Sand Hill Farm

Summer 1998

Shaun Keenan and Benji Knisley have been managing Sand Hill Farm in Somerville for seven years. Jane Lamb photo.

By Jane Lamb

“If you don’t have to buy fertilizer and pesticides, why are organic strawberries more expensive?” ask many first-time customers coming to pick their own at Sand Hill Farm in Somerville.

“Just go into the field and taste them,” Benji Knisley or Shaun Keenan will tell them. ”So they go into the field and come back with quarts and quarts. It’s our best selling point,” Benji says. “The price is a little bit higher, but not much. We try not to charge so much that we only get people who are looking for strictly organic.” As for the uninformed who think “organically grown” means small, misshapen produce, one look, even before they taste the difference, quickly dispels that myth. They can hardly wait to bite into the luscious red fruit, unblemished and uniformly large.

That’s only one of the lessons people learn at Sand Hill Farm. “[Picking their own strawberries] is a pretty good educational tool for people,” says Shaun. “If they don’t know anything about organic, and they’re here picking them, it’s amazing what they pick up on, either by us talking to them, or them just noticing. ‘Why are your strawberries always in a different field? I come to this farm every year and every year I have to try to find where you’re picking. Why?’ Their curiosity gets raised.” Educating the public is one of the compensations for all the hard work that goes into organic production and the modest cash flow that results, he says.

The Pick-Your-Own operation at Sand Hill educates consumers about organic production practices, especially about the importance of crop rotation in controlling pests. Jane Lamb photo.

One Lean Year Out of Seven

Benji and Shaun have been managing Sand Hill Farm for owners Bonnie and Mark Miller for the past seven years. Although there was the predictable settling in and gradual expansion that goes with any farming operation, they have experienced only one “disastrous” season, the summer of 1997. After a snowless, icy winter that caused major winterkill, a cold, wet May and a sudden burst of tropical heat in June put them in a crisis management mode. “It was hard for us to figure out a picking schedule,” Benji says. Usually they open seven days a week from 7 to noon and five nights from 5:30 to 7:30 for three weeks. Last season, with only about a quarter of the field in production and everyone concentrated in a small area, they could open for only 2 hours a day and the season was cut to a bare week. “We only harvested 1,200 pounds the whole season, less than in one day some years,” Shaun says. “Our best year two years ago we’d got 13, 000 pounds.

“We felt really disappointed early in the season, before we started picking, because we knew it wasn’t going to be a great year. We thought of all the people not getting strawberries, but once we started picking, people were pretty sympathetic – that we didn’t have the berries. But the berries that got produced looked beautiful,” he adds, pointing to a tray of handsome fruit, the last of the short season.

What’s the Secret?

The answer to that customer question about picking in a different field every year is the answer to successful organic strawberry production. “Rotation is the key,” Shaun says unequivocally. As well as controlling erosion and maintaining soil texture and nutrient value, rotation keeps down weed and insect problems. When Benji and Shaun came to Sand Hill in 1992, they took over the maintenance of the old 19th century farm that Bonnie and Mark had been reclaiming for 17 years, keeping fields open, squaring off corners, and opening up more ground. Of the farm’s 250 acres, 11 are now under cultivation and 15 to 20 acres are in hay. One strawberry field, averaging 2 to 3 acres, is in production each year, another growing and the rest in cover crops.

Shaun plows a hay field to be planted to strawberries a year and a half in advance. After mowing in late summer he sows a rye-vetch cover crop for winter. In spring this is cut down and the organic matter plowed in. The soil is tested and amendment such as sulpomag and rock phosphate are incorporated as needed. Then he might sow some buckwheat for a short season. If he has a weed problem, he cultivates the field extensively and lets it lie fallow through the hot part of the summer, a good strategy against witchgrass. His multi-purpose Lely cultivator is pretty effective for ripping up witchgrass roots. “That’s only if we really need it,” he says. “Otherwise I’d probably use buckwheat or annual crimson clover. Buckwheat is good at smothering weeds for a very short period, but you don’t want to let it go to seed. If the timing is good, I just disk it and chop it up for the final cover crop, usually oats, in late summer or early fall. It winter kills but it holds the soil. When we want to plant next year, we don’t have to plow, just cultivate and disk it. Then in the spring, as early as we can get on the field, we plant strawberries.

Bare root seedlings, from guaranteed disease-free tissue cultures, come from Nourse Farms, a big Massachusetts strawberry supplier. The plants blossom the same year. “We pick off all the blossoms, 13,200 plants, by hand!” Benji explains. ”Shaun’s folks come up to do that. Mine come later to freeze vegetables.” (Their families, from out of state, gladly pitch in when help is needed in the busiest season.) Once the blossoms are removed, the plants are allowed to run and establish the thick beds for the next year’s harvest.

“Then it’s cultivate, cultivate, cultivate,” says Shaun. We keep it open between the rows with tractor cultivation and hand cultivation with a stirrup hoe or a scuffle hoe. We try to do a lot of scuffle hoeing in the strawberry band before they run. It’s all hand work after they rum. If you manage it well, early, you can keep most of the weeds out.” The tractor-drawn Lely runs right over the top of the strawberry band and cultivates close to its edges. The cultivator teeth can be moved from 12 inches apart when the bands are new to about 24 inches as the bands widen. The rows are planted 4 feet on center, and by the second year the runners have filled in all but a narrow aisle, mulched with oat straw and just wide enough for people to scoot along sideways to pick.

After the berries are harvested the second year, Shaun bush-hogs the field and keeps it cultivated until he plants winter wheat. The following spring he frost-seeds a hay crop – timothy and alsike clover, maybe a little alfalfa or brome – into the wheat which hasn’t yet put out growth. At first the grasses aren’t competing and the wheat takes off. After the wheat is established, the grasses fill in, and when the wheat is harvested, the cover crop is already there to prevent erosion. The wheat goes to Morgan’s Mills to be ground for Common Ground Fair vendors. The hay is sold mostly to local horse farms. Fields are in hay for several years before going back to the strawberry production cycle.

Controlling Pests

Two major insect foes of strawberries are clipper weevil and tarnished plant bug, both controlled by rotating, which interrupts their life cycle. Shaun points out that tarnished plant bug (the critter that causes those gnarly berries by nibbling on the green fruit, stunting its growth) is also controlled by timely mowing. He lets the grass on the field borders grow until the berries start to blush. “It provides shelter for the bugs that are happily living in the tall grass. If it’s mowed, they migrate to the plants.“ After the danger is past he mows the grass for appearance’s sake.

Clipper weevils meet their match during the scheduled removal of all blossoms on first-year plants. Any blossoms containing the weevil are removed from the field, rather than tossed in the row where they could winter in the ground and cause a problem in the fruiting year that follows, Benji explains. Sand Hill Farm’s location, on a 400-foot elevation that slopes northwest, affords good air circulation, cutting mold, the nemesis of strawberry culture, to a minimum.

Birds pose another threat to a field of ripening strawberries. Mostly, Sand Hill handles the threat by sharing, Benji says, but occasionally she feels compelled to rush into the field to drive off a flock of cedar waxwings, the worst offenders. “Every year they come back and bring all their friends. They eat everything. If they can’t sit there long enough to eat the whole berry, they take a bite out of it. It’s not a big problem when the bushes are nice and full and the leaves hide the berries.” Most of the damage is around the edges of the field, where the birds can find safety in the trees. The presence of people is some deterrent, but Benji has seen the birds land right in the field where people were picking. “When the plants were stressed and leaves didn’t hide the berries, we lost more to cedar waxwings than to tarnished plant bug, weevils or deer. Deer just eat the leaves,” she says. So far they haven’t seen spider mites, another strawberry enemy. Flea beetles, which attack young plants, don’t bother much if the plants go in early, before the beetle population is large.

Getting Into Production

From the beginning, when they started with a half-acre of strawberries, Benji and Shaun tried to factor everything – labor, fuel, new irrigation and machinery, tractor use –  into their pricing, projecting the capital investment over several years. “We still ended up coming out ahead, not much, maybe just about $1,000,” Shaun recalls. “The first year we grossed about $3,000, so we figured with an acre we should be able to get $6,000 and with two acres, $12, 000, just rough math.” Their projections were right on course when they actually did gross $6,000 with two acres. By the fourth year, with the start-up expenses caught up, they projected $3,200 per half acre. With about 21/2 acres in strawberries they grossed about $14,000, a figure that seems to have leveled off.

Their biggest year, so far, was 1995, a bumper year, when they harvested 13,000 pounds. Oddly enough, their net profit was only about $1,000 more than that of an average year. In 1997, their disaster year, only 1,200 pounds were picked in a week, less than in an average day in a good year Sand Hill strawberries are sold by the pound. “We subtract the weight of boxes if someone brings boxes to pick in,” Benji says. “There’s probably a pound and a half in a quart. Two years ago we charged $1.09 a pound. Last year we went up to $1.25 a pound to help cover the costs of the bad year. It came out to $1.65 a quart more than the usual pick-your-own price.” However, every single scarce berry was picked, which says something for customer satisfaction.

Benji and Shaun raise six varieties of strawberries designed to ripen over a three-week season: Early Glow and Annapolis, early; Cavendish and Honey Eye (not recommended for organic growing, but successful, nevertheless), mid-season; and Sparkle and Midway, mid-to-late. Some years, of course, nature defies the nursery catalogs and they all ripen at once. In addition to strawberries, they raise 2,400 row-feet of carrots and 3,600 row-feet of onions, mostly for Common Ground Fair vendors. Some go to co-ops. Potatoes are sold to individuals, and the usual assortment of table vegetables is produced for use by both families on the farm. Everything is MOFGA certified except the hay, which is organic, but Shaun doesn’t bother to certify it because it doesn’t make any difference in the selling price. The first cut of hay produces about 1,000 bales for sale, inconveniently enough, in the middle of strawberry season. The smaller, late-season cut stays on the farm for the seven sheep, variously-colored crosses whose fleece is destined for the weaving and spinning market.

Getting There

Benji and Shaun came to organic strawberries by the “back-to-the-land” route familiar to so many MOFGA growers, but individually unique every time. Benji grew up in Ohio and graduated from the University of Maryland. She earned a masters degree in environmental studies at Lesley College through the Audubon Expedition Institute program and worked for the Institute as a faculty member for eight years, leading bus-tour courses, chiefly around the Gulf of Maine. After a year-and-a-half break working on a llama farm where she met Shaun, she returned as an Audubon Expedition administrator, working full time winters, three days a week summers, in its Belfast office.

Shaun studied wildlife management at the University of New Hampshire. He didn’t get into farming until he got a job through the MOFGA apprentice program at Gertrude Robertson’s biodynamic Hogback Mountain Farm in Montville. “I got my foot in the agricultural door, met other farmers in the area involved in MOFGA and spent some time on their farms,” he relates. In 1990 he went to work as a “temp” at Sleepy Hollow Llama Farm in Jefferson.That job ended when the owner found someone who wanted to make a long-time commitment, and in 1992 he and Benji came to work for Bonnie and Mark. In 1997, they were married.

The couple take the ups and downs of farming life pretty philosophically. When their largest cash crop, strawberries, got nearly wiped out last year, it was a major blow. Benji’s full-time-winter, part-time-summer job helps keep them in the black. Shaun does some woods work and pruning in the winter for pay, as well as cutting firewood for both houses. He’s also a ski instructor – when there’s snow – and in summer does inspections for MOFGA certification. He does most of the farm labor in summer while Benji helps with the hand work. Bonnie Miller helps with a lot of the farm work. “She’s not on call, but she loves to do it,” Shaun says. Mark pitches in when he can.

“It’s a lot of work to get not much financial return. That’s one of the worst things,” says Shaun. “But the nicest thing about the U-Pick operation is that people come to see the farm. The product isn’t separate from the farm. It’s not taken out of context, on a farmers’ market stand or a co-op shelf. It’s there in the field.

“What we’ve enjoyed is the fact that people come to get the whole picture. They see strawberries growing in the fields, the cover crops, the wheat, the vegetables, the whole farm set-up – the sheep, the chickens, the bam swallows.”

“Last year we set up our stand in the barn so parents and kids could see all the barn swallows and their babies, up there being fed,” Benji adds. “We have a few laying hens, for eggs and enjoyment. They’re hilarious to watch.” The ladies – Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Wyandottes, Barred Rocks – are jealously guarded by Wells, an old Delaware rooster, named for his home town where he once belonged to MOFGA member Ellie MacDougall. “They’re just a fun bunch of chickens, she says.

“Some of our disappointment last year was the fact that people weren’t going to have the fun,” Shaun muses. “It sort of feeds your soul. You put in all that labor for all that time and then in three weeks you’re picking strawberries. It’s beyond the financial reward, people coming and noticing.”

“And people love strawberries,” Benji concludes. “You can’t go wrong. They come here and go away happy.”

Jane Lamb, formerly of Brunswick, Maine, is now retired in California.

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