Inverbrook Farm builds on a history of quality

Some would argue against changing what’s been working well, but change is in the air at Inverbrook Farm in West Grove, Pa., where Claire Murray has been farming five of her family’s 100 acres for over a decade.

Calendula from the medicinal herb garden at Inverbrook Farm in West Grove, Pa.
PHOTOS BY CLAIRE MURRAY.

While it was her grandmother Ida Lofting’s farm, and the matriarch lived to be 94 before passing a little more than a year ago, Murray lives there in separate housing from her parents, Robert and Cintra Murray, and from an uncle, Hugh Lofting, a timber framer. It’s already what she’s described as a family compound, but she’s about to keep things even closer to home.

This season, for the first time, Murray is forgoing trips to the local farmers’ market, one she helped popularize, in order to focus on her own CSA and a start-up farmstand at Inverbrook.

Her grandmother always kept a big garden, so growing up homegrown vegetables (and freezing them) wasn’t new, but it was “backyard gardening,” Murray says. She remembers helping score corn. Her uncle experimented with beekeeping and began raising pastured chickens, whose eggs and meat she continues to sell for him. “The family was ripe for the transformation to sustainable agriculture,” Murray says.

Once she began her own growing operation, her grandmother was her first worker. “I’ve never had a faster picker,” Murray says. “She was never big on joining organizations or self-promotion, and when we started selling chicken and eggs and had to raise our prices when organic feed prices went up, she was the first to say that no one would pay [the higher prices], but in a no-nonsense sort of way, she was very supportive.”

Designed expansion

Murray began by expanding the large garden and helping with the chickens. Then, in 2000, the Kennett Square Farmers Market opened. “It was a good motivator,” she says. “The CSA concept was still relatively new.”

A year later, Murray started her own CSA. What began with 25 shares has steadily grown to 60 full shares. It’s grown in such a way that this year will be the first that she won’t participate at Kennett. Instead, she’s begun a member-based farmstand on Fridays. It costs $30 to join, but if you’re already one of her CSA members, you’re automatically a farmstand member, too.

“There are so many good new products that are being offered in our immediate area,” she says. “It’s a test year, and we’ll see where it goes.”


The garden, distribution shed and greenhouse at Inverbrook Farm in West Grove, Pa.

Farmers’ markets are great, Murray says, but everyone is confined to their niche. If she also has flowers and herbs, and could be doing bouquets and herb bundles, someone else’s market is limiting. “I have a total respect for the balance a market tries to achieve, but I have more to offer,” she explains.

At Inverbrook this season CSA distribution will be on Monday and Wednesday, and the farmstand on Fridays in what’s a rural section of Chester County in the heartland of mushroom production. The market will come to her rather than Murray packing up and carting her goods to market. “Deep down I’m nervous, but we’ll see how it goes,” she says.

Inverbrook is also a drop-off site for Lancaster Farm Fresh 4 Season Harvest Club (www.lancasterfarmfresh.com), a buyers’ group that connects the public to Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative (LFFC), a nonprofit, organic farmers’ cooperative of 64 farmers in Lancaster County. Once a 4 Season Harvest member, you can shop online and receive weekly deliveries at neighboring pick-up sites like Inverbrook.

With farmstand and CSA membership, Murray is offering a bounty beyond her own produce. Plans are to include other local farm partners. “We want to be hyper local,” she says.

Farm partners include …


Peas growing in the spring at Inverbrook Farm in West Grove, Pa.

Marketing know-how

There are many more community-friendly means for marketing these days, and Murray has started a Facebook account for the farm. She’s been blogging, including a memorable and emotional piece about her grandmother after she passed. She did much of the promotional work for the Kennett Square Farmers Market.

The farmstand will require a different mindset than the CSA, and Murray has to think in terms of avoiding replication, and increasing a customer base. At Kennett, she could afford to focus on a few popular products, but says it would be hard to go in both directions, expansion and specialization. Also, Murray wants to offer more on-farm educational and themed events.

For example, last year her longest-tenured employee, Katherine Broadbent, grew a medicinal herb garden. Based on that, Donna Merrill, a nurse and herbalist, led a free herb walk through the garden. Plans are for a repeat this season.

“We’re just trying to use what we have here to our advantage,” Murray says. “It’s the switch back to here, almost like when we first started and we had more events and gatherings. It involves a shift in our energy, but it’s time to come back. With the whole homesteading movement, people have been asking to come to the farm. They want to be connected to the earth as I did, and we have the vehicle to make that happen.”

Broadbent says Murray has not only taught her how to grow food, but also the value of community. “I call her the ‘Queen of Community,'” Broadbent says. “She is a born leader and ceaselessly organizing events such as festivals, fundraisers, parties, potlucks – anything that connects people to each other and their food source.”

Murray’s grandmother remains an inspiration. Always hospitable and welcoming, no one could visit without being fed. “In a humble way, she was proud of this property, the land and her family,” Murray says. “It was more of an emotional connection, though. She didn’t have a background in the science, but she liked people admiring the place.”

With lots of mixed greens – Asians, mustard greens, arugula and spinach – as well as cooking greens, Inverbrook is noted for its haricots verts, which means green beans in French, and also for Murray’s French fingerling potatoes. She grows regular red and heirloom tomatoes; Roma beans, something her grandmother also grew; Swiss chard, which her grandmother was an early fan of; and baby summer squash.


Tiny tomato seedlings at Inverbrook Farm in West Grove, Pa.

“We’re pretty balanced,” Murray says. “It really is a market garden.”

She’ll continue to plant similarly even if she’s no longer going to market, though she’ll miss the many questions, and the fun of “exposing [customers] to a purple pepper, which really floors them.”

CSAs, Murray says, have always been more rewarding. They offer more opportunity for individual diversity.

However, “shift” is a good word to represent the majority undercurrent in much of agriculture.

“When I started, people didn’t know what kale was, or arugula,” Murray says. “Those first years, I remember crying [in joy] when I would sell out of something like arugula because I knew that the world was changing.”

The shift in the industry, she says, is largely driven by a population that’s more aware, and more willing to take responsibility for its health. “Plus, there are a lot more foodies out there,” she says. “People are empowered to do the same things at home.”

Constant challenges

Slowly, Murray says she’s adding to the humus level in her soil with cover crops, but admits she needs to compost more. “We’re trying to get away from tilling and into more mulching,” she says.

Still, Inverbrook has incredibly good soils. “It’s pretty ideal to be farming here,” Murray says. “There’s a joke that farming is addictive, but I truly believe it is.”

Inverbrook’s largest six plots measure 100 feet long by 5 feet wide, which match the span of Murray’s rotovator that’s attached to a John Deere, and then another six half plots 50 feet long. There are four more at the top of a hill, with rows that are 25 feet long and 5 feet wide. The plots average 10 to 17 rows in each.

Uncle Hugh recently bought two older tractors: an Allis Chalmers G, which is used to hill the potato crop, and a Farmall A. There’s also a BCS walking tractor. The rotovator is her favorite, though. It’s gentler on the soil, provides a shallower till, and is more on-scale for her operation. “Time and time again at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, we hear how important it is not to beat up the soil,” Murray says.

In many ways, she also represents the new face of farming. She’s a new-age farmer who seems to appeal to a new generation of open-minded people. She’s also part of the burgeoning trend of female farmers. Even among her crew, Inverbrook is always about 95 percent female. “This year, we have no guys – again,” she says.

There are three women helpers, all part-time seasonal. Broadbent, who is in her fourth year, has been harvesting herbs for tinctures, elixirs, lavender wands, dream pillows, etc., for her personal use. This season, though, she plans on selling her herbal products at the Inverbrook farmstand.

With a 30-by-90-foot plot planted in a medicine wheel design, the medicinal herb garden, like everything on the farm, is a work in progress. “I’ve definitely had my successes; the calendula thrived, and the echinacea was just magnificent,” Broadbent says.

For more information, visit www.inverbrook.com, the Inverbrook CSA page on Facebook, or Murray’s blog at www.inverbrook.blogspot.com.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.