A passion for food and community

Dave Tepfer in front of the spit at the N. Amherst Harvest Festival.

Amherst, Mass., is one of the more expensive areas to farm in the state. In order to have a farm in an area where the land prices are high, the community must support it and find ways to make it affordable for farmers to farm. Jeremy Barker-Plotkin and Dave Tepfer, co-owners of Simple Gifts Farm, garnered the support of the community before they signed the lease on the 35-acre parcel in 2006.

In 2005, when the elderly farmer who owned the property became incapacitated, his family was ready to sell the land to developers. However, residents of the surrounding area wanted to keep agriculture alive in their neighborhood and formed North Amherst Community Farm association (NACF), a nonprofit membership organization to save the property from development. With approximately 200 households participating, NACF collected private donations and worked with the Massachusetts’ APR program, the town of Amherst, and the landowner’s family to purchase the property. Meanwhile, they searched for a lessee who would share their commitment to maintaining the farm’s integrity and thus benefit the community. Barker-Plotkin and Tepfer are passionate about growing good food, and passionate about community, so a partnership with NACF was quickly forged.

David Kastor, co-president of NACF, says that even though NACF is a nonprofit corporation and Simple Gifts is for-profit, the separate entities have a close relationship of shared goals that works well. He believes this is the only way to keep agriculture in communities like Amherst, where land is expensive. Otherwise, he says, "Farms only go one way, they only disappear. They never reappear or start."

Both NACF and the owners of Simple Gifts Farm recognize that agriculture in its purest form isn’t simply about planting and harvesting. Barker-Plotkin and Tepfer’s agricultural process cultivates more than healthy soil, healthy seed and healthy inputs. They are growing a healthy community.

Taking risks to follow a dream

Barker-Plotkin and Tepfer took a financial risk to lease the land because they knew it was an opportunity to farm in a supportive community where they otherwise could not have afforded to buy land. However, in the three years since they’ve been on the land, the start-up costs have been a steep addition to the lease payments. "We’ve taken on a lot of debt to build infrastructure here," explains Barker-Plotkin. "This isn’t great land," he continues. "It’s good land, but it’s dry and sandy and then wet [in other places]." In spite of these challenges, he asserts, "There certainly is a quality of life thing that we appreciate about being here, over and above any financial issues. The main value is being right here in the community."

In order to afford the lease payments, Simple Gifts Farm sells 90 percent of their product through their CSA and the Amherst Farmers’ Market. The other 10 percent is sold to Whole Foods Market in the neighboring town of Hadley.

A simple history of Simple Gifts

Barker-Plotkin’s passion for farming developed when he worked on a farm during his college years. After graduation, he worked on several organic farms before entering a Master’s program in soil sciences at The University of Maine.

The university’s research station in Presque Isle where Barker-Plotkin did his graduate research was a conventional potato farm, as was typical of the region at the time. His research explored ways to reduce chemical usage, and compared organic and conventional systems. Barker-Plotkin recalls the words of one of his graduate school professors, who compared the chemicals used in conventional farming to a big hammer. Barker-Plotkin preferred to utilize the organic methods described by his professor as using a bunch of little hammers.

After earning his master’s degree in plant and soil sciences from the University of Maine in 1999, Barker-Plotkin established Simple Gifts Farm on rented land in Belchertown, Mass. He relied on organic methods from the start, and although it was his first experience running his own organic farm, Barker-Plotkin felt confident that it was the right choice. "There’s plenty of examples of research where yields in organic farming systems have jumped as high or higher than conventional farming, even on a large commercial scale," he says. By making every effort to create lower disease pressure and lower insect pressure, he achieved maximum production of vegetables.

The past three years have provided Barker-Plotkin and Tepfer with growth, experience and challenges. Barker-Plotkin’s well-established operation grew when he moved to North Amherst. In contrast, Tepfer’s livestock operation started from nothing. Together, they managed to take an abandoned farm with collapsing infrastructure, disastrous messes, an overgrowth of weeds and brush, and turn it around.

A long-time friend of Barker-Plotkin, Tepfer was eager to collaborate with him when he moved his farming operation to its current location. Tepfer had grown up on a farm, earned his degree in animal science, done graduate work in agricultural economics and worked on several farms. He had left agriculture for construction and was ready to return and establish Simple Gifts’ livestock program.

Current infrastructure and methods

Since moving to Amherst in 2006, Barker-Plotkin has organically farmed the 20 tillable acres available to him.

In 2007, Barker-Plotkin and Tepfer built a 30-by-70-foot greenhouse, which they heat with fry oil instead of fossil fuels. They also built two 100-by-14-foot unheated greenhouses, renovated one of the barns for a share room, and installed a well for irrigation. The greenhouses enabled them to grow salad greens from January through March in 2008. In the fall of 2008, they installed two new 14-by-100-foot hoop-houses, and created the possibility to manifest their dream of having a year-round CSA. Salad mix grows in two of the hoop-houses, which they hope to start harvesting in early March. The other two hoop-houses provide winter quarters for the chickens.

Jeremy & Audrey Barker-Plotkin in front of the horse-drawn carriage at the N. Amherst Harvest Festival.

The partners’ dream of having a year-round CSA has come to fruition, with a little cooperation from their neighbors. The CSA’s winter share includes root crops and salad mix, as well as a winter egg share, where people pre-buy eggs at a discount. Members get 5 pounds of potatoes, 10 pounds of other roots, and one to two bags of salad every other week. Many of the root crops have had to be purchased from other local farms. Barker-Plotkin says he and his partner felt that bringing in produce from other local growers was worth it to get experience marketing in the winter. The winter CSA has also provided an outlet for the winter eggs and salad.

Currently, the farm earns more income per acre from vegetables than from livestock. Still, Tepfer believes the chickens and pigs are important both as product to sell people who are already there to buy vegetables, and as a way to import nutrients to the farm. Tepfer feeds his livestock organic grain, but because he buys ruminant animals that are not certified organic, he cannot certify them as organic even though he is raising them using organic methods. The chickens are certified organic.

The vegetable crops and the livestock are totally integrated. Following the lead of farmers like Joel Salatin, the farmers at Simple Gifts believe rotating their livestock among the fields and greenhouses enhances the quality and quantity of their vegetable production.

Initially, they rotated their animals through their fields only, but in 2008, they also rotated their certified organic baby chickens through the unheated greenhouses for fertility. "The two little [greenhouses] had tomatoes in spring and summer and the one that had the chickens in it had the biggest and healthiest plants I’ve ever grown," boasts Barker-Plotkin.

Organic standards have always allowed for manure and other byproducts of conventional livestock agriculture to be used as fertilizer for organic produce. (Timing is now more strictly regulated due to E. coli, etc.) Barker-Plotkin also uses blood meal (a byproduct of the slaughter industry) and soybean meal for nitrogen. "We’d like to import nutrients in the form of organic grain that we feed to our livestock, so that that goes onto the soil," Barker-Plotkin explains.

To correct soil imbalances, Barker-Plotkin uses rock powders and organic fertilizers. For general use, he trusts the organic fertilizer blend from Crop Production Services. To target specific imbalances or increase a specific nutrient in the soil, he uses either gypsum, azomite, regular lime or land rock phosphate, depending on soil needs.

To control pests, Barker-Plotkin uses organic pest control chemicals, including Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), and a broad-spectrum spinosad called Entrust. Both products are biological insecticides created by bacteria. He also employs PyGanic, a botanical insecticide, and Surround, a clay that he puts on the crops to repel insects. He uses a variety of substances to avoid relying on one product. "If we develop resistance to [one product] we’d be in trouble," he says.

Ultimately, Barker-Plotkin hopes to reduce his need for pest control chemicals even further by establishing a healthier habitat for beneficial insects. Beneficial insects eat pest insects. Simple Gifts Farm currently grows "pick-your-own" flowers and plants cover crops, such as buckwheat, to promote beneficial insects. Barker-Plotkin says flowering plants build a healthy insect habitat.

To resist disease, Barker-Plotkin selects plants for disease resistance and cold tolerance. He started with tomatoes while farming in Belchertown, when he received a research grant. Over a couple of years, he grew tomatoes in the same place to encourage the disease and then selected out of those plants. By saving seed from the individual plants that did better under the heavy disease pressure, he developed a stronger crop in subsequent growing cycles. "That was while I was farming at the old site," he says. "I don’t think I would do that in a place where I knew I would be spending more time. It was a somewhat temporary site."

Although he no longer encourages disease among his tomato crop, Barker-Plotkin does save a fair amount of seed to select for disease and other qualities, and because he has some unique varieties. He also saves seeds from brassica greens, which he has selected for cold tolerance. For other crops, he buys most of his seeds.

Paying Attention

Barker-Plotkin doesn’t feel farming organically presents any greater challenges than farming conventionally. "It’s the only way I know how to do things," he says.

David Kastor and Ted White, co-presidents of NACF, at North Amherst Harvest Festival.

"Basically, there are certain tools that you’re taking out of your tool box. So, maybe you have to pay a little more attention to some of the tools that are more subtle and harder to quantify."

Barker-Plotkin hires staff who will learn to cook the food they’re growing so everyone can share their knowledge with the customers. Therefore, they can provide a level of service that’s above what other farmers offer.

He encourages his staff to taste things so they can inspire their customers to try (and buy) new things and broaden their horizons. As Barker-Plotkin points out, "It helps that I’m passionate about the food that I grow."

That passion, of course, is exactly why he was chosen by the members of NACF to take over the parcel of land that was almost lost to agriculture entirely.

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.