Over the next weeks and months, we will be revisiting some of the farmers, chefs, and purveyors who are profiled in The Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook—starting with Indian Line Farm.
We thought it made sense to start with Indian Line Farm for two very good reasons: It happens to be the farm on the cover of the book, and it was home to the very first CSA in the country, back in 1985. The name of the farm refers to a mile-wide strip of land the Housetunnock people kept as their reservation in a deed of 1724, a portion of which runs through the 17-acre tract.
On a brisk winter morning Elizabeth Keen, who has been running Indian Line Farm with her husband Al Thorp for 23 years and raising their two kids (plus Luna, an ebullient springer spaniel) on this bucolic patch in the Berkshires, is in the throes of seed ordering. She relies almost exclusively on Johnny’s and FedCo. “Both are located in Maine, one is very much a cooperative and the other is an employee-owned company.” Because vegetable growing is her focus (the farm also sells cut flowers), she tends to order those first, starting in mid-January, before anything sells out.
The planning process starts even sooner, with careful analysis and decision-making based on yields from the prior season. “I’ve been doing this long enough and I’m not making any drastic changes from year to year but occasionally there will be varieties that stop producing well or new ones that I tried that didn’t work out.” Elizabeth keeps a weekly plan–her “seed bible”––for the entire season that tells her what, when, and how much to seed as well as where the cover crops are going to go, and what needs compost or supplemental organic fertilizer.
Elizabeth literally maps out every single bed for the entire season and knows where every single thing is going to be planted. “Not that there won’t be some flexibility based on the conditions–maybe this spot is too wet or that one is not producing for some other reason. So the map can get a little shifted but the schedule stays the sam.”
Her hope is to have all planning done by March 15th “because there’s too much to do physically outside after that.” For instance, she starts lettuce in the last week of March, growing it in what is called a 128 flat for four weeks before transplanting it and then growing for another four weeks. “So it’s a full two-month period, and to have lettuce every week you have to plant it every two weeks. We do about ten plantings to have enough for the whole season.” That’s just one of many crops.
Even though the ground is too cold to grow crops year-round in the Berkshires, Elizabeth uses three greenhouses (one was just added) to extend the usual June-through-October season. It’s a practice that she and other farmers are implementing in trying to earn an income for a longer period of time–”and hopefully it’s additional income and not just making up for losses.”
In that cost-saving spirit Elizabeth is able to hold off turning on the heat in the greenhouses until around March 15th, when the seeding schedule starts, by buying alliums and leeks and other heat-seeking crops from warmer locales. “I am paying for shipping but that means I’m not heating my greenhouse in February or starting things in my basement. There’s enough work to be done that I don’t want to have to bother with that. I know this is different from other farmers but it’s just my own way.”
Of course winters in the Berkshires are no longer what they used to be. Elizabeth follows the weather report for Great Barrington by Nick Diller on The Berkshire Edge, who noted this January was the warmest in 55 years (with an average temperature of 39!) and a total precipitation of less than one and a half inches, just slightly above the amount of January in the drought year of 2016. “So that doesn’t bode well.” As she sees it, the weather is always a challenge, no matter where you live. “A farmer friend once said, ‘If you have a good year in five you’re doing pretty well.’”
Indian Line Farm had in fact fallen on hard times when the former owner, Robin Van En, died unexpectedly in her forties, in 1996. The CSA had also dwindled away by then. Even still, “Robin was always earnest about figuring out how to keep our small farms viable, and people came out of the woodwork to help figure out how to save this land.”
Meanwhile Elizabeth and Al met while working at the Mahaiwe CSA and had known each other for about a year and a half when they were approached with the opportunity to run the farm. “We had just come into this community and people were excited about us. There weren’t many other people who were thinking about farming as a profession. I’m not sure we were even thinking about farming as a profession.” She clearly remembers calling Al from Texas (where she is from) over the holidays to say, “We can’t say no to this. When do these kinds of doors open?”
The farm needs three full time people in addition to Elizabeth during the growing season to maintain itself. That’s just the farm work. She also has a handful of people who help her with the farmers’ markets and a whole other set of people who work the barn during CSA pick-up days. Then there are the working CSA members who commit to 32 hours a season in exchange for a discount. She starts almost everyone on Working Wednesdays, which are open volunteer days, but will move longstanding members onto other days–the farm harvests every day of the week during growing season. There are also volunteers, some of whom are members but others not.
“My husband will tell you I’m a really good delegator,” says . When I can only tell myself what to do I suddenly have a hard time. It’s not that I don’t want to do the work but I prefer collaborating with people and putting all the pieces together and knowing all the spokes in the wheel are running smoothly. I do that particularly well. There’s definitely trust in that.
Indian Line Farm used to require that all CSA members work two hours a season (at least there was language around that on the sign-up sheet), but that’s no longer the case. Instead there are designated volunteer days.
Elizabeth says Working Wednesdays are a lot of fun and anyone who comes really loves it. Sometimes there are only two or three and other times up to seven volunteers, and from all walks of life. “You’ll get to do a little bit of harvesting and it’s the only day of the week where my crew does hand weeding, so having a few extra people makes that tolerable and the conversations are always interesting. For me as a manager it can be a little challenging, but after they leave I can’t believe how much we got done. And I was able to provide a unique experience for people and give my crew a chance to be with the members who really love and enjoy the food,” she says.
Trust us: If you can’t stand weeding at home there’s something about having all those neat rows and being with like-minded people and getting a nice snack…
SHARING THE BOUNTY
According to Elizabeth, CSA members come first, so if there’s going to be a lack of something she will focus on making sure those people are covered. That can be tricky because you’re not just picking up a box. “We try to give quite a lot of choices.”
She also has restaurant clients and sells to Guido’s and other food shops.
More than ever the Great Barrington farmers’ market is a primary focus. “It is such a lovely resource, the community is really supportive, and it doesn’t hurt that we happen to have a lot of visitors in the summer who are committed to eating fresh food. That revenue stream has grown exponentially every year, and having some produce earlier (thanks to the greenhouses) makes it that much more profitable in the market.”
It also makes her CSA members happy. For example she can have tomatoes in the second week of June, though she is quick to say she never tacks on those admittedly hefty costs. “I tell my members they’ll get tomatoes as soon as I pay my oil bill, and generally that’s about five weeks before they would otherwise get a tomato so everyone is happy. I’m getting other heat-loving crops earlier than other places.”
There are those who ask Elizabeth why she doesn’t just expand the CSA in lieu of the farmers’ market (and all that schlepping), but as tempting as that might be it’s not a viable option. “There’s enough of us around now that it’s a little bit harder to grow our membership. I used to have a 50-person waiting list and that’s no longer the case. With our half shares it’s about 150 members, which is the perfect number for us. Less than 10 percent are people who live in the city and some are so faithful they come up every weekend but I also offer a summer share. It’s an opportunity for me to grow food for a larger community and for them to enjoy the Berkshires in a different way.”
Besides, she thrives on having direct contact with the community at the markets. This is the first year she is doing every Berkshire Grown winter market too, thanks to the new greenhouse. “I was really surprised by how many people came to the first market and I sold out in about an hour, despite bringing a ton of stuff. But no one else was selling bunches of kale.” For the next market she brought much more (and still sold out).
This year Elizabeth hopes to have the first crop of rhubarb that she started from seed three years ago (instead of buying crowns, for more immediate yields). Indian Line Farm will have raspberries for the first time too, including pick your own.
Also on deck are targeted spaces for perennial cut flowers in addition to the annuals that have always been part of the CSA share. She’s keen on a particular variety of carnations (a la Floret) that are much more dainty and beautiful than the supermarket variety. “I would love to expand that part of my business and sell bouquets here on Fridays to folks who are visiting, the wine shop in town has said they would take bouquets, and that would be a wonderful way to expand a bit. But given how much I need to concentrate on the produce I’d need to hire a specialist to take that on.” (We can all only hope that happens.)
For the most part she is focused on getting more vegetables that grow well in the winter into the greenhouses, including lettuce varieties like mache. This winter she planted baby spinach, two types of kale, cilantro, parsley, radishes, and Japanese (hakurei) turnips. “It usually gets too cold to harvest those but they send up these broccoli rabe-like shoots that are absolutely delicious.”
On a visit to the brand-new greenhouse, she commented on how the soil doesn’t have the benefit of five years of compost like the others and the crops aren’t as lush as they will be. That said, “Come late February when the light changes everything will suddenly explode and we will get two more harvests.”
As for marking the upcoming 25th anniversary? “I do love the idea of doing something where it’s not only a celebration of where we’ve been and what we’re doing but to invite all the amazing people who have ever worked with us here. Because we wouldn’t be anywhere without their help over all these years.”
It’s not too late to be counted among those fortunate folks–or to sign up for Indian Line Farm’s 2020 CSA.