Family Farm in Amesbury, MA Keeps it Local and Sustainable, Profits from Selling Close to Home
November 19, 2012 | Hana Lurie
For Glenn and Karen Cook of Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, MA, sustainability is more than just a catch phrase. On their 145-acre farm the family’s composting practices have significantly increased soil organic matter. By employing solar panels and wind turbines, Cider Hill Farm also provides itself with 95% of the electricity that it needs to operate.
I recently spoke with Glenn Cook to learn more about how his family farm evolved, the challenges that it faces, and his future goals for the farm.
Q. What’s the story of how your farm came to be?
Glenn Cook: My mom, dad, and my wife and I are part of an antiquated partnership – it’s evolved. My dad is a smart guy working in microwave technology but was an avid gardener, and I always took to that. We grew up with a huge garden and I took a fancy to it, so I was doing every outdoor job I could find. When it came time for college, I started in forestry and ended up in horticulture; so really I’m the first generation of farming for a living.
In the mid-1970s my father picked up a farm in New Hampshire and the idea was a pick-your-own-apple orchard. It was very remote, and the people that lived there didn’t like us and didn’t want us to be there – we were city-folk. But we slugged it out for a couple of years. This is when I was in college, and I’d come home for summers to plow the fields, trying to fix up the house and the barns, but it never felt right.
[Eventually] my father sold that farm and bought what is now Cider Hill Farm – the north piece of it. His idea was sort of a retirement project: maybe five acres of apples, 5 or 6 weeks of pick-your-own-apples, and that’s it. Meanwhile, I got a degree in horticulture and fly off to a job in Michigan for a year planning part of a very big operation- a fruit tree nursery and orchard. I gained a lot of experience there. After the year I came home and happened to meet my future bride at church. While Karen and I were dating, I saw a piece of land next to my dad’s farm that I wanted to buy, and we began our farm back in 1981. So it’s a composite of two farms – 145 acres total now. It took 5 or 6 years to get some trees planted, strawberries producing, retail business complete with a bakery, and then we merged. My mom got out the quickest – she was in the bakery, but she didn’t like when people bought her pies because that meant that she had to go bake more [laughs]. My dad is more focused on the books, setting up the computer network, the building and development of projects. Karen is always great with relating to the customers, and I just like production. So between us all, it just seemed to click.
Q. What do you grow on your farm?
Glenn Cook: It would be easier to say what we don’t grow. We’re pushing about 80 varieties of apples now, 20 varieties of peaches… we do plums, nectarines, white peaches, white nectarines, apricots, cherries, pears, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries. We do all of the small fruit except some of the more exotic fruits like currants and gooseberries, but there’s not a huge market for them. We also grow about every vegetable you could think of which is kind of ridiculous. It’s very difficult and probably doesn’t make sense.
We started our own CSA, which pushed me to be even more legitimate. We provide our CSA 99% with what we grow here. We have a huge variety of items – not only all of the vegetables and fruits, but they also get eggs, ciders, jams, jellies, bread. All of these things are produced on the farm. The vegetables take 80% of the work, and the fruit takes 80% of the money. I have to figure that one out.
Q. How does your farm make money?
Glenn Cook: Every way that we can retail what we grow is how it works. Wholesaling is a much more narrow profit margin. Anyway that we can retail it right at the farm or pick-your-own saves a lot of labor is the best model for us. Farmer’s markets and CSA take a whole lot of work. We feed about 330 families – it’s just a ton of product.
Q. Can you describe some unique, sustainable practices that you employ on your farm?
Glenn Cook: We compost heavily. It’s very basic, but we’ve taken our soil’s organic matter from two percent 30 years ago to ten percent today. We’ve done many energy projects: we have three wind turbines, 630 solar panels, outdoor wood boilers that are highly energy efficient units in some of our homes and greenhouses, all with our farm wood. We’re producing about 95% of the electricity that runs the entire farm, including our homes. It’s about $30,000 worth of electricity that we makes ourselves – from nothing, from the air. I just love that. It’s a beautiful house – we have ten guys from agricultural universities around the world that live and intern here. We’re hooked into the grid, but we don’t have a utility belt.
Q. Are you organic certified?
Glenn Cook: We are not. Our crop variety is way too broad, the fruit is particularly difficult in this part of the country. So we are certified IPM, which is nowhere near organic or conventional, but somewhere in the middle.
Q. What are some challenges that you experience?
Glenn Cook: Any farmer would probably start with the weather – there’s just nothing you can do about it when these big storms are coming up the coast. It’s better to have some kind of plan on how to survive it, and our plan is to be extremely diverse. We lose crops every year, and you don’t want to lose a big crop like peaches or apples, and we easily survive it. We have crop insurance but we never use it – we’re mandated to pay into it, but it’s not helpful enough to rely on it. Another big challenge is labor – it’s hard to find people who will work like this. From day 1 we’ve been working with agricultural interns and we form a community – they’re like our family, and because of that, they’ll work really hard. A third one is just regulations. The government is just growing bigger and bigger. Obviously we want to do a great job and keep the food very safe, but it’s been a real issue.
Q. Would you consider your farm profitable or self-sustaining?
Glenn Cook: Our farm is profitable. We don’t carry any debt, and we won’t – everything we do is paid for as we go. We established that about 10 years ago.
Q. What are the future goals for your farm?
Glenn Cook: I want my farm to be viable for my boys – they’re 24 and 26. They express an interest in it, but they’re really afraid of how much work it takes. They’ve grown up watching us and they don’t really want something that intense. So I try to figure out how to scale back the farm so that it’s still profitable, desirable to the customer, and yet not overwhelmingly difficult for my boys. I just don’t know how sustainable it is. For my generation, I’ll keep it going. The challenge is how to keep it alive for future generations – that’s probably the biggest thing on my mind now.