Today we will sit down with Bridget McKee of Bent Fork Farm in Bethlehem, NH. We’ll hear about her journey to building and relocating her vegetable farm in the North Country.
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What is North Country Fruit & Vegetable Farmers?
University of New Hampshire Extension specialists interview seasoned growers in northern New Hampshire who share insights into creating a successful agricultural business.
We weren't necessarily looking in Bethlehem but we really did want to stay in the North Country which we've just grown to love a lot. And when this place popped up -- it just -- the stars aligned and we couldn't be happier.
Heather: Welcome to the North Country Fruit and Vegetable podcast. My name is Heather Bryant and I am working on this project together with my UNH Extension colleagues Olivia Saunders and Nick Rowley. The podcast is a COVID friendly answer to the North Country Fruit and Vegetable Seminar and Trade show started by our retired colleague Steve Turaj approximately two decades ago. We plan to release 5 episodes of our podcast in the fall. And then in October, we will run a series of interactive lunchtime discussion sessions, one for each episode. During these sessions, we'll be able to dive deeper into each topic. You can ask questions of the people we interviewed, other experts or each other. The topics will center around issues and ideas of interest to farmers and people who choose to live a rural life. Thanks for joining us. *music*
Thanks for talking with us today. Bridget, will you start by telling us about Bent Fork Farm as it is today.
Bridget: So today we're in Bethlehem, New Hampshire on about a 30 acre piece of land that we bought two years ago. But originally we started on a leased hayfield in Lancaster on under half an acre. So a lot of things have changed since the first iteration of Bent Fork Farm. But right now we're farming on just under two acres of cultivated land and in two high tunnels. And we're growing for a 50 member CSA, the Littleton Co-op and the Littleton and Lancaster farmers’ markets.
Heather: How did you determine that a CSA was the right marketing venue for you as opposed to -- I know you also do farmers markets or you know, potentially a farm stand. Like how did you make that decision?
Bridget: Well, the CSA we started when we were in Lancaster. And at that point, the girls were really little and we knew we didn't want to be driving an hour and a half to a farmers’ market. So that really narrowed down our farmers’ market potential even. And then our farm at the time was on a quiet road, so it didn't seem like it really made sense for a farm stand. So the CSA was, it seemed to be the obvious choice. And I've really loved having the CSA. It's so awesome getting to know the people and families that are eating your food every week and hearing their likes and dislikes and you can cater the CSA more to what your members actually want. And I've just really enjoyed the CSA experience and I think most of our members have too.
Heather: What kind of things do you grow and what would you say your farm’s vision is.
Bridget: So we're pretty much growing the full spectrum of mixed vegetables. we try include a ton of variety to keep the CSA members excited throughout the season. Also, I just love everything in a seed catalog -- I kind of can't help myself. So there's not a whole lot that we don't grow. There's a couple crops that don't make sense on our scale like sweet corn or storage potatoes, but we're really growing a very wide range of vegetables. I'd say our specialty is probably mixed greens throughout the season. We try and have salad greens and baby leaf lettuce all the way from end of April through November and everything else as the season progresses.
Heather: I know you said you go through the catalogs and you find things that you love but how, how do you determine what's gonna grow on your farm. Like specifically you said you don't grow sweet corn so how did you come about deciding what's in and what's out?
Bridget: So I think on a farm of our scale where you know, bed space is pretty limited so I start with the things that I know I could get a certain amount of bunches out of or a certain amount of cuts out of to serve the CSA. So I want to bed to serve at least like two weeks of the CSA over the season and including the farmers markets too. So I guess I figure out what is most profitable for each bed foot and kind of work backwards from there. We know we need six plantings of carrots over the course of the season or I need to I know I need to seed salad mix and lettuce mix every two to three weeks throughout the season. So I work backwards from what I know that I want and then I figure out what I have space for from there.
Heather: And then if you have a crop that maybe you're not sure if it's gonna fit or not, like what kind of things go into the decision to get rid of that crop.
Bridget: Well, I do probably too much experimental trialing. This year we're trying artichokes and I gave them two whole beds and you know the looks of them right now they don't really look like they're gonna pay for themselves. But there's a certain amount of like, what's the point if you can't like plant what you want to, and see what happens so I think a lot of it is just to do with like, keeping it interesting and exciting for us.
Can you tell us what initially drew you to farming as a career,
Bridget: I started out farming as a WWOOFER when I was waiting for placement in the Peace Corps, so I had some free time on my hands and it seemed like a you know, a good way to have low commitment, employment and live for free. So that was my first introduction into farming and I really just loved the lifestyle I love that you get to work physically you get to see things progress throughout the season, you know, you get to see hard work come to fruition and the literal fruits of your labor and I've always loved that. And when our second daughter was born, like the turning our like home garden into a small Market Garden seemed like the ideal way to stay home with the kids and have it make sense for our family at the time and since then, it's just grown because we love it.
Heather: For those of you who are wondering what WWOOFing it means WWOOF is an acronym W-W-O-O-F and it stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Their mission is to be a worldwide movement to link visitors with organic farmers, promote a culture and educational exchange and build a global community conscious of ecological farming and sustainability practices. So WWOOFers will go to farms for...could be one day could be several months. And typically they'll get room and board in return for a half a day's work for every day that they're there and then the other half of the day they can become part of the farm community and get to see what organic farming looks like in in the particular region that they're visiting.
Heather: You kind of explained when the farm started. But can you give us some hints of the steps of how you grew from there to what you are today. So you obviously started in Lancaster and then at some point decided to move to Bethlehem. So can you tell that story?
Bridget: Yeah, we were lucky enough in Lancaster to have a lot of different neighbors that just really helped get things started. We had one neighbor who let us use his hay field and you know, rip up that sod and turn it into a garden, we had another neighbor with a barn that happened to have a walk in cooler and a washing station. And some other neighbors that pitched in and helped and not to mention, both of our families. So we were really lucky in that sense to have a lot of backup, getting things into production.
Heather: What prompted the decision to move the whole farm to Bethlehem?
Bridget: Well, at some point we started, I think in our second season we were started seriously looking for somewhere we could put down roots, you know. We were ready to take those next steps and put up a greenhouse, make a better wash pack area. A lot of infrastructure improvements that like we couldn't do on leased land. So the search for land took almost three years. So we weren't necessarily looking in Bethlehem, but we really did want to stay in the North Country, which we've just grown to love a lot. And when this place popped up, it just -- the stars aligned and we couldn't be happier.
Heather: So if you had to do it all over again, is there anything that you would change?
08:33 Bridget: You know, I was thinking about this question. And there's, I can't think of any one thing that I would have done differently. But it's just incredible thinking about all the stuff we've learned along the way that you can't, like we can't believe that we were doing things the way we were doing five years ago. It just it's cool to see how much you learn just along the way by doing things wrong by meeting other people who are doing things right. And just learning from our peers around here, especially in this growing climate which is quite tricky.
Heather: Where were you when you first started farming?
The first place I worked at was actually in Northern California and then in Arizona was my first like full season farming which is you know, worlds apart from Northern New Hampshire. And then after that first farm I worked at farms in Texas in upstate New York, east ah western Mass. Ben and I farmed with his Dad in Montana for a summer. So it's been a real learning experience to see how operations of every different size and scale are run in different places all over the country. And I just love it. I think it's like the coolest thing it's to see how people make a living off the land in such starkly different circumstances.
Heather: What are your goals for the next five years? Where do you, where do you want the farm to be in five years?
Bridget: So our farm, like I said before, is we're under two acres in production. And really, I don't want it to be too much bigger than that. And we're limited in the sense that we're on a pretty rocky hillside and there's not unlimited open ground that we can move into. So in the next five years, I want to hone in on our efficiencies, and our rotations and our succession planting. So we have the dates just right. And there's less guesswork involved, which I feel like we have learned a lot in that department. But there's still like a lot of refining to do that, I think would make things less stressful, which is another goal being less stressed at this time of year.
Heather: That sounds like a reasonable goal, though I unfortunately, I feel like just when you think you've got it figured out. a weird whether you're comes along, and it kind of messes up the math.
Bridget: Maybe more of the goal is to just handle the stress a little better, because inevitably, like things are going to happen that you can't plan for.
Heather: What is your long term goal for the farm? Like further out from five years? What do you what do you ultimately want it to be?
Bridget: I think we're, I'm still figuring that out, I have a lot of different ideas of places we could take it or what we want to add or subtract from the whole equation. So I think that's a vision that's still evolving. I'm not really sure yet. But we've got big dreams for this place.
Heather: What do you want to tell an inspiring farmer that you wish you had known when you started?
Bridget: I think what I wish I had known when I started is to just like go for it. Like you don't need to... You could farm for 20 years at different places, and you still wouldn't be prepared to start your own operation. I think there's just a lot to be said for diving in and learning as you go. And at any scale, too.
Heather: I think that I think that makes a certain amount of sense. You mentioned Peace Corps before. And I think Peace Corps is one of those things. If you if you don't just do it, you're gonna scare yourself, and then you won't do it. For the people in the audience who don't farm but want to support farms or want to be good neighbors to farms, what would you suggest?
Bridget: I would say shop the mark farmers market, we always love a honk and a thumbs up when you're driving past on a hot sweaty harvest day. And just being conscientious of how, how places are run. I think it's tempting for a lot of people to like want to stop by and try and buy things. And we always like appreciate that people are interested but we're not always able to stop and accommodate special order picking.
Heather: And can you give us just a couple examples of your favorite tricks. So you know, like maybe a tool that you like, you know, feel like it's paid for itself 10 times over, or a little labor saving efficiency trick that you've learned over time that you can't do without now?
Bridget: One labor saving trick that we use a lot of now is with silage tarps, which I love and hate silage tarps. They're heavy and irritating to move around. But for succession plantings, I think they're a really awesome tool. So our upper field for example, we seeded the first bed of carrots in late April, and had the rest of it tarped. And since then we peel back the tarp every two weeks or three weeks and seed two more beds of carrots. And every time you open up a seed bed. It's perfectly weed free, soils warmed up, it's not too soggy, ready to seed and put a sprinkler on. And so I think the silage tarps are a really useful tool used in the right way. They're not as magical as they've been advertised sometimes, with “lay it down and two months later, you can play right into it”. But they do have a really awesome place on our farm. And as far as tools, we have a three row Jang seeder, and that's something that I wish I had invested in a lot sooner. It's so precise. The seed you waste is so minimal compared to like an Earthway or hand seeding and not having to thin carrots is a magical thing in itself.
Heather: well thanks very much, Bridget for talking with us today. This has been really, really great. And we're looking forward to hopefully everybody who listened today will join us for the discussion session during the North Country fruit and vegetable conference. So thanks again Bridget.
Heather: Thanks again for joining the conversation about agriculture in the North Country and be sure to check out our webpage extension.unh.edu forward slash north where you can find this podcast information about the North Country fruit and vegetable conference, and instructions for participating in episode discussions. The North Country Fruit and Vegetable Podcast is a production of the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension an equal opportunity educator and employer. Views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the University, its trustees or its volunteers. Inclusion or exclusion of commercial products in this podcast does not imply endorsement. The University of New Hampshire, US Department of Agriculture and New Hampshire counties cooperate to provide extension programming in the Granite State. Learn more at extension.unh.edu