Starting a Farm in a Pandemic: Reflections from Winter Street Farm
It had been dry—really dry—in the weeks leading up to my visit to Winter Street Farm in the late spring of 2020. As unusual as the drought was, it was one of the more quotidian concerns of that deeply unsettled season. Here in the northeastern U.S., uncertainty for farmers is now the norm. We see frosts a month late or early, and increasingly erratic precipitation patterns that are always surprising in the moment, but never in hindsight. Adding to that uncertainty was the novel coronavirus, which upended lives and broke food supply chains.
What would it be like to try to start a farm from scratch in the context of this global crisis?
This is what I was wondering as I navigated through the zigzag intersections of Claremont, New Hampshire. Suddenly, the light turned soft and moody grey, and the first fat raindrops streaked the pollen on my windshield.
The roads lifted up out of the town and into woodlands broken by pastures and homesteads. I passed through sheets of rain, until a sign advertising “CSA shares available” appeared at a country intersection. The rain cleared; across an open pasture was a yellow house with an attached greenhouse and barn.
Pulling into the driveway, I saw Abby and Jonathan, soaking wet and grinning in their camp chairs set in the entrance to the barn. Abby was barefoot in a blue summer dress and Jonathan in plaid shirt with suspenders, utility pants, toolbelt and boots.
A chance meeting, a love of the cold, and a farm on Winter Street
Abby Clarke and I met at Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts; Abby lived and worked at the farm while studying Natural Resource Conservation at UMass, just a mile down the road. Younger than many of the apprentices and crew, Abby impressed everyone with her durability of spirit, endless energy and her jump-in-with-both-feet work ethic.
For the next few years, Abby returned to Simple Gifts Farm between adventures: sailing the world crewing tall ships, working at a truck stop in Coldfoot, Alaska, and getting certified as a wilderness Emergency Medical Technician in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Eventually, she stayed on at Simple Gifts as the Assistant Manager while I moved north to start a market garden.
The 3-week to-do list: close on the
purchase, winterize the house, lay
out silage tarps, head for Antarctica.
I met Jonathan Hayden in 2016 at a NOFA no-till farming workshop; we ran into each other again a few weeks later, as Abby and I walked together at the NOFA Summer Conference.
Originally from Colorado Springs, Jonathan began spending winters in Antarctica while studying Fire and Emergency Services Administration at Colorado State University. In the summer, he farmed: in Nice, France, and Parma, Italy, and in Connecticut and Massachusetts where he began attending NOFA events.
Introducing them, I mentioned Jonathan’s work in Antarctica and Abby’s experiences in Alaska. In the years since, I’ve often wondered if their mutual love of cold, remote places crystallized their connection, and if it in some way guided their path to a farm on a street called Winter.
Flash forward to the fall of 2019, and winter was fast approaching at the wilderness expedition base camp on the Yukon River in Alaska where Abby and Jonathan were working, when they learned that their offer on the New Hampshire farm had been accepted. Over the next three weeks, they headed to New Hampshire, closed on the property, laid out a quarter acre of silage tarps, and winterized the house before packing their gear and heading to the airport, bound for five months work at McMurdo base in Antarctica.
In February 2020, the two returned to New Hampshire and their brand-new farm—with little infrastructure and not even a farm name—and only four months until their first CSA distribution.
So much to do, and then, a really big wrench
Even before properly moving into their farmhouse, they got to work immediately on the tasks of starting a new farm. They had a home and a barn and 38 acres of (mostly wooded) land. They had some equipment (a tractor, a few implements and a converted washing machine greens dryer) stored at friends’ farms across the state, but they had a long list of purchases to make, plus all of the administrative work of starting a new business: branding, logos, signage, website creation, marketing, organic certification, meetings with the NRCS and setting up recordkeeping systems. They had to build a greenhouse, three caterpillar tunnels, a wash station, CSA distribution area and a walk-in cooler. And, of course, all the operational tasks, including ordering seeds and packing supplies and fertilizers, preparing beds, starting seeds, and planting crops.
“It felt manageable because we had a game plan,” explained Abby. “We made the plan for the month, the week, the day and just kept moving, even as wrenches got thrown into the system.”
Wrenches, for example, like a global pandemic.
Just a few days into their preparations for the season, the first news of coronavirus in the US began to circulate. “There was some uncertainty in the early season, when we were completely invested in our business and were taking loans. We were afraid that we wouldn’t get enough CSA members and it was unclear whether there would be farmers markets this year,” remembered Jonathan.
Yet the two pushed on, accomplishing every task on their list. “Honestly, If the pandemic hadn’t happened and we didn’t have so much help from family and friends, it might have been a different story. But what happened is that people just kept showing up. We had plenty of space in the farmhouse and in campsites we cleared for people to socially distance, and of course we never overlapped guests. Our family and friends came out and offered us free labor because the pandemic put their jobs on hold.”
“Our family and friends came out and
offered us free labor because the
pandemic put their jobs on hold.”
The main way that the crisis impacted Abby and Jonathan was through their off-farm jobs. According to the USDA, 85-95% of the income for farm households came from off-farm sources in 1999-2003, and new farm start-ups are especially reliant on off-farm income for startup cost. Abby and Jonathan have made a significant portion of their income from their work in Antarctica, but expeditions for the 2020-2021 winter were drastically cut. To keep off-farm income flowing, Jonathan took a part-time job at the nearby Home Depot, working till 11 pm several days each week after farming all day.
Their concerns over the immediate viability of the farm eased, however, when “it became clear that local agriculture would be heavily supported [during the pandemic],” explained Abby. “CSA membership exceeded our expectations –we have 60 members now.” Like most new farms and food businesses, startup costs are significant, and Winter Street Farm will not produce a viable living for Abby and Jonathan for its first few seasons. But rising CSA enrollment helped them weather the spring’s food supply-chain upheavals.
As their first crops approached harvest in late May, they adjusted their business and marketing plan. Jonathan explained, “we pulled back from other markets and instead expanded our CSA and did not open to the public as a walk-in farm stand. This really worked better for us anyway because the numbers are more uncertain with those markets.” Because of the unprecedented level of interest in CSAs in the spring of 2020, Winter Street Farm was able to increase their target membership level and focus on just that one sales outlet.
“We’re actually really lucky,” they explained. “Because we hadn’t yet set up our systems, we just built them with coronavirus safety measures in mind.”
To ensure that the CSA would be safe for members, they expanded their planned distribution hours and offered 3 pickup days, each with a 5-hour window, which, they say, was more than enough for the number of members that had to navigate the distribution barn with physical distancing. “Everyone wears a mask, we have one entrance and one exit, and tongs and pick-your-own tools are used once per member and then sanitized,” Abby explained.
“The support that local farms have received has been really amazing, but it also reflects on the way that we need more community institutions,” Abby said. “People are coming here and actually seeing and talking to each other—they feel more comfortable coming here than the grocery store, and it has a real community feeling.” Despite being transplants to the town, the farm became an instant and essential part of the community.
By mid-summer, they were already producing more than their CSA could consume, so Winter Street Farm donated surplus produce each week to local hunger relief efforts, such as the Claremont Soup Kitchen.
“We have seen the food chain falter and stumble. I think a lot of people are just starting to discover buying local,” Jonathan said. Asked whether he thought that people would continue to support local farms at the same levels after the pandemic becomes less dangerous, he pointed out that “if local sources produce good quality food, when they go back to grocery store they’ll be able to tell the difference. We already have people telling us that before our CSA, they went to the local big chain for their greens, which went bad in three days, but our greens last longer and taste so much better—this way is so much better.”
I got back in touch with Abby and Jonathan in late winter 2021 to ask about their plans for the new year. Abby told me they will be doubling the size of their CSA this year in response to the high demand. They will also be spending part of the season setting up the infrastructure they will need to add laying hens to their farm in 2022. In addition, they are collaborating with local businesses and artists to grow more specialty crops including indigo (for textile dyes), flint corn, and herbs. They are working closely with their local NRCS soil conservationist to make improvements to the farm and to receive support for conservation practices, including cover cropping, mulching, and improvement of habitat for beneficial insects.
Winter Street Farm is a certified organic, tillage-reduced farm in the Upper Connecticut River Valley of New Hampshire on what was originally Pennacook and Sokoki lands. For more information on Winter Street Farm visit www.winterstreetfarm.com/, find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/winterstreetfarm, or Instagram:@winterstreetfarm
To read about the soil-health centered farming practices at Winter Street Farm, check out the August edition of the NOFA/Mass Newsletter.
Note: A version of this story also appeared in the NOFA/Mass Newsletter and in the magazine Growers & Co.
Caro Roszell is Education Director and Soil Health Specialist for NOFA/Mass.