Back to the land again: Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre

Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge, Summer 2015 Photo: Cathy Stanton
Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge, Summer 2015 Photo: Cathy Stanton

Julie Rawson grew up on a western Illinois farm with parents who mixed agriculture, medicine (her father was a large-animal veterinarian), and activism (her mother was deeply engaged in civil rights issues). When she was pregnant with her first child, she said to her husband, Jack Kittredge, “I’m really sorry, but I think I have to raise these children on a farm.” Jack’s background was far more suburban. “I wasn’t a farmer and didn’t intend to be a farmer,” he recalls, “but I fully supported homesteading, raising your own food, having the kids have access to all the principles and lessons that nature teaches you.”

They purchased 55 acres of land carved out of what had been a larger farm in the southern part of Barre, and moved there in 1982. The surrounding acreage was already being subdivided into smaller houselots, but Julie and Jack immediately began creating a new farm, building an energy-efficient house and “a lot of sheds” as well as planting fruit trees and adding three more children to their family. They started marketing food on a small level in 1984 and now sell vegetables, fruit, meat, and eggs, mostly through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. They are also deeply involved in the policy, advocacy, and education sides of farming through their work with the Northeast Organic Farming Association (Julie serves as the executive director of NOFA/Mass, which is headquartered at their farm, and Jack is the policy director).

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Cows and chickens on Many Hands Organic Farm pasture, summer 2015. Photo: Cathy Stanton

We tend to think of the 1960s and 70s as the “back to the land” era, making Many Hands Organic Farm something of a latecomer to that movement. And yet the history going “back to the land” in the northeastern U.S. shows that Americans have been acting on that impulse for a very long time. In starting their new Barre farm in the 1980s, Julie and Jack combined many of the motivations that have prompted others—urban, suburban, and formerly rural—to start or return to farming.

The first wave of new homesteading actually happened more than a century ago, largely in response to repeated financial panics around the turn of the twentieth century. American ideals of independence and achievement sat uneasily with the realities of the expanding industrial economy, with its market-driven booms and busts. Buying a piece of land where you could grow food—what Dona Brown has termed “the enduring dream of self-sufficiency in modern America”—was one way that people sought some kind of stability and security. [1]

The energy-efficient house at Many Hands Organic Farm exemplifies the "sustainable living design" that its owners strive for.
The energy-efficient house at Many Hands Organic Farm exemplifies the “sustainable living design” that its owners strive for. Photo: Cathy Stanton

Peaking just before World War I, this trend was revived during the Depression by a wide range of people—immigrants from rural parts of southern and eastern Europe in search of affordable land, progressive reformers hoping to address the ills of industrial capitalism, city-dwellers returning to family farms as a source of food and community in hard times. Many old farms in central and north-central Massachusetts were reinvigorated in these decades, and some remain in active production today.

The ideal of eating healthy, home-grown food has long been a component of back-to-the-land thinking, and it is one that Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge have embraced with particular gusto. Like other farmers who approach food cultivation in a holistic way, they see the vitality of the soil as integral to the nutritional value of what is grown there, which carries over to the health of the animals and people who eat those foods. They have worked for many years to build up the soil on their farm with minerals and organic matter and to learn about ways of preserving food at its peak—canning, drying, freezing, fermenting, juicing, and root-cellaring.

Many Hands' root cellar, built into the house, is an integral element of the farm's food preservation. Photo courtesy of Many Hands Organic Farm
Many Hands’ root cellar, built into the house, is an integral element of the farm’s food preservation. Photo courtesy of Many Hands Organic Farm

There have also always been tensions and contradictions within the back-to-the-land impulse, many of them centering around the use or rejection of the ideas and techniques of industrialized farming. Especially in the early decades of the twentieth century, some homesteaders eagerly followed the latest developments of agricultural science as promoted by agricultural extension services and companies selling new products to make farming more efficient and profitable. One of these was Red Apple Farm in nearby Phillipston, where a young couple who had grown up in Worcester parlayed their college educations in pomology (the science of cultivating fruit trees) and nutrition into a commercial orchard business at a once-disused farm starting in the late 1920s.

By the time of the more iconic back to the land movement of the 1960s and 70s, this faith in scientific agriculture was being deeply challenged. A host of interconnected environmentalist, economic, and social justice reasons came into play for the homesteaders of this era.[2] Many of these were prompted by revelations of problems caused by pesticide use. But there were also concerns about how the logic of expansion and economies of scale had left small farmers in the dust by that point. To survive economically, many older farms in the northeast turned to the kinds of direct-marketing techniques now widely favored by small producers. Red Apple Farm shifted into being a pick-your-own and farmstead operation in the early 1980s, just as Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge were charting their own path into organic agriculture in Barre.

Fruit trees planted in the 1980s are now maturing, while PV panels help keep the farm's energy demands very low. Photo: Cathy Stanton
Fruit trees planted in the 1980s are now maturing, while PV panels help keep the farm’s energy demands very low. Photo: Cathy Stanton

Even moreso than at most small farms founded in the environmentally-conscious era of late twentieth century homesteading, the work of Many Hands Organic Farm has been very directly linked with politicized issues around energy use, social justice, and climate change. Their project of employing and mentoring ex-offenders and people in recovery from addictions is prompted by their sense of how the worst stresses of contemporary modes of living, working, and eating fall disproportionately on the bodies of particular kinds of people, and how those patterns map onto racial and economic disparities. They are at the leading edge of discussions about “regenerative” modes of food production that minimize disruption to the teeming microbial life below the surface of our soils, a layer of activity that not only supports healthy food production but may provide a crucial way to sequester much of the excess carbon now circulating in—and over-heating—the atmosphere.

They are also helping to ground the dreams of a new generation of homesteaders in the challenges of actually running a farm. “There are a lot of folks out there saying, ‘Oh, I just want to give up my job and be a farmer,’” Julie says. “So I say, ‘Well, why don’t you come out and work with me for a day and see how it feels?’ And some of them go away and say, ‘Okay, I get it now, I don’t really want to be a farmer but it’s nice to know where my food comes from.’ And others get totally taken with it and want to change their lives.”

 

[1] Brown’s Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011) is a fascinating exploration of the recurring cycles of the homesteading impulse.

[2] Warren Belasco’s excellent study Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry (Cornell University Press, 1989) explores the shift into a more environmentally-conscious mode of homesteading.

 

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