New England farming is a brutally difficult business — but you can get by with a little help from your friends.
Cape Ann farmers are as tight as cabbage leaves. They have to be.
When Goose Cove Gardens’ Barbara Dombroski retired last year, she passed her popular seedling business and its greenhouses to Elise Jillson and Tucker Smith, owners of Cedar Rock Gardens, an 18-acre farm on the marshes of West Gloucester that backs up to scenic Walker Creek.
Smith and Jillson, who focus primarily on selling plants (though they are selling some veggies — particularly tomatoes), have passed their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business on to Alex Cecchinelli, the newest sodbuster in the fields of Cape Ann.
Cecchinelli, now 27, grew up in Danvers, Mass., where he was an honor-roll student and a legendary skateboarder. “I did well in school, but I spent most of my time skateboarding,” Cecchinelli says.
True that. He actually became somewhat of a YouTube sensation among serious ’boarders.
And yet, a desire to plant and harvest was also budding in Cechinelli in those early years. Growing up there was a five-acre hayfield that stretched out behind his family’s house. “When I was younger, I would spend hours watching the tractor ‘hay’ that field.”
Cecchinelli also enjoyed helping his mother with her kitchen garden. He particularly loved the teepee trellis of pole beans she planted every year.
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This will be Cecchinelli’s first season of solo farming.
It will be his first season balancing soil pH. His first season tilling his own soil, setting his own seeds, and ultimately greeting — in early June — the 35 families who have signed up for a CSA share from Iron Ox Farm, the name he has given his small patch of Cape Ann soil.
Cecchinelli’s acre lies a mile down Concord Street from Cedar Rock Gardens, but Jillson and Smith have offered him greenhouse space and the new CSA barn as a home base.
He is nervous about starting his own business, but Cecchinelli also feels the solid grip of outstretched hands from this caring community of like-minded farmers.
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On a typically raw 40-degree day in early April, Cecchinelli stands in Cedar Rock Farm’s greenhouse — a steamy sanctuary from the relentless marshy gray West Gloucester landscape that is only broken by carpets of pale green lichen and the black wetness of cedar trees.
Inside the greenhouse, thousands of thread-sized seedlings were twisting their way through trays of soil: Redwing, Cortland, and Ailsa Craig onions. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and lettuce mixes. Spring broccoli, kale, and chard.
All of them only wispy promises of what is to come from the endless soil-filled plastic trays. The air smells like warm, moist dirt. Cecchinelli’s smile, framed by a trim blonde beard, punctuated his sentences as if he just couldn’t contain his joy.
“It’s really exciting … and a little overwhelming,” he says about his first year as his own boss. “You’re used to being told what to do and all of a sudden it’s ‘well, what’s next?’ It’s a learning experience, just to be in charge of all the details.”
Cecchinelli’s path started out on that skateboard, but then veered — temporarily — into wearing a suit. But while he was studying economics at Boston University, he and his girlfriend decided to start their own garden in his parents’ backyard. The two drove to Danvers regularly to maintain it.
It wasn’t long before Cecchinelli felt a shift. “It really felt like something intentional. I knew I wanted to grow food, to learn more about it.”
After graduation, and a subsequent unfulfilling internship, Cecchinelli took a hard turn that sent him to this place in a greenhouse wearing muddy Grundéns.
Rather than a job wearing a suit, he took a job at Canaan Farm in Wenham (now known as Tendercrop Farm at Canaan), where the work immediately grabbed him. “That synthesis of using your body and your mind is awesome. I’ve always enjoyed working outdoors, doing physical labor, but also there is so much work behind the scenes.”
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In preparation for the season, Cecchinelli has been reading. First, Jean-Michel Fortier’s The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming, one of the most influential farming books of the last decade.
He says it has given him great practical advice on running a small farm. “A lot of my crop plan is based directly on what [Fortier] lays out in the book. I’ve read that book many times.”
Cecchinelli also read The Lean Farm: How to Minimize Waste, Increase Efficiency, and Maximize Value and Profits with Less Work. In the book, author Ben Hartman, who runs a one-acre farm in Indiana, instructs small farmers how to incorporate lean practices, first revolutionized by the Japanese automotive industry, into each step of their own production chain.
Meanwhile, Cecchinelli’s soil test has just returned from the University of Massachusetts, who provides the inexpensive-but-invaluable service to farmers and gardeners.
His particular soil is what’s called “Boxford Silt Loam,” which the National Cooperative Soil Survey describes as “very deep, nearly level, moderately well-drained soil in areas of glacial lake deposits.” It has a lot of clay, and is very acidic, so he will have to add lime to neutralize it.
The price of fertilizer was one of Cecchinelli’s first big surprises this spring — he needs a lot of lime. Fortunately, Noah Kellerman of Alprilla Farm had plenty to spare, and offered it to the new guy.
Along with the lime, Cecchinelli will add rock phosphate blood meal and bone meal to the fertilizer to increase the nitrogen and phosphorus. Seeds for the season will cost around $1800.
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The name Iron Ox Farm is poetic enough to describe the scrubby, glacier-chopped land from which Cape Ann’s farmers are trying to extract beautiful swiss chard and beets, but the name also refers to Cecchinelli’s most prized piece of machinery: a two-wheel, single-axle tractor that enables him to work his one acre by himself.
Self-powered and self-propelled, Cecchinelli’s iron ox looks something like a rototiller, but it’s not. It can pull or power various pieces of attached equipment such has a cultivator, tiller, harrow, plow, seeder, or harvester.
With a thirteen horse-power engine, the iron ox is much lighter than a basic tractor, so it doesn’t compress the soil too much. “And it’s a little quieter,” he says.
Even before he has set his seedlings, Cecchinelli has felt the importance of having friends to turn to. His gratitude is as thick as the soil in those plastic trays. “The other farmers in the area let me look at their crop plans. They’ve opened up their finances to me, and they’ve given me advice on fertilizer applications.”
New England farming is a brutally difficult business. Land is expensive and difficult to obtain. The weather extremes — either too dry or too wet, too hot or too cold — are the new normal. The season is short.
Without farmer-helping-farmer on Cape Ann this lifestyle couldn’t exist. There wouldn’t be the high-quality local produce available across the region from early June through the winter holidays.
Cecchinelli has made some good friends.
And this summer, Cecchinelli will share a tent at the Cape Ann Farmers’ Market with Caitlin Kenney of Ipswich’s Plough in the Stars Farm, selling vegetables that were planted during those cold, dark New England late-winter mornings, but fertilized and grown in the spirit of partnership.
Heather Atwood is a Rockport-based writer and the managing editor of TheOtherCape.com. Paul Cary Goldberg is a Gloucester-based photographer whose work is in the collections of the DeCordova Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and many others.