Gather Round the Table

Vegan produce farmers in New Hampshire. A 100-year-old family farm in Massachusetts. The Jesuits in Ciampi Hall. Three distinct communities, who all share a reverence for food, and mealtime, as a place to create and nurture community.

By Katharine Whittemore

"First we eat, then we do everything else,” said the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher. So I found as I zipped around New England this summer, meeting and eating with dozens of people, all brought together by the bounties of the earth, and the bounties of community. Sometimes, I followed around alumni who cultivate the earth and its creatures. Other times, I explored right here on campus, where new community gardens now beckon. Finally, I dug into the spirituality of food by sitting down to dinner with 15 insightful priests. Talk about chewing over an assignment; all summer long, I got to think about eating—and land, and growing and sustaining our very existence. In other words, “everything else.” So please, read on, and help yourself.

Austin Brothers Valley Farm, Belchertown, Massachusetts

It’s a steamy July morning, and I’m walking along two colorful rows of some 30 buy-local-feel-good vendors (cut flowers! serious zucchinis! artisanal goat cheese!). The spread in front of me is the weekly farmers market in Amherst, Massachusetts, held in the Spring Street parking lot by the town commons. It’s a 40-year tradition in the town and, on its website, bills itself as “one of the best places for local food, fun and community.”

Each vendor gets one parking space. I head over to #432—dove gray awning, big blue coolers, hanging pink impatiens—to meet the folks b7ehind Austin Brothers Valley Farm, of Belchertown, Massachusetts.

Patricia Austin ’77 greets me. She was a biology major at Holy Cross, and is now an environmental quality engineer for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. I’m introduced to her sister, Maureen, and sister-in-law, Roxanne, the family crew running the stand this weekend. Five of the six Austin siblings, plus spouses and eight children, live within a few miles of the farm. (Patricia, lately of Worcester, is the outlier.)   

The Austins have occupied their land since the 1880s, when Patricia’s Irish grandparents bought it up, leaving The Dingle to hang up a shingle in this Connecticut River bottomland. Ní dhéanann an fear a bhfuil bó gá speal, goes the saying: “The man with a cow doesn’t need a scythe.” And indeed, from the start the Austin farm didn’t sell much produce. It produced milk. Many farms in the area were dairy farms. The first generation of Austins owned 13 cows and sold milk and butter in Holyoke. The second generation had 60 cows and sold to big milk companies like Agrimark and Garelick. When Patricia was growing up, her father, Joe Austin, used to note the nice symmetry that, in 1949, there were 49 family farms in Belchertown. Now there are maybe a half dozen.

Dairy farming became pretty much unsustainable by 2000, though the Austins milked it out until 2006. That’s when they reinvented their 130-acre farm as a purveyor of quality meats, adding plenty of other creative ways to survive too (one magic word for you: agritourism). Her nephew, Michael, is the herdsman, who works with his son, Jim. Her brother, Bill, plants the feed crops. Her brother-in-law, Randy, helps fix the machinery. Her sister-in-law, Diane, gathers and ties the hay bales. Maureen and Roxanne specialize in marketing the farm to consumers, taking workshops at a local advocacy organization called CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). Patricia fills in at farmers markets and helps “herd” (direct quote) everyone together to map out strategy.

The “brothers” of Austin Brothers refer to Patricia’s father, Joe, and his five brothers. This generation of brothers numbers Joe Jr. and Bill. Patricia’s oldest brother, Army first lieutenant Michael Paul Austin, of the 299th Engineer Battalion, died in Vietnam in 1971.

Amid sorrows and setbacks, and against the odds, Austin Brothers Valley Farm is a heartening rarity; a farm that’s getting by, where all of the siblings still pitch in—with all firmly committed to not selling the land. They have 100 head of cattle and sell high-quality, grass-fed beef direct to individuals, plus gourmet butcher shops (Sutter Meats) and high-end restaurants (Sierra Grille, The Green Bean) in nearby Northampton. Here in the five-college area, they also get some business from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Hampshire College.  

But, like I said, meat doesn’t meet all their needs. The Austins have also embraced “value added products,” to shoehorn in some jargon. And to add value, you have to be creative. The Austins sell tickets to corn mazes (so they don’t get lost themselves when cutting the mazes, they hoist butterfly nets aloft so they can find each other above the stalks). They offer birthday parties and hayrides. Patricia’s sister, Eileen, cooks for the events, and Patricia’s friend Mary Ann Fairbrother Kristan aces the aesthetics, as I can see from the photos on Roxanne’s smartphone: a huge painted turkey on plywood, the shed decorated with sunflowers and (my personal favorite) the scarecrow dressed up in a full bridal gown. These add fun and atmosphere for educational field trips, which are overseen by Maureen, a retired fourth-grade teacher. The Austins have also hosted corporate events, like for the staff of a local Home Depot.

All this prettification is a far cry from how Patricia’s generation grew up. “There weren’t many farm kids at Holy Cross,” she recalls. “I felt so different, and the other kids seemed so wealthy to me.” Patricia really realized the disconnect when she brought home her roommate, Janet Maycock Abbott ’77, the daughter of a Wethersfield, Connecticut, phone company executive. Patricia and Janet still laugh about what happened: “I was showing Janet around the farm and took her into the barn. She almost passed out from the smell!”  

Again, with the creative ways to generate income: The Austins may not sell crops, but they do grow feed for their herd, with premium hay sold to the area’s equestrian farms and stables. At today’s farmers market, Maureen and Roxanne also sell their own chicken eggs—playfully labeled “Two Chicks”—nestled in these fantastic chartreuse egg cartons. When I gush over the color and design, Patricia jokes “they’re channeling Martha,” as in Stewart.

This playfulness and go-for-it attitude has won the Austins a following, which became clear when I buttonholed several customers. Take Susan Lowenstein, of Amherst, who totes jewel-toned cloth bags as she works her way through the market: “I think they’re fabulous,” she says. “I’ve bought from the Austins for years. I like that they do grass-fed, and I use their ground beef for steak tartare.” Elliott and Cheryl Burke like to buy skirt steak for stir-fry and Asian spring rolls. Elliott’s dad visited here from Michigan a few years ago, and they served him Austin beef burgers. “My dad still talks about it when he comes out here. ‘Are you going to make those burgers again?’”

Grace Griecci stops by every Saturday, mostly for the London broil, and she says the Austins “are very good and sweet people.” Good and sweet is definitely the vibe here. They treat everyone warmly, from the cashless hipsters who swipe their cards on Square, to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) customers who hand over wooden chits. Each week, the Austins set out a water bowl for passing dogs. They chalk welcoming pictures on the macadam (flowers, flags, hamburgers). They display a handy beef cuts chart for customers. If you ask for a certain cut, and they’re out of it, they take your name and number and call you when it’s back in stock.

It’s all part of making their product accessible, and their family story engaging. The Austins’ herd is raised naturally on green pasture, and fed on hay, silage and fresh water. No hormones, no feed additives. Patricia wishes more customers would come straight to the farm to buy their meats. “We’ve made the corn maze a destination,” she says. “Now we want to be a ‘beef destination.’ Our prices are cheaper than Whole Foods. But people are busy, and it’s hard to get them to make an extra stop.”

I sit on the back of the Austins’ flatbed truck and watch the faces go by. It strikes me how people at farmers markets seem more serene, more savoring, than people at supermarkets. The sun is climbing in the Wedgwood sky. I hear the thunk and jingle of the cash drawer. Patricia grounds my thoughts with an observation of her own: “When I was growing up, the local market sold local food, and you didn’t think twice about that. Now, though, stores get products from all over the world and beyond.” She pauses, smiles. “But we’re still local,” she says. “And we’re still here.”