Growing Farmers

The Community Farm Institute teaches people the business of farming.

by: John Stanton

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

John Kuszpa squats down and picks up some perennial onion bulbs. They are small and clustered, the very definition of what it means for a plant to go to seed. He explains that he leaves some onions unpicked, the bulbs grow on top of the stalks, eventually fall to the ground and become seeds for the next harvest.

We are standing next to one of two eighthof-an-acre plots that he works at 168 Hummock Pond Road, officially called The Walter F. Ballinger Educational Community Farm. To the uninitiated it looks like a decent-sized garden. But Kuszpa is a farmer. The difference begins in intention. Gardeners grow vegetables for themselves. Farmers grow produce for sale.

The Farmers & Artisans Market, held every Saturday from mid-June through Columbus Day downtown, gives small farmers and artisans an opportunity to sell their produce, artisanal foods and arts and crafts.

“We grow very intensively, and are able to gets lots of produce from a really small parcel of land,” he said. “In one eighth of an acre you can grow between $10,000 and $17,000 worth of produce.”

He smiles and corrects himself. Maybe the potential is closer to $10,000. Farming, no matter what size your farm, is a crapshoot.

“To make money you have to be exceptional at this,” Kuszpa said. “You have to understand each different plant. You have to understand each different weed. You have to watch each different bug. You have to know how the soil works. Sometimes it feels like you have to understand the planet and everything on it.”

Kuszpa studied agriculture in college, then lived and worked on a small farm in New Hampshire for a year before stepping away from farming for a decade.

“Eating is an agricultural act.” ~ Poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry
“It just didn’t seem possible to purchase land and have a mortgage on it and farm, not for the amount of money that is not really to be made in it,” he said.

So he moved to Nantucket and worked in the trades, built a few spec houses. He became caretaker for a number of summer homes. He made a big vegetable garden in his back yard.

Then he found himself thinking once again about the difficult equation of farming. He went to a meeting of the town’s agricultural commission. There was an idea floating around. It had to do with public/private partnership and looking at farming as an integral part of a community.

“The mentality with farming is starting to be that it’s a public service,” he said. “And there are a lot of partnerships with government-owned land and farmers. It’s kind of the new way people are able to access farmland.”

Kuszpa is one of the founders of Sustainable Nantucket’s Community Farm Institute. Along with Dylan Wallace, he helps teach people who want to be farmers how to work their own plots. This is an incubator farm. In the same way you might find high-tech incubators in Silicon Valley encouraging coders, this program grows new farmers.

“We recognized that our food system was in danger,” said Michelle Whelan, executive director of Sustainable Nantucket. “Land was being lost to development and being preserved as open space, which is great, but it couldn’t be used for agriculture anymore. We wanted to see if we could reverse some of the cost barriers to farming.”

The farm is on land owned by the Nantucket Islands Land Bank, and the program is partially underwritten with Community Preservation Committee money. The idea, said Whelan, is to create a revitalized food system. The elements of that effort are Sustainable’s weekly farmers’ markets, Saturday morning downtown and Wednesday afternoon at the farm. The Nantucket Grown Campaign, an initiative where island restaurants and private clubs purchase produce from these farmers, is another element.

“We’re looking for that sweet spot of smallfarm success,” Whelan said. “It has been proven that you can be very successful if you are really strategic about what you grow and who you sell to, and how efficient you are with your time and energy.”

The small part of this farm that Kuszpa works is divided between winter and summer crops. His strategy is to be able to provide specialty produce for island chefs during the summer, then to provide late-fall and earlywinter produce for islanders.

About a quarter of his summer produce is lettuce.

“Every restaurant wants to have a local-lettuce salad on the menu,” he said. “It is easy for a farmer to supply that on a regular basis. We harvest to order. We pick and deliver on the same day. In grocery stores or food services, the produce is typically a week old. ”

Winter crops include carrots, cauliflower, cabbage and squash.

“I’m trying to farm a little more year-round,” Kuszpa said. “Half of what I am growing is designed not to be ready until Thanksgiving and Christmas. There are some vegetables that grow late into the year and most can either be stored in a root cellar or left out in the field until I’m ready to harvest.”

In fact, the cabbage he is growing is called January King, which as the name implies is harvested in the winter.

The Community Farm Institute’s philosophy is based partially on a book called “The Market Gardener,” by Jean-Martin Fortier. Along with his wife, Fortier built a micro-farm in Quebec, Canada, where only one and a half acres were cultivated in raised beds. According to the book, he grosses $100,000 per acre annually. The practical application of that philosophy comes from the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts University.

The training program for potential farmers is a combination of classroom and hands-on training. They are required to learn how to produce a business plan, detailing what crops will be grown, who they will be sold to, the costs and how much profit is expected.

“Everything here costs more, so we want to try our best to keep the barriers to farming as low as we can,” Whelan said.

New farmers begin on an eighth-of-an-acre plot and, with help from Kuszpa and Wallace, learn how to maximize production on that plot before moving up to a larger plot.

There are costs – because this is about creating a sustainable small business – but they are relatively nominal. An investment of seed, fertilizer, tools and a small fee to use the land comes to less than $200 a year. The biggest investment is sweat equity.

“Farming is a risk, and we want to see that new farmers are willing to take a risk,” Whelan said.

This is the third season for the farm. It covers eight and a half acres. The two acres closest to Hummock Pond Road are divided into plots of an eighth of an acre and a quarter of an acre. The six-and-a-half-acre area in the back was only recently opened up by the Land Bank.

“A lot of people you never would have thought would be interested in this, have given us a lot of help,” Kuszpa said.

There is a solar-powered greenhouse, the solar panels donated by Cape Air. The landscape company Waterworks Irrigation installed all the irrigation. The sheds are recycled from an old house, donated by Kim Glowacki. Those are just a few of the island businesses, including Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm and the earth-moving company Toscana, that helped get the program up and running.

A portion of the back six and a half acres is being farmed now. Additional plans for the back plot include planting what is called a food forest along the edges. A food forest mimics a natural forest, and creates a buffer zone along the edges of sensitive areas, Whelan said.

Perennial plants provide homes for birds and insects, there will also be fruit and nut trees, and wild growing plants like ramps. Whelan said the future may include bee hives and classes for beginning beekeepers, to increase pollination.

In his book, Fortier extols the virtues of organic, human-scale farming, which uses methods that include minimal tilling.

“This is not your typical tractor-based agriculture,” Kuszpa said. “The theory of no tilling is you use permanent raised beds, amendments are applied to the top, and we only touch the top inch or two of the soil, as little as possible. In our eyes that makes healthier plants as well as environmental benefits.”

It also keeps carbon in the soil, in the root systems of plants. Plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. The carbon left behind in that photosynthesis equation is too often put into the atmosphere when the land is tilled, Kuszpa said.

The Community Farm Institute project uses organic practices and is working to be officially certified as an organic farm.

Thirty-three percent of global greenhouse gasses come not from transportation or the smokestacks of factories, but from agriculture, Whelan said. The no-tilling philosophy not only keeps down weeds, but it sequesters the carbon in the ground.

“If we can change the way we get our food, we can change the world,” she said.

That idea, changing the world just a little bit, creating a local community that is connected to the people who grow the food we eat, is in many ways the starting point, the seed of this program.

“I always knew this would catch on,” Whelan said. “It just makes sense to be self-reliant and have fresh food. It’s a sort of tailored approach

and you have to have all the pieces.”

Success of a program like this requires more than

being a good farmer. In the end, the idea of organic, sustainable farming is as much about cultivating community as it is about cultivating lettuce.

Sustainable Nantucket also brings, free to the public, some of the top names in what is sometimes called pocket farming, or garden farming, to the island.

“We had Annie Farrell, from Millstone Farm, who is the matriarch of sustainable farming in the Northeast,” Whelan said. “Our intention in the future is to provide classes for gardeners, to be taught by our farmers.”

Sustainable also runs a farm-to-school program, which reflects Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard project with California schools, and works with teachers to integrate the environmental and nutritional parts of the program into the curriculum.

“We’re trying to empower these kids to grow their own food. Maybe one or two of them will eventually become farmers. We eat three times a day and have the power as food consumers to decide where to put our money,” Whelan said.

“When you go to a supermarket and they are

selling vegetables from big-scale agriculture farms, I wish they were marked as pesticide vegetables,” she said. “No matter how cheap they were, you wouldn’t want to eat them. If we decided to spend our food dollars that way, eventually nobody would grow them using pesticides.”

Growers with company names like Lazy Man Gardens, ACK Sweetwater Farm, Fields of Ambrosia and Washashore Farm tend their plots, try to stick with their business plans and spreadsheets, deliver their produce to the farmers’ market and to the kitchens of local restaurants. Just about all of them have other jobs to help pay the bills.

“We do it because we think it needs to be done, because it’s not the easiest way to make money,” Kuszpa said. “But I’m out here observing insects and weather and really trying to be as observant as possible. To me, that’s a much healthier occupation then a lot of others I’ve done. I come out here really early in the morning in the summer. There are no car noises, no people, just me and the birds. So yeah, I have that.” ///

John Stanton is a writer and award-winning documentary filmmaker living on Nantucket.