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In early May, Newhall Fields Community Farm in Peabody was just starting to go green. Mounds of oregano nestled next to a gravel path, stalks of chives and walking onions stabbed vertically into the air, and small white blossoms on strawberry plants hinted at the fruit to come. All told, about 130 varieties of perennials occupy the herb garden at the farm, to say nothing of the dozens of vegetables and greens that are cultivated in other plots on the property.

The farm practices regenerative agriculture—a method that focuses on building soil health—with the goal of growing the most robust, flavorful, and nutritious foods possible.

“Because that’s what we want on everyone’s table,” says farm cofounder Jeannette McGinn.

Photograph by Adrian Scholes

Newhall Fields occupies a unique niche in the world of North Shore agriculture. To begin with, there’s the somewhat unconventional operating model: It is a nonprofit farm with a mission of providing residents with access to healthy foods, while building community and creating environmental benefits. About 60 percent of what it grows is distributed to local food pantries, and another 26 percent is distributed at low or no cost to low-income customers through a community-supported-agriculture program.

The organization also has the unusual advantage of strong municipal backing. The two-acre farm is part of a 17-acre plot owned by the city of Peabody. The property has an agricultural deed restriction on it, and the city was careful in its planning for how the land should be used. A thorough feasibility study pointed to the advantages of growing food for community-supported agriculture and mobile markets, as well as hosting farm-based education.

“The Peabody community is amazing,” McGinn says. “They supported the program right off the bat.”

Newhall Fields began growing on the land in 2018, starting with an herb garden helmed by farm cofounder Rebecca Ingalls. A local herbalist and educator, Ingalls met McGinn at a workshop Ingalls was teaching. Ingalls was looking for more space to grow herbs, and McGinn was working on getting something started at the Peabody property, so they joined forces and asked the city for permission to plant an herb garden.

From the beginning, it was clear to organizers that the farm was a special place that had the potential to nourish connections between people.

“When your hands are digging, your minds are free, and these really great conversations flowed,” McGinn says.

C.J. Hughes | Photograph by Jared Charney

And they’ve kept that inspiration going ever since, adding more crops, more infrastructure, more people, and more programming. In 2022, farm manager C.J. Hughes joined the team, bringing with her practical experience running commercial farms. She almost turned the gig down, not wanting a job that was then part time, but when she met the people and saw the farm, she was hooked.

“It’s just a really beautiful project to be a part of,” Hughes says.

They’ve added a greenhouse, built shading over work areas, and repaired an onsite well, making watering and irrigation easier. Last year, after years of working the soil with hand tools, they acquired a two-wheel push tractor that McGinn says has transformed their farming. Last year, they farmed a quarter-acre. This year, they will plant two-thirds of an acre with the expectation of growing 10,000 pounds of food. The goal is to increase the farmed acreage each year and have their full two acres in production by 2026.

To ensure that what they grow has maximum impact on local residents, the staff coordinates with food pantries to understand what produce is most popular, what is often left behind, and what new crops might be of interest to clients from other cultures.

Photograph by Adrian Scholes

As they’ve been building their capacity for growing food, they’ve also been finding ways to nurture community. The farm hosts field trips for local schools and has proven popular with volunteers, from incoming freshmen at Endicott College doing a getting-to-know-you activity with classmates to high schoolers working on community service requirements. Newhall Fields also partners with Northeast Arc to create work opportunities for its clients. And its summer Youth Crew program pays local teens to work on the farm, gaining practical experience and developing soft skills like punctuality, communication, and teamwork. Almost all the students who participate end up returning the following year.

“They fall in love, and they come back,” Ingalls says.

There’s plenty more to do to get the farm to the place its founders envision. And they’re always generating new ideas for ways to connect with the community. But for now, as the operation enters its seventh growing season, its leaders are feeling a little more secure, a little more rooted than in those early days.

“It’s just amazing how much we’ve done with so little funding,” Ingalls says. “I really feel like this farm is here to stay.”