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BUSINESS MONDAY:Spotlight on What it takes to start and grow a farm

The two women owners of this small-scale, sustainable farm aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, providing accessible, quality local food to Berkshire County.

Adams — Born and raised in Adams, growing up on her grandfather’s farm, Meg Bantle never thought she would be the grandchild to pursue the family trade. “I made a photo series in college about the farm, and at the end I wrote that none of his grandchildren wanted to keep farming after he died; little did I know that I would be the one.” She laughs, holding up her hands covered in dirt, fresh from a day of planting garlic bulbs in the field. A Williams graduate, writer and artist, Bantle was recently employed at MCLA in the Student Engagement office but left to be more involved with her own work; “It feels like the more I can invest in the business, the more it will be able to sustain me.”

But she doesn’t do it alone, working alongside her close friend and business partner, Laura Tupper-Palches, who moved to Adams after graduating from UMass Amherst, originally relocating from the Cape. She also comes from a family of farmers, growing up on her father’s cranberry bog, and loves spending her time outside. The two co-own the operation after meeting while working together on the Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland, Mass. “We both had the bug of never being satisfied doing other work outside of farming,” Bantle recaps. “We tried landscaping and other things; it pays better but isn’t nearly as satisfying.” After a couple of years working as managers, they agreed the next step would be taking the soil into their own hands, and decided to start their own farming business as Full Well Farm, focused on sustainable practices and food accessibility for all members of the community.

“I thought I’d go into food access work out of college, but the actual hands-on growing really drew me in more than working indoors,” Tupper-Palches says. “After working for other farmers, I loved the reward of growing food and the connection to the seasons. I started working in permaculture and gardening while daydreaming about farming and reading about no-till. When Meg invited me to farm in Adams, I immediately knew it would be the most satisfying work; an opportunity to try farming in the small-scale way that appealed to me, and a friend to create with!”

Full Well Farm owners Laura Tupper-Palches (l.) and Meg Bantle stand alongside their trusty farm dog, Jackie. Photograph by Sarah DeFusco

Full Well spans the base of a grassy hill on East Road in Adams, looking out over the limestone quarry and, beyond that, a scenic view of the mountain ridge along the skyline. The land has been in the Bantle family for decades; “I’m a sixth generation farmer,” she says. “This used to be my grandparent’s dairy farm for most of the last fifty years.” Now, her mom manages the land, renting out spaces to different farm businesses, including Full Well. “It’s actually pretty common,” Bantle explains. “Land ownership is often a barrier for farmers, so having the access to land is certainly a privilege and something we’re really aware of. Moving forward, something we’d love to be a part of is helping more farmers have access to either this land, or land in general. Especially for young farmers, most farmland is tied up with older generations. This is a big conversation happening in agriculture right now.”

Upwards view of the farmland and infrastructure. Photograph by Sarah DeFusco

The family has ensured the longevity and safety of the land since the early days of the farm. “In the 1980’s, my grandparents signed the whole property into APR, which is an Agricultural Preservation Restriction. This means that the state buys the rights to never develop the property into anything other than agriculture,” Bantle explains. “Most farms are private property so the farmers can do whatever they want with it. If they want to start sectioning it off one acre at a time to turn into houses, there’s nothing stopping them from doing that. But the state doesn’t really want to see all its farmland turned into housing developments, so they pay farm owners what is essentially a lump sum to say, ‘we will pay this to you now, and henceforth, you will never have a right to develop the land.’” This takes a lot of weight off the young farmer’s shoulders, knowing that even if they decide to sell the land in the future, these contracts are still in place and the area will remain farmland beyond their ownership. “A lot of the kinds of farming we’ve done are different, as a family, but the history of land stewardship is something that has passed on from generation to generation, so seeing it developed would be really sad.”

Full Well is in its third season of operation as a no-till farm. No-till practices are set in place to ensure the longevity of soil life, reduce emissions, control flooding, and create a closer relationship between the farmer and the land. “It means that we don’t disturb the soil structure,” says Bantle. “For us, that also means we aren’t using a tractor. We’re a hand tool scale farm, less dependent on fossil fuels, which is also a personal preference as we don’t like spending time on tractors. We like to be closer to the ground.” Since the area of the farm they’re renting was previously used for haying, one of the greater challenges they faced in starting up the business was the conversion of the land into no-till beds. “This was a challenge because neither of us had ever worked on a no-till farm; we’d both been trained on farms that tilled and used tractors.” It’s important to the two that they maintain quality practices, despite any learning curves. “Even though we aren’t organically certified, we tend to go above and beyond what’s required by that certification,” Bantle says proudly.

Bantle working no-till style in the soil. Photograph by Candace Hope

“There are constant challenges and opportunities with a space that is entirely your creation,” says Tupper-Palches. “The hardest part is remembering that even though a lot of the work is stuff I’ve done before, a lot is also new and it won’t all be right the first time.” Bantle agrees; “Farming always feels like there’s more to learn. And the business side of things feels like it’s been a steep learning curve because we’ve never done that before.” She expresses her gratitude for local programs that offer grants and funding for small farming businesses to access resources and information. “We’ve been lucky with getting lots of little funding and grants to do Quickbooks lessons with other farmers and to get business help. We have really taken advantage of that and would highly recommend young business owners in general but young farmers especially to seek out organizations that are funding the business training side of things.” Berkshire Agricultual Ventures, The Carrot Project, and Berkshire Grown are all organizations dedicated to helping fund small farm businesses in Massachusetts, and have been assets to Full Well’s success. “At this point, almost all of our infrastructure investment has come from grants. The van we bought with profits last year, but everything else is from grant funding,” Bantle explains. “We’re trying to put in a big greenhouse project in the spring; hopefully it will also be grant funded and we will be able to hire people to build it. It feels like we’re at a growth point, looking ahead we’re excited to do a lot of planning this winter to make that sustainable for us.”

The hoop house and current beds sit in front of the mountain expanse. Photograph by Sarah DeFusco

While grants are helpful in securing hoop houses and infrastructure on the farm, the two still rely heavily on the income from selling products. The summer provided ample opportunities to sell goods, including the North Adams Farmers Market, which recently shifted from a weekly to monthly event. Heading into the winter season, the two get creative in terms of value-added products, making wreaths, garlic knots, and dried flower bouquets to sell as gifts for the holidays or decorations around the home. This also offers another low waste practice for the farm. “They tell you try to dry everything, and see how it goes. We also grow specific crops for drying.” Bantle says. Additionally, they will be selling at the Berkshire Grown winter market, which is relocated this year to the Greylock Works building, as well as the Works’ own market, called Festive. Going into the current winter, this will be the first year both Bantle and Tupper-Palches are abandoning their need for part time, off-season jobs to be fully dependent on the farm.

Bantle arranges fresh cut flowers into arrangements for sale at the local markets and flower CSAs. Photograph by Laura Tupper-Palches

Despite the cold weather, the farmland is still capable of producing a selection of vegetables well into the season; “Right now we can probably grow nine months out of the year, but we are also limited by the amount of space that we have. Still, we will be harvesting greens and radishes out of that tunnel probably into December,” says Bantle. They also have food stored from the summer harvest that, when kept in the cooler, can last for months. “We have storage roots like beets, turnips, and carrots that we can pull from. And a lot of greens will do fine; you can be harvesting kale out in the snow.” Growing in colder temperatures is manageable when utilizing the proper infrastructure and methods. “Inside the tunnels, we can grow more sensitive crops like bok choy, lettuce, and scallions. That is why investing in indoor growing is so important to our long-term sustainability, because we can grow a lot more diversity under cover. Right now we have a grant application out to put up a big, heated tunnel that would allow us to grow basically twelve months a year, even if we only kept it around forty-five to fifty degrees.” The long-term goal is to adjust the current layout of the beds to incorporate more tunnels to suffice off-season produce demands. “It really feels like we couldn’t have enough of them. There is such a need for vegetables in the off season, I feel like we could have six tunnels and it wouldn’t be enough.”

Laura at work inside one of the tunnels. Photograph by Sarah DeFusco

Currently, almost all the crops on the farm are planted annually. “We do have some perennials,” Bantle says, “but we have really intensive growing practices. Each bed has probably 2-3 crops a season.” Some no-till farms utilize the growing of cover crops, or other organic matter, to further ensure the quality of their soil during the times when there are no crops planted in that area. “We have some cover crops for new land, but right now we don’t use them in between our regular crops. We use organic mulching materials like wood chips, leaves, and lots of compost, which is still a positive contribution to the soil.” She says. “It’s also about soil life — if you look at the wood chips that we’re spreading, you can actually see the microbial life in there, which is really good. But I think we would like to start integrating cover crops more, especially at the end of the season once a bed is done, even if just for the fall.”

One of their most successful programs is the CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture; a system in which the customer purchases, in advance, a subscription for a weekly assortment of vegetables for the duration of the season. “Vegetable and flower farming is a lopsided business, in terms of when income is coming in,” Bantle says, giving insight into the business’s financial model. “We have a lot of money that comes in the spring because we are a CSA farm, and pre-sell CSA subscriptions ahead of time.” This provides the farm with substantial support during the off season. “The CSA model is a community building model because it allows for a deeper connection between the customer and the farmer, and the customer and the land.” Bantle explains further. “It is also a financial model, because for the farmer it means we’re getting a lot of that money before June, which is when the vegetables really start.” They spend most of their income before the vegetables begin, making investments in things like compost, which will be used in the coming season. “The earlier that we can get the money for the next season, the better, so the CSA model is a more reliable funding model for farmers.” Full Well also offers a work-trade option for partial CSA subscriptions, an accessible way for those in need of fresh, local produce, to have access while also providing the farm with an extra set of hands in the soil.

An abundance of colorful vegetables ready to be packaged into a CSA box. Photograph by Meg Bantle

Success of the CSA’s aside, elements out of their control like the abundant rainfall and unpredictable weather during this past year posed greater challenges for certain crops. “It was a really challenging year, weather wise. It was very wet, which our no-till practices actually helped out with in that we don’t get a lot of flooding on the property due to the root systems in place to absorb the runoff. But that kind of weather isn’t great for a lot of summer crops like tomatoes, pepper, squash. It was definitely a difficult year, coming off of COVID especially.”

Two of their three seasons operating as a farm have been during the pandemic. However, this was almost less of a problem than it was a solution for Full Well’s business. “We actually saw an uptick in sales during the pandemic because customers saw how fragile the global food system can be, and I think people were really reminded of why it’s important to source locally and know your farmers close to you. That was great and has reinvigorated some interest in CSA’s in general.” Bantle says, gratefully. “Also, the state invested a lot of money in local food infrastructure, which we were also able to take advantage of through grants and funding.” Some adaptations had to be made to the farm’s practices in order to adhere to COVID policy, like investing in packaging methods to make food more portable. “We didn’t lose much during the pandemic, but we had to add some new systems. I think it cost us a little bit to change the way we do things; for example, the farmer’s market changed, so we had to change. Little things like that. But in large, as a farm, I think we just saw more interest in local food.”

Tupper-Palches shows off a recent green bean harvest, ready for CSAs and the market. Photograph by Meg Bantle

One of the inherent goals of the business is to address accessibility restraints and assist in bridging the gap between food insecure communities and locally grown, organic produce through community partnerships. “This year, what felt like a great success to me was getting approved as a SNAP/HIP vendor, and that is being well-received at the market,” Tupper-Palches says, recalling the accomplishments of these programs during the recent summer. “Throughout the season, new customers continued to learn about HIP — it’s a great program that a lot of people don’t know about, so spreading the use of it felt great.” Currently, Full Well is the only farm at the market to accept HIP benefits, but only because the program is so popular that Massachusetts has to limit the number of participating farms; “HIP is a state program that doubles SNAP benefits if you spend it directly with certain farmers. I’m sure there are loads of farmers at the market who would like to become certified and just haven’t been able to,” Bantle says. Full Well also works with other programs to address the need for access to affordable, healthy food; “We also accept HIP and SNAP benefits at the farm stand in addition to the markets, and to pay for CSA items, as well as WIC and senior coupons at the farm stand and the market.”

A bountiful display of flowers and produce at the North Adams Farmers Market. Photograph taken by Meg Bantl

They also have other direct outreach approaches to getting food circulating in the community. “We work with a couple of non-profits that help us to fund CSAs for folks who are medically or financially qualified, like a sponsored subscription. Berkshire Grown funds CSAs that go to the Berkshire Food Project in North Adams. We also work with Multicultural Bridge, which set us up with folks who are distributing CSAs to local families,” Bantle explains how this helps reach people who may not have the resources to learn about SNAP and HIP benefits, or may not be qualified, but are being connected through more grassroots efforts. “It’s nice to be connecting to those people. We sell about eighteen shares out of fifty-four through Community Health Programs. More than half of our current CSAs are funded through programs like those, which is awesome. Those partnerships really make it possible to get food to people who need it, because we don’t really have the time to be a non-profit ourselves, so working with non-profits is really a win-win situation for us.”

Looking ahead, the future of Full Well Farm looks fruitful; with grant applications underway and the summer coming to a close, the two are searching for ways to achieve a comfortable work-life balance. “We feel like after our third season, we’ve kind of hit a cap of what two people are capable of between June and October. We’re looking into hiring someone and making sure we get back some of our lives, but that can be really tough as a small business, to draw those boundaries,” Bantle reassures. “Even if you’re not working, it’s on your mind.” Tupper-Palches agrees, adding that one of the greater difficulties for her is time management. “Or I could call it expectation management,” she says. “With two farmers, there are many tasks always needing attention. Prioritizing and knowing I’ve made the best use of the day and being okay with an ongoing to-do list is the hardest part, as well as remembering to look at all the successes! It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to do more.”

Despite the challenges that come with being young business owners, the farm currently has half an acre in production, including all kinds of vegetables, fresh and dried cut flower arrangements, and herbs grown with care and quality in support of the local community. All this is done with the conscious understanding of how their contributions to the land and soil affect the ecosystems that, in turn, give them what they need to continue being a successful farming business.

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