Sometimes it feels like this is a terrible place to grow much of anything.

Productive farming takes a few key ingredients: rich, deep soil, a stable climate, access to land, and enough  local infrastructure to process and package food once it’s harvested. And none of these things are our strong suit in New England and New York.

For one, we have hilly, rocky, sandy soils and heavy annual rainfall (surprisingly, more than Seattle: 37 vs. 43 inches on average).  If you manage to find land that will cooperate with you, the growing season is short.  We have beautiful fall weekends… but they are followed by harsh winters.  Plus land is expensive here, so it is difficult to put together enough contiguous acreage to produce at a profitable scale.  

Beyond farming, food processing and packaging infrastructure is also harder to come by in New England than elsewhere… Although our early industrial history was built on being the manufacturing capital of the world, we are long past those days (although since we’re based here, it is worth highlighting the notable exception of New Hampshire-- ranked #12 in the country for manufacturing jobs per capita!)

So, why here?

Despite its challenges, we believe this region of the country is positioned to become the Silicon Valley of local, sustainable agriculture in the coming decades.  The interest from eaters is certainly present, there is a resurgence in young farmers in the region, and the beginnings of regenerative agriculture have deep roots here.  And as it continues to catalyze as a movement, we believe a vibrant local food system will have tremendous benefits to our health, environment and community.

Farms are the fabric of our region.

There is clearly strong and growing demand for local food here – we have over 150 farmers markets in the Greater Boston and Greater Manchester areas alone.  Since we all cross borders often – to ski in Vermont, hike in New Hampshire, hunt and fish in Maine, swim on Cape Cod – our farms are not far away, and we are all New Englanders. Agricultural land is an important part of the pastoral landscape and the aesthetic beauty of our region.  The local, deliciously fresh food that they produce is clearly differentiated from distant, trucked in alternatives (see, for example, the difference between a fresh picked warm strawberry eaten in the field from it’s refrigerated, imported brethren bred to no bruise in transit… no contest), so “local” is perhaps more tangible and visible here than in other regions of the country. Unlike California’s Central Valley, we are not overly dependent upon a single source of water (in their case, the Colorado River, as groundwater becomes increasingly scarce).  Although growing corn and soy here is a challenge, we live in one of the most productive areas of the country to grow: perennial pasture (and therefore ruminant animals), potatoes, greenhouse vegetables, cranberries, apples, sweet corn, and many other high value crops.

And local food in New England is experiencing something of a renaissance: unlike in most other parts of the country, data from the USDA shows the number of farms increasing and the average age of farmers getting lower each year in New England (everywhere else, the number of farms is declining, and the average age is increasing!).  Beyond farms, Crunchbase has tracked some $16 billion in investment in food enterprises in New England since 2010.      

Many innovative farming practices originated here

Our region has an incredibly rich agricultural heritage that began with the Wampanoags, Narragansett, Abenaki and other native tribes who pioneered regenerative agricultural practices. Upon arriving, European settlers found their imported methods did not work, and quickly mimicked indigenous techniques of crop rotation, no till soil management, poly cultures, and cover crops.

Conventional agriculture has long relied on the recurring application of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides in the decades since 1950.  Today, many modern farmers - with small-holder farms in New England and New York leading the way - are returning to these regenerative practices, which recognize soil’s status as a critical natural resource and a valuable tool for carbon sequestration. And it’s not just small farms.  According to the USDA, cover crops (the crops grown between plantings of your primary crop to improve soil health… and sporting lovely names like “hairy vetch”) are now planted on 15m acres across the US… up 50% over 5 years.  No-till farms (those that avoid the disruptive process of turning over the soil, which causes erosion, destroys soil health and releases carbon) used to be derided as niche… but as of 2017, over 40% of US cropland was grown on no-till land, up from 32% 5 years earlier.  

These are very positive changes, because it turns out that the absence of regenerative methods can have consequences on the nutrition profile of our food: we’ve seen reliable declines in the vitamin and mineral content of some 43 different fruits and vegetables since the 1950s, as a result of our destruction of soil through the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and the continuous breeding for yield in the presence of these chemicals.  Calcium, Vitamin C, Iron, Vitamin A, and other vitamin and mineral content were all down over 20% in 25 years in a dozen different vegetables in another study.

More fundamentally, when we are disconnected from our food, we are disconnected from our land.  And when this happens, it’s someone else’s problem where our food comes from, where our electricity comes from, and where our trash goes.  The impacts of our actions become invisible.  Carried to its logical extreme, this is essentially the society depicted in Hunger Games, in which the poor rural sectors toil on behalf of the completely disconnected rich urban centers.  But we’re certain this won’t happen here – because we have the opportunity to contribute to the local food movement right here in our backyard!

Join us to participate in the renaissance of our local agricultural economy.

Additional Resources:

2017 USDA AG census

Photography: Christina Johantgen