Even with the new emphasis on handwashing, some people can’t wait to get their hands dirty again.
They’re farmers, and they’re found from Eastham to Provincetown. They may have a little patch of vegetables and flowers, a chicken coop, or a five-acre spread. Some want to feed their families and others want to give their communities a local source of food.
“Now, in the age of coronavirus, local food is more important than ever,” said Francie Randolph, the founder of Sustainable CAPE (Center for Agricultural Preservation and Education). She lives on a 200-year-old farm in Truro.
“Over the last 30 to 40 years, the distance food travels has increased enormously, creating a great reliance on national and global food-supply chains,” Randolph said. “As these supply chains break down or falter, food prices rise, which leads to higher food insecurity. In Massachusetts, we’ve seen a 400-percent increase in SNAP (food stamp) applications since the pandemic.”
There is literally a homegrown solution. Locally, “Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen market gardens (generally less than three acres) flourish and a number of farmers’ markets develop,” Randolph said. Vital economic development is one result. And Outer Cape markets have taken steps to implement SNAP and other programs to provide better access to low-income households.
To encourage local growers, Wellfleet Select Board member Michael DeVasto wants his town to pass a right-to-farm bylaw like the ones in place in Orleans, Dennis, Yarmouth, Falmouth, and many off-Cape communities.
“Wellfleet has a lot of farming as it is,” said DeVasto, co-owner of Field Point Oyster Farm. “What it doesn’t have is a declaration that is in support of agriculture. Right-to-farm bylaws were developed in order to prevent nuisance lawsuits and to promote agriculture. With the food insecurity issues we’re currently having, and the economic issues, I think it’s important for the town to make that sort of statement.”
Nothing in such a bylaw would supersede existing town regulations, according to DeVasto. “This will not change the way you go about farming,” he said. “It’s not like if this passes, people can start putting pigs in their yards. All the normal processes for getting livestock still apply.”
Roosters’ Right to Crow
Things are quiet at Nicole Miner’s Wellfleet property, which she said has been owned by her husband’s family “pretty much since the beginning of time.” She doesn’t like it that way.
“We moved here 10 years ago and had chickens,” she said. “We were inspected and never had issues.” Seven years later, they lost their permit. “I think some neighbors might have complained about the noise from the roosters,” Miner said.
When the family had chickens, “there were lots and lots of eggs,” Miner said. “I baked a ton; they’re really nutritious.” She misses teaching her children how to care for the fowl. “It was like home ec,” she said. She also misses the guinea hens that kept the tick population in check (three in her family have Lyme disease). “They eat actual nestfulls at a time,” she said.
“People should be able to farm any animals they want to, if they’re doing what they should,” said Miner. “I understand you shouldn’t have too many on a property.”
DeVasto said he supports creation of an agricultural commission in Wellfleet, another option adopted by towns including Truro and Orleans. “They balance the needs of competing land uses,” he said. “Their role is to mediate disputes, and make sure agriculture is happening in a way that’s in tune with the character of the town.”
In Truro, Health and Conservation Agent Emily Beebe said the town has “a surprising number of farms tucked in on small dead-end streets. We’ve got 20 folks that keep horses, or chickens, or goats. There are several traditional farms and a number of residential semi-farms — and that’s not a diss. I admire folks who believe in animal husbandry. What I see is folks who treat their animals really well.” Beebe is also the municipal animal inspector.
Beebe spoke with enthusiasm of George Mooney’s farm on South Pamet Road. “He uses every bit of it and very well and thoughtfully,” she said. “He’s got tons of vegetables, also sheep, pigs, and sometimes steers. He’s a great example of a Truro farmer.”
In Eastham, Town Planner Paul Lagg said he hasn’t heard talk of right-to-farm bylaws or an agricultural commission — and that works for Bob Wells, owner of the five-acre Redberry Farm.
“In general, I would say Eastham is a very easy place to have a farm, because there’s not a lot of oversight and interference,” he said. “I’m a powerfully independent type. I don’t like people telling me what to do.”
When Wells and his wife bought the land next to their house at auction in 2005, he said, “it was completely untouched in 75 years, overgrown so thick with vines and briars that you couldn’t walk into it.” Wells, who worked on big farms in New York state and West Virginia before coming to the Cape, started clearing the land and planting blueberries.
“It’s really ridiculous to try to grow things in Cape Cod sand,” he said, “what you’ve got when you take the trees off. It disturbs the topsoil too much.” In the process, though, he “stumbled into the world of biochar,” a charcoal soil amendment produced by burning biomass such as wood debris. “That has become my occupation. The farm now serves more as a testing ground for my biochar product.” (See page 15 for more on the role of biochar in soil building.)
Wells said there’s a “huge, growing demand” for biochar. “Because of the coronavirus, people have this sense of wanting to do things sustainably to provide their own food. Everybody wants to go plant a victory garden right now. In a strange way, the virus has been really good for my business. It’s not the way I want to have my business promoted, but I’m glad to be able to help people.”
Turnips, Seeds, and Chicks
In a town famous for the late Art Nickerson’s revival of the Eastham turnip, it’s no surprise that Redberry Farm’s turnips have become its biggest cash crop. Wells, who said he’d never heard of them, followed the suggestion of Orleans farmer Judy Scanlon, who gave him a packet of Eastham turnip seeds. “We sell thousands of pounds of those at the Eastham Turnip Festival,” said Wells. That and blueberries are the main crops, “and we grow a lot of other stuff to fill our larder.”
Seeds are flying out the door at the NewFarm store in Orleans, as are baby chicks. “A lot of people are going back to farming to start their own homestead,” said co-owner Casey Zawicki. He and his wife, Lindsay Cook, started their store six years ago to encourage such activity.
“Big seed companies are running out of seeds,” Zawicki said. “We ran out twice already. Most of our chicks are selling out before they even get here.” NewFarm is meant to be “a retail store and a community builder,” he said.
That’s what it’s all about for Randolph, too. By farming, she said, “what we are doing is building a healthy community.”