by Brent Wasser
The Pownal Valley nests squarely in the southeast corner of Vermont, bordering New York and Massachusetts. Highway 346 weaves through the historic town center past a small library and church, and follows the Hoosic River north. Animal-focused agriculture dominates here; milk, beef, and hay production have sculpted a rolling green landscape in this border town of about 3,600 people. One hundred years ago, sheep grazed the valley hillsides, and wool processing was an important industry. But while the past and present suggest that success lies in raising animals, Mighty Food Farm proposes a different agricultural future for the area. Lisa MacDougall, 28, has built a thriving business growing diverse certified organic vegetable crops in service to her immediate community.
It’s a warm Tuesday morning in the midst of a dry spell, and I follow MacDougall as she walks the fields to check on the crops. She stands in her upper onion rows and surveys the southwest-facing hillside of her farm as it slopes towards the Hoosic River in the valley below. The diversity of crops is clear: MacDougall points out rows of brassicas, cucurbits, nightshades, and alliums assembling a striped landscape stretching across the silty loam. She farms about 20 acres of this 200-acre property and leases other nearby fields. Below us, tomato plants reach ten feet high in the greenhouse. “We work very hard to provide our members a diverse vegetable diet,” says MacDougall, a Massachusetts native who selected the site while still finishing her studies in Plant and Soil Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Diversification is the cornerstone of this new farm’s success.
We continue our tour, past three mobile chicken coops. MacDougall stops to talk with Arial Dunn, the Assistant Farm Manager, about progress in weeding the parsnip field. Then she tells me about her market. Since 2007, Mighty Food LLC has grown from a modest CSA supporting 50 members to an established produce grower in a market extending from Stockbridge, MA to Dorset, VT—a 100 mile spread serving over 200 CSA members, numerous restaurant chefs, market produce managers, and farmers’ markets. Powered by the diversity of over 30 different vegetable crops and season extension methods, MacDougall makes produce available from May through March and is realizing the mission of the farm: to make economically, environmentally, and socially responsible produce accessible to all. “We strive to provide food to people of all socioeconomic levels,” she says, shifting her navy blue military hat to better block the climbing sun. Mighty Food Farm donated over 12,000 pounds of fresh produce to The Kitchen Cupboard food pantry in Bennington last year, meeting a growing need for healthy supplemental nutrition in southern Vermont.
When MacDougall first came to this area, she found an unmet market for locally grown organic produce. The quality, diversity, and dependability of her vegetables have helped her market consistently grow over the past six years. I called a couple of her wholesale customers. “For being a local farm, Lisa has a lot of diversity in the products she grows, and the quality is phenomenal,” says Leigh-Anne Nicastro, the produce, meat & seafood, and cheese manager at Wild Oats Market in Williamstown, MA.The market sold many of Mighty Food Farm’s vegetable seedlings this year as well. Chef JojiSumi at Mezze Bistro and Bar in Williamstown lights up when asked about Mighty Food Farm. “There are very few farmers who are capable of producing or have the capacity to grow the variety and quality of Mighty Food,” he says. “Every chef should be so lucky to have the kind of partnership we share with a farm like Mighty Food!” Complementing CSA and farmers’ market sales with an expanding wholesale business has helped MacDougall secure a dependable cash flow throughout much of the year, enabling her to make investments in farm operations.
MacDougall constantly looks for ways to improve the quality and volume of her crops. She has identified ideal spacing and cultivation methods specific to her soils and production needs, and has improved greenhouse and high tunnel growing to make year-round harvests a reality in the near future. She credits Vern Grubinger of the University of Vermont Extension for his support, and notes that the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers’ Association has also been a valuable resource for information and methods. In the winter, MacDougall attends conferences to trade advice with other farmers. “We talk a lot about growing practices, pest control, labor issues, and more,” she says. “I am always interested in implementing new methods.” As we round one of the old red barns on the farm, MacDougall shows me her new International Harvester 274 cultivator tractor and water wheel transplanter—equipment choices made easier after talking with fellow farmers during the winter months. Mighty Food Farm’s high productivity is in part due to MacDougall’s openness to modifying the way she farms.
Mighty Food Farm trains young farmers for the future by immersing employees in all aspects of the operation. MacDougall is quick to recognize her energetic farm crew for putting the muscle behind the vegetables. Her eight dedicated employees—most of them aspiring farmers in their 20s, and the majority of them women—learn horticultural and management methods while harvesting over 225,000 pounds of vegetables, berries, flowers, and bedding plants each year. “By working at Mighty Food, I’m slowly picking up on the tasks, the economics, and the maintenance required to run a successful farm,” says Lucy Rollins, a2012 Williams College graduate now managing the CSA program. MacDougall is fortunate to have worked with the same core group of employees for several years, allowing her to gradually shift more responsibility to her crew. By empowering her employees to become farmers themselves, she is likely to have a long-term impact on this region’s agriculture.
The day at Mighty Food Farm ends where many of the vegetables do, too—in the CSA room. The sun has traveled across the sky and seems to hang low over New York state as families from the three bordering states arrive for their weekly helping of kohlrabi, beets, snap peas, head lettuce, scallions, swiss chard, and more. Members also appreciate eggs from the farm’s flock of over 500 laying hens. MacDougall offers a free-choice system, allowing members to select what they want. At this time of year, many opt to gather their CSA share in the pick-your-own strawberry field, brimming with scarlet fruit. MacDougall stocks the CSA room with meats, dairy products, and breads made within the immediate area. Mighty Food Farm makes eating locally grown food easy and fulfilling. Members leave satisfied.
MacDougall wants to give back to the community that has made her success possible. After chicken chores in the late evening, she rests with her dog Clover in front of the yellow 19th century house where she lives. “I have run into many of the older farmers in the area, who are so willing to help out, and who like to see vegetables growing, and who want to see the farm succeed,” she says. In six years of farming, she has grown to recognize her attachment to this valley along the Hoosic River, and her responsibility to the people who depend on her produce. Growing a business has meant building strong and mutually beneficial relationships. She counts many of her customers as friends, and her neighbors are strong allies in the effort to grow good food accessible to all. Mighty Food Farm’s mark on the landscape is likely to last.
Brent Wasser manages the Sustainable Food & Agriculture Program at Williams College. He can be reached at email@example.com.