Raynham, a town of some 13,000 people, was originally part of what is now the City of Taunton in Southeastern Massachusetts, settled as early as 1639 by Elizabeth Pole, the first woman to found a town in America. Three years earlier Roger Williams had fled to that area in a January blizzard to escape a conviction for sedition and heresy in Salem. Williams had earned the enmity of many English settlers for his beliefs in paying the Native Americans for their land and opposing slavery. The Wampanoag Sachem Massasoit hosted and protected the fugitive Williams for three months until Spring came. The Sachem’s son, Metacom, in 1675 agreed to spare Raynham from destruction in King Philip’s War in return for the local iron forge maintaining his troops’ weapons.
In 1731 the eastern end of Taunton was incorporated as Raynham, where folks abandoned efforts to affect history and settled down to building ship hulls which were floated down the Taunton River to Fall River and Narragansett Bay for final fitting, as well as some small manufacturing and farming the sandy loam soil. Closeness to Boston (32 miles) and Providence (22 miles) has slowly increased land values there as city workers seek to live in nearby bedroom suburbs. These increasing land values are part of the problem for Chuck Currie and Marie Kaziunas at Freedom Food Farm.
“I grew up in the suburbs just north of Boston,” Currie relates. “My parents had a garden but I wasn’t focused on ag at all. It wasn’t a career choice presented to kids where I was. I went to school for chemistry and biochemistry at UMass in Amherst. But I got sick of being in labs and realized I didn’t want to do that my whole life. So I switched to plant and soil science.”
Chuck still wasn’t thinking about agriculture, but his advisor told him to take a sustainable ag course from John Gerber. That’s when he found out what he wanted to do.
“I finished my degree there,” he says, “then worked at Red Fire Farm a few years, then started my own farm on leased land in Vermont. I was there for four years until 2010. But it was clear that the farm wouldn’t be for sale for a long time, and I wanted to own somewhere.”
So Currie moved to Rhode Island to farm, once again on leased land, and when it seemed that too would never be available to own, came to Raynham in 2014.
Marie’s background is in public health work, but she has always had an interest in food and food–based communities. She came into farming, she says, mostly because she met Chuck:
“I was feeling that a lot of the public health work I was doing was not as impactful as it could have been. There was a lot of red tape, domestically and internationally, working with governments to get people the quality of life and care that they deserve. I met Chuck and started volunteering at the farm. It became more and more apparent that we could grow really good food and that could make an immediate impact on the health of families of all economic statuses in our community. It wasn’t something like what I was doing in public health, that might be implemented 10 or 15 years later (laughs). This is the answer to a lot of major public health crises and struggles in this country, and everywhere.”
The couple met in 2011, when Chuck was moving back from Vermont and brought some of his produce to sell at the Pawtucket winter market.
“My goal in farming,” he states, “was always to make the world a better place. I’m not into running a business or, clearly, making money (laughs). I’ve always thought raising vegetables is pretty destructive to soil. That comes partly from my background in soils –– soil microbiology, soil structure. When I started working on commercial farms I saw how much we were beating the crap out of the soil. It’s bare much of the year, fields were starting to erode. The more I learned about ecology it just didn’t make sense. But farmers have to make a living so they do that. It’s just a reality. Farmers want to farm another way, but they don’t see how they can pay the bills. Especially a farm this size. All those no–till, hand labor farms are a lot smaller.”
It is great to farm to build up the soil if you have a small farm or a second income, Currie believes, or if you have land you can get for free, but his goal has been to achieve permanent land ownership. To do that one has to have enough of an income to support a mortgage. So he has always looked to larger scale agriculture because that was the only way to generate enough income to buy a farm.
The land in Raynham that the couple found in 2014 was actually the last farm in town. The reason it hasn’t been developed was that it was Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) land. That is land on which the state of Massachusetts had purchased a right restricting its use to agriculture. That was good and bad for the couple, actually. It was great that the land existed and was protected. But it was an older APR from the time before the program put price restrictions on what the land could sell for. (In the 1990s the state started requiring the right to determine the price at which it could be sold.) Without a cap it becomes unaffordable for farmers eventually.
Additionally, the land didn’t have to be in agricultural use. So it could be used for a person with a couple of horses who just wanted a nice spread for personal use. It had been a working farm in dairy and beef, but it had evolved into more a hobby farm for the previous owner, which was just a side business among several others he had. The current owner was, however, willing to sell it.
“We originally started with a lease to buy the land,” Currie explains, “thinking that we could come up with enough money in a couple of years. We fell drastically short! So we put our feelers out and talked to some land trusts. We were hoping they could use an Option to Purchase the Agricultural Value (OPAV). A number of land trusts will do that. It means that if the agricultural value of this farm is $400,000 but the owner wants $800,000 for the property, the land trust would come in and offer them $400,000 for the agricultural value and then the owner couldn’t sell the property for more than the remaining $400,000. So someone like us could then save up and buy the property at $400,000, and farm it.”
“But the issue was,” he continues, “ that when we went to some of the land trusts to talk to them about an OPAV, nobody was interested in working with us because the development rights were already preserved –– so the property wasn’t going to be developed. They didn’t want to put in additional money to make sure it was a working farm when their money could be used to prevent development on other properties. Their priority was open space, not agriculture.”
“We were using it in a way that other people could visit and enjoy,” Marie adds, “as opposed to someone who just lived here and didn’t develop it. But that wasn’t enough to change their minds.”
The couple was finally able to find some CSA members who were willing to buy the land as an investment, and it now looks like they will be able to get a 4 year lease from the new owners. But it is an investment, and the owners ultimately want to sell and recoup their money.
“I think it was partly that they knew us and wanted us to stay on,” Marie says. “If we left, they might not be as committed to keeping the place in farming. They would like to give us enough time to find a way to purchase the land. But it is very difficult to raise that kind of money from farming. Land down here is just very high. Unless you have some backing or are a non–profit, it is just very hard to imagine a farmer being able to buy land to farm. Our options if we want to own land seem to be either to move farther north in New England, or to a place which is much more rural, where there are even less people to be customers.”
Freedom Food Farm is 90 acres, total. The farm is separated by a stream, with about 50 acres in the back and 40 in the front. The soil is very sandy. There is some silt loam on the property, but most of it is loamy sand. The organic matter, however, because of the presence of so many animals in its history, ranges from a low of 2.8% to a high of 7%, and in one of the pastures in the back it is actually at 8.2%!
The back half is not tilled at all but is permanent pasture and woods, just for animals. The couple no longer grows vegetables there at all. About 25 acres of the front land is tillable, with about half in vegetable production and half in cover crops and grain. They are rotated every two or three years.
“This year we have 11 or 12 acres in vegetables,” Currie explains. “The biggest thing we are doing to promote soil health is we have been taking some of our land out of production for vegetables. We’ll go even further next year, down to 5 to 7 acres.”
For animals, the farm keeps sheep, goats, beef, pigs and chickens.
“We use paddocks to divide each pasture,” says Kaziunas, “and enable intensive grazing. Some are better for sheep and goats, some better for cattle. And we try to bring the poultry behind the ruminants for fly control, spreading the fertility, and cleaning up remaining green matter.
“We are also bringing the pigs and chickens to graze on the crop land after harvest,” she continues. “That will get all the green matter out, they enjoy what food is left, and the pigs will do some tillage for us. They are less intense than a tractor would be. The pigs go first and then chickens come through later and clean it up more.”
“When the animals are out on pasture,” Currie adds, “their manure is the fertilizer for it. They are inside for three and a half to four months a year and then we are using wood chips or hay as bedding and that gets mixed in with the manure and turned into compost.”
For the monogastric pigs and chickens, who can’t eat grass, Chuck and Marie try to grow feed such as barley and peas. They usually graze the animals right onto them rather than harvesting, but recently bought a combine at auction for $1200 and are planning to grow more grain and harvest it to reduce chicken feed costs. Chuck is enough of a mechanic to take care of repairs and maintenance. They also give all the veggie scraps to the pigs, which definitely saves on feed expenses.
“We have about twelve heads of beef and slaughter 4 to 6 beef per year,” relates Marie. “We keep one boar and one sow for breeding, and do two litters a year –– one batch goes to harvest in August, the other around January.”
They sell the meat through the on–farm store and also at a couple of farmers markets –– Somerville Union Square and Attleboro. They also go to winter markets in Rhode Island and Somerville.
“Our meat and produce is all certified organic,” Currie says, “which isn’t that important here but was an aid in getting into farmers markets. In one of them the only way we could sell meat was because it was certified organic and thus didn’t compete with a couple of other meat vendors.”
About half the farm’s vegetable production is winter storage crops. Farm sales are pretty even, year round. About half the produce is sold through the farm store and the CSA, the rest through the farmer’s markets. To pick up your CSA share you just come to the store, so about 75% of the traffic there is for the shares. Chuck and Marie don’t buy stuff in, except perhaps for maple syrup.
“We do sell some grain as berries and ground as flour,” Marie reveals. “It sells well here. We could sell it all year –– people like local flour. So much of what you normally buy is treated and often sprayed with glyphosate before harvest. People are looking for alternatives to that. It is part of our intention to do more raising for a full diet, and this would be part of that.”
Freedom Food Farm’s gross income is about 30% from animals, maybe 15% from value added like kimchi, sauerkraut or hot sauce, and the rest from produce. So far Currie and Kaziunas don’t take anything from the farm financially, reinvesting whatever they make.
“We don’t have many expenses,” Chuck says, philosophically. “We don’t have time for a private life, live simply and eat pretty much what we grow. We don’t have kids. Eventually we may have some and things may change. But we’re trying to find a way to make this farming thing work.”
Because of the sandy soil, irrigation is an issue on the farm. For everything under black plastic they use drip irrigation and town water.
“We run it through a chlorine filter,” Currie explains. “Most of the bare ground crops don’t have any irrigation. We do have a traveling irrigation gun, but we’ve never had it hooked up. We don’t have a pump yet. And now there is the issue of water testing. We back up to the Taunton River, for which the farm has water rights, but we’d have to test that under the new produce safety laws. And it is a full time job moving irrigation equipment from field to field!”
Freedom Food Farm had real labor problems this year. They started the season two people short out of a staff of about 10, and then had a series of illnesses and deaths in the family that made them three people short pretty much every day in May, June and part of July. That has been hard to overcome and really put a damper on things this year.
“We mostly get people in their 20s and 30s,” Chuck says. “We only hire people with experience and who want to be doing this. We’re kind of picky. We can’t always find people with good experience, though.”
“We find that people who come without experience,” adds Marie, “have so big a need for training that it is too severe on us to provide it. We do so many different things here there is a lot to learn. Too much complexity, variation, every week, every season is different. You have to be able to learn a lot quickly. Some people will stay for several years, but there is a lot of turnover and then we have to train people in our own systems and it takes a lot of time.”
One advantage that Freedom Food Farm has is that, because of the diversity, the animal and added value products, they can support people with year round work. Many farms can’t do that.
Chuck and Marie have discussed participating in the H–2A program, getting foreign workers who are approved through the Department of Labor as seasonal employees. But Chuck doesn’t like the idea of foreign workers.
“I’m kind of an anti–globalist, I guess,” he says. “I know that they are good workers and often can do two or three times the work of the average American, but I believe in having people who work here live in the community and keep the money here. It’s buying in labor, and we’re trying not to buy in things. Plus, H–2A workers are expensive. I’ve heard some horror stories from other farms that tried to get H–2A workers You have to provide housing for them, but you can get on a treadmill trying to get approval for your housing, there are so many regulations and requirements. On one farm the inspector gave him a list of 10 things to fix. He fixed them and the inspector came back and had a new list of another 10 things to fix. The farmer said: ‘what’s the deal here?’ and the inspector said: ‘Look, its my job to say anything that will prevent you from hiring H–2A workers. I don’t want you to hire them. I want you to hire American workers!’ I don’t know if it was one guy, or policy, or what. But I don’t want to get involved in that.”
Some of the practices on the farm require extra labor. Being serious about no–till means more work must be done by hand to manage weeds and prepare a good seed bed, Currie feels. Of course it depends on what you are raising. Grain requires a lot less labor per acre than vegetables. He figures you can plant and harvest an acre of grain in eight hours if you have a combine.
The couple feel that the most immediate threat to the farm’s sustainability is their quality of life.
“We need to figure out how to keep this farm running,” stresses Chuck, “and not have to work so many hours. Part of that is money and having enough people here to help. But even if you have the money, it is still hard to find people who want to do this work. We pay from $12 to $15 an hour, and it keeps going up and up every year. Eventually were going to be competing with McDonalds at $16 an hour! We’re going to have to drastically reduce the amount of labor we need to run the farm. We’re really only going to find a handful of people who want to work this hard for what we can pay.”
The farm has been fortunate to be the recipient of some serious equipment to help with aspects of the farming work, due largely to Chuck and Marie’s hard work and numerous hours devoted to applying for grants. Just a week or two before I visited they received a ten and a half foot long roller crimper. They haven’t used it yet, but plan to lay down numerous cover crops with it, so they can plant into the residue.
“The plan is to use that for winter squash this year,” discloses Chuck, “and for our grains. When filled with water it weighs 2800 pounds, heavy enough to crush the plants’ veins and to shut down their vascular flow so they won’t be able to come back. This was made by a Pennsylvania company that also does a lot of horse–drawn implements in Amish country. We got it right after all our cover crops dried up and haven’t had a chance to use it yet.
“About 15 farms got them,” he continues, “but we are one of the smaller growers to get one. It was really competitive. A lot of people applied, apparently. You are suppose to use it for five years at least, and in the application there were some calculations to see how much greenhouse gas savings you would make, both for fuel use over that time and also by sequestering carbon in the soil. Realistically, we will use this once per year per field. We will use this on winter squash, tomatoes, peppers and a few other vegetables. It would definitely work to share these between local farms. It is a pretty simple piece of equipment and hard to break. Which is a consideration when you share equipment!
“You can use this with a no till transplanter,” Currie concludes, “like a conventional transplanter except the furrow is very small and is covered over right away. They aren’t as available as the crimpers. And you can also get cultivators that work in mulch. Those lift the mulch up and draw a blade under it to deal with small weeds that are beginning to grow.”
The pair also got a no–till drill from the ACRE program through MDAR. It cost over $16,000 and Currie says they never would have bought one without the grant. It is for use in planting small seeds into any kind of residue.
“There is no PTO,” he explains. “It is all ground driven. It cuts through the slice of mulch, the seed is dropped down one of as many as nine tubes, and then a wheel tamps it all down. If you don’t want to use all 9 you can close off one or more. I got it 6 feet wide, exactly as wide as the tractor. You need about 60 horsepower to use it. Most of the problem is the weight, which is about 3000 pounds. You have to be able to lift it off the ground. It looks complicated, but once I used it and understood it, I see it is really simple.”
“The seed comes from a hopper into 9 little pouches,” he continues, “and a paddle picks it up. You can control how much that hole opens up, and how fast the paddle goes. You tend to get several seeds going through at once, so you have to use it for plants that can tolerate being clumped together like grains, grasses, radishes, etc. It would be tough for crops that need more precise spacing. It is great for reseeding pastures, which we used to do with a broadfork and by broadcasting seed.
Chuck and Marie also built a storage facility in the barn with coolbots and hard insulation panels. There are four different areas, with different temperatures and humidity levels. Root crops want it cold and humid, alliums like it cold and dry, winter squash and sweet potatoes like it just cool and dry, greens like it cool and damp. The coolbot controls an air conditioner scaled to 25,000 BTUs, the largest wall unit you can get. In the winter a fan draws out the heat at night and brings in cold outdoor air. That helps a lot as coolbots have more trouble cooling in the 40˚ and below range.
Currie and Kaziunas are focused on trying to do a better job building healthy soil by reducing tillage and compaction, using more mulch and cover crops, and rotating crops and animals. The advantages are obvious.
“Long term, of course,” says Chuck, “reduced tillage is the best solution to the weed problem. When you till you keep bringing up fresh weed seeds. Also no–till greatly reduces the fertility you have to bring in to the farm. Fungi and bacteria are constantly breaking down what you already have and making it available to plants. Also, if you are not adding bagged fertilizers you also don’t need as much lime.”
The couple don’t use many bagged fertilizers or dried manure, although they use a little soybean meal, sul–po–mag, and minerals. They do use a lot of compost –– its about 75% of their fertility. Most of it is bought in and that is a big expense they would like to avoid.
“We make enough compost to handle perhaps half the vegetables we are growing now,” figures Currie, “using our manure and crop waste. You can get almost the same amount of crops off a half of an acre no–till as you can off a full acre with tillage. That would be a significant reduction in our expenses if we could raise the same yield on less land, and make all of our own compost for it.
“We could do also do a lot more mulching,” he continues, “especially with green material. If we could go out and cut the grass when it is still green, stick it into a manure spreader or forage wagon, and use that to mulch the crops, we would get moisture retention, weed control, and 50 to 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre with the decomposing green matter. It is like side–dressing your crop with nitrogen. If you wait until the hay is dry you have pretty much lost all of that.”
Grazing their animals, and rotating them with crops, is another practice they are doing more of. Currently they move their cows through 10 or 12 paddocks, Savory style, to get maximum use of their pasture. They are planning to work a cover cropped paddock into these rotations.
Hedgerows are important for biodiversity and for soil quality, enabling living root systems to sustain soil life during periods when the crops are gone. The pair would like to use them more, but it would like to have more permanency in their tenancy for setting up long term projects like that.
Complex cover crops can be both soil builders and forage if planned properly.
“In one of our fields we grew winter peas and triticale,” says Chuck, “and once they were dry and ready to harvest we turned the pigs in there in sections. They ate a lot of the peas and triticale, cleaned it up and got it pretty much flat, then we ran the chickens on the residue. They scratched and mixed in things, and their manure also helped the straw break down a lot, mixing in the nitrogen with the high carbon. When we came in after all that, you could push a ground rod three feet into the soil, it was such nice stuff! It was in cover crops and then got tilled in without anything driving over it! We would have been able to drill cover crop seed right into that if we had the no–till then. We could have saved all the mowing, chisel plowing, and disking.
“We have a spring brassica section,” he continues, “that we flail mowed and then instead of plowing or disking it we just direct seeded a cover crop of Sorghum Sudan and sunn hemp right into the kale. Our mower broke so there was a ten day window between when I mowed it and seeded it, and I would have come back and mowed one more time before seeding, but I couldn’t. The kale was already tall. So we planted that whole area without disturbing the soil much. The cover crop is coming up nicely beneath the kale. We can graze it when it is tall enough.”
“If you are careful you can put cover crops into cropped areas and graze both the residue and the cover crops once they have grown,” Marie adds. “Given the organic regulations, however, you usually can’t graze an area before putting in a vegetable crop. You may run into the 90 or 120 day ‘raw manure’ prohibition on harvesting the crop too soon after animals have been in the field.”
I asked Currie for an example of using cover crops, grazing them, and planting a vegetable crop into the residue that would meet organic standards. He told me about one situation where that worked for them: “We put in a cover crop where we had a cash crop the year before. In the spring, about April, we put the sheep or cows in and they grazed the cover crop down as tight as they could to the ground. That also saved us the task of mowing it. We like most any grass/legume mix of cover crops –– Vetch a little bit less, but we like triticale and peas just because they are the fastest growing and the easiest to overwinter. Rye is okay but it seems to bolt really fast in the spring, where triticale stays leafier longer. Triticale just comes out better for us. Maybe it’s our soil, but it is lusher and we have less bare ground when we use triticale instead of rye. We’ve kind of gone to a mix now. We use peas, rye and triticale. You can even put vetch in there as well. Or oats, or something. We try to get up to three or four species. But the livestock grazes that in the Spring, right down to the ground. Then we chisel plow and disc a couple of times, and plant our winter squash. It has to be a crop that has a long season so you have that 120 days the regulations require. With the new roller crimper we think we can just use that on the cover crop and plant winter squash right into that. The plan with the winter squash is to underseed it with clover, so that once we harvest the squash off we will be able to mow it but there will still be some clover in there and we can use the no–till drill to plant our oats or peas or triticale for the following year. We need to get those in by late September or early October, so we try to get the winter squash out by September 15.”
Chuck feels that the hardest part of farming vegetables while being sensitive to soil and soil life is managing the weed situation. You have to have some way to lower weed pressure during the transition to no–till until you get the benefit of not turning up weed seeds. They cultivate with hand tools, rotate in cover crops and animals, and have tried to solarize this year with greenhouse plastic on a 60 x 60 foot square to lower weed pressure. They also had a plan to get silage tarps and kill weeds with shade, too, but were so short handed they didn’t have time.
For the future, the pair plans to try out their new equipment to avoid tillage as much as possible, reduce vegetable growing areas in favor of more intense production via greenhouses, more labor and irrigation, cut down on black plastic and increase natural farm–produced mulch, benefit from lower weed pressure resulting from no–till practices, and more creatively use cover crops and grazing.
“I think if you really want to see people be able to produce food to feed people healthfully for many generations,” Marie offers, “you have to be able to farm differently. Thinking about it is the first step, and then we have to find practices that work on different scales and be able to implement them economically.”