A vision of Misty Brook
Positive perseverance enables a young couple to live out their dream.

By Seth Palmer

Farm at a Glance

Misty Brook Farm
Barre, MA

Total acres: 140

Properties: 10 in Hardwick, Ware, Barre and New Braintree

Livestock: 15 milking cows, 40 young stock and beef calves, two Morgan horses, a small swine herd, 60 chickens, a flock of ducks, a few sheep and 10 fat lambs

Markets: On-farm store

November 16, 2007: To start with something small and build it up is a skill that many possess but few have the will to cultivate. Most of us are content to wait and watch and save until the thing we want has grown to an acceptable size under someone else’s care, and then buy it when all is ready. By that time we’re ready, too, fully prepared for anything (except everything else that undoubtedly will arise to confound our carefully laid plans). Who knew that Murphy was a farmer? He surely understood the farmer’s plight. The truth is, there’s no substitute for ingenuity. Preparation is key, but determination and resilience are the lock and door.

When Brendan Holmes and Katia Clemmer started farming three years ago they had education, experience and not much else—a wheelbarrow, a pitchfork and a pickup truck. Surely they had no idea how their own determination and resilience would be put to the test in the course of living out the dream of many young-and-educated agrarian-hopefuls.

Like many young farmers entering the organic field today, Brendan and Katia were college-educated and had apprenticed on other farms. They studied organic and biodynamic agriculture at Emerson College in England and also worked on a wide variety of farms, from conventional chemical-based ones to organic and biodynamic. They started their own operation on a 42-acre parcel of rented land in Hardwick, Massachusetts. With a few cows and chickens, several ducks and two piglets (a boar and sow) the couple received as a wedding gift, they started right away breeding the animals and raising the young.

About starting small, Katia says, “We have built up our business and livestock through lots of hard work and by minimizing overhead. We started out spreading manure on our fields from the back of a pickup truck, but we’ve tried to grow with the demand and continue to re-invest.”

Their second year in business, the two rented another 60 acres in nearby Ware, Massachusetts, to make more hay for their growing herds, and they added some sheep. The heifers they bred the first year calved the beginnings of the beef herd, and when their sow turned out to be barren, Brendan and Katia bought two more to breed, along with some piglets.

Then a disagreement over their original land lease left the couple without a farm, but with several rapidly growing herds of animals and no place to keep or care for them.

While many farmers today don’t own the land they’re working, far fewer would choose to work one or more different properties every year. Fewer still would continue to work as many as 10 different properties a year in their first three years of farming. This is what sets Brendan and Katia apart from the rest.

When the couple was turned off their land, friends and neighbors stepped up to help in a number of ways. From standard leases to trade agreements to complete freedom of use, Brendan and Katia were able to secure all the land and equipment they needed. The only catch was having 10 landlords in four towns and living two miles from the closest farm property.

But another year later and the young couple is farming 140 acres and have a milking herd of 15 cows, plus 40 young stock and beef calves, two Morgan horses that go wherever hay needs to be made, a small swine herd, 60 chickens, a flock of ducks, a few sheep and 10 fat lambs for butchering this fall. They also added another sow this year and are planning on beefing up their beef herd next season.

They have a farm shop on the property in Barre with their dairy cows, calves and pasture. On the side of Hardwick nearest to Barre, they have hay fields and pasture for the bred heifers and bulls, corn, winter squash and potatoes, pigs and laying hens. Across town are the yearling heifers, Bantam brooding hens and more pasture and hay fields. Ten miles away in Ware they keep the lambs on another property with still more hay fields. The ducks stay at another friend’s where there’s a pond for paddling around.

On top of it all, Katia and Brendan welcomed a baby boy, Alister Tillman Holmes, in March 2007, and are supported by a growing business and “a great group of customers.”

Right now, the message on the machine at Misty Brook Farm states that they have raw milk, raw cream, pork, veal and lamb for sale. It’s been a good year, but the trip getting there hasn’t been without its hard-learned lessons.

“We started our farm business without a permanent location and have moved three times since we started. We’ve learned that it’s important to agree on things with your landlord,” Katia says, “and the best way to be sure you agree is by writing a lease. We’ve also learned that a healthy business has many customers who will support you even when the going is tough.”

Brendan and Katia manage their plants and animals using the biodynamic methods taught by Rudolf Steiner because they say it’s the way they enjoy farming, but their farm and products are certified organic “because there is a great demand and it is a good way to make our business viable.”

It’s hard not to wonder if the two would still be in business using conventional, chemical-based methods. Some of their products are not allowed in conventional food channels, and by avoiding the cost of increasingly expensive chemical inputs, the couple have supplied a profitable niche in their local market while managing to keep their overhead to a bare minimum.

Misty Brook Farm seems to be doing well, growing more with each season, and Brendan and Katia are still talking about expanding their operation.

“Our goal has always been for a mixed farm and farm shop,” says Katia. “We enjoy producing dairy and meats, and we hope to expand to arable crops and more vegetables with additional help. We now have confidence in our ability to manage a mixed farm and make a living farming, and our goal going forward is to find a long-term farm situation.”

It looks like the young family may have passed the hardest part of the test. Although some will undoubtedly fail, the future continues to look bright for those involved with organic and sustainable agriculture. The ranks continue to be filled by young, educated and optimistic people with all manner of beliefs and personal philosophies, but their dreams are in common: to create something better for the earth, and for families and communities of the present and future.

To see this young couple push on through upheaval and hardship, to watch them grow and succeed against these odds is like witnessing a stone standing on end, the natural balance shifting as an uncertain past gives way to a determinate present. It’s certainly a thing to give one hope for what is to come.

Asked for a final reflection, the young mother offered two thoughts: first, that flexibility is crucial. “And,” she said, “if you can envision something well enough, you can make it happen.”

Seth Palmer is an intern at The New Farm.