A Growing Demand For Fresh

A visit to Cedar Rock Gardens is a journey to a lost agrarian past; a slow meander along Walker’s Creek towards Essex Bay and into a rural part of Essex and Gloucester that feels long forgotten and somehow still unnoticed.   A past and place that is quiet and peaceful and beautiful.

But something new is trending at Cedar Rock Gardens and it’s happening across New England (and certainly Cape Ann).  Young people, like Tucker Smith and Elise Jillson of Cedar Rock Gardens are farming, improbably but successfully, amidst the boulders and rocky outcroppings of a seemingly infertile New England coast driven by a new, fast growing demand for organic, fresh and artisan local food.  Two weeks ago, Cedar Rock Gardens closed for the season to the general public, but their wholesale and CSA (“Community Supported Agriculture”) customers will keep them busy in the farm’s greenhouses through January.

Tucker and Elise are right out of central casting, a handsome couple with soiled hands and coveralls; fixing tractors, building barns and growing greens.  Tucker grew up at Cedar Rock Gardens, where his father raised livestock and the love of farming came naturally to him. He met Elise in high school and they’ve been together, farming and growing, ever since.  In 2011, Tucker partnered with his friend Noah Coarser Kellerman, at Aprilla Farm in Essex, to run a CSA business that produced fresh vegetables for its shareholders and that was where he first noticed the fast growing demand for fresh, local farm-grown vegetables.  Both Noah and Tucker were brought up on their family’s farm; neither were brought up “to take over” per se. Both did.  

For Tucker, he saw the growing popularity of CSAs. Farming was natural for him, especially local farming.  With a general idea of meeting a CSA market, he went to the Stockbridge Agricultural School at UMass Amherst.  (Elise went to UMass Amherst as well, pursuing corporate finance.) They graduated and were off and running back to the 18.5 acres at Cedar Rock Gardens, where that growing demand for fresh had them building three new greenhouses and renting additional farming acreage in the neighborhood.

Elise and Tucker currently supply a number of local restaurants (like The Market in Annisquam and Ithaki in Ipswich) and farmstands (Utopia in Manchester) and run a 70-member CSA that offers each member a half bushel of fresh vegetables each week for approximately $33.00 a week.  Their green houses are full of vegetables: fat, bright red heirloom tomatoes, lettuces, arugula, spinach, beets and on and on, and their processing barn (built through funding over Go Fund Me) is stacked with that produce, washed and ready for delivery or pick up. In addition to that, they supply the local gardening community with vegetable and flower starters and seedlings during the growing season.  Cedar Rock Gardens also supplies some specialty grocery stores, such as the Common Crow in Gloucester.

While, on the surface, Tucker and Elise are bucking a downward statistical trend (Massachusetts farmland is on the decline and the average age of a Massachusetts farmer is 59.9 years old), Chris Crosby, President of Crosby’s Markets, which operates five stores on the North Shore, remarks that the current demand for fresh, locally grown food is “phenomenal” and that he and his staff are always on the lookout for new, local food producers.  Crosby notes that growing affluence and the focus on healthy food choices are driving the demand, and that the local farming industry practices have recently matured sufficient to provide a dependable supply of fresh, farm-raised food at reasonable prices.  

While traditional “trade customers” like farmstands or restaurants or markets are well known, there are interesting hybrid customers that are creatively starting ventures to serve tech-savvy customers who want fresh food from local purveyors.  Rebecca Loyd of Beverly Farms evidences this trend with a start-up called The Local Beet, an online delivery service that blends the purity of a CSA with the convenience of a connected, personal shopper. Loyd has 72 weekly customers who use The Local Beet for delivery of the foods they know and love, along with items that are a surprise.  On Friday, she blasts a text to her 72 clients with a menu of available goods from her local resources (including Cedar Rock Gardens, Alprilla, among many other artisanal micro-food sources). By Tuesday, she is assembling and delivering their weekly haul (and including a weekly recipe as well) at their doorsteps.   

For her clients, The Local Beet is like having a restaurant chef provide farm-fresh, artisanal food to stock the kitchen.  But Loyd sees it as something more; a universal language spoken through organic, locally raised food “that connects people to each other, to place and themselves.”