By Elizabeth Henderson
TNF NOFA FARMER PROFILE: Richard Robinson, Hopestill Farm, Massachusetts, March 2, 2023.
People feel connected to NOFA because of our shared love of the land and farming and because we’ve gotten to know each other over the 50 years we’ve been around – from gathering at conferences to sharing best practices on farm tours to reading about each other’s farms. We at The Natural Farmer want to highlight the people who make up NOFA and hope we can feature at least one interview in every issue. We’re starting with The Natural Farmer Advisory Committee so you can get to know the folks behind the pages of your paper. Want us to share your story? Have a farmer you’d like to interview? Contact TNF@NOFA.org if you’d like to be interviewed or interview somebody and get published in TNF.
TNF: You have been farming for over 30 years. Tell us about you and your farm.
Richard Robinson: I farm at Hopestill Farm in Sherborn, Massachusetts, about 20 miles west of Boston in the rural suburbs. The land has been in my family for 300-plus years, and I am probably the last of the line to farm unless my two-year-old grandson sprouts up in time to take it over. Neither of my sons are interested. The story that gets handed down is that the King of England owed somebody a favor and that somebody took land in the colony and then sold it off to settlers and one of my ancestors was one of those settlers. I don't know who cared for the land before that.
We grow certified organic vegetables and Christmas trees. The farm is about 16 acres altogether, where we cultivate an acre and a half of row crops and two and a quarter acres of Christmas trees. There are five or six acres of hay and six or seven acres of woodland. I didn’t realize the delight of growing things until I was in college when I got involved in a community garden with a couple of my friends, and it just turned on a light inside me. The knowledge that my family had this farm and that my mother was due to inherit part of it sort of pointed me in this direction in the late 70s. But kids, a career, and all those things delayed getting serious about farming. My first career was as a high school teacher. I started getting more serious about farming in 2003. I planted Christmas trees and over time, I figured out things I didn't want to plant, things I wasn't good at, and things that would make money. I still do science writing, though I don't do as much as I used to. It used to be three-quarter time and quarter-time farming and now it's pretty much flipped. In terms of money, I still make more of my money from writing than from farming. My wife is a former teacher and is now a tutor. She does some of the farming, but it's mostly me.
I work pretty much full-time during the summer, from the beginning of May to early October. I don't take a day off, but I don't push myself to work eight hours a day, either. Probably 50 to 60 hours a week during the summer, and then during the fall, it’s Christmas trees and putting the annual beds to bed.
TNF: How do you market your products?
Robinson: I'm actually reasonably good at selling. I don't like to leave the farm, though. Partly because I know that as soon as I leave the farm there are so many more things I could be doing productively or just enjoying the day. If I've left the farm, I'm not doing those things. So I don't go to farmers’ markets or have a delivery schedule for retail customers. About a third of my sales are the CSA, about a third are cut-your-own Christmas trees, and about a third are what I call a la carte retail sales. I have an Instagram account where I say what's available and what it costs. People text me their orders. I fill them, put them in a cooler, they pick them up at the end of the day. It works really well. And then I have restaurant customers here in town, which is a 20-minute round trip, so it's hardly like leaving the farm. We're about to start our spring salad CSA. There will be 65 shares this year - it’s a bag of salad greens a week. For our summer CSA, we have 50 to 60 shares. We do what most of the world used to call a half share - it's enough vegetables for a couple or probably a little much for a single person. I don't spend much time marketing. I send out my email a few months ahead and say, “We're doing this again, do you want to join?” Maybe two-thirds, probably three-quarters, reop each time. I post on Instagram, which usually brings a few more people, and then there is word of mouth. People pick up two days a week on our porch. With the ala carte orders, people who decide not to do the CSA know they can get just about everything they want from week to week.
TNF: What is it you love most about farming?
Robinson: I love to grow garlic. It's easy to do it poorly and almost as easy to do it really well. And at this point, I take a little bit of unreasonable pride in thinking I do it well. One of these years, it will catch up to me and I will have a terrible crop. But it's gone well for seven or eight years, and I love it. I love the fact that it's counter-cyclical. You plant it in the fall, which always feels like a great joy. It's a nice time when everything else is dying, but you plant it, and then you don’t have to think about it again for a very long time. I cover it, add some leaves and forget about it for a long time.
TNF: What do you like least about farming?
Robinson: I hate weeding. And I'm not very good at it, which is to say I'm not very fastidious about it. And I don't get around to it as often as I should. Because, you know, just because you don't see the weeds doesn't mean you shouldn't be weeding, and it really became somewhat of a crisis. Then five or six years ago I discovered leaves as mulch and leaves as mulch have saved my bacon and changed my life.
TNF: You've really organized your farming around your tastes and the schedule that you want to have.
Robinson: Yeah, I have. And you know, I don't have much wisdom to offer anybody. But I think one of the keys to staying happy as a farmer as you get bigger is exactly that - decide where your parameters and guardrails really are and try to make your system work within them. I have virtually no infrastructure here. I don't have a barn. I don't have a cooler. I have a bunch of beer coolers that I keep stocked with ice packs for the stuff that I really need to keep cool from day to day. My philosophy has been all along to try to work within these limitations. When I was young and foolish, I thought what farmers did was grow hay, because that's what my grandfather did. He bought new haying equipment back in the 60s, and I started using it in the late 70s. I'm still using much of that same equipment and it's quite possible it will outlast me, but it's also quite possible it won't - and when the baler breaks, I don't know what I will do. So I make a bit of hay. It's actually better hay now than it was when I started because over the past five or six years, I've gotten a good arrangement with a local horse stable. They bring me a lot of manure. I spread it on the hay field and it's done really nice things. Since I don't have a barn to store the hay, I have a friend who raises goats - a certified organic raw milk goat dairy - and I cut the hay and she comes and picks up almost all of it. Truth be told, I hate to hay, but I do it because I have hay fields.
TNF: What surprised you about being a farmer?
Robinson: While I spend a lot of time farming, and I absolutely love it, and think it's valuable to do for me and my community, I don't make a lot of money at it. I find that fact problematic, and it bothers me that I feel that. However, there are an awful lot of outstanding farmers who don't like to talk about the fact that they don't make very much money doing what they do. I think they feel as though it's either a failing or it's the one thing in their life that they can't control. One of the beautiful things about farming is that we can't control the weather, but at least I control just about every hour of every day that I work. I control how much I want to grow, how much I want to sell, and who I want to sell to. And that is an extraordinary amount of freedom.
TNF: Is there anything you find stressful about farming?
Robinson: Well, my situation might be a little different. I have titrated my time between writing and farming to the point where I keep my hand in writing, and make a reasonable amount of money at it. And I do a lot of farming. And the combination of those two gives me the money I need and the work I love. I don't find it stressful per se, I don’t lie awake at night for that reason. The stress I am lucky enough to have is what to do with this farm when I'm ready to die. My children don't want to farm. We live in a very wealthy suburb. There aren't young farmers who can afford to buy this place.
TNF: Do you think it is our role as small organic farmers to support People of Color or other folks with less inherited wealth to farm or access farmland?
Robinson: Well, I think the responsibility lies with everyone to some extent. We live in a country that has a glorious and a disgraceful history. And the glory that we inherit goes along with the disgrace that we inherit, and the responsibility for healing is everybody's. Do we as farmers have special responsibility? I would say no. We're certainly much closer to the knowledge of the problem and that knowledge invokes the responsibility to say something about it, certainly, but not to address it materially in ways that are not equally the responsibility of everybody else. These are the sins of the country as a whole, and the country as a whole has responsibility. Is it practical to expect that to happen? It feels a lot more practical than it did 30 years ago. Whether that's just the moment we're in, or whether that arc is truly bending toward justice as we speak is a question I don't have a great deal of insight on. NOFA, as an organization, has made itself concerned admirably with these issues.
TNF: What do you see as the most significant change in farming from when you started?
Robinson: The most significant change has been the growth and appreciation for organic produce. When I started in 1980, there was barely a farmers’ market to be had. There was no certification, no widespread understanding of what organic even meant. That's been huge for my ability to run a small farm, and it's been huge for the whole movement. Also, I'm really impressed with what I've seen with no-till methods, also not on the horizon 30 years ago. Almost everything we do is no-till, with initially a heavy layer of compost to bury the weed seeds, and then a heavy layer of leaf mulch on top of it. I'll talk your ear off about growing no-till potatoes. That was one of those crops where I just thought I was ready to give up because I couldn't figure out a way to grow without plowing through five-foot-tall weeds to find my potatoes until I discovered the beauty of leaves. And now, I love it.
TNF: Do you think it's important that farmers participate in an organization like NOFA?
Robinson: Yes. I think it's important. As a certified organic farmer, I feel it is my responsibility to be a member of NOFA, and that it should be the responsibility of every certified farmer. A certified farmer who doesn't understand what NOFA has done over the years to make their lives better and make their enterprise better doesn't know their history. NOFA is the right place for anybody who cares about growing food the right way. I would like to see The Natural Farmer grow in importance and its reach. It is perhaps a pipe dream of mine, but I think a version of The Natural Farmer could sit in the Whole Foods aisles, as something that would attract conscious consumers.
A fellow member of TNF's AC, Elizabeth is a farmer and writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.