I always learn a lot when I visit farms for this column, but I hadn't done any actual work until I visited Square Roots Farm in Lanesborough, a CSA farm that raises seemingly every vegetable in the world, plus chickens, turkeys, sheep and pigs.
And it wasn't really a lot of work -- I arrived when Michael Gallagher and his girlfriend Ashley Amsden, both 29, needed to do some chores, so we each lugged a bale of hay across a field in the pouring rain. It was the least I could do.
When I visited, it poured nonstop, and we were all wearing our best rain gear (theirs was 10,000 leagues better than mine). They worked to move chicken houses forward, calling out to one another from either side. The chicken houses, handmade, hold a bunch of young hens, and Gallagher and Amsden push them forward each day so the chickens have fresh grass to eat.
It sounds simple, but it involved a lot of mud. And stopping. And rattling the houses a little to get the chickens to move forward. It was all part of a day like any other for them.
In terms of the romantic treatment farming usually gets, the Square Roots story is up there: Gallagher met Amsden on a farm in Vermont when they both were apprentices, they fell in love, they leased land in Clarksburg for three years, and then their RFP was accepted by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council for a 185-acre property with a rundown house built in 1800 -- just a couple of miles down the road from where Gallagher grew up. The land is protected by an easement and can never be developed.
Their CSA supplies about 50 shares of vegetables and meat. They grow "pretty much all the vegetables there are," Gallagher said, running down a list that runs from basics to things like kohlrabi, green garlic and shallots.
"That's sort of what a CSA is about," Gallagher said. "It lets us grow things that if we were just growing for market we wouldn't be able to grow."
They have about 15 pigs, and eight ewes with 16 lambs born this year. They also will around 900 chickens this year and 100 turkeys. They partner with the nonprofit Hoosac Harvest, which subsidizes one-fifth of their shares up to 50 percent; the goal is for everyone, regardless of income, to have access to fresh local food.
The Square Rooters are serious, and they work nonstop.
"We don't work 14 or 16 hours every day," Amsden said. "Twelve, though, is pretty common."
Amsden is also a fifth-grade teacher at Clarksburg Elementary School, and now that school's out she has more time for chores. A few other people also help: They have an apprentice working with them who grew up in Adams, a Williams College student stayed with them through June, and Gallagher's parents, Tim and Nancy, are frequently put to work.
One thing they plan for the farm this year is a state-inspected, fully compliant poultry processing unit. They got a matching grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources in order to build it. It's going to help a lot -- they'll be able to process 2,500 birds a year instead of 900.
"This is sort of an exception year," Gallagher said. It's their first season at their permanent home, so they've been setting up greenhouses, putting in fences and working on other long-term infrastructure projects they wouldn't have done in Clarksburg.
"Now, everything we're doing, we think, ‘We should do it right,' because we're going to be here forever," Gallagher said.
There's another reason this year has been exceptional. In January, Gallagher was seriously injured in a car accident. He spent 10 days at Baystate Medical Center. Among other injuries, he broke his back. He currently uses a cane and is in physical therapy, which he said cuts into his time on the farm.
But the work is there to do, and he and Amsden are there to do it. They just bought a tractor with a bucket loader on the front, which will make a lot of things a lot easier. And they are making a living.
"We've made money every year. Not a lot," said Gallagher.
In the future, they see adding some grass-fed beef (the farm used to be used for dairy, and it grows a lot of grass) and will probably farrow their own piglets instead of buying pigs. They'll probably grow the CSA a little, too.
"Not too much," said Amsden.
They'll probably max out at around 100 shares -- "we'd still have a good connection with everybody who's taking part in it," Gallagher said.
"Part of why we've been able to make money is because we've made these investments slowly," Amsden said. On their first year, Gallagher said, "we had a rototiller."
And that is part of the goal -- to do something they love with meaning, and "not only to engage in sustainable agriculture, but to show it is a sustainable business venture," Amsden said.
To learn more ...
For more about Square Roots Farm, visit squarerootsfarm.org, or call (413) 446-1446.