Last Farm Standing

10/6/2012 7:00 AM
By Guy Steucek Massachusetts Correspondent

Boston’s Allandale Farm Still Thriving After 250 Years

BOSTON — While urban farming is currently in vogue, it is a marvel that the 110-acre Allandale Farm has resisted development for more than 250 years.

Located within the city limits of Boston and Brookline, the farm has been in the hands of the Lawrence family for centuries.

Lawrence families fought in the American Revolution and were instrumental in the mill industry. They represent old wealth and are among the Brahmins of Boston.

Today the farm assumes new missions while maintaining the traditional role of providing wholesome food to local residents.

The Allandale Farm operation is complex. The farm straddles the border between Boston and Brookline, so two municipalities and their regulations have to be honored. For example, the portion in Boston was conserved under the purview of The Trustees of Reservations, while the portion in Brookline remains in limbo while the details of conservation are being worked out.

The topography with an undulating relief naturally divides the farm into a number of hillside and valley plots. Moreover, the puddingstone parent material of the soil further subdivides the farm. Pudding stone is a conglomerate with small round stones imbedded in a matrix of cement-like material.

Tilled fields end abruptly where the puddingstone is near the surface. So, 110 acres of farm yields 30 tillable acres which are parceled out into 38 plots.

Farm manager Ethan Grundberg says, "I have 38 fields to learn, different soils, hydrologies, micro climates, etc."

The Lawrence family has a keen interest in the farm and farm operations. However, unlike the usual landlord, they have plenty of degrees from Ivy League schools in business and law. This adds to the complexity of the farm in that decisions on land use can be driven by a number of factors.

On the grounds of Allandale Farm is The Apple Orchard School, a pre-school with the philosophy of generating an environment of trust and positive feeling for 3- to 6-year-olds.

Also on the farm grounds is "the mansion for the horses" that the Boston Police used to house the equestrian unit and now use to house and train the K-9 unit. The stable is part of the Brandegee Estate, with its ornate Italianate gardens designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of American landscape architecture. The estate was added to the National Historic Register in 1985.

In addition to the fields in Boston/Brookline, they have additional acreage in Groton, Mass., which is approximately 40 miles away.

Several years ago, under the direction of general manager John Lee, the farm shifted from wholesale to retail sales. Today they have two to four plantings on each parcel. Vegetables are sold at their own market, at farmers markets, to local restaurants, through CSAs and, to a small extent, to stores such as Whole Foods.

Some of the overflow goes to a wholesaler who delivers tropical fruits and vegetables, such as bananas and mangoes, to the farm stand and then backhauls tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce.

With all the small plots for plantings, "growing and planning in this environment is very challenging, despite all the help I have with a crew of 12,” Grundberg said. “Using a four-bottom plow to till a quarter-acre plot takes more time than you would think. We are always moving equipment and people from plot to plot."

Wildlife is revered at Allandale Farm. Wild turkeys have devoured cover crops and raided high tunnels for local lettuce. The high tunnels are surrounded with electrified mesh. Grundberg found that his dog was a good deterrent for Canada geese that took a liking to plantings.

They bought 500 pullets for their egg CSA. The hens are on pasture plots surrounded by mesh fencing. Each plot has a mobile laying house which also provides protection from predators at night.

One evening, Grundberg fell asleep at 8 p.m. and neglected to enclose the hens; unfortunately a coyote played havoc with the flock that evening. Red tail hawks have nests within eyesight of the laying hens and will harvest a hen now and then. It is an expected cost of doing business at Allandale Farm.

Despite the predators, the egg CSA is flourishing with 80 members who pay $115 for 20 weeks of eggs.

While organic methods are used on the farm, the farm is not registered organic because some of the seed they purchase is treated and some of the potting material is not certified organic. In all other respects the production is organic.

Interest in the farm's production is evidenced by the 380 members in the CSA and farm stand sales in the neighborhood of $1,500 per day throughout the season. People have also shown interest in the flower CSA.

"At the peak of the tomato season I spend most of my day on the phone trying to find 5,000 pounds of tomatoes homes every other day," said Grundberg. "That is not why I went into farming."

Being fluent in Spanish, Grundberg interacts well with the workers, who are mostly of El Salvadoran ancestry.

Both Lee and Grundberg have a keen interest in expanding the variety of products cultivated at the farm and in educating the locals on the merits of "ethnic” vegetables.

"Some hybrid tomatoes look beautiful and are blemish free compared with heirloom varieties with oodles of flavor," Grundberg said. “Now we just have to encourage the shoppers to go for flavor."

With no days off since he started the job last March, Grundberg looks forward to another season now that he has learned the landscape and comprehends the complexity of the farm.

Allandale Farm also offers an outdoor summer program designed to give children ages 4 to 10 comprehensive exposure to outdoor fun and learning.

For more information, visit www.allandalefarm.com.


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