A few dairy farms that dot the landscape of the South Coast have persevered despite massive changes to the industry. Their secret to survival: going beyond pasteurized milk and venturing into products that both bring a better return on investment and broaden the flavors that characterize our local food stock.
At 63 years old, Wareham’s David Paling decided to embark on a second career as an oyster farmer. He shared his story with us in the current print issue of South Coast Almanac and we’re reprinting it here. Settle in and read his story (and join us for a boat ride to his shellfish grant on July 20th — details below)…
On good days being an oyster farmer can feel like you’ve got the best job in the world. When cool weather and low tides sync, and your boat is running well, and the tasks that day are not back-breaking, and all around you have hundreds of thousands of happy oysters suspended in their floating bags silently gobbling up planktonic food and growing like crazy, it is easy to reach the level of happiness that is elation. The miracle of farm raising Crassostrea virginica — Eastern oysters — can do this. Bliss comes in many forms: an hour or two wading in quiescent water and finding nothing wrong with gear, nor any evidence of human or natural predation; the freedom of being the master of your own liquid domain, driven by tide and weather rather than artificial schedules imposed by more traditional occupations; the thrill of seeing your crop — fingernail sized when you bought them from a hatchery — achieve the three-inch length, deep-cupped status required by today’s market forces; the wonder of nature all around you with cobalt skies and shimmering sun overhead and teal water below giving life to the likes of so many species. The list is simply too long to capture. In times like these, the work doesn’t seem like work, and you feel lucky to be amidst these marvels, a part of the ecosystemic, global spin.
David & Steve with the All In
But there are bad days as well, and it becomes quite clear that oyster farming is not easy money and physically not something that anyone can get up from their chair and do. To wit: Steve Patterson and myself, general partners and owners of Crooked River Shellfish Farm, have accidentally dumped our oysters on the substrate by miscalculating the mesh size of our containing bags. We’ve had closure flaps fail, spilling yet more of our young spat along the shallow bottom. We’ve bounced our boat — the ‘All In’ — off the docks. We’ve gone home bleeding from contact with razor-sharp barnacles and oyster shell edges. There have been other low points. The first day we found dead oysters, natural victims of the expected mortality rate dealing with them, I got a whiff for the first time of this necrotic slop and it smelled as bad as, no worse than, a dead oyster. The constant repetitions of hoisting some 183,000 oysters in and out of the boat for culling purposes has escalated degeneration and my arthritis has me hurting from topgallant mast to stern. And once, when replacing the drain plug after emptying the boat of sea water at full throttle, I threw myself, my wife and oldest daughter Carly all out of the ‘All In’ when it took a violent right turn the moment I let go of the wheel.
In last year’s print issue, we set out to find a half dozen cool overnight adventures on the South Coast. We’re rolling them out online for those of you who don’t have the 2016 magazine. Today’s feature: a farm stay. If you’d like to see it as it appeared in the magazine, click here. Otherwise, just read on….
You could be in Ireland looking across at sheep grazing in green fields, a lazy river and stone walls in the background completing the perfect vista. Or you could be in Westport, ready to roll up your sleeves and learn what it takes to be a farmer.
Virginia Merlier owns Stonehaven Family Farm, which provides overnight visitors with a taste of farm life. After you settle into her comfortable home, you’ll have time to explore the local beaches, shops and sights, but Merlier will remind you that afternoon chores are at 4:30. As you gather chicken eggs, herd the ducks, and make the animals ready for night, she’ll tell you about the heritage breeds she raises here and chat with you about farming. In the morning, you’ll enjoy the eggs you collected for breakfast before another round of chores. Fresh flowers from the garden will probably grace the table.
Farm stays are popular in Europe and are gaining popularity in the United States with people who are intrigued by farm life. In Westport, Merlier has hosted visitors from near and far, including many international visitors. Maybe you’ve always wanted to see where your food comes from. Maybe owning a farm has been a romantic dream of yours. Maybe you just like being surrounded by outdoor beauty and animals. Stonehaven Family Farm is the place to go.
All photos by Andrew Ayer. For more information about the farm, go to the website here or call 508-636-1361. Stonehaven Family Farm, 1506 Drift Road, Westport.
There’s a national day for everything and February 24 is “CSA Day.” It’s been feeling like spring all week so it makes sense to think about the growing season ahead. And to dramatically declare that CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) changed my family’s life.
For over 15 years, we’ve been getting a big weekly bag from Bay End Farm in Buzzards Bay from June through October. We pay upfront in April for a season’s worth of produce. And then we wait for the bounty to arrive. Each week, it’s like getting the mystery bag of penny candy at the candy store. You don’t necessarily know what will be in it. But you know you’re going to enjoy it. All of a sudden, you have a stake in the weather and the growing season. You are grateful for rain. And sunshine.
All of a sudden, you have a stake in the weather and the growing season. You are grateful for rain. And sunshine.
Having a bag full of vegetables delivered each week taught me how to cook. I had a refrigerator filled with fresh produce – and more was coming in seven days. I had to do something with it. I couldn’t procrastinate. So I hauled out my Joy of Cooking, received as a wedding gift, and figured out how to cook beets and kale and soups. And now I can cook. That’s the first life-changing thing our CSA bags brought us.
Erin & Kofi, our favorite farmers
People ask if we sometimes get sick of some vegetables. Occasionally, maybe. I still don’t quite know what to do with escarole, for example. But that is more than made up for by the vegetables that we’ve been introduced to. As young kids, my daughters were willing to try unconventional things like kohlrabi and bok choi because it came from Kofi and Erin’s farm. And, guess what? Nine times out of ten, they loved the new vegetables. I’ve also enjoyed the introduction in my kitchen to old favorites that I would never buy otherwise. Beets, for instance. I love ’em. But outside of my farm share, I never buy them because cooking beets seems like too much of a commitment.
So that’s the other life changing thing for us: we eat better. We eat better because we must eat better – those vegetables aren’t going to eat themselves.
A few years ago, we added to our CSA lifestyle by signing up for chicken and pork at Copicut Farms. Once you’ve eaten their meat, you’ll never want supermarket meat again.
We’re so lucky to be on the South Coast where it’s easy to support local farms and eat wonderfully.
We’re also lucky to have the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership (SEMAP) which helps direct us to local food and sustainable farming. They have a website that you can easily lose yourself in to find local beef, duck, lamb, cut flowers, fruit, and more. To find a CSA near you, click here. (I’ve plugged in a New Bedford address because that’s central for the South Coast but feel free to enter a town closer to you. Just click on the “change town” link on the right hand side). Then, celebrate CSA Day by calling or emailing a farmer to sign up for your food this summer.
Years into this CSA experience, we all look forward to the harvest of favorite vegetables like they are old friends: “I think it should be time soon for lemon cucumbers.” “Oh, look! The sugar snap peas are back!” “Tomatoes soon…” We now have a healthy appreciation for seasonal eating. We also have a healthy appreciation for the passage of seasons and time. There is something bittersweet about wondering if you’re eating the last heirloom tomato of the year from the place you’ve come to think of as your farm.
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Have you always wanted to pick out your own Christmas tree and cut it down right then and there? Me too.
Then, I invariably get distracted by the December lists that multiply all around me. And it’s too late. This year, as a public service, South Coast Almanac is preparing a list to make it as easy as possible to realize your dream. A shout out to Marion’s Eileen Lonergan whose smart idea this was (feel free to email us at [email protected] with your smart ideas for future blog posts).
And remember, this is not just a way to capture the spirit of an old-fashioned Christmas. You’re also supporting local farmers, a very current goal. Just think about the care these farmers took: ten (or more) years ago, they planted tiny little things. They cared for and nurtured them until this point in time. For you. It’s actually pretty special.
So, here you go. Here’s the first list we’ve made in December. Even if you’re not ready to bring your tree home yet, you can go and tag it at most of these places. We put the phone numbers in — we recommend you call them before you go to make sure they still have trees!
Pine Crest Tree Farm, 294 Pine Hill Road, Westport. Remember when Clark Griswold took his family out to the woods to pick out their tree in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? The kids were not happy. The Griswolds should have gone to Pine Crest Tree Farm where finding a tree is a fun event for the whole family: a treasure hunt for the kids, hot chocolate and cookies and family pictures in front of the sleigh. Open on weekends, 10-4, closed by December 20. (774) 309-0522.
Keith’s Farm & Orchard, 429 Main Street, Acushnet. When I called Keith’s Farm to confirm their information, Sue Santos said, “Oh, yeah. We’re in the same place. It takes a long time to grow these trees!” She and her husband Keith have been growing Christmas trees since the early 1980s. They offer families a hayride around the property so they can find their perfect trees. You can cut it yourself or have one of their attendants cut it for you (but note that if you cut it yourself, it’s by handsaw only). Open weekends through December 18 from 10-4 (except on December 18 when they close at noon). (508) 763-2622
Bristlecone Farm, 779 Sodom Road, Westport. A local favorite since 1974 when the Farias family started planting Christmas trees. Tag a tree and come back for it, or do it all on the same day (though they don’t recommend you take a tree home too early in the month). You pick it out, the crew cuts and wraps it. Open 7 days a week, 9-4. (508) 636-2552.
Mockingbird Hill Trees, 147 Rhode Island Road (Rte. 79), Lakeville. The Simmons family has been raising Christmas trees since 1975; Margo Simmons knows adult customers who first came as babies with their families. Mockingbird Hill offers a wagon ride to the fields to look at the trees and, on weekends, they have coffee, hot chocolate and sometimes Santa (he’ll be there 10-3 the first two weekends in December). They’ll cut your tree or you can cut it yourself with a handsaw. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 10-4. (508) 947-6712.
Clark’s Christmas Tree Farm, 4191 Main Road, Tiverton. This is a picture perfect Christmas tree farm. Just take a look at our featured photo above (courtesy of Elizabeth Gerardi whom you can find at New England Belle). After picking your tree, enjoy hot cider and treats in an old post and beam barn. Open Saturdays and Sundays, 10-4, until they sell out. (401) 624-4119.
Patchet Brook Tree Farm, 4484 Main Road, Tiverton. The farm has been in Jean Bento’s family since 1905. Originally a vegetable farm with animals, Jean planted the first Christmas tree over 30 years ago. Now, they have about 15 acres of Christmas trees in all kinds of varieties. They do it all. You get a short hayride into the fields to pick out your tree. They’ll cut it down (or help you cut it down), wrap it, put it on your car and tie it off. “We’re a full service gas station,” Jay Bento jokes. A small shop has hot chocolate and cookies with some honey, candles, and maple syrup for sale. Open weekdays from noon-4, weekends from 10-4. (401) 624-4872. (Hayrides are only provided on the weekends.)
Boughs & Berry Farm, 255 Peckham Road, Little Compton. This farm has been in Elinor Gavin’s family her whole life. Her father and grandfather farmed the land. In 1982, she and her husband Donald planted Christmas trees. Regulars have been coming ever since. Kids love the Charlie Brown Christmas tree hidden away. If they find it, they get a lollipop. Open Fridays through Sundays, 9-4. (401) 635-8582.
Don’t forget the wreaths!
Stay tuned — tomorrow we’ll reveal some special South Coast wreaths.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
And as a treat for reading all the way through, here’s that scene from Christmas Vacation when the Griswolds go out to find their tree in the forest. (“Clark, Audrey’s frozen from the waist down.”) Head to one of our South Coast Christmas tree farms and we promise that you’ll have more fun than the Griswolds.
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