In 2010, Alex Cecchinelli and Stacey Apple started a garden. Apple, an aspiring chef, was interested in learning how to grow food. Her partner, Cecchinelli, had grown up gardening and offered to show her the ropes.
So they started a small garden at Cecchinelli’s childhood home in Danvers, and travelled up regularly from their homes in Boston to weed and water and tend to their tomatoes and lettuce and carrots and beets.
“We’d go home every weekend and take care of the garden,” Apple says. “And we were really into it.”
Now, more than a decade later, the couple’s early forays into agriculture have yielded far more than they ever dreamed. Today, Cecchinelli and Apple are full-time farmers and the owners of Iron Ox Farm. And earlier this year they were named the new operators of the property at Green Meadows Farm in Hamilton, a piece of land steeped in local history.
The pair have big plans for the site’s 20 acres of farmable land, including lots of vegetables, a farmstand, and collaboration with a local sheep farm. They’re even dreaming of one day adding an outdoor pizza oven where Apple can flex her culinary skills with ingredients grown locally.
“It’s so satisfying to see the process from the beginning to the end,” Apple says. “This is the most intensive way to make something from scratch, which I love.”
The couple’s path to Hamilton began in 2013, when, unable to find work that felt quite right in the city, Cecchinelli decided to take a job as a field hand at Canaan Farm in Wenham. He quickly fell in love with agricultural life and went on to jobs at other area farms.
In 2017, he was working at Cedar Rock Gardens in West Gloucester when the owners decided to take a year off from growing vegetables in order to concentrate on launching their nursery business. They offered to let Cecchinelli use their land to launch his own operation, and Iron Ox was born. The following year, the young farm moved to a two-acre parcel in Topsfield and continued to expand.
At the same time, Apple went into restaurant work after college, landing a job as a prep cook at Craigie on Main. She made the move north alongside her partner, finding work at acclaimed Gloucester restaurants The Market and Short & Main. In 2018, she decided to leave restaurant work behind and join Cecchinelli in the fields full time.
As the couple were growing their business, the Essex County Greenbelt Association was focused on a different parcel of farmland: Green Meadows. The land was purchased by famous World War II general George S. Patton in the 1920s, and his son began farming it in the 1980s. The farm became one of the few certified organic on the North Shore and a farmstand was built to draw in the community.
Growing continued on the land until 2017 when Patton’s descendants developed a plan to cultivate cannabis on the property. When that idea fell through, Greenbelt acquired the parcel and asked local farmers interested in working the land to submit proposals. In December 2020, they called to tell Cecchinelli and Apple they had been selected for a 99-year lease on the property.
The team that assessed the submissions liked Iron Ox’s dedication to organic farming practices (they’re not certified, but use organic methods) and their idea to partner with Boxford’s Lillooet Sheep and Cheesery, bringing grazing sheep to the farm to help regenerate the soil. They liked Iron Ox’s desire to welcome in the public and build community.
“It’s all about mindset,” says Chris LaPointe, director of land conservation for Greenbelt. “They’re the right people for a property like this.”
This year, Iron Ox will farm their plot in Topsfield for a final season, while, at the same time, they begin planning and developing the land in Hamilton. No farming infrastructure remains on the property, so Cecchinelli and Apple will have to build everything they need, from washing stations to greenhouses.
They intend to grow vegetables on about six acres at a time. Lillooet will pasture its sheep on the rest of the land in rotation, creating naturally healthier soil for Iron Ox when they plant in those fields. Nathaniel Higley, co-owner of the sheep farm, is enthusiastic about the partnership.
“There’s so many similarities in how we look at the land and farming,” he says. “Having complementary businesses work together is just a sweet thing.”
In the next few years, Iron Ox will also open a new farmstand on the land and create a trail, open to the public, that will wind through the farm and connect with the Vineyard Hill Reservation, another Greenbelt property located adjacent to Green Meadows. Eventually, when that pizza oven goes in, they hope to host pizza nights on the farm.
Cecchinelli and Apple are particularly excited about the opportunity to forge these kinds of connections with the community.
“We like to feed our family and friends and the people who are around us,” Apple says.