Felix Carroll: New-school farming idea meets `old school' in New Marlborough

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NEW MARLBOROUGH — If your image of the archetypal farm obliges a big, red barn, maybe a silo, a split-rail fence and a few cows scattered across four corners of pasture to hold everything in place like paperweights, get ready to be schooled at this former school.

Enter the residence hall of the former Kolburne School. Think bland, postwar, standard-issue educational architecture — that of brick and block and flat roofs. But once inside, witness modern, make-do guerilla farming at its finest.

The boys' wing has become the "chicken wing." The girls' wing will soon become the "hog leg." The nurse's room and teachers lounge will eventually become a large, walk-in freezer. And then there's the gymnasium with the electric scoreboard and the Kolburne Coyotes banner still strung high across the wall. The gym is what sold Tom Brazie on the place.

The professional landscaper and native son of New Marlborough, whose dreams of farming date to when he first learned to tie his shoes, remembers driving onto this unkempt, overgrown, abandoned 140-acre campus early last spring, peering into the windows of the gymnasium and thinking, "Hmm, I could store a lot of hay in there."

On June 9, he signed the paperwork. Brazie is now a fully fledged farmer, which, in this case, means he owns a football field (also with scoreboard), a baseball field, playgrounds, an indoor pool, classrooms and tennis courts with weeds popping through the pavement.

Indoor pool?

"I'm waiting for someone to come to me with a great idea," he shrugs.

For a man who has embraced the unconventional agriculture practices made famous in films such as "Food, Inc.," and by folk-hero farmers such as Virginia's Joel Salatin, here was unconventional land ripe for renewal. And the price was right.

Built in the late 1960s, Kolburne School, a residential treatment facility focusing on special education programs, once housed as many as 130 students before closing in 2012. By the time Brazie got the gumption to peer through those windows, developers had been thoroughly deterred by the property's impractical edifices, which would have cost an estimated $200,000 to remove.

"This is like the best barn I could hope for," Brazie says, walking down the tiled hall of the chicken wing. "I can fit a wheelbarrow down here. The floors make it really easy to clean out."

Flocks of frenzied, cute-for-only-so-long broiler chicks live tuition-free in stable temperatures for their fragile first three weeks. After that, they will be brought outdoors in the fields to join his hundreds of egg-laying hens, maturing meat birds, hogs and beef cattle.

For now, the place is without running water and without electricity. A friend who fills swimming pools for a living has kindly left a water tanker in the back for the water supply. So far, National Grid, accustomed to providing six figures worth of electricity annually to Kolburne back in its day, has placed high monetary demands to turn the power back on for an operation that will require a tiny fraction of the property's former power needs.

It seems the Berkshires love their farmers, except when they paint outside the typical barn-shaped lines. No local bank wanted anything to do with the project, so Brazie, owner of Woodruff Mountain Landscaping, which he started 20 years ago just out of high school, approached longtime clients of his from Monterey, who lent him the money. He pays the mortgage, plus interest, to them. That will be the case for five years, until he can present himself before a local bank as a successful farmer in need of a standard mortgage.

He has little doubt he'll be able to do just that. The farm, he says, is already paying for itself, and he hasn't even opened up the store yet. Yes, there will soon be a farm store right there on New Marlborough-Southfield Road, in one of the buildings that predates Kolburne. His mother-in-law, Joan Hobart, and wife, Laurel, will run it, selling grass-fed beef and chicken, and baked goods under the name The Farm New Marlborough.

For now, Brazie, who became a father last year, has been selling to local families and businesses.

"There's no reason why the Berkshires can't feed their own," he says, "and I'm going to play as much of a role in that as I can."

The Brazies have been working the sloping fields of this rural hill town dating to 1754. Brazie's first memories are of sitting on his father's lap atop a tractor, haying fields in a patchwork of other people's property. When he started his landscaping company, the original idea was that someday all those tractors and trailers of his would be pressed into the service of farming.

It was, indeed, the film "Food, Inc." that caused Brazie to make the incremental hop-skip-leap toward full-time farming. This was 2011. As the credits rolled, Brazie said to himself, "It's time to farm."

Tapping into family friends with land to spare, he began leasing property here and there. He got a cow and then another cow, and some chickens and some pigs, too. He began setting up mobile fencing and building mobile chicken coops and putting into practice newfangled farming methods that emphasize healthy grass on which animals can thrive in an interdependent cycle of feeding.

Typically, his cows spend a day on a small section of field and then are moved to an adjacent section, and onward from there. Chickens follow behind three days later. Funny creatures, chickens are — they relish the bugs and seed encased in the cow patties, and in the process they shred and spread the manure into tiny fragments that feed the soil. The soil, in turn, yields a veritable buffet of pastureland with each rotation.

"It works. It's amazing," says Brazie, who is introducing this method to his Kolburne property, whose neglected soil needs a lot of loving.

With Kolburne, Brazie now has a farming home of his own. He's hiring two full-time farmers. He has dreams of surmounting the huge bureaucratic barriers that keep local farmers from opening their own slaughtering facilities. That dormitory kitchen would make for an excellent butcher shop.

In the meantime, he's going to put a barn door on that gymnasium. That ought to look interesting.

The work ahead is endless — glorious.

On Monday morning, a flock of hens was working the former football field against the backdrop of the battered old scoreboard, which is inscribed with the words "HOME" and "GUEST" in chipped white paint.

For anyone keeping score, the old hometown is winning in a rout.

Felix Carroll is The Eagle's community columnist. He can be reached at fcarroll@berkshireeagle.com.

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