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
“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
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