Old Friends Farm: Friendships Through Food
Friendships and the foods we eat go hand-in-hand in unexpected ways. Whether you find yourself cooking for a gathering or celebration, or simply heading out for lunch with some colleagues, there are countless scenarios to unite the notions of friendship and nourishment. But why is this correlation so crucial to not just individual health and wellness, but that of our immediate communities—and even the social fabric that constructs our larger culture? Simply put, our friendships affect our values. Whether we rely on our relationships for confirmation and affirmation of our preexisting habits and ways of thinking, or we evolve based on their opinions and suggestions, there is no doubt friends can also influence what we eat and how we eat, too. Friendships are powerful, and with only six degrees of separation between us all, the values we place in our food—how it’s grown, sourced, and tastes—are being impacted by them every day.
At Old Friends Farm, owners Missy Bahret and Casey Steinberg understand the crucial role that friendship plays in creating a beneficial and just food system. They know it is not enough to simply grow and sell food ad hoc, but instead to do so as friends to those living in the communities they serve. Their dedication to organic principles, compassion for staff, and concern for the land and food they grow are a testament to the value they place in those friendships. The “golden rule,” or to treat others the way we’d want to be treated, is central to what we all should expect of our friends. Their holistic approach to farming and food distribution reflects the integrity of their character; a model example of responsible food production that cannot be matched by the machine-like redundancy and indifference of large food corporations and factory farms. Their commitment to growing healthy, delicious food for those living in their own communities is the mark of a true friendship.
Ahead of National Organic Month, we were welcomed by our old friends at Old Friends Farm for a visit to learn firsthand what it means to be an organic farmer and why integrity is so important for the future of our local food system. Missy and Casey shared their experiences, knowledge, and history as farmers, then took us out to enjoy a day in the fields and greenhouses with their colleagues to discover why Old Friends Farm is a true friend of the Valley!
Owners Casey Steinberg (second from left) and Missy Bahret (third from left) pose with their colleagues
Q: How did Old Friends Farm get started, and how did you personally become involved in sustainable agriculture?
MISSY: In 2003, I started a tiny side business on a different plot of land, and Casey helped me out. We eventually moved to this land shortly after and have been expanding here ever since. Now, we rent 38 acres—and I was just thinking today that we’ve been friends for a long time. We met at the University of Vermont and were friends during our courses there. We hadn’t ever talked about running a farm together, but that’s how it happened!
CASEY: Right. We didn’t study agriculture in college, but both of us did some version of environmental science, ecology, that kind of thing. When the farm started, we were on a small plot in south Amherst lent to us by two of our oldest friends. So, it was the combination of Missy and I being old friends and the farm getting some help from these amazing folks that made Old Friends Farm seem really fitting [as a name].
The farm's staff are seen hard at work harvesting the season's turmeric root
Q: What are some crops you grow here that Valley residents can expect to find at the co-op?
MISSY: We grow Certified Organic salad greens and produce. We also grow cut flowers! We’re known for our ginger and turmeric production, which we kind of piloted in the Northeast. We still love growing those crops and have a bunch of specialty products that use those roots.
CASEY: River Valley Co-op has been really supportive across all arenas of things we produce. I remember before the Northampton store even opened we were in contact with them saying, “We would love to grow flowers for you!” The store opened and they took us and ran with produce, floral, and our specialty products. Now we’re delivering there twice per week—to both stores now, which is great! River Valley Co-op has become our single largest customer at this point.
A look at Old Friends Farm's line of specialty items made from a variety of crops
Q: The farm observes four core values: Integrity, Balance, Harmony and Fun. How do these ideals impact the food you grow and the communities you serve?
MISSY: When we came up with those four values, we originally had many, many more and knew we had to pair it down. We decided to keep those because each of them symbolized something that was hugely informative in how we run our business. Between us, our management team, our co-workers, and all those customers who return year after year, I think they also feel those four values in various ways. We’ve had many customers tell us how thrilled they are with our quality, reliability, and ethics. They’ll get so excited to hear about something we did for a crew meeting, or something a co-worker has done that’s really positive—it’s all knitted into that perspective.
Freshly picked organic turmeric is seen here before being prepared for sale
Q: As local organic farmers, what does sustainability mean to you?
CASEY: Eating food, growing food… eating it in particular is such an intimate thing. It’s a daily practice that nourishes you, so it has to come from some serious integrity. If the growing practices don’t have integrity, if the people you work with aren’t having fun, aren’t cared for or aren’t valued, if the land you are growing on isn’t being improved or respected, then it’s hard to say we’re eating with integrity—
MISSY: Or even farming sustainably. If we were just using up our co-workers without some sort of balance, that wouldn’t feel like true sustainability.
CASEY: Right. Back in the day, on that small plot in Amherst, it really was just the two of us. At the time we started, I was working at a big CSA in South Amherst, and Missy had another full-time job. We would come home at night and punch flowers or prep for market. We continued that for a few years and found out it was not sustainable. The part of the sustainability equation that often gets left out in sustainable ag is the ability of the farmers, employees—who really are the core of our entire food system—to maintain that. If the answer is no, your local organic farm is not sustainable. So, that’s where we focus. And now, we’ve grown the farm to the point where we can sustain a great team and a farm at a size and level of complexity that we simply could not do by ourselves.
A farm worker is seen carrying a resupply of bins to collect the latest harvested crops
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your awesome team of co-workers?
MISSY: There are 15 of us on the team. At least a couple of them have been here for 10 years, several have been here for eight; another handful for five or so.
CASEY: We also have a wonderful collection of new folks here too, and we hope they want to be with us for a really long time. Everything always comes back to who your crew is; who the farmers are. We want these folks to stay, and at the very least we want them to stay in farming. We want them to have their bodies for a long time, and to keep their enthusiasm for farming, too. When Missy and I started, we were working 80 to 90 hours each, which is too much. We want to treat others the way we would want to be treated, so we decided on a mandatory 40-hour work week. We’re definitely not going to do to our crew what we did to ourselves!
MISSY: Exactly. We have to think about our bodies as part of the equipment on the farm, so it’s just as important to maintain them. We feel so lucky every day. We are so grateful for who we get to work with and who chooses to be here.
The staff at Old Friends Farm celebrate among their vast fields of diverse flowers
(Image: Facebook/Old Friends Farm Amherst, MA)
Q: In addition to your core values, you also adhere to a holistic goal to help guide business. Can you elaborate?
MISSY: Several years ago, we learned about a type of farm management called “holistic management” that uses a holistic goal as a guiding light; like a north star. All decisions are made through this holistic goal, so we sat down and basically took our soup and made it into bouillon, so to speak. So yeah, it’s our core. Really concentrated; this is what it’s all about for us. It gave us something to filter through, so it’s very honing, grounding, and balancing for us. We also revisit it every year, so while it might need a tweak here or there it always remains our guiding principle. This holistic goal has a healthy triple bottom line: financial, social, and environmental. It gives us that macro-lens of: “This is what we are trying to create. How are we doing?” You write it in the present tense so that every time you read it you continue to actualize it, and I think that has been very powerful.
CASEY: Yeah, it’s really helpful to have a predetermined sounding board for checks and balances that you can run decisions through. Are we going to take on a new crop? Are we going to implement a new piece of equipment? No matter what we want to do, we always go back to that holistic goal and ask if it meets and fulfills its purpose. If any of the answers are no, then we’ll know it isn’t where our resources should go. It’s also about transparency, too. The holistic goal is publicly available on our website. It’s a way for customers to hold us to the high standards we pride ourselves on.
What to look for when identifying the USDA Organic and Real Organic Project labels
Q: How did the farm become Certified Organic? What are some of the best things about organic food for the health of the land and community?
CASEY: We are both Certified USDA Organic and Certified Real Organic through the Real Organic Project, a fantastic supplemental label that really has a lot of integrity. Since we started out so small, we weren’t USDA Organic at first. Instead, we were Certified Naturally Grown, which is also a great label with a lot of community accountability involved. After the farm expanded a bit, we became Certified Organic. This was a great way to communicate our ethical principles to customers new and old; the seal gives them a point of reference. USDA Organic represents a great deal of the good things we do, and we also feel Certified Real Organic addresses a lot of those qualities too. We have kept both seals because we want to make sure the answer to all our customers’ questions about the integrity of our food is always a resounding ‘yes’.
Rows upon rows of beautiful, healthy tomatoes hang from their vines in one of the farm's many greenhouses
(Image: Facebook/Old Friends Farm Amherst, MA)
Q: It’s clear that stewarding and caring for the land is substantially important to you. What practices do you use to manage the farmlands and improve them year after year?
CASEY: We have been stewards of this beautiful piece of land for 16 to 17 years, or so. We actually don’t own it. We lease it from the Open Field Foundation. It was one of the first pieces of land in the state in the APR [Agricultural Preservation Restriction] program, which means it will never be developed. That is really, really special. The entire Valley has a lot of APR land, which means if APR didn’t exist and our towns weren’t zoned for farmlands the area would look very different. So, we’re really grateful that the owners of this land had the insight to join that program. The quality of the land benefits greatly from it!
That being said, the soil here is not the greatest for growing crops. We may be in the Pioneer Valley, but our soils are basically sand because we are on the edge of what was ancient Lake Hitchcock. So, we’re basically farming a beach. Organic matter is really low and water retention is really low, so on a year like this where we’re in a drought, things can get tricky. It can be particularly tough to get cover crop seed to germinate, which is one of the many tools we use to try to leave the soil better than we found it. Normally at this time of year, you would look around here and see more cover crops, but we can’t get them to germinate. Partly, that is because we’ve chosen to stay here and care for this piece of land rather than uproot and build new infrastructure on a piece of land that came with loamy soil. This farm didn’t come with the soil, but we’re happy to build it up with compost and cover crops like fallow, etc.
Roots prior to being cleaned, trimmed, and processed for use in Old Friends Farm's products.
Q: You grow such a diverse variety of different crops! Can you explain why this is so important for the farm?
MISSY: It’s important to choose crops that will work with the land. You have to listen to the land. For instance, the flowers we are picking today stem from Texas wildflowers—so they love these [dry] conditions. It’s been a great summer for them! That’s why it’s so important to diversify your crops. Planting enough different things ensures some of them will always be successful because we don’t know what the season will be like when we are still planting.
CASEY: Diversifying your farm is good practice and is also an insurance policy for a small farm. You know that if you lose one thing, hopefully that one thing wasn’t the crop that would carry you through the whole season. If we were only to have three crops, we wouldn’t be able to lose any of them, so a little diversification gives us a buffer. However, it is a fine line because the more you diversify the more complex your system gets, and we’re really striving towards simplicity and quality of life. That’s a tough balance to find when you need some level of complexity to have resiliency in your fields.
MISSY: Luckily, we have our great co-workers here to help us solve this puzzle!
Tending to the spinach as the sun rises over the farm and marks the beginning of a new day
(Image: Facebook/Old Friends Farm Amherst, MA)
Click here to discover more about Old Friends Farm's holistic goal, core values, and organic certifications via their website. Find their seasonal flowers, veggies, bagged mixed greens, and other specialty items the next time you shop at River Valley Co-op!