by Nate Harlan
Digging carrots out of the earth is extremely satisfying, especially when you get to do it with your bare hands. You plunge your arm into the soil and grasp the top half of the carrot, giving it a little wiggle to loosen its downward grip, and then pull up and out. It’s a magic trick that you get to repeat over and over again, until your bin is full. Then you walk your bin down to the end of the bed, put leaves or something over it to shade the carrots, and start a new bin where you left off. You continue this until either you run out of carrots or, like we did at Assawaga Farm last week, you decide to take a watermelon break.
As we moved down our opposite sides of the carrot bed, Yoko told me a bit about how she and Alex ended up starting a farm in northeastern Connecticut. Born in Venezuela to Japanese parents, Yoko Takemura grew up bouncing around the globe, from Japan to Australia and beyond. After a stint working in investment banking she finally landed in New York for graduate school, where she got her master’s in Environmental Sustainability and her dream of starting a farm was born. Before too long she had thrown her big city consulting job to the wayside and was working full time at an organic farm in Connecticut. It was during that time that she met Alex Carpenter, who was working as an electrician after spending years traveling the world. The two of them soon realized they shared the same dream of creating a small, sustainable farm. So they took their savings and bought a few acres of land about an hour and a half drive from Boston, started preparing the land, built a barn, and they were off. Now they grow most all kinds of standard market veggies – kale, chard, squash, tomatoes, carrots, etc – as well as some Japanese ones you might not have seen at a market before, like shiso, komatsuna, and daikon radish.
Sitting on a bucket in the shade of their new barn, I got to eat some really terrific watermelon as I listened to Alex and Yoko talk about their farm – what they wanted to get done that day, their plans for the future, how good the watermelon was. The couple started Assawaga Farm in 2017, making them one of the youngest farms in New England and by far the youngest of our farm vendors at the Brookline Farmers Market. They are part of a new generation of farmers who often come to farming with no agricultural background, armed only with their inspiration and a willingness to work hard. This year is only their second growing season! Which is hard to believe when you see their farm.
Much of their inspiration comes from their visits to different Japanese farms that use similar practices, as well as many of the small farms around the US that practice no-till and grow intensively on small plots. The name of the game in this kind of farming is efficiency, and you can tell that just by a quick glance at Assawaga Farm. Efficient uses of beds, whether by cover cropping or replanting or stale-bedding, are all around. Alex and Yoko have also, as far as I could see, managed their time and energy very well. They run a small CSA, they sell to just one restaurant, and they sell at two farmers markets in Boston – Union Square and Brookline. That’s about all they can produce right now and all they can handle between the two of them. When I asked Alex about expansion (the actual property they own is quite a bit bigger than the area they currently farm) he indicated a spot big enough for a just few more beds that they were preparing for next season. Basically though, he said, they didn’t want to get any bigger. Their model of farming is all about managing what you have better and better, instead of trying to always acquire more and more. They don’t employ anyone except themselves and they seem pretty happy about it.
As a former farm worker myself, what struck me most walking around their ¾ acre of crops was the conspicuous absence of weeds. Weeds are one of the biggest problems most organic farmers face, especially when the farms are on a larger scale and require tractors to get all the work done. The problem in this case is that every time the farmer tills, they are stirring up weed seeds that often lie for years below the topsoil. The old seeds are brought to the surface and germinate all over the place; this is why weed control is such a big battle on many organic farms.
On their small but mighty farm, Yoko and Alex have one answer for this problem: no-till farming. How does it work? It’s pretty self-explanatory; they just don’t till the soil. And when no-till is paired with the organic and hand-scale (ie. no tractors) methods they use, it creates an incredible potential for improvement in the soil quality. Specifically, no-till causes increased organic matter in the soil, more water retention, a better home for beneficial bugs, a more active community of mycorrhizal bacteria (which make for stronger root growth, higher plant nutrition, and better disease resistance), and maybe most important of all, way fewer weeds! Yoko and Alex aerate the soil now and then between plantings with a simple tool called a broadfork, which does not stir up the soil. This allows their beds to get some air while retaining the buildup of helpful fungi and bacteria, which will benefit their next crop. Incredibly, most of the weed seeds at the surface all germinate and are picked out within the first season of hand-scale no-till. The result? Healthier soil, healthier plants, lower CO2 emissions, less money spent on gasoline and machine repairs, and days of Yoko and Alex’s lives saved from endless weeding.
But enough technical talk! Alex and Yoko are one of the sweetest farming couples I’ve met and their farm definitely brings something different to the market. Two young people doing something that’s good for the planet, for themselves, and for us, their customers. If you haven’t already, come down to the Brookline Farmers Market and get familiar with Yoko and her infectious smile. Keep a lookout for the burdock root they have in abundance right now, great for adding a sweet, earthy flavor to soups and stir-fries. And in not too long they’re going to have ginger and peanuts! Fresh ginger and peanuts in New England! Crazy, right? Come give them a try.