Farm-to-Cocktail Success in Old Mill City

7/26/2014 7:00 AM
By Guy Steucek Massachusetts Correspondent

LOWELL, Mass. — Most farmers are still working on the farm when the pre-dinner cocktail hour rolls around. Despite this, many people seeking to celebrate the efforts of their local farmers might be interested in a social event such as a cocktail party.

Mill City Grows, an organization dedicated to managing community gardens and urban farm projects in Lowell, Mass., did just that. It held a community building and fundraising event — a “Farm-to-Cocktail Party” — in Mill No. 5, a former textile mill building, in downtown Lowell. The successful event on July 10 ended up raising $15,000 for the support of community agriculture in Lowell.

Lydia Sisson and Francey Slater are the founders and co-directors of Mill City Grows. In their third growing season they have expanded from a “window box” to an acre of vegetables. Recently, they leased 4 acres of Merrimack River bottomland from the City of Lowell for more production.

With a total of 350 growers on three community garden sites within the city limits as well as other urban farm sites, Mill City Grows is meeting their objective, stated on a website: “To increase community access to healthy, fresh food through the development of urban food production and distribution networks.

This year, Mill City Grows has added a mobile market to enhance sales to well over 1,000 customers at six sites within the city. “Community connectivity is primary to us,” Slater said.

How does one organize a social event featuring agriculture?

Organization is the key to success in such an undertaking. Months ago, Sisson and Slater developed a committee of volunteers, seven from their board and three recruited by board members.

First, they had to determine the fundraising goal: $15,000. Then, they selected a location that would accommodate the number of participants to meet the goal. Mill No. 5 was a great location because it connects with the history of the city, has the capacity needed, and is within eyesight of one of urban farms run by Mill City Grows. Event participants could visit the farm while taking part in the social event.

The food and drinks appropriate for a promotional farm event were another concern. A catering group, UTEC’s (United Teen Equality Center) Fresh Roots, provided farm-to-table appetizers. Cucumber mint gazpacho, vegetarian summer rolls, and cucumbers stuffed with deviled egg were among the variety of appetizers produced by students in job training and on a quest for a GED at UTEC.

The event’s signature cocktails were created by a local company, called Booze Époque, which focused on using fresh garden produce from Mill City Grows projects (recipes at end of article).

The volunteer committee had experience with appropriate decorations for the event.

“They knew what to try and what to stay away from” Slater said.

Plants, produce and agricultural artifacts as decorations fit well within the rustic nature of the restored mill.

The organizing committee also wanted to find ways to raise enough money to reach its fundraising goal.

In addition to buying a $50 ticket for the event, people could purchase cocktails or merely try samples. T-shirts brandishing “I dig Lowell” were sold. However, two major sources of income were the raffle and the silent auction.

Slater said that the silent auction was limited to several pieces of artwork produced by local artists and donated to the cause. Having less auction items, meant less work after the event.

“In the past, we spent an awful lot of time delivering items and collecting money for auctioned items,” Slater said.

She also said there was a limited number of people willing to bid on these larger ticket items.

On the other hand, the raffle items were valued in the $50-$100 dollar range.

“Ten raffle tickets for $20 was more inclusive,” Slater said. “Also, it was far easier to collect raffle money than auction money.”

Consequently, they had many raffle items donated.

The main purpose of the farm-to-cocktail party was “to celebrate the feeling of Mill City Grows ... celebrate growers and the power of food to bring the community together” Slater said.

How did they invite people to attend?

“Grass roots — word of mouth — is probably the most important communication we have,” Slater said.

Utilizing their mailing list of 400 or more and an email list of over 1,000, plus a website and space in social media such as Facebook, etc., those not seen eyeball to eyeball are notified of events such as the farm-to-cocktail party.

“We won’t work (as an organization) unless we are really connected with people we are growing for ... We have to figure out what they want,” Sisson said. “It is important to care about the people you are producing food for.”

She estimates that about half of her time is spent working with people on food issues. With this kind of connectivity, it is little wonder that the community supports the efforts of Mill City Grows.

The farm-to-cocktail party proceeds were only a small portion of their annual budget of $370,000.

As for the rest of their budget, production accounts for 13 percent, while a harvest celebration, local, state and federal grants help, along with donations, corporate partnerships and sponsorships. Roughly 20 percent of their funding is from government.

“Here’s to mud in your eye!” is a phrase to wish someone good cheer with a cocktail but which may have had an origin with farmers wishing each other well before the start of a season.

For more information, go to

Farm-to-Cocktail Recipes

To throw a farm-to cocktail event, here are a few of the recipes shared by Booze Époque. Alcohol-free “mocktails” can be made by replacing the alcohol with club soda. These recipes make large amounts.


1/4 ounce beet juice

1 ounce rose cardamom simple syrup (recipe follows)

1 ounce lemon juice

1 ounce club soda

1-1/2 ounces vodka (or substitute club soda)

Rose petal garnish

Fill a shaker halfway with ice and add all ingredients except for club soda. Shake vigorously and pour into a tall glass. Top cocktail with club soda and garnish with rose petal.

Rose Cardamom Simple Syrup

Boil for 15 minutes:

2 cups rose water

5 cups water

5 cups sugar

7 teaspoons of cardamom

Let cool. Strain out cardamom. Store in refrigerator for up to one month. (Note: This also makes a wonderful syrup for a non-alcoholic lemonade or limeade.)

Microdesk Gimlet

2 thick slices fresh cucumber

3/4 ounce herb simple syrup (recipe follows)

1/4 ounce lime juice

2 ounces grapefruit juice

2 ounces gin (or substitute club soda)

Herb garnish

Mash or muddle the cucumber slices and herb simple syrup until cucumber is mostly broken down. Add ice and remaining ingredients. Shake vigorously and strain into cocktail glass. Float herb garnish atop.

Herb Simple Syrup

Boil for 5 minutes:

2 quarts plus 3 cups water

11-1/2 cups organic sugar

3 cups sage

3/4 cup rosemary

3/4 cup thyme

Take off heat and let cool. Strain. Store in refrigerator for up to one month. (Note: This herb simply syrup also is delicious as a sweetener in iced tea or lemonade. Pour over grapefruit as a sweetener, or make a natural organic soda using seltzer or club soda.)

Strawberry Rhubarb Bramble

1-1/2 ounces rum (can substitute club soda)

1 ounce lime juice

3/4 ounce mint simple syrup (recipe follows)

3/4 ounce strawberry rhubarb simple syrup (recipe follows)

Club soda

Mint, berry and lime garnish

Shake together rum, lime juice and mint simple syrup in a shaker half full of ice. Strain into cocktail glass full of crushed ice. Top with strawberry rhubarb simple syrup, a splash of club soda and a lime wheel. Garnish with fresh berries and mint sprig.

Mint Simple Syrup

Boil for 5 minutes:

1 quart plus 1-1/2 cups water

5-3/4 cups organic sugar

1-1/2 cups fresh mint

Take off heat and let cool. Strain. Store in refrigerator up to one month. This is great in iced tea!

Strawberry Rhubarb Simple Syrup

Boil for 15 minutes:

2 cups water

2 cups organic sugar

2 cups organic strawberries

4 tablespoons diced organic rhubarb

2 tablespoons rhubarb juice

Take off heat and let cool. Strain. Store in refrigerator for up to one month. Make a delicious organic soda.

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