A Tale of Two Farms

IMG_0789I guess it’s common knowledge that your wedding and your funeral are the two times in your life (?) when you can expect everyone to drop what they’re doing, get on a bus or plane and come and join you to celebrate your life or mourn your passing.  One of the unanticipated joys of getting married is getting to reconnect with some old friends.   This is a picture of myself and the 2000 crew of Early Morning Organic Farm in Cayuga county, New York.  James Pritty is the gentleman sitting to my right (I’m the kid waving a salute), Anton and Carolyn to my left.  I had the pleasure of reconnecting with James which initiated some rummaging through old photos to swap.  What a treat!

Thinking about my time in New York is an interesting experiment because, of all the experiences I’ve had living and working on other peoples farms, that season was the most impactful.  I say that not only because it was my first experience working on a farm but because it captured a Romantic, or noumenal, impulse in me.  It made sense on a spiritual level.  There was an idyllic beauty to the scenery, the people who came and went, the small college town nearby that seemed without problem or contention.  Production was important, and the pace was intentional, but sometimes seemed like an afterthought to the lands overall purpose.

I’ve always thought that if I had landed at any of the other farms I worked on after Early Morning before I worked there I would never have stayed in farming.  The noumenal power of the next farm I worked on, Greenview, was completely overwhelmed by the phenomenal power of production and rigger.  At that time no one lived on the property of Greenview Farm. There were not three wild-eyed boys running around, nor a farmer wife,  nor a half-pipe in the backyard of the house, nor a house.   Only one caffeine-driven maniac named Craig Totten who seemed to drive the farm forward with the force of his will and neurosis.  Greenview, in those days, was a vegetable production farm.  If you were on the property, you were there for one reason and one reason only:  to keep the wheel spinning.

We weren’t automatons at Greenview.  The place was awash in a sardonic humor and intense wit that made the biggest impression on me of maybe any other place in my life.  The produce was raised extremely intentionally and the quality was the evidence.  But at the end of the day,  Craig would give me the finger, I’d give it back to him, and then we’d drive off to our off-farm abodes where we would recover from the days labor and then meet the next morning to do it all over again.  Craig liked to say that 90% of farming “is just dragging your ass from one place to another.”  On a phenomenal, or literal level, that is absolutely true.  But thanks to the noumenal power at places like Early Morning you might never realize that.

img_0727The two places were always like a ying and yang in my mind.  Anton’s house was full of old memories, my post and beam shack full of late 20th century, pre-9/11 anti-globilization anarchism.  The barn and the tractor were old but reliable and the fireflies lit up the bordering woods in the summer like Christmas lights.  Anton harvested his vegetables into old, half-destroyed cardboard boxes while Craig used fresh ergonomic poly-bins.  Craig’s tractor was fresh off the lot, all business out of the fields was conducted under new canopy tents and field work was done with fresh, new harvesting knives and scissors.  The land had been an old nursery field, no buildings, no memories left.  But Anton’s vision seemed sometimes lackadaisical and ungrounded.  Craig always seemed to be building, growing, expanding, moving towards complexity, mechanization.  That made sense to me in a big picture way.  The world needed an organic-alterative and there for our farms should be producing a lot of food and doing it efficiently.  Watching the fireflies and swimming in the irrigation pond wasn’t going to get the world fed, it seemed to me.

My own business has swayed back and forth between these two some-what contrasting approaches.  Sometimes I am the ferocious efficiency hawk, other times the transcendentalist hack-philosopher.  Over the years I’ve struggled to get out from under Craig’s phantom eye, watching me sometimes move too slowly or allow time for the volunteers and employees to chat and play.  Many times I meditate back to Anton walking across thistles and stones in his unsurpassably rugged bare feet, quietly hustling and insisting others do so simply by example.  I’ve somehow managed by balancing these two men, my two mentors, to become a boss that most of the time I can stand and others seem to enjoy working for.  One of the most profound blessings of running Big Train Farm are the relationships I’ve been lucky to form.  It seems that, thanks to borrowing from both of these old farmers, the autocrat and the hippie, I’ve managed to form some kind of amalgam of both.




Transition Time.

Those of you who have been members of our CSA for the last several years know we have been transitioning to a new property.  Big Train Farm has called a some what run-down old turkey and pig farm in western Cranston home for the past nine years.  This lovable, shabby, old amalgam of social experiments is called Urban Edge Farm.  It has been home to many start-up agricultural businesses since 2002 when it first came on line thanks to the efforts of many people both in the private and public sectors.  Ken Ayers from DEM, Pat McNiff and Kathryn Brown from Southside Community Land Trust were the original trailblazers of the dream that became the most important place in my adult life.

The history of the project deserves it’s own telling, and several attempts have been made to condense the UEF story into newspaper and publication articles.  The most recent appeared in The Natural Farmer last spring.  Inevitably the rich, wormy material of the lives of the farmers, the relationships and projects that have been fostered on the property are impossible to tie down succinctly, and every farmer has a long and entertaining story to tell.  Big Train is no different.  Since our first seasons on the property we have loved UEF and tried to help it grow.  Through different farmers, executive directors, farm stewards, liaisons, directions, and refutations the farm has maintained.  Urban Edge still remains and will still remain for the foreseeable future thanks to all our efforts as a team.

IMG_2323Urban Edge has provided advantages to the growers who have held leases there.  An array of equipment has been available to rent from walk-behind tillers to 75hp tractors, wheel-hoes and manure spreaders, shovels and reference books.  Irrigation water is pumped around nearly the entire property with high-pressure hydrants available to growers.   Propagation green houses, facilities for washing and packing, walk-in coolers, electricity.  All of these things have been maintained and built upon by the growers who have been there, investing their own time and money to help the farm grow and go, and by SCLT as part of their mission.   The citation that is often missing (and is probably the most important asset UEF has going for it) is the fact that there is a community of professional growers intermingling there, sharing ideas, learning how to solve problems, assisting with marketing, and socializing.

farmBut it’s time for us to go.  We are ready now, after two years of working both properties simultaneously, to move off of UEF and concentrate our efforts at our own property we call Snake Hill (not to be confused with Snake Den).  By the end of 2017 we hope not only to be farming full-time at Snake Hill but also to be living there.  We have already built three and a half greenhouses, put in a well, put up deer fencing, prepped 4 acres of land for crops (with another acre or so to go), and are about to start building a barn and small house.

We have a tremendous amount of costs that we are trying to manage this year.  Although we haven’t gotten ourselves into anything that we don’t think we can handle we could use some help.  We are looking for donations from our CSA member community this year to help with some of the bigger start-up costs that we will need to cover.  These include the following: wiring a propagation greenhouse for spring heating (of 2018), constructing a wash-station and packing room, purchasing new irrigation lines (about 1000′ or so), putting in a slab for our barn, and more.  Oh, did I mention we’re getting married too?

So if you are able to make a donation to these efforts when you sign-up for the CSA this year we would be so grateful.  If you are not able to put extra money down there are other ways you could help us out:  Do you have any of the following things lying around?  lumber, hardware, old washing machines (we can use them for drying greens like spinach and lettuce), cabinets, metal shelves, tool boxes, so on and so forth.  Let us know and we can come pick them up.


2016 CSA Breakdown




Every year we calculate how much product our CSA members received through our main-season, 26 week share.  We have just recently finished the 26-week season so it is time to tally up all produce that you received and then calculate the return (or the amount of produce you received on-top of what you paid for).  We consider your investment in our growing season a commitment to healthy food that is grown and produced locally.  We always aim to reward that investment with a nice return.  Your support is so critical to our viability as a farm.  Consider your 2016 return a big Thank You from all of us.


Breakdown: SO your purchase of a vegetable share broken down by week is as follows:

Half-Share : $350 = $13.46/week

Three-Quarter Share:  $530 = $20.38/week

Full Share: $685 = $26.34/week

2016 Weekly Share Totals (Dollar values are for Full Shares)

Week 1 : $39

img_0450Week 2 : $24

Week 3 : $28

Week 4 : $28

Week 5 : $32

Week 6 : $26

Week 7 : $28

Week 8 : $40

Week 9 : $36

Week 10 : $51

Week 11 : $39img_0386

Week 12 : $36

Week 13 : $31.50

Week 14 : $31

Week 15 : $46

Week 16 : $30

Week 17 : $30

Week 18 : $28

Week 19 : $34

Week 20 : $30

Week 21 : $25

Week 22 : $24.50

Week 23 : $24

Week 24 : $24

Week 25 : $26

Week 26 : $28

Total Value in Produce 2016 : $819

Average Weekly Share 2016 :  $31.50

Total Return For Full Shares : $819 – $685 = $134/member (17% return)

Approximate Total Return from Big Train Farm to 2016 CSA Members : $10,000!!!

Thank You for your amazing support.  We hope you have an excellent winter and spring and look forward to seeing you again in June.

Winter Share 2016/2017

Winter Share FULL for 2016/2017

We have filled all our slots for the Winter CSA for 2016/2017.  We are so thankful for the support from our members through the Winter months. Below are the details and pick-up info for the season.  Important to note that pick-ups are every other week, pre-bagged, and there are no pick-ups in January.

Details: The Winter CSA is a 14-week share that runs through December, February, and March (no pick-up in January)… We condense the weekly shares into one pick-up every other week.  This way you will not have to travel to the pick-up every week but will pick up two weeks worth of vegetables at one pick-up.  The crops we are selling in the winter will last for a long time in your fridge so you don’t have to worry about things spoiling over the two weeks.  We will be pre-bagging the shares, so you will simply come to the pick-up and we will pass over your bags.

img_0669What’s Offered? We will be offering winter-harvested greens from our greenhouses every week such as kale and spinach as well as garlic, onions, potatoes, butternut squash, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, leeks, celeriac, and parsnips.  In early December and late March there may be some other hardy vegetables available as well.

Price: A Winter CSA share is $300.

Where and When?  Pick-up will be at the Bell Street Chapel (5 Bell Street Providence) on Thursdays from 5-7pm (the pick-up window is tighter, please be aware).  If you would prefer to pick-up at the farm we can leave your bags in a cooler.  The dates will be as follows:  Dec.8th, Dec. 22nd, Feb. 2nd, Feb. 16th, March 2nd, March 16th, March 30th.


Welcome (Back)

IMG_0207A Special Hello to our new CSA Members and a Welcome Back to our returning friends and customers, some continuing after years of support.  We are so thankful to have such a great crowd of people to greet and interact with over the summer and fall.  Some of our CSA members have become great friends.  Mindy and I are always talking about trying to coordinate some of our CSA members into working together to accomplish some of our wider interests, such as environmental politics, social and food justice.  Perhaps we can work with you this year to address some of these issues.

One project we are currently working on with funding from a LASA grant is to promote our CSA program to EBT (Food Stamp) recipients.  Big Train Farm currently accepts Food Stamps for Vegetable Shares and Egg Shares.  Due to the financial returns inherent in our CSA program (see this blog post for details) we want to help families and individuals make their Food Stamps go further by joining our (or other’s) CSA program.  If you know of folks who receive EBT please let them know about our CSA, and if you receive EBT know that you can spend your EBT with Big Train Farm.

Well!  Spring is certainly in the air now.  Next week we are going to be planting a plethora of pleasant plugs into our fields and greenhouses.  We currently have two greenhouses fully planted with lettuce, spinach, carrots, radishes and beets.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash will be going indoors next week as well.  Our onions will be going out into the field next week as well as our first plantings of kale, collards, swiss chard, and cabbages to be shortly followed by beets, carrots, basil, broccoli rabe, head lettuce, dandelion greens and squash.  In the photo above you can see some of our early greenhouse tomatoes in the foreground with beets, celery, celery root, parsley and tiny brassicas in the background.

IMG_0208  In the photo to the right, we have all the long-season bunching greens ready to go into the field (these are the kales, and other greens I mentioned).  We plant these in a no-till method that uses the old tomato field from the previous year after it has been cleaned up by our chickens and then heavily composted and mulched.  You can read more about our no-till methods here.

We have been using some of our new equipment that we have been working on for the last few years.  A new compost tea brewer and sprayer is helping make our crops more nutritious and worth your hard-earned money.  A tine-weeder and bed marker that I built helps us keep our fields manicured and easily marked for planting and is mounted to an old tractor to lessen the wear and tear on our bodies.  The new land is doing well also and we intend to harvest all our potatoes, winter squash, and melons (yes, melons) from the new land on Snake Hill Road.

May is right around the corner!  We have all our work-shares signed up and we are currently sold out of eggs.  We still have plenty of vegetable shares to sell however so PLEASE TELL YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS about Big Train Farm.  Also, we have plenty of fruit, meat, herbs, flowers, bread, and mushroom shares left to sell.  You can sign up for any of these additional shares on our web-page.  Hope the spring is treating you well and best wishes to you.  Many, many thanks for supporting our farm and help making what we do possible.  John and Big Train crew



March has come along with global record breaking temperatures I am told.  It is interesting to consider that last weekend at a workshop with my crew we were learning a bit about weather patterns.  Apparently annual weather phenomena often works in opposite extremes.  For example, last year we could not drive, even with our tractors, up the hill to our greenhouses due to the snow.  Dakota and I were carrying 5-gallon buckets of snow into our greenhouses to water them.  This year on the other hand some farmers are already plowing their fields.  Typically the soils on the hill at UEF don’t allow mole-board plowing until mid to late April.  We are at least one month ahead of where we were last year.

People often ask me as a farmer how global warming has changed my business.  I think I am too new to the game to answer that question in the way they would like.  In the past fifteen years that I have been working on farms the weather has always been extremely variable, so I am only familiar with that kind of erratic climate.  2003, 2006, 2009, these were wet, wet, wet years.  2005 I remember working fixing fences on Simmons Farm in a t-shirt in January.  It seems like we typically have at least one or two days of t-shirt weather in southern New England in the winter now.  Winter of 2007/2008 the cherry trees in Providence bloomed in January due to record high temperatures.   Spring of 2012 was similar to this with seventy degree days in March and eighty degree days in April.  It was that spring that the apple trees in RI bloomed early and farmers lost a large percentage of their crop to night-time frosts that killed off the blossoms.

Al Gore mentioned an African proverb : “If you want to go quickly, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.”  He then said we need to go far quickly! in our efforts to keep climate change from drastically changing the experience on this planet for our species and all the others as well.  Agriculture plays a huge role in this.  According to the EPA Agriculture contributes 24% of greenhouses gases globally.  Water usage in agriculture is also huge and sickeningly wasteful.  70% of global use of fresh water is agricultural according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).  The ironic side to all of this is the potential for agriculture to solve the problem of climate change and resource scarcity, not encourage it.   Sustainable practices such as no and low-tillage methods, cover cropping, and soil food web encouragement, actually sequester carbon out of the atmosphere and assimilate it into soil.  Some of the results led by consultants like Elaine Ingham and John Kempf are remarkable, accomplishing amazing yields without pesticides, soluble fertilizers, and even water.  In turn these yields lead to a gain for the planet by sequestering the carbon dioxide through photosynthesis into the plant and into soil.  Organic agriculture has the potential to change the planet for the better, but how to we get there?  Recently I read an article about conventional corn and soybean farmers in the midwest putting thousands of acres into a cover crop rotation (rye grass, clover, vetch, sudan, etc).  This not only gives their overworked soils a break but also sequesters carbon dioxide, builds soil food webs, and limits the amount of water and fertilizer necessary to grow the next cash crop.

It seems to me that we have the tools in our toolbox to fix many of the agricultural problems we have, effectively addressing other related problems, such as climate change.  How do we get our governments and universities to encourage sustainable methods?  It seems that is up to farmers like myself to make these practices work on our farms, be examples of forward thinking methods and smart practices.  In 2016 we are doing our best to bring these practices home to our community and continuing to teach and to learn.  If you would like to learn more about Big Train Farm’s methods check out a link here

We hope that you are well and enjoying the early spring.

February Update

IMG_0026Finally a bit of snow to help the farmer relax, settle in, read a book, and not feel as though they need to rush out into the sixty degree weather in order to find something farmy to do!  I love the snow.  The month of March is a long month, brown and wet, oscillating between very cold and slightly warm.  Your anticipation for spring is heightened by the returning birds and the mucky thaw.  January and February need not be like that.  Let it snow, let the trees and muddy ground get blanketed for these months.  Let the cold and snowy weather give you an excuse to stay in when you can.  Farmers need to take these cold months to recuperate, plan, and relax.  Catch up with people they unintentionally neglect during the growing season, check there systems, and try and negotiate their affairs.

For me, I take the winter to work on projects I don’t have time for in the spring.  For instance I have been converting an old boom sprayer I bought in 2012 to a compost tea brewer.  This will allow me to not only make compost tea but also will help me shlep water back and forth to Snake Hill (our new property) where IMG_2623we don’t currently have another way to irrigate our crops.  My buddy Nolan and I inserted a sparger into a 300-gallon tank, ran lines to a PTO-driven pump and I am now building a deck on the trailer in order to accommodate 200 feet of hose with which to either irrigate or use as a foliar, or root-feeding fertilizing wand.  My goal is to eventually hook up a gas-powered air compressor to the system so I can use the root feeding wand to inject air as well as compost tea into the soil.

My friend Mark is kind enough to let me come over in the winter and use his welders in exchange for some vegetables.  I have been building some equipment for one of my antique tractors to help clear debris from vegetable fields, do some gentle surface cultivation, and mark rows at the same time.  These kinds of projects keep me busy and help make my life a little more interesting by having new things to play with every year.  Some times my winter whimsy doesn’t amount to much.  Sometimes it does!

In regards to some of our other winter time projects Mindy and I are working together on promoting EBT usage in our CSA.  We finally got our hands on EBT equipment this year and we are using monies that were awarded to us through a LASA grant to upgrade our market vehicle and promote CSA programs (not just our own) to EBT recipients.  We are trying to build a network of community organizations that will help promote the benefits and boons of being a CSA member to EBT recipients in their communities.  As you know, being a CSA member helps your money go farther, especially in bountiful years like 2015 (see 2015 Breakdown for details)


Our Winter CSA has been going along smoothly this year, with lots of root vegetables and delicious greens from our greenhouses filling bags.  We hope to expand our Winter CSA program next year to accommodate more members.  This will be one of the benefits of having more room to grow, we will be able to dedicate more space to long-term storage crops that supply the winter months.

Hope everyone is having a nice (although warm) winter.  Enjoy the snow while you can.  All the best, John


(A)New(ther) Season

IMG_1102As some of you know from speaking with us at the pick-up or reading our blog posts (last winters post) we purchased a piece of property in the fall of 2014.  Over the course of the 2015 growing season we managed to clear half the property of brush, contracted a deer fence now installed, plowed, harrowed, amended, composted, and cover cropped two acres, and built two 96’x30′ greenhouses.  We are intending to grow our winter squash and potatoes at Snake Hill (property is located on Snake Hill Rd in Chepachet) this year as well as melons!   While we expand our growing space we will be able to offer a bit more variety this year in our CSA, including some different varieties of lettuce, melons, potatoes,  greens and squash.  We are also starting to consider planting perennials on the new property such as asparagus, strawberries, rhubarb, blueberries, and on, and on, and on.  There is always plenty of planning to occupy our time in the winter.

I wanted to take a moment to welcome many of you back to our CSA program.  Some of you have been members for many years and your continued support makes what we do possible.  Your commitment to local agriculture and your insistence on high quality food is a catalyst that is driving the local food movement in our area.  Small farmers are working hard to learn how to provide you with the best local products available.  We are constantly refining our methods at Big Train, working with the natural systems  on the farm that, when understood and encouraged, provide products that are superior to anything you can find in a grocery store.  As a CSA member you receive fresh produce, harvested within days of receiving it, that is grown intentionally with you in mind.  Your enthusiasm informs our day to day on the farm.  We hope you will join us for another trip around the New England growing season.  If you did not have a chance to check out the returns you received as a 2015 member please take a look here.

The 2016 CSA is open.  You can sign up here to reserve your share for the upcoming season.









2015 CSA Breakdown


(weekly breakdown and investment return below)

We believe that through our CSA we are able to grapple with some of the thorny issues that persist in farming and food consumption in America.  For instance, local food and organic food is often seen as too expensive, sometimes prohibitively so.  Although many Americans today understand that the playing field for small-scale and large-scale agriculture is not level regardless of this they must confront the financial realities of their lives and make purchasing decisions accordingly.

The problem of high retail cost of organic food is something that organic growers can confront proactively through their CSA.  By simply providing members with a surplus of vegetables slightly greater in value than the weekly cost of their CSA share helps lighten the blow of retail costs required for small farmers to make a decent living.

When farmers have good years their is plenty of surplus to go around, especially with high-yielding, perishable crops like tomatoes, peas, squash, peppers, and eggplant.  Simple supply and demand economics assert that cost comes down while surplus is high, but when supply is perishable why not share the wealth?  So every week our CSA members receive investment returns in the form of extra purchasing points at the pick-ups or heavy bags of additional items pouring out of the fields in bountiful years like 2015.  When you extrapolate the returns to effect the retail cost (say $3 per pound for tomatoes) what you gain in surplus reduces the retail cost of all the produce at the pick-up for the member.

Below is the weekly breakdown of the 2015 26-week CSA season spanning from June-November.  Consider the return a giant Thank You for your support and we hope that the produce made you happy and healthy.

Here are the details:

Full Share. $685 for 26 weeks = $26.35/week investment.

Three-Quarter Share. $530. $20.38/week investment.

Half-Share. $350. $13.46/week investment.

Weeks: Here is what the Full-Share members actually received in 2015. You can extrapolate down for Three-Quarter and Half-Shares.

Week 1 : $42.50  Week 2 : $30  Week 3: $26   Week 4: $35   Week 5:  $34   Week 6:  $34  Week 7:  $32

Week 8: $36   Week 9: $32  Week 10: $34  Week 11:  $35  Week 12:  $40  Week 13:  $46!! Week 14: $42

Week 15: $35  Week 16: $36  Week 17:  $32  Week 18:  $32  Week 19:  $32  Week 20:  $28  Week 21:  $24

Week 22: $24  Week 23:  $24  Week 24:  $24  Week 25:  $25  Week 26:  $30

Total Cash Value of Produce Received :  $844.50

Total Return :  $844.50 – $685 = $159.50 per Full Share Member (23% return on your investment… not bad, right?!?)



Winter CSA, Sign-Up Via E-Mail

Processed with VSCOcam with f3 preset

Greetings, we have another 8 weeks left of our Summer/Fall CSA program, concluding the last week of November.  Many of you have asked me “what will we do this winter without your vegetables?” We would like to invite you stay with us by joining our 14-week Winter CSA.

Through the cold months of the year we plant our three open-ground greenhouses (or “high tunnels”) with extremely cold hardy vegetables.  Leafy greens such as Winterbor Kales, Spinach, and Bok Chois are able to tolerate our cold winters by a daily thawing process which leaves them not only intact, but thicker, hardier, and sweeter than during the normal growing season.

We also will be setting aside a portion of our Fall harvest for the Winter CSA program as well.  We intend to have the following storage crops available during the winter season as well as the greens mentioned above: kohlrabi, garlic, onions, potatoes, butternut squash, carrots, daikon radish, sweet potato, rutabaga, parsnips, leeks, and celeriac.  Share will be on average 5 items/week.  Eggs will be available and sold first come, first serve in half-dozen containers for $3/half-dozen.

The logistics of the share will be as follows:  Shares will be one-size and will be pre-bagged (about the size of an average 3/4 share).  Shares cost $300.  Pick-up of your share will be held for two-hours from 5-7pm in the Bell Street Chapel (5 Bell Street PVD) parking lot on Tuesdays.  You will find me in the parking lot in my car or truck handing out bags.  The share will be held on the following dates (All Tuesday evenings): 12/1, 12/8, 12/15, 12/22, 12/29, 2/2, 2/9, 2/16, 2/23, 3/1, 3/8, 3/15, 3/22, 3/29.  Please note there are no pick-ups during the month of January.  

Members who participated in the 2014/2015 Winter CSA last year are entitled to a $10 discount on their share.

Sign Up by sending an e-mail to bigtrain_farm@yahoo.com

Please Note! We only have a limited amount of shares to offer during the winter so sign-up quick!

Processed with VSCOcam with s1 presetPlease Note! Please understand that the winter season can be unpredictable and sometimes ruthless.  We will not endanger ourselves to make it to the pick-up and don’t want you to either.  Bad weather may lead to pick-up cancellations and shares will be doubled-up the following week when possible.  Problems on the farm may lead to pick-up cancelations resulting in weeks that cannot be made up.  Please be willing to be flexible if you sign up for the Winter CSA Share.

Thanks!  It’s going to be great!