McDonough “Mac” Scanlon can fix a tractor, sharpen clippers, and manage accounting. Oh, and she also grows winter greens, tomatoes, and amazing cucumbers, both classic varieties and exotic ones like round lemon cucumbers and long greenish-white Itachi cucumbers, a specialty veggie that was requested by a chef who buys wholesale from her.
Turns out farming is a lot more than weeding and planting. As proprietor of High Road Farm in Newbury, Scanlon has had to learn everything from repairing a fan belt to QuickBooks, relying on resources as varied as The Carrot Project and New Entry Sustainable Farming Project – organizations that support small farmers – and locals who know a lot about tractors.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a handful of guys around who are patient and kind” – chief among them, her husband Alex Matthews, a rabbinical student who leads the congregation at Ahavas Achim in Newburyport when he’s not sharing his knowledge of tractors. Now Scanlon is happy to start passing her knowledge on to others.
“It’s nice to be someone who can carry that torch,” Scanlon says. “Especially as a woman, it’s really exciting to become a resource for others.” Scanlon didn’t grow up farming – it wasn’t until she graduated college and got a high-stress job as a mental health counselor at an inpatient pediatric facility that she discovered the serenity of working the earth.
“I didn’t know how to separate my work and home life,” Scanlon recalls. “So I started volunteering at a farm to just help my brain air out and keep my hands busy. I think the balance is really helpful for me.”
Scanlon still holds down both gigs, picking up more shifts at Anna Jacques Hospital in the winter months, when growing is limited to winter greens in her enclosed hoop houses, and fewer shifts in the summertime, when her fields are alive with bok choy, heirloom tomatoes, kale, and lettuce, among countless other vegetables.
“It’s hard to make a living from the land, but on the North Shore, we are fortunate to have a growing community of people who are willing to put in the time – the one thing that is always too short,” says Kristen Herrick, who manages operations at Herrick Farm in Rowley for her parents, Sam and Kathy Herrick. While the farm provides milk to Cabot and other wholesale accounts, they are finding it is more sustainable to sell directly to consumers. Their cows lounge under pine trees across the street from Herrick’s tiny dairy shop, which sells milk, the very best cream around, grass-fed beef, eggs, and seasonal produce year round.
“When you have a place like this, there are so many different things you could do,” Herrick says, gesturing around at the land her family has worked since the 1700s. “It’s almost like you have to write a business plan for each option, to see which is worth your time. And I have three little kids, so my biggest struggle is time management.”
With a multi-generational connection to the land, the burden of preserving it weighs heavily on her. “I love working with my dad. That’s always been my motivation: He kept this place going so we can take it over,” Herrick says. “I love that he did that. But it’s really serious stuff.”
Sam Herrick was so devoted to preserving the farm that when he was just 18, he started digging out a foundation by hand for a modern milking parlor, to meet changing safety regulations. “Who does that?” Herrick says with a laugh. “He was gung-ho, milking cows in high school.” Now Herrick is considering everything from raising pigs to processing milk, in order to create a sustainable future for her own family.
Like many farms on the North Shore, neither Herrick nor Scanlon are “certified” organic, because of the difficulties and the costs, but they follow sustainable and organic practices.
“My dad’s way of farming is what I’ve learned and I don’t really want to change,” Herrick says. For example, they put down ground cover to battle weeds, rather than using a commercial herbicide. “We do things the old-fashioned way, which probably isn’t the most cost effective, but it’s ingrained in me.”
Similarly, Stacey Apple, who owns Iron Ox Farm in Hamilton with her partner Alex Cecchinelli, is devoted to protecting the land and farming history of the North Shore. They recently entered into a 99-year lease with Essex County Greenbelt at the former Green Meadows farm in Hamilton, under a new program the nonprofit introduced to help connect farmers with land while protecting open space that would otherwise be developed.
The couple, who just had their first child, will be working with Greenbelt to conserve the land, protect the watershed, and provide access to trails to the public – not to mention adding acreage to their vegetable farm.
“Our life is definitely crazy right now, because we’re scaling our business up, we’re moving our farm and we’re starting our family,” Apple says. “There’s definitely been some challenges in balancing motherhood and working. I thought I could do both. But I’m learning that it’s really hard.” But the idea that her son will grow up on a farm, eating organically grown veggies, makes it all worthwhile.
“It’s the best life when you get to be outside basically every day,” Apple says. “And I love my community. I love feeding people.”
+ Herrick Farm’s dairy store is open weekends year-round, offering milk, beef, eggs and locally made goods like honey and bread, as well as handmade gifts around the holidays. Check their web site at herrickfarm.net for current hours.
+ High Road Farm produce will be available at the Newburyport Farmers Market every Sunday up to Thanksgiving. After that, monthly bulk orders of fresh winter greens and squash will be available on the High Road web site, highroad.farm. CSA enrollment will open early next year.
+ Iron Ox Farm: While their CSA currently has a waiting list, you can get their fresh produce at the farmers’ markets in Gloucester and Marblehead. Learn more at ironoxfarming.com.