Story by Marykate Smith Despres | Photos by Marilyn London Ewing
It is the day before Easter when I see it––the first one since fall. A green, wrought iron, lattice-top table stands in the shade of a large front yard maple. On top of it, a small plastic box is labeled with white tape and the words Money Jar written and underlined in green marker, the same marker used to write Pussy Willows and $3 on the sign propped up on the legs of the table. There are bills enough in the box to make change for a 20. The cut branches, boasting buds like buttons covered in gray velvet and bundled together with black rubber bands, reach out from an old metal milk crate, declaring spring.
The roadside farm stand takes many forms. I’ve bought asparagus out of the bed of a truck, flowers off umbrella-shaded folding tables, pumpkins from a pile just off the road. Many are seasonal, selling a variety of produce as it ripens in the fields or kitchen gardens behind it. Others are specifically sporadic, popping up for a week or two when there are simply too many berries or flowers to keep. Some stands and stores are staffed by farmers, or family, or sleepy teenagers, but most do business based solely on trust.
When I asked Gene Hoynoski, who grew the pussy willows I bought in Hadley, about why he sells them, he simply told me, “I’ve got some bushes out back.” He said I didn’t need to map out where to find his table. “People know me.”
It is hard to say whether this economy of trust grows out of the community or if a community grows around it, but I believe it’s a little bit of both. And though I’m sure that self-serve farm stands exist in many places beyond the Valley, I have never been to another place where this silent agreement to support, and be supported by, the honor system is so ingrained.
The farm stand is painted yellow to match the house and garage behind it. It has a blue metal roof and blue awning shading the main part of the stand, which houses the money box and summer squash and cut flowers 4 for $1.
In the center of the cart there is a display of tiered shelves built like a vegetable staircase, lined with green indoor/outdoor carpeting, a single row of brown paper lunch sacks on each step. Each bag on the right side holds a generous, tangled handful of beans, green or yellow. Blue and white and red potatoes anchor the bags on the left. The roof slopes down on one side to create an aisle between the main cart and a row of shelves that hold the greens: buckets filled with heads of green and purple lettuce; a half dozen glass vases and jars of water keeping the kale and chard and collards crisp.
Among the baskets of summer squash and salad cukes, I find the most enormous cucumber I’ve ever seen. Italian Barese Cucumber, the sign reads, and beneath it, Never bitter. It is light green and ridged and has skin that feels more like a peach than a cucumber.
For $1, I get the large, fuzzy vegetable and an uncontainable smile from a fellow patron. The man is on his way from Connecticut to Brattleboro and back again, for work, and wears a red polo shirt that matches the lettering on his white pickup. He makes the drive often, always with camera in tow for wildlife sightings and cash in hand so he can stop here. He folds and drops bills into the slotted money box that sits beneath a laminated sign detailing the farm stand’s origin story (a summer job for the Boyden family’s then-14-year-old son Dan, turned family habit too hard to break once he’d grown), tells me he loves being out in the country, and to “Have a sparkly day.”
It’s for folks like him that Jacquie and Warren continue running Dan’s Veggies and Poplar Mountain Maple, and, with careful planning and crop rotation, till three acres of crops on top of their day jobs. One day, it will be their retirement, but for now, Jacquie doesn’t mind the extra work farming. For her, it’s not another job, it’s relaxing. She enjoys being outside, “planting the seed and seeing it all the way through.”
While Jacquie relaxes after work picking cucumbers and squash, she is creating a home base for people who want fresh, local, affordable produce. “People build it into their daily routine,” she says. She doesn’t mind if someone is short a dollar one day, because they’ll be back the next and the money box will be over. The Boydens have dealt with theft in the past, mostly pumpkins, but Jacquie says it’s never the locals. “I have to tell you, for the most part, people are honest … It’s a system of checks and balances.”
Jacquie was a stay-at-home mom when her boys were young and didn’t get into farming until her 40s, though she always had a large kitchen garden. Warren’s family has been maple sugaring for generations. He and Dan tap 125 trees on the property, boil it down with a wood-fired evaporator, and bottle 30 gallons in a good year. Though the trees are on their own acreage, the Boydens do some of their farming across the street at Split River Farm, where parts of the land don’t work for the larger farmer’s tools. As Jacquie says, “We all work together so we can make it work for everybody.”
Two wooden signs with yellow-orange painted letters hang at the end of Mary and Charlie Dodge’s long driveway announce the price of chicken eggs, $3.50, and duck eggs, $4.50, which reflect a recent rise to coincide with the price of grain. There is a small wooden duck cut-out on the duck egg plaque, and a wooden chicken, not much smaller than the real thing, perches atop the sign for chicken eggs. The eggs themselves are nestled around back of the Dodges’ house, at the very end of the driveway, on a small porch just big enough to stand on, open the door of the mini fridge, and drive the pair of pomeranians inside the house wild.
Mary and Charlie love their birds. “I love the ducks and the geese, and he loves the chickens,” Mary tells me. “It’s fun, but, you can’t do it forever. We’re 82 years old and winters are getting hard.” Mary and Charlie do not make a profit off their eggs. They laugh at this idea. They sell their eggs to offset the price of grain and because they can’t seem to stop buying birds. They recently added seven new ducks to the their flock of over 50 chickens, ducks, and a pair of geese. The number of children, grandchildren, and great-grands, all local, about equals that of the birds, (“We don’t only raise chickens,” Mary laughs) and the eggs they sell are simply what’s left over after feeding family and sometimes donating to the Survival Center. That’s why they started “messing with chickens” in the first place, 64 years ago when Mary and Charlie fell in love, got married, and went to work on the local tobacco farms for a dollar an hour.
Mary remembers, “We could get cheap chickens if we wanted to butcher them ourselves, and so we did. I think we bought chickens for like,” they finish the sentence in unison, “50 cents apiece.”
People dip in and out of the kitchen in the hour I’m there: a granddaughter with a great-grandbaby in her belly, her partner who keeps two rescued pigeons, Toby and Glen, next door; a son just back from the tractor supply store; a friend down from Maine to buy a cockatiel from Mary’s friend; another son who calls on the phone as he does every day to say “hello and I love you.” Someone comes to buy eggs and sets the dogs to barking. Mary worries what will happen to the folks who count on their eggs once they are too old or feed is too expensive or there are none left over after feeding the family.
“A lot of the people come right in and sit down at the table, have a tea or a coffee and visit,” Mary tells me. “We have some that come every week looking for eggs, and those are the ones I worry about it if we don’t have any.” Charlie even tried buying eggs from the store to have on hand for folks who came looking when there weren’t any extras, but, he barks, “They don’t like store eggs.”
Neat rows of wide-mouthed jars––quarts and half gallons of cream-topped milk––fill the shelves of glass-front refrigerators wet with condensation. A geometry is made of the triangular hunks of cheese, the cylinders of milk, the line of tall refrigerators and the long freezers that form an “L” in one corner of the large box of a barn. The sun and summer air fill most of the space, not so much flowing through the open, wide doors into the barn, but more like the barn and its contents came in and settled around it, sitting itself in a space borrowed from the bottom of the sky. There is a human silence only––the birds are busy outside––so that the air itself seems huge––like there is air between the air, and I feel small in the most wonderful way.
A small table holds a few baskets of vegetables and herbs, but the meat and raw milk are the main attraction here. Price lists for cuts of beef, veal, pork, and chicken are taped to the tops of the freezers. South Wind Farm is just over a year old, about 20 acres, and home to a herd of 13 animals for beef and dairy, 77 laying hens, plus meat chickens and a handful of pigs. Ben and Laura Wells-Tolley feel just as strongly about sustaining the land itself, which is reflected in their farming practices, as they do about sustaining the community.The farm store, which is open seven days a week for 12 hours or more a day, was one way to make their product accessible. “Ever since we moved to the region over eight years ago the trust-based system at farm stands astounded us and we so loved it,” Ben says.
The small, sure voices of two young boys echo and rise from the floorboards as the pair clod in rubber boots up the stairs behind the freezers. They smile shyly as I say hello. Their grandfather greets me as he comes up the stairs behind them and the boys spill into the yard. I pay for my milk with a credit card using the tablet provided, though there is a clipboard and money box for those with cash, and wave in thanks to the family playing catch with their sleek brown dog as I leave.
The images in this story come from Marilyn London Ewing’s Farm Stand Project.
The entire collection will be shown at the Leverett Library from September 1 to October 31.
A reception will be held on September 20, 2–4:30pm. All are welcome!
Mary and Charlie Dodge
274 Federal St., Montague
Open year-round when available
Dan’s Veggies and Poplar Mountain Maple
Warren and Jacquelyn Boyden
151 Northfield Rd., Erving
South Wind Farm
Ben and Laura Wells-Tolley
664 Millers Falls Rd., Northfield
Marykate Smith Despres writes about food, art, and knitting for various blogs and publications. She has worked as a baker but learned how to cook from her mom, who taught her that everything good starts as a little butter and onions in a pan. Marykate is the program manager at Whole Children in Hadley, a recreation program for people of all abilities.
Marilyn London Ewing has been a photographer for over 30 years. She has exhibited in western Massachusetts and the Boston area. Her images range from landscapes to portraits from around the world. She lives in Leverett.
Her farm stand project will be shown at the Leverett Library from September 1 to October 31. A reception will be held on September 20, 2–4:30pm.