BROOKLINE—They don’t own a full-sized tractor. Or a barn, or a farm, for that matter.
But that has not stopped Caitlin Burlett, Jesse Kayan, and Max Madalinski from digging in and rooting their lives firmly in farming.
This summer, the three twenty-something farmers will offer shares in Wild Carrot Farm, their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in Brookline. The trio are leasing five acres from Norman and Laura Solomon, owners of Windmill Hill Alpaca Farm and Artisanry.
Burlett, Kayan, and Madalinski have three acres in cultivation, two in pasture, a greenhouse, 65 hens, and one rooster. In the future, said Kayan, they want to open a small farm store offering goods like milk, bread, and eggs, along with their vegetables.
Wild Carrot Farm also participates in the Neighborhood Market CSA, a project of Post Oil Solutions, geared toward lower-income Brattleboro community members and offering pickups on Elliot Street and Westgate Apartments.
They had hoped to sell the equivalent of 60 full shares this season: 40 full shares off the farm, and 20 through the Neighborhood Market, said Kayan and Madalinski.
So far, they have sold 32.
Getting the farm going
Early last September, said Kayan, the Solomons offered the five-acre lease for free.
“They’re our biggest champions,” he said.
Kayan said the trio scrambled to get the land ready for spring planting.
Madalinski added that November found the farmers pounding posts for their greenhouse in 35-degree weather.
This spring, they built the farm stand, powered by an orange extension cord stretching from Solomon’s garage.
To plow the fields, they traded vegetables with a neighbor who owns a tractor.
For smaller jobs, the team is “scraping by” with a two-wheeled, walk-behind tractor, said Kayan.
Kayan noted that most farm equipment designers don’t consider women when they make their products. Kayan said Burlett, his fiancée, sometimes has a hard time starting the two-wheel tractor, despite her being “the strongest woman [he] knows.”
Madalinski and Kayan work the farm full-time. Kayan worked as community services coordinator at Westgate Apartments in Brattleboro until February. Madalinski left his off-the-farm job in April. Burlett still works one half day a week off the farm.
Five acres has turned out to be a little much for three people, said Kayan.
They don’t have any money to hire helpers, but Kayan said that CSA members have helped plant this year and built the greenhouse.
Last year, Kayan said, he and Burlett farmed a quarter-acre where they live in Newfane. In exchange for rent, both members of the couple serve as caretakers of the buildings and land.
Intuition and spreadsheets
Although Wild Carrot Farm is not certified organic, the farmers are following organic certification guidelines.
They have nine rotating crops, a strategy that helps maintain soil health and keep down pests attracted to specific plants. This way, the same species of plants don’t land in the same soil for four to nine years, said Kayan..
“We try not to put all our eggs in one basket for anything,” he said.
This year, the group also experimented with planting some of their seedlings in soil blocks instead of in plastic containers. Soil blocks work by compacting dirt in a mold that creates a grid similar to a plastic seedling tray.
Kayan noted that the roots of the starter plants don’t coil into a ball as they do in a plastic seed tray. He thinks that the plants take root better when transferred into the field because their roots grow more freely in the soil block.
The soil blocks can prove expensive, however, said Kayan, because they use more dirt, and potting soil does not come cheap.
Madalinski and Kayan hope that, as Wild Carrot Farm prospers, it will generate its own soil through composting.
The farmers are using sheet mulching — layering cardboard or paper with soil — on some of their land, said Madalinski.
In nature, dying and decaying organic material builds up on top of soil, creating a layer of mulch. This layer contains nutrients, insect life, and moisture. Without mulch, the soil loses nutrients; the sheet mulching provides a stand-in.
Kayan and Madalinski said they have had to use sheet mulching on one field that looked good but wasn’t. After they had dug up materials like slate roofing, bricks, and rocks, older neighbors stopped by and told them that they were preparing a field on which the former barn had stood.
Over time, the sheet mulching will help build enough topsoil on the old barn site so that the farmers can spend more time planting and less time pulling out stones.
Kayan and Madalinski say they and Burlett have learned other lessons. The farmers use a planting spreadsheet from Picadilly Farm in Winchester, N.H. to schedule their planting.
Kayan noted that the spreadsheet works, but it is not intuitive. For example, their broccoli crop should have been in the greenhouse for one month, but they accidentally typed two months into the spreadsheet. They planted their 3,000-plant broccoli crop too early, and it came ready to plant in March.
A rainy May also caused the farmers to plant the peas and carrot crops late.
“Peas like a long, slow, cool spring,” said Kayan of the crop that went into the wet ground late, and then was subjected to 90-degree weather.
Despite the weird weather, the planting is back on schedule, he said.
Kayan and Madalinski also enlisted chickens to help.
They built a mobile chicken coop largely from found materials, and they move the coop daily. The chickens help manage the land by feeding on weeds and insects, and also fertilize the fields as they go. The hens lay about 40 to 50 eggs daily.
Kayan, Burlett, and Madalinski also raise turkeys and sheep.
They’re trying to balance the crop cultivation and animal grazing on the land, and, as part of Wild Carrot’s crop rotation, they plan to turn the flocks loose to clean up specific fields after the harvest.
The farming bug and breaking even
Burlett has worked at a number of farms, starting at a small operation in Maryland, where she eventually took on the role of forewoman. She has also worked at Piccadilly Farm, Dwight Miller Orchards in Dummerston, and Dutton Farm in Newfane and Brookline.
Madalinski’s farming experience is in livestock. He has worked at a farms in Townshend and Westminster. Madalinski and his girlfriend dream of starting a micro-dairy, but there are a lot of start-up costs involved with milking.
The farming bug bit Madalinski after he read Masanobu Fukuoka’s book, The One-Straw Revolution, written in the 1970s.
Fukuoka, a farmer in Japan, used as few “invasive” farming techniques as possible. He didn’t till the ground, use any chemicals, or use commercial compost.
According to Madalinski, Fukuoka said that people should judge a nation by how it treats its farmers.
Kayan grew up on a small homestead, but he doesn’t have experience with commercial growing. He said that his advocacy work led him to start the Community Market Basket at the Westgate Apartments.
Kayan added that he loved his job at Westgate, but with all his jobs, he felt torn between a career in environmentalism and politics.
For him, agriculture married these two “activist-minded things.”
Kayan called the American food system “largely broken.” Industrial agriculture is pushing out traditional farming practices, he said, and he believes that by saving the “beautiful practices,” he can help make the land and his neighbors healthier.
Kayan said that the three are taking a different route from that of other farmers, because they don’t own land, which sometimes makes their venture seem a little shaky.
“Farming is all about making investments in land,” he said, but admitted that none of the three had a lot of personal or family money, and they all have student loans.
The farmers raised their start-up costs from $10,000 in pooled personal savings and a low-interest loan of $3,500 from Kayan’s father. The rest has come from sales of CSA shares.
According to Kayan, he, Burlett, and Madalinski have invested $22,000 in Wild Carrot Farm this year. Half of the money has gone toward capital expenditures, like the two-wheeled tractor. The rest has gone to yearly expenses, like seeds, fertilizer, tools, and marketing.
A $3,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service helped purchase the greenhouse, said Kayan. The trio also put in $1,000 worth of labor themselves, along with donated elbow grease from CSA members.
The savings and loans covered the operating costs. If all goes well, they said, they will break even this year.
Neighbors not strangers
Madalinski and Kayan say that, sometimes, growing and selling local food is a Catch-22. Kayan said he wants to sell food to his neighbors, but many of his neighbors can’t afford it.
Most prices don’t reflect the true cost of the food appearing on supermarket shelves, they said. Yet, the cost of growing tomatoes at Wild Carrot Farm runs upwards of $4 a pound, and most of their customers can’t afford that price.
To open access for more customers, Wild Carrot Farm is offering CSA scholarships this year for people on tight budgets. Members who receive scholarships can enter the CSA at either a reduced rate or for free. Kayan said that giving more people access to local food sparked the idea for the scholarships.
Through donations by Wild Carrot Farm CSA members and a Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-Vermont) grant, Burlett, Madalinski, and Kayan have $1,150 available for scholarships.
Kayan said that receiving money for shares from people they’ve never met speaks to the “power of the [CSA] movement.” He estimates they’ll feed about a quarter of Brookline’s households this season.
They had hoped to sell the equivalent of 60 full shares, but they doubt that will happen this year.
Madalinski said the challenge will be selling the extra food if all the shares don’t sell.
“We really want to be farming, not selling,” Kayan said.
Kayan also said, from an emotional perspective, the farmers worry about disappointing their CSA members. If a crop fails, he said, they’d be letting down neighbors, not strangers.
“These are people we care about,” he noted.