Stonewall Farm is a historic farm located in Keene, NH. It was founded over 300 years ago and has been a working dairy farm for over 200 years. In recent years it has evolved into a nonprofit working organic dairy and crop farm supported by philanthropic donations. From protecting pollinators, to growing organic food, to implementing amazing methods of regenerative agriculture, they are focusing on mitigating the effects of climate change. Stonewall Farm offers the southeast corner of New England farm education programs for adults and children, organic dairy products, a gorgeous event venue, and fresh fruits and vegetables that are sold at local retailers such as our Brattleboro Food Co-op. With a team of six full-time staff and a board of directors, they are blazing a trail within our region.
The first families lived on Stonewall Farm in the 1700’s, and grew crops and cleared land for raising cows and sheep. It stayed in their family until the 1900’s when a local resident of Keene, Norm Chase, purchased the farm. Norm welcomed community members to visit and especially loved sharing it with children. Norm sold the farm to Mike Kidder. Kidder purchased the farm because he noticed that too many family dairy farms were unable to compete with the huge government subsidized milk producers. As farms closed, communities were losing touch with where and how their food was grown and produced. Mike formed the farm into the non profit Stonewall Farm to educate future generations about farming’s positive impact on the local community and their own lives. Mike also continued the 200-year-old tradition of dairy farming. Much of the land was placed in conservation and new regenerative agricultural practices were implemented. Stonewall Farm has become a hub for agricultural activity within Keene and Cheshire County. They have a total of 124 acres of hiking trails, sugar bush, crop land, wetlands, pasture for cows, and forest, including 60 acres of conservation land which creates an amazing classroom. The agricultural land used for vegetables currently takes up 2.5 acres and will expand this fall.
Our visit started by meeting Heather Mason who provided an excellent tour of the farmland and her regenerative agricultural practices. Heather has been farming for nearly 20 years. She spent her first 15 years or so working with Allen Brothers and a season at Deep Meadow Farm. While at Allen Brothers she worked extensively on their flower, tree, and shrub program and on growing that business in regard to sales and selection. She then moved into growing fruits and vegetables with them and acquired deep knowledge of farming. In addition to her gratitude for Allen Brothers, she loved her time at Deep Meadow Farm, with proper root vegetable storage and packhouse efficiency during the winter months being her main skill acquisitions. Root vegetable storage is a worthwhile approach to sustaining a farm during the winter months. Over her three years at Stonewall Farm she has taken her base farming knowledge and shifted to an entirely new farming practice: regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture at Stonewall Farm essentially means taking a long-term approach to farming by improving the land through no-till methods of growing crops, cover cropping, and pollinator and predator insect habitat creation. Instead of weeding and tilling they utilize materials such as mulch and cardboard in and around the vegetables. This method allows the soil around the plants to stay more moist and the nutrient profiles to stay intact. With drought conditions prevalent this summer, this method supported successful growing without extra irrigation. Furthermore, no-till methods release less carbon into the air and draw down carbon from the atmosphere to store in the soil. Another bonus is that less fossil fuels are used because motorized equipment is less a centerpiece than with traditional farming. Diverse cover crops such as legumes, winter rye, and tillage radish are used to maintain nitrogen levels in the soil, add organic matter, reduce weed pressure and loosen compacted soil. With all of these methods in place the team at Stonewall Farm is a model across New Hampshire and New England for regenerative agriculture. They are the New England hub for the Savory Institute, which works extensively with farms around the country and the world on reviving land through holistic land management and proper herding of animals to reverse desertification. It is a worthwhile partnership that has brought many opportunities to the team at Stonewall Farm.
One of Heather’s prouder moments during her tenure was when their vegetable crops were certified organic, and the farm committed to using no sprays or pesticides of any kind. This is possible because they use pest management systems such as beneficial insect habitat, squishing bug eggs, crop rotation, and fabric row cover to exclude pests. They have a rabbit family and birds that do try and eat some their fruit and veggies but, in most cases, the pressure does not exceed their threshold. The crops that struggled at first with the no spray method were cucurbits (pumpkin, squash, cucumber, zucchini, etc). The first year she saw a large influx of pests and weeds. By the second year, that area of the farm came into balance, and those issues from the first year were no longer present. Other farming methods used at Stonewall include compost creation, which comes from their organic dairy herd and has been able to supply them with much needed nutrients for their soil, and otherwise would be hard to purchase due to financial constraints. Another practice is to grow hedgerows to provide critical four-season habitat for birds and over-wintering insects. In particular, hazelnuts, raspberries, elderberries, and blueberries are used in their hedge rows bringing a sanctuary for nature right in their crop fields.
Crops grown consist of tomatoes, zucchinis, basil, strawberries, Euro cucumbers, peppers, winter greens, winter squash, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, and much more. The next crops added into the farm will be primarily fruit such as black raspberries, peaches, apples, plums, and a big expansion to their strawberry patch. Overall, Heather continues to grow production and sales each year.
Two greenhouses are utilized year-round without the use of fossil fuels. During the spring and summer tomatoes take up the entire greenhouse, and in the fall/winter she will plant spinach, lettuce, parsley and hearty greens that can tolerate cold conditions. During the winter, direct sunlight on the greenhouse can raise its temperature to more than 65 degrees even when it is below freezing outside. Fabric row is then placed on the beds each evening, which traps heat for the greens to continue growth. Aside from about two weeks of deep freeze at the end of January, they have a tremendous supply of winter greens. In fact, Heather stated that she thinks the greens in the winter time are more delicious than those she grows in the summer.
The staff at Stonewall Farm is excited about their future because of a few different upcoming projects. As stated, their fruit and vegetable farm will increase in capacity over the coming year by another half-acre. They currently produce milk for Stonyfield Yogurt with a total of 50 cows (a mix of Holstein and Brown Swiss). Additional milk will be used for both a consumer raw milk program and for continued use in Frisky Cow gelato, which is made on site. Weddings and private event revenue as well as donations help Stonewall Farm overcome financial challenges other dairies face. They use this diverse revenue stream to demonstrate innovative agriculture practices and share what they learn with farmers all over the Northeast. One of the other huge pieces to their success will be continued partnerships with the Savory Institute. Savory will bring an influx of farmers from around the world to learn and help with their projects. The UNH Extension Service, Cheshire County Conservation district and Xerces Society will also assist with new experimental regenerative farming practices. It was a pleasure to see how things are growing at Stonewall Farm and we are excited to show ongoing support by purchasing their fruits and vegetables for you to enjoy!
Join us on Thursday, September 19 from 3-5pm to meet Heather, and taste some of Stonewall Farm’s delicious vegetables.
By Jon Megas-Russell