Local Hero Profile: Astarte Farm

Nov 19 2021

Local Hero Profile by Ellery Pool, TerraCorps Service Member

Astarte is the Phoenician Goddess of Fertility, and Astarte Farm in Hadley lives up to its namesake by nurturing the earth so that it will be fertile, thriving, and full of life for generations to come. Growing a wide range of vegetables with no-till, organic, sustainable practices, Astarte Farm seeks to create a healthy and resilient agricultural ecosystem that can stand the tests of time. Astarte also fosters a sustainable work environment by building relationships among all of the staff, past and present. The co-managers at Astarte Farm are retaining their crew members over the years and creating a new model of what the farm as a workplace can be by ensuring everyone can have a work-life balance and be their whole selves at work.

Historically a wholesale operation, Astarte launched its first-ever CSA share program for the 2021 growing season, and it was such a success that membership is almost doubling for 2022. I visited the farm and spoke with Ellen Drews and Amelia Mead, Co-Farm Managers who have been running the day-to-day at Astarte since January of 2020. We discussed the farm’s CSA program and the co-managers’ experience of being two young women farmers cultivating a spirit of positivity in their crew and learning from the older generation that started Astarte.

Drews and Mead were both drawn to the farm because of its sustainable practices and mission as well as the prospect of being able to work with one another. Mead’s father, Jim Mead, bought the farm in 2014 from founder Dan Pratt and helped spearhead the farm’s transition to no till. Mead was always interested in sustainable farming, and when she met Drews for the first time during the farm manager interview process, she decided to co-manage the farm so the two of them could work together.

Drews has a history of working on sustainable farms, including a 3-year period at nearby Brookfield Farm. During the 2018 season at Brookfield there were historic rains in the Valley, and Drews says “the crops really suffered.” That 2018 season led Drews to search for different strategies of farming in the face of climate change. She learned about no till from a friend and was fascinated by the philosophy. When the farm manager position at Astarte opened, Drews contacted Jim, and after seeing the farm and meeting Mead she knew it was the right time for her to start something new.

The crew planting garlic

Astarte Farm not only uses a wide variety of sustainable growing practices, but also prides itself on creating a work environment that’s sustainable for everyone who works there. They cultivate a workplace where everyone, as Drews says, can “show up as their whole self … [and] take care of themselves, and not just be expected to meet deliverables.” The co-managers are successfully creating this atmosphere; the farm boasts high staff retention and enthusiasm from the field crew because they feel welcomed and supported. The farm’s crew leader, Sadie Higgins, is returning to Astarte for her third year next year, and most of the farm crew is returning next year. This year Higgins ran the greenhouse, and each crew member will oversee their own specific project on the farm in 2022.

Creating a work-life balance is key in creating crew sustainability. The crew works almost entirely on a Monday through Friday schedule, with minimal weekend work. Astarte will also never produce winter greens so everyone can take winters off. The full-time crew in 2021 was completely composed of women, and they feel proud to bring the “divine femininity” of Astarte to the farm. The “opportunity to be a young female and run an operation like this is really awesome,” says Mead. Both co-managers are thrilled to be creating a new model of what farm managers and the farm as a workplace can be.

The farm’s work environment also benefits from knowledge of the previous generation. Dan Pratt sold the farm in 2014, but is still a farm employee and helps with various projects, from running the YouTube channel to writing grant applications to helping with garlic planting.

Drews says of Pratt’s role: “farms are figuring out how to pass the farm and the land on to the next generation, [which] can be a confusing, painful process. I think it’s pretty rad that Dan’s still connected to this land even if he’s not farming full time, and that we’re still drawing on all his hard-earned knowledge.”

Meanwhile, farm owner Jim Mead is a mentor to Mead and Drews who offers guidance when they ask for it and trusts them to run the day-to-day farm operations when they don’t. The younger Mead appreciates that her father stays in the background and lets her and Drews make most of the decisions on the farm, and says that, “what’s been really special about this opportunity is … Ellen (Drews) and I get to run this project together.” Drews has a similar sentiment, sharing, “He’s the perfect boss for me at this stage in my career because he is so supportive, trusts me so much, and is really only there when I need him. Otherwise he lets us do what we want to do and trusts us to be running this thing.”

In part to foster positive relationships with the local community in addition to within the farm, Astarte established a CSA program for the first time this year, where members receive shares via a contactless pickup each week. A typical share includes many different kinds of veggies, a “treat of the season” like winter squash, peppers, or asparagus, and access to a robust selection of pick-your-own produce like berries, herbs, cherry tomatoes, and beans. The CSA was so successful this year that Drews and Mead have decided to grow the program from 35 members in 2021 to 60 members in 2022. Pick-your-own strawberries and a full herb garden will be in the mix in 2022 as well.

The CSA also allows them to communicate the benefits of no till and Astarte’s other sustainable practices as they engage with members. Mead says that “as a wholesale grower we were kind of missing out on that opportunity to have that communal connection and to have that sphere to talk about this no-till stuff, which we’re so jazzed about,” but the CSA fills that void.

Basil available to CSA members

The farm also made it a priority to make the CSA accessible to all members of the community by enrolling themselves as a SNAP-eligible vendor. Zoey at CISA supported Astarte as they applied to become SNAP authorized and created a SNAP CSA with the MA Department of Transitional Assistance. Sign-ups for the 2022 CSA season are open now, and you can sign up HERE.

Astarte Farm proves that farming sustainably doesn’t mean just taking care of the land for future generations, but taking care of people, too. Supporting the farm crew who provide food for the community and fostering relationships with the people who eat that food are key to creating a farm that will thrive in the future. When the people who work at the farm feel supported and can maintain a good quality of life, they can be a crew that sustains into the future. Astarte Farm, along with other farms in the area, are figuring out what this new definition of a sustainable farm looks like, and they will be here growing vegetables and community for many years to come.

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