With GoFundMe, tenant farmer seeks community’s help in keeping Ashfield farm

  • Roy Nilson works Maggie and her sister Molly, American Cream Draft horses, at his Haywood and Father Farm in Ashfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Roy Nilson with Maggie and her sister Molly, American Cream Draft horses, at his Haywood and Father Farm in Ashfield. Nilson is trying to buy the homestead he is renting, now that the owner is looking to sell. He is running a GoFundMe campaign to raise the money he needs for a down payment. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Roy Nilson with Maggie and her sister Molly, American Cream Draft horses, at his Haywood and Father Farm in Ashfield. Nilson is trying to buy the homestead he is renting, now that the owner is looking to sell. He has a GoFundMe campaign to raise the money he needs for a down payment. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

For the Recorder
Published: 12/3/2020 10:59:40 AM
Modified: 12/3/2020 10:59:30 AM

ASHFIELD — Roy Nilson found a home for Haywood and Father Farm when he moved to 229 Norton Hill Road five years ago, renting the farmstead to run his forage crop and livestock operation. With the owner now looking to sell, Nilson and his family are doing what they can to keep the property, including starting a GoFundMe account that has raised upward of $23,000 over the last month.

Beyond supporting Nilson and his sons — Haywood, 10, after whom the farm is named, and George, 6 months — Haywood and Father Farm holds an important role in Ashfield’s ecosystem and community. Nilson maintains open grassland that supports wildlife through haying, uses herbicide- and pesticide-free practices that sequester carbon, and has rare American Cream Draft horses. One hundred percent grass-fed Jersey and Irish Dexter mix cattle are sold for meat locally, and the farm has 100 hens, among other animals.

When Éowyn Ahlstrom, Nilson’s sister, learned that Nilson would have to move, she fought for Haywood and Father Farm to stay by starting the GoFundMe account.

“We can’t let that happen — we’ve got to make sure Roy gets to keep this farm,” Ahlstrom said.

To buy the roughly $450,000 property, Nilson needs to provide a $90,000 down payment that would secure him a $360,000 loan from Farm Credit East. The GoFundMe will need to raise roughly $7,000 more before a Dec. 31 deadline for Nilson to have enough money.

Nilson said he is grateful to Liz Castro, owner of the Norton Hill farmstead who resides in Barcelona, Spain, to have given him the opportunity to rent and a period to gather the money to buy the property.

“She’s doing everything she can, she just needs her equity back,” Nilson said, mentioning that the sale price is $30,000 less than what Castro spent initially on the land.

Preserving grasslands

Nilson worked at The Farm School, an educational farm, from 2000 to 2007, where he milked cows and was promoted to farm manager. He came to the area when told about a property in Ashfield that needed haying, which led him to several other properties in town that also needed the service.

“They get maintenance of the field and I get the hay crop,” Nilson said, reminiscing about the moment when the tenant of the farmstead at the time told Nilson that the farm could be his to rent.

“It was 11 o’clock at night and she brought me coffee, which was really strong,” he said with a big laugh. “I was picking up hay in the cool of the night. ... She came out and said, ‘Hey, we’re leaving.’”

Nilson no longer picks hay from the fields until midnight with a bungee cord around the steering wheel of the tractor to keep it going straight. His move to the farm marked the first time he was able to live in the same place that he was keeping his herd since leaving The Farm School. He had a barn to store hay and house animals, land and a shop.

He explained how open grassland in New England, a region of natural forestland, is disappearing, as unchecked fields of grass often give way to multiflora rose bushes and goldenrod, then eventually trees. The majority of farms present in Ashfield 25 years ago are now gone due to small farms struggling to keep prices low, he said.

Although many landowners in Ashfield today know it’s not profitable to hay their individual fields, “People who own land recognize that we’re losing grassland at a faster rate than any other type of land in Massachusetts,” Nilson explained.

“Grassland is a rare thing to be protected,” he said, noting the list of wildlife that depends on the hayfield is long: “from the doe where she fawns to birds that would not exist in New England at all if it weren’t for generations of people making open grasslands.”

The black bear brings its cubs to eat the fibrous grass, and Nilson sees coyotes following his mower picking up the moles killed with the machine.

More than wildlife depends on the hayfield, though. For Nilson, livestock are essential, as they provide a connection for people to understand the natural world.

“It’s important to realize that small-scale hay-making and small-scale livestock production is a building block for civilization, and the way that they are being represented by giant industrial farms is a travesty,” he said. “It doesn’t properly share their legacy; it doesn’t do them justice.”

A different model

Ahlstrom explained how Haywood and Father Farm proposes a different model than the one that involves either farms with hundreds of cattle or no cattle at all. It’s about having cattle in “the appropriate regional place for efficiency, to have a positive rather than negative impact on our carbon footprint and the economy,” Nilson said.

“Roy’s heart is 110 percent into this,” Ahlstrom said.

Nilson’s great-grandparents were Norwegian immigrants who moved to Barron County, Wis., to work as dairy farmers. He was named after his great-grandfather, Roy Masrud.

“The ethic that allows me to face the challenges of this work comes straight from those people,” Nilson said, describing how his great-grandfather milked his cows with his bare hands, milking enough to become the highest taxpayer in his county. “You can’t deny the hard work and connection to nature that old-style dairy farmers had.

“A lot of it’s nostalgia,” he continued, “but it’s nostalgia that really pulls me forward when I’m like, ‘What am I doing trying to run a small-scale farm in this day and age?’ ... I push as hard and fast as I can every single day.”

Life on the farm begins before sunrise. Between hay and firewood deliveries and tending to the fields and animals, Nilson does woodworking and mills his own lumber. Winter is for repairs of broken machinery he buys to make the next season more efficient.

The pride of Haywood and Father Farm is the American Cream Draft horses, an exceedingly rare breed, who are “a sensation all by themselves,” having been featured in Aliza Eliazarov’s book “On the Farm” and photographed for a 2021 postage stamp.

Nilson trained and raised the horses himself, and uses them a couple of times a month for transporting firewood, clearing land, preparing fields and rides around town. With the need to be as productive as possible to keep the farm running, most of the haying is done with an old Ford tractor. In the future, Nilson hopes to teach driving clinics with the horses and use them for more of the farm work.

To learn more about Haywood and Father Farm and the fundraiser, visit bit.ly/3ms7Wt2.

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