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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Gabriel

Farmer Profiles: Jack and Julie from Many Hands Organic Farm, Barre, MA

 Interviewed by Elizabeth Gabriel


Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge

TNF: 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.


Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge started the Many Hands Organic farm in 1982 in Barre, MA, on land Indigenous to the Nipnuc people. Besides farming, they both held at-home jobs to be with their children as they grew. Julie was the executive director of NOFA/Mass for most of her 36-year tenure, Jack was The Natural Farmer's editor for 33 years, and Jack was the Massachusetts chapter's policy director. They first received organic farm certification from NOFA/Mass in 1987. Many Hands has always thrived because of Jack and Julie’s dedication and commitment to their community. They also run the Many Hands Sustainability Center, a nonprofit that serves all populations' needs, including such underserved groups as former prisoners, immigrants, youth and family farmers.  Jack and Julie received a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from NOFA in July at the NOFA Summer Conference.  This honor isn’t given lightly or even annually, and Jack and Julie deserve it fully.


I remotely sat down with Jack and Julie over a cup of tea on a cold spring day. It was a pleasure to hear more about them and their story and to see them talk with each other - reminisce and share stories.  Their love for the farm and the farm community was palpable - even through the internet! 


TNF: You both were a big part of NOFA and NOFA/Mass and were involved for so long. How’s life after NOFA and TNF?


Julie: Life on the farm is just Fun!  We’ve got the systems really in place and when the systems work, it opens us up to see what more we can do and how abundant and beautiful everything is. Leaving the ED position at NOFA/Mass in 2020 was a big shift - but I haven’t looked back.  Farming was always a second gig to being an ED. I’ve always been farming, but I’ve really wanted to see what I could do with the farm when it’s not my second gig. I worked for NOFA on Tuesdays and Thursdays all day, and Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, plus many evenings and weekends. But now I can really dig in - literally! It seems pretty easy to have one full-time job. I get to be outside all the time I want and also do things like clean up our farm website or other things I want to do in the office. 


Jack:  I was relieved when I finally gave up the TNF at the end of 2020.  My arthritis and hearing were getting worse and it was time for me to leave. I greatly enjoyed my time there and was pleased to do it alongside farming.  We knew we weren’t going to make a living just by farming, and the work with NOFA certainly let us get by economically.  Being part of NOFA and the community was a great way to connect with people -- I could travel around the region and interview farmers! I felt really entitled to learn about what was happening in the farming network.  On the farm, I was always the handyman, caring for the “dead” stuff – machinery, buildings, fences, systems – while Julie was the farmer handling the live stuff.  I design board games on the side, as well as fix things, handle the budget and get food ready in the kitchen.  I keep the farmer farming.


TNF:  Briefly tell us about your farm. 

Jack: We’re in Massachusettes, where it's “rocks, trees, and swamp.”  It’s common for land here to have too much water and not be prime farming land. We have 55 acres, 40 are woods, and the other 15 are open. We’ve built our whole farm on these old hay fields after buying the land we could afford in 1980.  We have a few sheds, a chicken house, and a barn we built by hand with post and beam. We’ve been Certified Organic since 1987.  


Julie: My mother was on our Illinois farm growing up and into health and gardening and I gained that interest from her.  I did some community organizing and met Jack after moving to Boston. I wanted to return to farming and was able to convince Jack to move to the country.


Jack: Our first goal was always to raise food for our family.  We built our house ourselves in 1982 while our four kids were running around. We wanted to be “homesteaders.”  We eventually started selling produce, meat and eggs in 1985 and started a CSA in 1992. This is our 32nd year offering a CSA.  


Julie: We’ve raised turkeys, chickens for eggs and meat, pigs, cows and sheep, even rabbits - almost everything besides goats at some point.  The integration of animals into our system has been important to us.  When we first got to the land, we planted a big fruit orchard, including the usual fruits plus paw paws, mulberries and persimmons.  We make tinctures, salves and soaps with some wild herbs, and of course, we grow a lot of veggies. 


TNF: What is your least favorite chore or farming activity and why?

Julie: I don’t like closing the chicken house after I’ve taken my shoes off for the night.  I’m more of a 4 am kind of person - so after dark, I like to be in.  My dad always was really positive and spirited: “do what you like or like what you do”.  I guess I don’t like doing repetitive things by myself - that’s why we’re called Many Hands.  We have had the kids help, apprentices, and now staff and working shareholders.  We have a big community of hands who make our farm happen. 


TNF: What do you love most about farming and why?

Julie: I’m an organizer - so I like getting people to do things. I like helping other people find themselves through farming and engaging them to their highest potential - finding out what they are good at and helping them through the struggles they show up with.  I also like helping people continue to grow and be their best selves. On the farm, I can see people working hard and having a good time.  Farming helps them through their struggles - it helps them be their best self.


TNF: We know that land access is the biggest challenge new and young farmers face today, especially for first-generation farmers.  How did you access the land you farm on?


Jack: When we bought this land in 1980, we were organizers with relatively low-paid jobs in Boston. But as a hobby, I got into board game design with a few friends. We designed a few games and had them published and sold. It wasn’t much, but we saved it all to buy land. East of Worcester was out of range price-wise, even back then.  We did a massive 2-year search, but it was really hard to find anything open we could afford – to say nothing of good farmland! We finally got this land for $1,000/acre – which seemed high back then. 


TNF: What has been your biggest challenge in farming and why?  

Julie: We had a challenge about the farm viability between us.  We had disagreements about how much time should be spent on the farm and what we had to earn to give back to our family structure.  That’s one of the reasons we both ended up working for NOFA. NOFA and organic farming were growing at the time (in the late 80s) so it was a good time to do that work.


Over the past 40 years, I moved from using an organic but tillage-based system to utilizing soil and eco-system improvements like mulching, cover crops, animal integration, and intelligent mineral amendments for the soil as well as using foliar feeding, tarping and no-till. Now, we’re at the point where we don’t even need to irrigate!  Our soil management program means the soil holds more nutrients and water.


Jack: Another challenge we ran into was during COVID-19 when we chose not to get vaccinated and were public about that choice. I had always felt we needed to farm in accordance with nature and I guess I felt that way about health care too. I had been fighting the ag chemical companies for their toxic pesticides and GMOs. I knew how they lied and abused farmers, falsified studies and captured regulatory agencies like the FDA. And now I had the chance to either get in bed with these companies or trust my immune system. It wasn’t a hard choice. I thought most NOFA members would make the same choice. But many people in NOFA - people we really thought were our friends - ended up shunning and trying to shame us.  It was painful for a while; much of our tribe left us.  But we had each other and made lots of new friends. The farm always stayed open during that time and we always opened our home for people to join us for meals at our table - vaccinated or not.  


TNF: What was a mistake you made as a farmer?

Julie: I always loved the rototiller, but I didn’t realize how much it enhanced the weeds and destroyed the soil system. Going no-till in 2014 was a good move.


TNF: You’ve been farming a long time.  What do you see as the most significant change in this line of work from when you started until today?

Julie: Seeing the shift of organic moving from these “crazy” hippy farmer people to something legitimized when organic was taken over by Federal policy was a huge change. People seemed excited, but we knew this could be problematic.  Organic quickly became chic and really watered down - and many other certifications like Farmer’s Pledge and Real Organic popped up. This was a big concern when working at NOFA. Not working at NOFA anymore, I don’t worry about all this so much - I can just farm and be the best farmer I can be. But I’m glad organizations like NOFA keep worrying about policy because it’s really important.


TNF: You’re writing a book together - that’s exciting.  Can you tell us about it?

Jack: It’s a retrospective on our life and farm.  We wrote it together and didn’t fight at all (laughing). We put both sides in the book even when our thoughts didn’t match up! It is a lot about farming but also a lot on thriving in rural areas, raising spirited children, eating well, and trying to make a difference in your lives. It’s supposed to be out in November and is being published by Chelsea Green (stay tuned for a review of Many Hands Make a Farm in the Spring 2024 issue of TNF).


TNF: What two books/blogs/podcasts/resources do you suggest people read or watch about farming or land use?   

Julie: John Kempf has one on farming and does a regenerative farming podcast. 


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