Sep 16, 2011
Love wins for Massachusetts farm family

For Glenn and Karen Cook of Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, Mass., love is at the heart of everything they do – from the crops they grow to the customers they serve. And it shows.

“It’s all about the love,” Karen said as she and Glenn led North American Strawberry Growers Association bus tour attendees around their 145-acre farm in late August.

Glenn agreed.

“We feel pretty content with what all we’re doing right now,” he said.

And what they’re doing is pretty diverse – by design. In addition to growing produce for their retail operation, they also operate a 370-member CSA and u-pick operation. Add to that 400 laying chickens, and the family has its hands full. Sons Gregory, 25, and Chad, 23, also help out when they’re available.

“We’ve never had a bad, flat or down year because we’re so diverse,” Glenn said.

Karen described the secret to their success: “The first thing we did was knelt in the orchard with a Bible and dedicated the farm and asked God to bless it. We’re now bearing the fruit of that,” she said.

The CSA

The Cooks started their CSA in 2010, with some of their most loyal customers making up the base of their subscribers. In fact, the customer who had given them their very first dollar at the farm market became one of their CSA customers.

“We didn’t know why people would want us to tell them what they were going to eat,” Glenn said.
But they did.

CSA customers come to the farm to pick up the weekly baskets, leading to more on-farm sales as customers browse the store and see other products they’d like to buy, Glenn said. By being a CSA customer, participants are getting more than they would if they purchased items individually in the store. In fact, Glenn said, they aim to give their CSA customers about 10 to 15 percent more product than they would have gotten if they purchased each item a la carte.

Customers in the CSA can purchase either a full share or a half share. The full share is $600 for 20 weeks of deliveries. The half is $325.

“We track everything that goes into the baskets,” Glenn said. “But we don’t tell people in advance what to expect in the baskets so they don’t expect something that we may not have ready or enough of for all the baskets.”

So far the CSA has proven successful, so the Cooks plan to continue offering that service as part of their diverse menu. How long they’ll continue depends on their customers’ requests, Glenn said.

“We’re not sure if it will burn itself out eventually,” he said.

Energy independence

As the costs of inputs increase nationwide for growers, the Cooks are doing all they can to cut down on their expenses while creating a sustainable farming operation.
“We’re really trying to insulate the farm from whatever happens – fiscally, this country is a little shaky right now, and we want to survive that,” Glenn said.

Part of that is going “off the grid,” he continued. “Our goal is to be completely energy independent.”

To reach that goal, the farm has three 10-kilowatt wind turbines and 125 kilowatts of solar panels throughout the property. Glenn said the solar panels are much more efficient than the wind turbines. He is finding that a 10-kW turbine generates less than a third of what a 10-kilowatt photovoltaic solar panel system does. The system’s combined generation is expected to produce enough energy to cover the $30,000 electric bill the farm now pays.

In addition, the farm’s 10 greenhouses, which produce 40,000 pounds of tomatoes, are all heated with wood boilers, with high-efficiency natural gas condensing units as backup.

Overcoming challenges

Like all growers, the Cooks aren’t without their share of challenges. High on that list is deer. The farm is getting ready to install its third round of deer fencing. The first fence was electric, which the deer soon got used to and figured out how to get around, Glenn said. Next up: plastic. But the deer tore through it. The third try, which the Cooks hope will be the charm, will be metal.

Birds also proved to be a problem, particularly on the farm’s blueberry fields. The Cooks have netted all of their blueberry plantings, as Glenn estimated they had 40 percent loss on their un-netted fields.

The farm also has dealt with Japanese beetle problems in the past. They’ve not seen any damage from Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) so far, though they know it could be coming.

“It’s very much an issue in the mid-Atlantic states,” said Sonia Schloemann from the University of Massachusetts Extension. “BMSB is not in Massachusetts yet; there’s no crop damage, yet, but we’re bracing for it. It’s a big problem. It’s exotic, so there are no natural predators. They congregate in large numbers and they travel really easily.”

A growing business

As they’ve grown their business from a picnic table to a full farm market, u-pick and CSA, the Cooks have worked to spread the word of their business. They’ve been featured in various publications and national television specials. But they haven’t spent any money on advertising in three years.

“We’ve been found,” Karen said.

And their business is thriving for that. Word-of-mouth, social media, philanthropy and on-farm events all help spread the Cider Hill Farm story.

The Cooks have more than 7,000 email addresses of people who’ve asked to stay informed of on-farm happenings, such as product availability, special events and other news.

Some of the big draws to the farm, besides the apple cider donuts, are the fruits offered for u-pick, including 70 varieties of apples and 12 varieties of blueberries.

“U-pick blueberries are really taking off in this region,” Glenn said.

The Cooks both said that knowing your customers and knowing what you can do well are keys to being successful as farm marketers.

“Be diligent, keep doing what you’re doing,” Karen said. “It will come.”

By Kimberly Warren, associate publisher

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