Sustaining a new way of life.
Our ancestors called it living off the land. Today the term agroecology refers to producing food sustainably.
This newly popular desire to balance farming with conserving resources is attracting increasing numbers of people to fields and pastures. At a conference this winter sponsored by the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in Worcester, about a fourth of the 750 attendees were first-timers. They include an eclectic mix of would-be and novice farmers ranging from recent college graduates to baby boomers pursuing a lifestyle change.
"We're seeing an explosive interest in sustainability," said Julie Rawson, executive director and education director of NOFA/Mass. "It's not the hippie, back to the land approach of the 1960s and 70s," Rawson added. Finding a balance between living off the land and preserving it is the challenge facing new farmers today.
In Hubbardston, Jassy and Tom Bratko have been farming full time for only three years, yet almost everything they eat is from their fields.
Their 100-acre High Meadow Farm is certified organic and pays for itself in sales of the meat and fruit they raise. The farm has "a nice following of people who buy all their meat from us," Tom Bratko said. They also sell beef and pork through Mass Local Food, an online food co-op. "That gives us an extra bump of customers," he added.
The Bratkos raise meat chickens for their own family and sell eggs from 12 laying hens at their farm store. The size of their herd of cows - grass-fed Herefords, Lowlines, Devons and Dexters - ranges from nine to 14 steers. Every year they've had between 16 and 20 pigs, a cross between the Tamworth and Black China breeds. The farm also includes three beehives and an orchard of apple and pear trees. A woodstove stoked with firewood from their land heats the house and solar panels on the roofs of the barn and house provide all the electricity. They sell the excess back to the grid.
The couple farms with a mix of old and new techniques. Jassy Bratko uses a scythe to trim weeds around the fruit trees; she and her husband also drive electric powered, golf-cart-styled gators to check on the cows in their pasture.
The scythe was a gift from Tom Bratko after Jassy complained about the noise and smoke created by a gas-powered weed whacker she was using to trim the grass in the orchard. Jassy loves the rhythm and zen-like approach to cutting grass with a scythe; Tom now has one too. Eventually they want to raise enough grass so that they can feed their animals most of the year, instead of raising and cutting hay. "There's a whole movement of people who have learned to stockpile grass; to me that's a goal," said Tom Bratko.
Even though they're adapting historic practices, the Bratkos are very contemporary in their approach to farming. "We're not really off the grid - we're on it," said Tom Bratko. "We have cellphones; who wouldn't want one?" He explains that the farm "produces 90 percent of our food, but we're not totally reliant on our own produce. If it's May and we want potatoes, we'll go to the store and buy them."
Farming organically, the couple has learned, means living by the seasons. This time of year Jassy usually starts seedlings in the greenhouse - early, hardy crops like spinach, kale and broccoli. If the weather is mild, she'll begin pruning the fruit trees. A litter of 2-month-old piglets will arrive in early March with more slated for purchase in April.
The Bratkos eased into agriculture while raising their three children in a farmhouse built in 1820 on half an acre just outside the center of Hubbardston. "We always had a garden and a few chickens," Jassy Bratko said. "We were keen to be self-sufficient."
Over the years, they acquired additional acreage, including the orchard up the street from their house. Three years ago Tom Bratko sold his business, New England Industrial Roofing, and started a second career as a farmer.
"It's the most challenging thing I've ever done," he said. "We've had to learn how to do everything; there was no family history of farming to fall back on. We get advice from neighbors and other farmers. NOFA is a fantastic resource, but the learning curve is very steep."
Nevertheless, Tom Bratko notes, "every man over the age of 50 who's heard the story of our farm says, `That's what I would like to do."
The biggest challenge, he continues, is time; "There's never enough of it."
When there are animals, farming also can be confining. "We're very tied down; when you have livestock you can't just go away for the weekend," Jassy Bratko said.
"You have to be a jack-of-all-trades because everything breaks down," her husband added. "We've learned the importance of building relationships with people, from neighbors and the people from whom we buy our livestock to the staff at the slaughterhouse where our animals are processed. We really have to support each other."
The Hubbardston neighborhood is a close-knit mixture of homes and small farms; almost everyone has a garden and a few sheep, goats or chickens.
The friendly relationships paid off during the October blizzard in 2011. The Bratkos got a call in the middle of the night from a neighbor who said their cows were seeking shelter from the storm in his front yard. Tom Bratko gathered up fencing material and scrambled to build a makeshift corral. He spent the next day disabling the corral and trucking the cows home again. "Our neighbor was actually sad to see them go," he said.
Living off the land isn't just hard work all the time.
In winter, for example, the pace slows. There's time for trail rides on their horses and for Tom to pursue his winemaking hobby. Using kits with grape juice from California, Italy, Argentina and Chile, he's stocked a small cellar of good quality table wine. Last summer when their daughter was married at the farm, the Bratkos served a selection of their homemade wines, including Old Vine Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Tom notes another favorite aspect of the farming life. When he was running a business he often was in his car on the way to a job site before rest of the family was awake and not home until late in the evening.
"Now, I could not tell how many hours a week I work, my life and work are so interwoven that I can't tell where one starts and the other stops," he said.
The Bratkos concede that their lifestyle is not for everyone, but as Tom Bratko notes, it has features unlike any in the business world. "We like listening to birds while feeding the pigs and horses and getting the eggs for breakfast, standing in the midday sun cutting a field with a scythe and stopping to hear the bees who are working just as hard, stopping to have a cup of tea when friends or family come by because they know you'll be around, being healthier and living a peaceful life."
CUTLINE: (1) Jassy and Tom Bratko tend to the plants in their garden in Hubbardston. (2) The Bratkos' 100-acre farm is certified organic and pays for itself in sales of meat and fruit. Clockwise from above, Tom Bratko waters the garden last summer; (2) Jassy Bratko holds a young chick; (3) asparagus shoots emerge in the spring. (4) Top left: Solar panels on the barn and house provide electricity for the Bratkos. They sell the excess back to the grid. (5) Top right, gentle breezes dry the clothes. (6) Above, potatoes from the Bratkos' garden. (7) Mulch around new plants keeps the weeds down in the spring garden. (8) Farming organically, the Bratkos have learned, means living by the seasons. At left, Tom Bratko keeps an eye on spring piglets. (9) Top right, eventually the Bratkos want to raise enough grass so that they can feed their animals most of the year. (10) Bottom right, a basket of summer vegetables.
PHOTOG: PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOM RETTIG