Valley Bounty: Farm educator makes big leap into small-scale agriculture in Florence

By JACOB NELSON

For the Gazette

Published: 03-25-2023 11:00 AM

Toni Hall is a farmer hoping to turn some heads. A diminutive plant known as spilanthes, with edible flowers called buzz buttons, is helping get people’s attention.

“When I give out samples at the farmers market, people make these crazy sounds and faces, and then others start to come over,” says Hall, owner of Song Sparrow Farm in Florence. “Who knew you could get a rush you’ve never had in your life, from a local farm that’s also addressing the climate crisis?”

The mouth-numbing experience of buzz buttons, which deliver a strong tingling sensation and go on to cool the throat, is the hook. The hope is that some tantalized tasters will stay to enjoy other food Song Sparrow Farm grows. And at a deeper level, Hall hopes that the farm’s success might demonstrate how small-scale farmers who don’t own land can still succeed, given the right kind of community support and determination.

Song Sparrow Farm is a diversified produce farm occupying three-quarters of an acre at the Grow Food Northampton Community Farm on Meadow Street. Hall took the farm’s reins of just a year ago, yet says, “I’ve known that growing plants was part of my path in life for a while.” After years of working as a farm and sustainability educator, the entrepreneurial challenge of managing a commercial farm felt right.

The initial plan was to grow a business up from garden-scale, focusing on just a few crops. Then Hall met Diego Irizarry-Gerould, the previous owner of Song Sparrow Farm who was selling the business, and it seemed a perfect opportunity to leapfrog past the startup stage.

“His planning and farming methods were so aligned with what I’d learned about and wanted to do,” Hall explains. “So, in 2022 Song Sparrow followed Diego’s formula while adapting a few things in different directions.”

A big part of that formula — climate-friendly farming — starts with lavishing love on their soil. They don’t till, which helps promote biodiversity, water retention, and carbon sequestration. They also use organic, non-petroleum-based products to fertilize and manage pests.

“We’re also making long-term decisions,” Hall says. “For example, I’m looking at how we reduce emissions from vehicles, transitioning away from gasoline, and maybe having chickens on site to generate natural fertilizer.”

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Another part of the formula is maximizing their small growing area. Here two strategies are important: interplanting and succession planting.

Interplanting refers to multiple crops sharing space in a growing bed. Here, farmers look to pair plants with compatible growth and nutrient needs, like the Indigenous farming technique of a three sisters garden, where tall corn, climbing beans, and squash grow together in harmony.

Succession planting, meanwhile, refers to multiple crops sharing a growing bed across time. When one crop is harvested, another is planted right on its heels.

Hall combines both strategies in a planting plan that plays out like a season-long game of Tetris. For example, “one bed might start off as just radishes for three weeks. When they’re finished, we’ll plant lettuce — but only on the outer edges, because down the middle we’ll plant tomatoes.”

As the buzz buttons suggest, Song Sparrow Farm’s crop choices emphasize the exciting. “This year we’re leaning into spicy peppers, lesser-known varieties of sweet peppers and fun, small-sized melons,” Hall says. “People really seem to want them, and it’s not what other farms are growing.”

They also have their staples, like their salad mix also sold at River Valley Co-op stores in Northampton and Easthampton, Oliver’s Farmstand in Goshen, State Street Fruit Store in Northampton, and Cooper’s Corner in Florence. These greens will arrive first this spring, followed soon by carrots, radishes and salad turnips, and later cucumbers, summer squash and vibrant cherry tomatoes.

A community supported agriculture (CSA) farm share “is the best way to enjoy produce from Song Sparrow Farm,” Hall says. Community members buy shares up front, providing the farmer some financial assurance, and receive weekly boxes of fresh produce throughout the season.

They offer large and small shares, opportunities to swap share contents for more favored items, and the option of signing up for the whole season, June through October, or for individual months.

Their produce will also be available at three farmers markets this summer: Easthampton on Sundays, Northampton on Tuesdays, and the new South Hadley market on Wednesdays. They will also sell at a roadside farm stand on Meadow Street and through the local farm-to-door delivery service Mass Food Delivery.

Looking back, year one of running Song Sparrow Farm brought its challenges. They weren’t what you might think.

“Housing in Northampton was my No. 1 issue,” Hall says. “I almost failed because of the cost and lack of access to housing.”

Like 1 in 3 Massachusetts residents, Hall is a renter, not a homeowner. That’s a challenging position from which to grow a farm business. For starters, rent is expensive. Especially near Northampton, where the popular rental website Zillow currently puts the average price of a two-bedroom unit above $2,400 per month.

In addition, having no property to use as collateral makes it much harder to get a loan for start-up costs. Some farmers inherit land or invest family resources to get their farms off the ground. Others don’t have that luxury.

“For a long time, I thought I could never be a farm owner,” Hall says. “It’s because a place like Grow Food Northampton’s Community Farm exists that I’m able to do this.”

This model, where farmland is owned by a community organization and made available to farmers and gardeners, lowers many barriers for prospective farm owners. In Grow Food Northampton’s case, it leases land at many scales, from small community garden plots to multi-acre farms, while supplying water and vehicle access.

The social resources farmers are connected to are often just as important. “In season when the weather’s good I have tons of conversations there,” Hall says. “Whether they’re our customers or our friends, we farmers thrive when surrounded by people who care about food.”

Hall also believes communities thrive when surrounded by farmers who care about our collective future. Leaning into the spirit of collective support, this year Song Sparrow Farm is offering multiple ways for the community to invest in their success, from their CSA to fundraising campaigns.

“My hope,” Hall says, “is that other people see you don’t need to have the same starting resources as some farm owners in order to better your position in society, or to become a farmer.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about CSA farms near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

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