Don Zasada, Caretaker Farm

On a warm September day Don Zasada oversaw an impromptu tomato-picking party. The tomatoes are just one of many crops grown on the seven and a half acres of valley-bottom vegetable fields of Caretaker Farm (34 acres total). From the stream that runs through the farm, rolling pastures with goats, cows, chickens, and the orchard slope gently upwards. At the top of the hill sits the farmhouse and the barn. Near the barn another group of volunteers was washing, cooking, and canning tomatoes freshly picked from the field. Over the last month, 270 CSA share members received 40-60 pounds of canning tomatoes of their own, which they had to pick themselves. This was not unusual. Members are familiar with food preservation and canning, in fact some of the members organize and lead canning workshops on the farm. But on that particular day there were so many extra tomatoes left in the field that Don and his wife Bridget invited their members to help make canned tomatoes and tomato sauce donate to a local hunger relief organization. That day they canned over 50 gallons of tomatoes. At Caretaker Farm Don does not just grow food, he cultivates a connection to place for his community.

Though his family did not farm, Don was influenced by the large-scale dairy industry that predominates central New York State. His family had a small kitchen garden. Some of his friends lived on large dairy farms where farm work was part of everyday life. When he was 14 years old, in the mid-80’s, Don and a few of his friends spent a summer working on a large conventional cauliflower farm to make some spending money. They worked 12 hour days for 2 dollars an hour. It was not fun work for teenage boys who wanted to spend their school vacation hanging out with their buddies. This experience prompted Don to start thinking about the agricultural system and the ways that it falls short of meeting social, environmental, and economic needs of farm workers and consumers.

In College at Villanova University near Philadelphia, Don studied chemical engineering with a minor in religious studies. With an interest in the environment, he spent a 5 summers working for an environmental engineering firm. His interests soon pulled him towards international development work. During school breaks he volunteered in developing countries, helping communities build sustainable infrastructure. After graduating, Don spent a year training do work oversees at an appropriate technology center in Alabama.   He received broad training in everything from water purification and natural earth building to bee keeping and engine repair.  It was here that he was first exposed to small-scale sustainable agriculture practices such as double digging and raised bed production.  This was a totally different form of being with the land and it created a spark that would last until today.

Don moved to a rural community in Chile where he met his wife, Bridget. They were both volunteers that worked in community organizing for 2 years.  The small-scale sustainable agriculture that he had been inspired by was met by a different agricultural reality. Large-scale industrial agriculture dominated the valley where he lived. The agricultural products were primarily exported and not consumed in the local communities. Don returned to the US later ready to dedicate his skills and experience in the area of small-scale sustainable agriculture.

As an apprentice at Brookfield Farm in the Pioneer Valley, Don learned the ins and outs of operating a successful farm. While working on one of the founding farms of the Western Mass CRAFT community, Don made a point to attend as many events and visit as many other farms as possible. The farms he visited inspired him tremendously. After each CRAFT event or farm visit he would write a report for himself about what he had learned and what practices he would like to someday employ. He filed these farm notes along with records of what he did and learned as an apprentice at Brookfield Farm, in books, and at conferences, which he made a point to attend. Still today Don has binders of notes documenting his farming journey, filled with ideas and documenting the evolution of his farming education.

In hindsight, Don thinks that one of the most important things that he did was to take an active role in his agricultural education. If someone really wants to be a farmer they need to find a good fit at a farm where they have a mentor who really focuses on passing on their farming knowledge. To get the most out of a farm apprenticeship or internship the learner must take initiative, ask lots of questions, think about the answers, keep careful notes and records, and really take advantage of the learning opportunity. Don said that while working on a farm apprentices should develop a business plan for their own farming enterprise, using their mentor as an advisor through that process. The close mentor/mentee relationship that Don formed with Dan Kaplan at Brookfield farm was instrumental in his future farming success. Don advises those interested in farming to visit lots of farms, find the best fit, and choose where to learn carefully. A two year education-intensive farm apprenticeship requires the level of dedication and work that a masters degree demands, and should similarly prepare graduates for a career in farming.

In these critical learning years there is some degree of emotional, financial and physical security. This provides an opportunity for relatively risk-free learning. Once farming on your own, or in a management role with others depending on you, it is helpful to have all the information from your active farm education in your back pocket. These education experiences not only form a backbone of information from which to draw, but also a community that can be counted on in the future. Conferences such as those held by NOFA/Mass, PASA (in Pennsylvania), and the Northeast CSA conferences (no longer held) are especially great places to form connections with others.  Though he has been attending conferences for nearly 20 years, Don still makes a point to go every year.

From Brookfield Farm Don moved to Boston to be the farm manager and agriculture director at the The Food Project. For the next seven years Don developed his farming skills, as he said, “without my life’s savings on the line.” While in Boston, Don and Chris Kurth from Siena Farms in Sudbury, MA began organizing the Eastern Mass CRAFT program based on the model that Don loved so well in the western part of the state. Bridget has a wonderful position as a domestic violence advocate at Massachusetts General Hospital.  Once they had their first child, Don and Bridget decided that they would look into starting their own farming operation in a more rural area.  It was hard to leave such a dynamic work, especially with such diverse staff and inspiring missions.  And yet, they were interested in integrating their family into the farm in a profound way, working together to live out their values.

With the modest salaries associated with nonprofit work, it seemed like the only option was to purchase land in rural Maine. As a young family hoping to operate a financially viable farm; however, being close enough to populated communities and the market that those areas supported was important. They began looking at farms through various Land Link websites. They visited dozens of farms and property.  Eventually they came across a farm listing in a quarterly publication of NOFA called The Natural Farmer.

It was 2004 and Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, MA was one of the oldest CSA’s in the country, operating a CSA since 1991. The owners, Sam and Elizabeth Smith, bought the former dairy farm in 1969. For decades the Smiths had built a community around their farm, amended the soils, and invested in physical farm infrastructure. They wanted to see the diversified farm they worked so hard to build continue into perpetuity.

Don and Bridget moved onto Caretaker Farm and embarked on a challenging and rewarding first year. During that first year the Smiths were still on the farm, helping ensure that the transfer from on generation to the next was as smooth as possible and the long term goal- to maintain Caretaker Farm as a working farm in perpetuity- would be established in the lease agreement. Drafting the lease was a challenging process with diverse stakeholders and goals including the prior owners, a local and trust, and national land trust, and the new farm family. During that first season Don managed the field operations while Bridget worked with the national land trust, Equity Land Trust, to develop the lease agreement. This organization was vital to provide guidance and support to all of the various parties in the process.  The local land trust, Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation, now owns all of the land on the farm and has a 99 year agreement with Don and Bridget. 

Caretaker Farm was already designated in the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program (APR), yet that designation does not specifically guarantee that the farmland will be farmed in perpetuity.  It only prevents the land from being developed.  This specific 99 year lease contains some unique stipulations to ensure that Caretaker Farm is in fact a working farm each and every season into the future. For example, there is a minimum gross profit that needs to be met each year and there is also a resale formula so that the price in the future will be affordable to the next young farming family.  The lease is also renewable so that Don and Bridget’s children could take over the lease if they so desired.

Caretaker Farm not only grows food, but also aims for its members to create a relationship with that particular land. Don has managed the farm with this founding principle, staying true to the mission of the previously established CSA program. Because of this farm-to-consumer relationship building goal, Don’s highest priority is not convenience,  “We are not trying to be a the most convenient CSA, rather our mission is to connect people to the land that grows their produce” said Don.  With no pre-boxed or off-farm delivered shares, a volunteer requirement, and 20% of the share you-pick, being a member of Caretaker CSA is definitely for those who want to be in contact with the land where their food comes from.

There are clearly plenty of people in the Williamstown area who have committed to this experience and this particular farm. From year to year Don sees a 90% return rate of CSA members. CSA members do not just return to the farm, they are the farm. During the hot days of August last year, just after the fall and winter beets and carrots had emerged, a drought struck. With no rain for weeks these vulnerable crops, planted in a far away field with no irrigation system, were almost dead. The forecast (which Don checks multiple time a day) was for continued dry heat. Don had nearly given up on those fall crops when Bridget suggested inviting the CSA members to help water them. That seemed crazy! The root crop beds are 450 feet long and in the furthest field. It seemed worth a try since those fall root crops were counted on as staples of the autumn and winter shares. Don sent an email to their 270 CSA member families and the next day over 35 people came to the farm armed with watering cans. There was a wide range of ages from children to much older walking down the rows using there personal watering cans to save the crops.  This would not have been possible without such a connected and dedicated membership base.

One of the reasons members become so connected to Caretaker Farm is that Don and Bridget provide many opportunities for members to participate in the farm. There are farm days and festivals. There is a “Rock The Farm” party each year where everyone picks rocks out of the fields, a summer solstice potluck/open mic, fall harvest dinner/contra dance, and winter solstice celebration.   Various workshops and educational opportunities dot the calendar all year. Members can put in their 2 volunteer hours helping with CSA pickup, weeding and harvesting in the fields, or fixing something around the farm. If they can’t make it to the farm to physically help, they can write recipes for the newsletter. Don doesn’t keep track of who has volunteered, but there is a culture of involvement that creates and connects the community around the farm.

To Don and Bridget Caretaker Farm is not just a job. Managing their farm is a lifestyle and a way of life. Their two young children are homeschooled, or as his six-year-old son Micah says when asked, “farm-schooled.” Don manages the field production and apprenticeship program while Bridget runs the educational programs and educates their children. Every season 3-4 apprentices join the farm family.

The interns arrive on April first and live in cabins on the farm. On their first day they receive a binder filled with notes and descriptions of the farm planning that was developed over the winter. They tour the farm together each week and the apprentices are given a weekly task list to understand all of the various needs of the farm.  Don teaches workshops and classes on specific topics throughout the growing season. There is a focus on individual goal setting and an overall goal of preparing apprentices to manage their own farm. Former apprentices have indeed started their own diversified sustainable farms. Some of these include:

Cameron Hastie at Trusted Roots Farm

Catherine Conover at Stones Throw Farm

Mary Kathryn Barnet at Open Book Farm

Margaret Evans at Ground Works Farm

Today there are many more resources available for beginning farmers then there were 10 or 20 years ago. Don pointed to the mentoring programs at MOFGA, Berkshire Grown, and NOFA/Mass as great projects that facilitate matching farmers-to-be with mentors. Organizations like the Beginning Farmer Network of Mass and Greenhorns now help bring farmers together and grow a network of beginning farmers. Don’s apprentices who have gone on to manage their own farms have given him the feedback that, with all the support out their for starting a farm, one thing that is very hard to learn is how to manage other people such as interns and employees. In a challenging and hard work setting conflict inevitably arises. For a team to function well in such a setting there needs to be a structured system for safe and healthy feedback. Don is constantly tweaking his feedback system. It is based on a model called “Straight Talk,” which is used at the Food Project. Once a month Don and his apprentices meet in a group or one on one and discuss those things that are working well and areas for improvement. Each person gives feedback to the other person and themselves, focusing on specific examples of positive interaction in the workspace and those things that should change.

Another aspect of farming that Don has been thinking about over the past few years is personal sustainability. Many people are working to address the challenges of making agriculture more economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable, but one important piece left out is physical sustainability. No longer in his twenties, Don realizes that physical health is something that he had to focus on. As with anyone who uses their body professionally for a living, Don feels that farmers he needs to take special care each day by stretching and exercising. He does about one hour of exercise each day in the hopes of avoiding injuries such as those that are common with farmers: back pain, issues with joints, etc.  This is especially important for Don and his family because it is stipulated in the lease that, in order to stay on the farm, Don must actively manage the daily operations.   This is to ensure that Caretaker is actively farmed in perpetuity.

In the future Don does not want Caretaker to get any bigger.  If anything, he would like the CSA to be a bit smaller in order to enhance the experience of each individual involved with the farm.  Much larger, he said, and the farm would approach “an unsustainable point related to the farm’s mission”. A goal of downsizing runs counter to the traditional business model of “bigger is better.” Yet, focusing solely on acquiring more and more land to grow more and more produce is not the focus of Caretaker Farm.

Over the past nine years Don has created a community where people can experience Caretaker Farm in a profound way. They are not just eating produce, they are participating in the interactions with the land that they know and love well. The farm not only provides a place for people to form a relationship with their food and land, but also with each other. CSA members are excited to share their skills and teach workshops on the farm. Members like the fact that Caretaker donates extra produce to local hunger relief organizations. Berkshire Grown pays for two Caretaker shares to be donated to the Hot Meals program each week. Additionally, Don donates extra produce to the program. Current members also support about a dozen subsidized shares. In the future Don would like to offer more subsidized shares because though the produce is relatively inexpensive, it is still not accessible by all.

Some advice Don would give beginning farmers is to take advantage of the experience of the community where you would like to farm.   For instance, there is a lot a soil survey map can’t tell you. Once, Don and Bridget were looking at one piece of promising agricultural land that they had identified through the soil surveys.  After walking the land in the late fall they say an elderly neighbor and asked about it the prior use of the property.  The neighbor said that the field is too wet to grow any vegetables and the only time he remembered anyone going out in that particular field was to rescue a cow stuck in the mud. Don and Bridget decided that land was not for them.  Don & Bridget are currently part of a rich farming community in the Northern Berkshires.  They share equipment, expertise, animals, support and camaraderie.  Communal experience and knowledge are what Caretaker Farm is actively creating and preserving with the specific goal of being a working farm into the future. Don and Bridget are stewards of the land and cultivators of community.