn which he sells wholesale; another flowers, also for wholesale markets.
“They don’t use the farm quite the way I do,” Sackton observes, “with a staff, customers coming here, etc. They are more traditional, just using a tractor and having one crop. They don’t need the infrastructure we do. Neither are they required to be chemical free.”
When she has to deal with the park administration, Laura deals with the superintendant of the park. She thinks perhaps when the non-profit disappeared and the park didn’t really have a person or program to support her, the park might not have expected First Root Farm to stay on as long as it has. She thinks the park may be trying to hire someone to deal with Laura and the whole issue of farming on park land.
First Root raises mixed vegetables using organic practices, but is not certified. Laura has a total of six full time staff during the season, including a year-round co-manager. They have a Kubota they use for primary tillage and bed-making, but don’t do much tractor cultivation. That is mostly done by hand, although they are at the point of looking to buy a cultivating tractor. The farm has grown relatively slowly — starting out growing on just an acre, then two, and now using all four and a half.
Two of the fields are reasonable soil, and two are only so-so — heavily clay and not easy to grow in. A park trail passes right behind one of the farm fields and is open to the public, so activities are the farm are quite visible. The farm stand is on a busy road, but park regulations prevent any signage, making it hard to attract drive by customers.
“We do a weekly CSA,” says Laura, “that had about 225 members. It starts in June and goes through October. Then we do smaller Fall pick ups in November and December – just twice a month – which are not quite so intensive. The Fall CSA is 100 or 120. We also have a couple of restaurant accounts in town, but that is only about 5% of our business.”
The farm also has a farm stand where they do the CSA distribution. But they can’t technically sell there. Her license with the National Park forbids selling anything on the property, so she has made up a prepaid farm card which allows people to stop by, browse, and ‘pick up’ stuff they have already paid for.
“They can choose to pick up a certain number of units of food,” she says, “with each unit predefined as a bunch or a pound or a bag. They get a small discount of about $10 if they put $200 on the card. People who go away a lot or don’t like a regular CSA prefer this system. They get some freedom to choose what they like.”
Besides the farm stand (a converted garage), the park lets Laura use a barn to store things, and provides a walk-in cooler to keep harvested crops fresh. Water, however, is only available from the town at the farm stand, for which she pays about $600 a year. One field can be reached from there with a hose, but the others are too far away. Sackton carries water to them in a big tank with a pump, when necessary.
Although she recognizes that she is fortunate to have access to land in the Concord area, leasing it from the National Park Service has presented Laura with several problems.
First, she has no long term guarantee of her tenancy.
“I don’t think I will be here forever anyway,” she says, “but I would like to know how long I have. We don’t do any fruit. I thought about strawberries, but they take several years – which I may not have here. I don’t know what the park is going to do about farming from year to year. I have to figure out what is next for me.
The other main thing that concerns Sackton is lack of infrastructure and land.
“We have the barn for some storage,” she admits, “but not a lot. I can’t have a greenhouse or a bigger cooler. Because it is a federal park there are all these regulations. I understand that. We have been building up the soil anyway, without a long term lease — cover cropping, composting, adding rock powders and soil amendments. But we are also growing and use the fields a lot. I would like to rest them some, but we have to keep pressing to get more cropping done with limited land, rather than having more land and not taxing it so much.
“Land is pretty pricey around here,” she continues. “There isn’t much agricultural land available for sale. It was really good to have this to grow into, but it is not sustainable for the long term here without more infrastructure. The town owns a good amount of farmland and land trusts do, so that might be a good way for me to go. Farming on leased land is great if you can make it work. The tricky part is coming up with infrastructure. Open land is nice and people like it. But do they like walk-in coolers, machine sheds, greenhouses?”
In order to resolve these problems Sackton is putting together a proposal to the park superintendant, who has been generally supportive of her. She will ask for a more secure lease and the ability to put up a structure. She hopes that once the park has hired a person to deal with the farming issue, things can go more smoothly there.
Laura thinks she would still have taken this path even if she knew how it would turn out.
“I have been farming for many years,” she says, “and started this farm when I was 23. I’ve learned a lot here. Overall it has been a great experience for me. I don’t know if I would have learned the same skills if I had just been working on someone else’s farm. And I didn’t have money to buy land. I wouldn’t have been able to start my own farm without this public land opportunity. On the other hand, now I’m at the point where I have a thriving business but I’m not able to grow it. If I’d gotten a manager’s job and done that for the past 7 years I might be in a better place to farm on my own. I don’t know. I think I would do it again, but there is a caution there now. When I started I was just so excited to do it I didn’t worry about what would happen down the line. Now I’m in the place to start thinking long term. If I had it to do over I might put more thought into how this might work!”