Farming Magazine - January, 2013


Growing a Sustainable Farm

By Kathleen Hatt

Luke and Catarina Mahoney's search for a new farm got them what may be some of the best farmland in the state of New Hampshire - in the worst condition. Huge by New England standards, and large even by national measure (2008 USDA statistics list the average size of a U.S. farm at 418 acres), their 613-acre farm had been worn out through years of growing sod for southern New Hampshire homes and businesses. How the Mahoneys acquired their land and set about establishing a sustainable organic farm is a story as unique as the Mahoneys themselves.

The roll-up tarp sides on the chicken tractor make it possible to collect 500 eggs in half an hour, says Luke Mahoney. The tractor and fencing are moved daily.
Photos by Kathleen Hatt.

Finding a farm

Catarina, from Germany, and Luke, from upstate New York, met and married while working on a diversified biodynamic farm in Russia. Luke had previously spent two years growing vegetables in Pennsylvania.

After five years in Russia, the two moved to Germany to be near Catarina's family and to work on another biodynamic farm. Following the birth of the first two of their three sons, the Mahoneys decided it was time to find a more permanent situation.

Through New England Landlink, a database service that connects farms with farmers, the Mahoneys leased 300 acres in Rollinsford, N.H., on which they raised cattle, pigs and chickens. They also grew vegetables and established a farm store and CSA. Heartbroken when they learned the lease on their Brookford Farm would not be renewed, they set about finding a farm of their own.

The farm they found along the banks of the Merrimack River had been purchased by the town of Canterbury, N.H., in 2005 to protect it from development. When the town decided to sell the land, it received five offers, including one from the Mahoneys. The land carries restrictions as to its use (agricultural) and availability to the public (open in perpetuity).

As part of a weekly hay wagon tour, Luke Mahoney heads toward cultivated fields to show visitors Brookford Farm's late-season vegetables.
Unable to arrange conventional financing due to a high debt-to-income ratio, Luke approached Gary Hirshberg, founder and chairman of Stonyfield Farm and a strong supporter of organic agriculture. After extensive public discussion, followed by a town vote, the Mahoneys were selected as the land's new farmers, and Hirshberg became their mortgage holder. Farming equipment came from the Mahoneys' Rollinsford farm, and additional equipment was purchased with help from the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund. A grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) funded seeding of highly erodible land into perennial pastures. The Brookford Farm advisory board and the NH Community Loan Fund serve as financial advisers.

Moving a household, cows, tractors and manure

The move from Brookford Farm, Rollinsford, to Brookford Farm, Canterbury, began December 4, 2011, the day after Canterbury residents selected the Mahoneys as the land's new farmers, and continued throughout the spring of 2012. By the truckload, 100 in all, Brookford Farm moved the 55 miles from Rollinsford to Canterbury. Before each of the five to 10 trips a week, facilities had to be readied to receive farm equipment, the Mahoney household, 600 chickens, 50 pigs and 100 cows. Some 30 to 40 tractor-trailer loads carried a three-year accumulation of manure from the old farm to be used to fertilize the new farm's fields. Eleven thousand miles later, the move was complete.

Jake Shapleigh provided a lot of help with the move. "We couldn't have done the move without him," Luke says. Jake, now 18, began working at Brookford Farm, Rollinsford, when he was only 14. "I don't know what we'll do next year when he leaves for the Thompson School at UNH," says Luke. "Jake does everything. He even gave us a two-week vacation, running everything on the farm for us while we were away."

Building enterprises

Designed to operate sustainably, Brookford Farm's animals enrich the soil, and the land's plants nourish the animals.

As the soil becomes more productive, the Mahoneys are developing more farm-based enterprises to augment the sale of meat, eggs and vegetables. Catarina makes raw milk cheeses and quark, a cheese spread. Canterbury Bake Shop, a farm-based bakery operated by Dane Percy, Luke's cousin, will utilize wheat grown on the farm. A naturally leavened bread (a sourdough bread that utilizes yeast gathered in the natural farm environment) is baked in a newly constructed brick oven within the farm store. The bread is sold in the farm store, through the CSA and at farmers' markets.

Chickens, cows and pigs

Approximately 300 acres on the farm are forestland, 100 acres are planted in trees and shrubs (originally intended to be nursery stock), and 200 acres are open. By 2014, land now being farmed organically will be eligible for organic certification. To that end, chickens, cows and pigs are reclaiming pastures and forest edges.

Tamworth and Large Black pigs, both heritage breeds, work to clear fields.

Golden Comet chickens are housed in a chicken tractor. They are hybrids and thus do not breed true, so chicks must be purchased from a breeder every year. Selected for their high egg production, one Golden Comet hen lays about 300 eggs a year, almost one egg a day. The chicken tractor's roll-up tarp sides facilitate speedy egg collection. In half an hour, one person can collect 500 eggs. The chicken tractor and associated electric fence are moved every day. Water for the chickens comes from the nearby Merrimack River. In winter, the chickens are housed in a high tunnel.

Brookford Farm is ideal habitat for hawks, eagles and Canada geese that occasionally fancy a chicken dinner. There has been some aerial predation, but so far there has been no ground predation.

After a year or two as layers, the Golden Comets become stewing hens. Luke says that stewing hens produce more flavorful stock than roasting hens. Brookford also raises Freedom Rangers, meat birds ready for market at 12 weeks. Slaughtered on the farm in mid-September, 500 of the 800 birds raised this summer were spoken for by August; the remaining 300 were sold at the farm store and farmers' markets.

The Jersey and mixed-breed cows are fed a wintertime ration of hay and haylage in addition to the 6 pounds of grain they receive daily year-round. Milk is sold as raw milk and used for several farm-brand products that Catarina and her apprentices make in the farm's cheese-making facility. Grass-fed beef is sold at premium prices.

Brookford Farm's Tamworth (among the oldest of pig breeds) and Large Black pigs (occasionally called Devon or Cornwall Black) are particularly useful in a sustainable agriculture system. These heritage varieties are both considered threatened and were once endangered. Both breeds are adept at foraging and clearing new pastureland, and they consume whey from cheese making. Organic grain is also on their menu, and Luke is considering growing Jerusalem artichokes for them as well. Like all of the farm's animals, the pigs, 100 in all, were chosen for their hardiness and docility. Large Black sows are known for having big litters. Pigs are kept for nine months, and 12 are taken to a butcher in Windham, Maine, every month.

Vegetables for every palate

In April, while the former sod farm's buildings and fields were being converted for Brookford Farm's use, grower Abe Pearson was starting the plants for 10 acres of vegetables. In its first season, Brookford Farm, Canterbury, produced 30 different crops, including beans, beets, cantaloupe, celeriac, chard, corn, leeks, onions, parsnips, paste tomatoes, red cabbage, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips and several varieties of winter squash. North Country Organics' Pro-Gro was used to fertilize the fields. In the fall, vegetable fields were seeded in a cover crop of rye and vetch.

Many markets

"Any product we can sell at retail is good for the farm," says Luke. In addition to stocking the farm store, Luke and Catarina sell at farmers' markets as far as 40 minutes away. But Luke says, "CSAs beat wholesale and retail for us because CSAs are presold; we are producing to fill an order."

Brookford Farm continues to produce for its Dover and Exeter, N.H., CSA members, as well as adding customers in Canterbury and other nearby towns. Luke anticipates adding participants in Manchester, Bedford, Hollis and as far afield as Peterborough.

Brookford Farm's future

Aiming for a grass-based farm rich in perennial grasses, Luke and Catarina are also looking forward to obtaining the organic certification the farm will be eligible to receive in two years. They also plan to expand on the 200 open acres and add to the 20 acres of wheat they are growing to supply the farm's bakery and to use as straw.

Meanwhile, 100 acres of landscaper-planted trees and shrubs - white pine, spruce, crabapple, sugar maple, linden, mountain ash, weeping cherry and more - continue to grow at Brookford Farm, awaiting a creative plan to turn them into cash.

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Farming. She resides in Henniker, N.H.