How Rosaly’s garden grew into organic Peterborough farm
PETERBOROUGH -- Rosaly’s Garden and Farmstand on Route 123 was started as a family garden by Rosaly Bass 40 years ago and is now the oldest certified organic farm in the state.
Last week, four workers were hoeing weeds in a field of lettuce — work that continues in all weather — as rain threatened.
“If we don’t go out and do that, we don’t get a crop,” farm manager Matt Gifford said.
The farm employs 11 people, including five women who work the fields with Gifford.
“They pull all the weeds by hand so it’s a very labor-intensive thing,” he said. “The labor going into it takes a lot more expense than conventional farming. I could run this farm by myself if I sprayed.”
Dorothy Meyers said she enjoys the work.
“I love it. It’s really nice to be connected to where our food comes from,” Meyers said, noting the farm would not be what it is today without Gifford. “He’s a great boss,” she said.
Gifford, 34, co-owns the farm with Rosaly Bass, 76. She said over the past several years she has been cutting back on her farm duties and been transferring ownership of farm equipment to Gifford, who has a degree in agriculture as well as a degree from UNH’s Thompson School.
“We’re producing more goods, and we’re doing it with a lot less labor,” Gifford said. “I would say we produce about twice as much as we did when I started, with a third of the people.”
He said strides have been made with more efficient farm equipment but also in specializing.
“Seven or eight years ago, we had to rein things in and shrunk. We were kind of doing too much and when you do too much, you don’t do anything well,” Gifford said. The farm has been slowly growing every year since, he said.Pick your own raspberries, blueberries and flowers draw customers back again and again. This time of year, the farm plants 1,500 heads of seven different types of lettuce a week. And during peak season, the Farmstand sells 200 to 300 pounds of tomatoes a day.“One of the things we’ve been able to do is to make it sustainable financially, which is huge,” Gifford said.
This year the farm was able to buy a new tractor with profits from last year.
“It was the first tractor we’ve ever paid for with farm funds, which feels pretty good,” Gifford said.
Growing up organic
Born in 1937, Rosaly Bass grew up on a farm in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts with her parents and four siblings during World War II. Though it wasn’t called organic farming back then, Bass said she learned from her mother how to grow food without pesticides.
“My mother was really against using chemicals. DDT was just becoming available for use,” Bass said.
Bass grew up, got married, had two children and settled in Francestown. She divorced and took her children to New York City, where she taught in a Harlem public school.
In 1973, she married former congressman Perkins Bass and settled into his Peterborough farmhouse.
Rosaly Bass immediately set to work to grow a garden for her new family, which included Bass’ five children.
“I grew up on a farm ... so it was very sort of natural to get into,” Bass said. “I was thinking about organic, but I also was not thinking about having a huge farm.”
She grew too much, though.
“So I started selling to The Folkway Restaurant and I thought, ‘Hey this is fun.’” In 1990 she opened the Farmstand where today about 90 percent of the farm’s produce is sold. Overflow is sold wholesale to local stores, from Roy’s Market in Peterborough to Blueberry Fields in Keene.
Perkins Bass was always supportive of the business, she said.
“He bought me my first tractor, not only my first tractor, but all my tractors. In fact he didn’t like getting me jewelry, but he loved getting me tractors.”
20 acres of gardens
Rosaly Bass’ aim has always been to grow organically, so when the state started issuing certification in 1989, she was one of the first in line. Only one other farm in the state was registered before her, but that farm has since closed, Bass said. Rosaly’s is not only the oldest but also the largest organic farm in the state; it cultivates 20 acres. Gifford said there are other farms that are physically larger, but don’t have as many acres in cultivation.
Organic farms are now held to national standards first and then state standards.
“It’s rather rigorous,” Bass said.
Before Perkins Bass passed away in 2011, he transferred his ownership of his conserved farm land to his adult children, who are happy to have the farm land actively used.
“It’s mutually beneficial,” Gifford said.
A high school dropout when he started as a farmhand at 19, Gifford soon found his calling in farming and returned to school to study agriculture.Organic farming doesn’t mean no spraying at all, Gifford said. There are some organic compounds certified organic farms are allowed to use, he said, adding, “Spraying is the last line of defense for us.”“Anything you can do to avoid spraying, we do,” Bass said.
Four decades after starting the organic farm, Bass said interest in organic farming is surging.
“There’s a huge interest in farming locally. There is also a huge interest in organic farming,” she said. “I think a lot of conventional farmers are beginning to realize that a lot of the techniques that organic farms are using are better.”Organic has the stigma of being more expensive, but the customer base continues to grow, Gifford said. Young people more and more are choosing to shop organic, he said.“It’s not a novelty. It’s an ideology,” he said. “Our customer base is incredibly loyal.”