Closing in on Four Centuries, Nation’s Oldest Farm Continues to Support Local Food System
July 8, 2013 | Noelle Swan
Appleton Farms of Ipswich, Mass. is the nation’s oldest continually operating farm. Nine generations of Appleton’s have farmed the land since 1636. In 1998, the family donated the farm’s 1000 acres of farmland, pasture, and woodlands to The Trustees of Reservations, a non-profit land conservation organization that manages over 26,000 acres of land in 75 communities throughout Massachusetts.
“When we took over Appleton Farms from the family in 1998, the goal was not to compete with current farming operations, but to help support the momentum for local, healthy food and engaging the community and the public in a way to get people involved in land,” said Holly Hannaway, a spokesperson for Appleton Farms and The Trustees of Reservations.
Today, Appleton Farms supports a 550-share Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program, donates 10,000 pounds of food annually to local food pantries, trains farming apprentices to be able to establish their own farms, manages a year round dairy store, offers farm-to-table dinners and cooking workshops for kids and adults and maintains 12 miles of trail for recreational use.
Appleton grows over 200 varieties of vegetables, greens, and herbs, which are primarily distributed through the farm’s CSA. Some rare offerings include purple beans, kohlrabi, and celeriac. Appleton’s CSA shareholders come to the farm to pick out their own share box. Unlike many CSAs, which prepackage boxes for shareholders, Appleton’s shareholders select their own produce from both a farm stand display and directly off the vine.
Appleton farmers work the 24-acres of fields from April through November and adhere to the practices guided by the National Organic Standards Board even though the farm is not certified organic. “Our shareholders and our community know how we grow, so we don’t feel like we need to be certified organic,” Hannaway said.
In addition to growing crops, Appleton farmers raise White Park heritage beef and Jersey milking cows. Both graze on pasture from April to November, though their feed is supplemented with some grain to balance their nutritional needs. Both the grain supplements and the hay that sustains the cattle through the winter months are grown on site. In the fall of 2012, Appleton started producing farmstead cheese onsite, which they sell in their dairy store along with yogurt and butter made at Appleton as well as goat cheese made by another local farm.
All of this is managed by a dozen year-round, full time staff members and a lot of volunteers. “One of our goals is to provide opportunities for community members to learn and dig in and roll up their sleeves,” Hannaway said. Volunteers provide the farm with over 2,000 hours of free labor each year in school groups, corporate groups, and as individuals. They might help with weeding and harvesting in the fields, or they might fix fence posts or paint buildings. One volunteer program invites teens to spend a week or more working as farm hands. The Flower Project welcomes teens between the ages of 15 and 17 years old to help weed flowerbeds, cut and arrange the flowers, and deliver the bouquets to nursing homes. An onsite educator manages a 4-H club for kids interested in gaining experience working in the dairy.
Since acquiring the farm from the Appleton family, The Trustees of Reservations has worked to renovate many of the farm’s 20 buildings. Most recently, they converted the run-down old family home built in 1794 to a visitor center. Hannaway says that she expects that this building will earn LEED gold or platinum certification. Attached to the visitor center, they built a state-of-the-art gourmet kitchen for offering farm-to-table dinners and culinary workshops.
Appleton Farms strives to be carbon neutral, including the beef and dairy operations. “Everything we do we try to do looking at this goal of sustainability,” Hannaway said. Appleton Farm has a large-scale composting operation, heats many of it’s buildings including the dairy barn and greenhouse with wood fires and biomass heaters, and employs solar panels to supply some electricity.
In addition to farming operations, Appleton Farms includes roughly 500 acres of forested land. This land is interspersed with wetlands and grasslands. The grasslands are home to meadowlarks and bobolinks, the wetlands are way stations for migrating birds, and the fields draw in foxes, fishers, deer, coyotes, and minks. These areas are open to the public year-round for running, horseback riding (with a permit), cross-country skiing, and dog walking.
Moving forward, Hannaway says that Appleton is looking for new ways to tell its story and to increase visitation. “We want to be a resource for the community. We just want to make it the best experience possible for everyone here,” she said.