Hatchet Cove Farm

Hatchet Cove Farm
Community Supported Agriculture

At 7:30 in the morning, the greenhouses and barn are enveloped in gray fog.  Dew has settled onto the leaves of kale and chard planted in long rows extending into the mist.  Great hay wheels edge the driveway and a large farmhouse with an aubergine roof holds court at the far end.  A tall, reaching maple anchors the yard with a tire swing hanging from its largest branch. I find Reba Richardson, sleepy-eyed, sitting on the front deck with a clipboard on her lap. On it, beside a printed column of crop names, she is jotting down numbers.  Her young son Eli stands at her shoulder overseeing her calculations.  This list will make the rounds with her, a constant measure of progress throughout this harvest day.  

Reba and her husband Bill Pluecker are the farmer owners of Hatchet Cove Farm in Warren, Maine. The two met while pursuing careers in union organizing in their early twenties. “It was very intense, very emotionally draining work,” says Reba. “We took a break and came to Maine, where my parents had a seasonal place. We were there for a month trying to figure out what we were going to do next.” Both Reba and Bill had every intention of returning to a life of labor organizing, “But for some reason it was really hard for me to think about reengaging. I was so drained,” says Reba. While on leave, she and Bill each pursued farm apprenticeships. “At that point we were just exploring it,” Reba explains. “It was very incremental. We started dreaming more and more about doing our own thing. I probably would have continued apprenticing for many more years but luckily Bill was the type to say we need to just take a leap and start doing this on our own.”

For Bill, that leap into farming was a leap towards a dormant dream. His parents are avid gardeners of ornamentals, “like flowers and bushes and things that are completely impractical,” he says with a laugh. “As a family we put in hours and hours every weekend on our gardens. So I learned about plants just from being with them. But I always wanted to grow real food.” Instead he followed an activist path. “I always thought, I can’t let myself be a farmer, it’s not helping the world, it’s not changing things. But when I finally got burnt out from activism and realistically looked at myself, farming was the natural thing that I had been emotionally drawn to for so long.”

As I call out good morning to Reba through the mist she looks up, surprised to see me.  With the homestead, two young children, 5 apprentices, three cows, chickens, ducks, a dog, a cat, and 6 acres of cultivated crops, there is a lot to keep track of.  She’s forgotten that I would come today.  But no stranger to adjusting to the unexpected, she folds me into the morning’s proceedings with ease.

While she gets her kids ready to leave for camp, I wander into the fields nearest to the house. Two apprentices are at the far end of a row of Zephyr summer squash.  They are harvesting with small knives placing each courgette into a bucket.  Another apprentice stands barefoot in a patch of cucumbers.

When Reba returns, we load up into two vehicles and drive a couple of miles down the road. Much of the farm’s cultivated land is in fact spread out. “It’s not ideal,” says Reba, “but it’s what you have to do in this part of Maine. There aren’t big, flat tracts of land. You have to just start with a little bit here and a little bit there. You work with what you’ve got and it’s amazing what you can do with a small bit.” The field we arrive at is borrowed from neighbors in exchange for a share in the HCF Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

HCF’s primary focus is growing organic vegetables for its thriving CSA membership as well as servicing a few wholesale accounts to local co-ops. Their initial membership of 19 has grown to over 200. “When I had that dream of farming, I don’t think I ever imagined that we were going to have a 200 family CSA and be creating these community spaces around food and educating our apprentices and having them go off and start farms. We have created much more of a community space around this than I ever imagined would happen,” says Bill.

Towards late morning with the bulk of the harvest complete, everyone convenes in the wash shed. Reba fires up the tunes. Hoses are turned on and sinks filled. The carrots are washed down and stacked neatly in crates for the CSA pick-up later. Everyone handles the produce with a practiced, gentle touch. Greens are dropped into a stainless steel sink full of water.  Next door, in a separate tent, bunches of kale and chard are washed, their stems trimmed even.  They are piled carefully in crates and bags, some for the CSA pick-up and others for the evening delivery to two co-ops.  Alex is sent out to prepare onions and Reba tends personally to the summer squash and zucchini.

Nearby Bill kneels in a large patch of basil.  He’s picking the best crowns to send out for wholesale. I pick a Japanese beetle off of a basil leaf and ask if they’ve been pervasive this year.  He nods and says, “I try not to have any pets on the farm.  All of the animals have a job to do.  The dog runs off the deer, the cat catches the mice.  Last year my flock of ducks did a great job eating the beetles off this basil.  The flock this year hasn’t really figured it out yet.”

Teaching ducks to act as the primary agent of pesticide against beetles is just one of the current challenges facing organic farmers. Explaining the rigors of maintaining organic certification, Bill explains, “Originally the term organic was just a free and loose term but now it’s federally regulated. If you gross more than $5000 in a year off a farm you cannot call it organic unless you are certified. There is something called the National Organic Program and it’s a list of rules about what is organic and what is not organic.”  Though Hatchet Cove Farm is certified, Bill explains, “We have to recertify and get inspected again every year. The certification process itself includes a 60-70-page application. And I have to keep a daily log of everything I do on the farm, everything that I’ve applied to or taken off of the fields as well as what we’ve sold and where.”

Understandably, there are farmers who practice within the regulations of organic farming but forgo certification given the complex and expensive process. Anticipating my next question, Bill asks, “What’s the point of putting so much effort into certification?” I nod. “For me it tends to be more of a political stance. It gives us more of a political voice. We are officially counted on the side of organic farmers which means when lobbyists from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) go to Washington to lobby on the farm bill they can say ‘we represent this many certified organic farms, this much acreage, this much produce.’ And then, even more relevant in some ways, is our market power. One of the things that’s really holding organic agriculture back is that there are not that many products that are organically certified which I can use on the farm. Unless they’ve passed a really rigorous certification or review process I can't use it, even though it might very well be fine to use. So when they look at our farm and they say, okay HCF spends $100,000 a year on goods and services on their farm and they combine us with everybody else, they see that there is a sizeable market of organic farmers out there. There is more incentive to create products for us. If we grew the same way as we do but we weren’t certified, you couldn’t count us as part of that number so clearly.”

Back in the wash shed, as the afternoon wears on the music is turned off and it’s all hands on deck as the clock’s minute hand speeds towards 5 when the CSA pick-up begins. Space has become the defining constraint.  Boxes, crates, and buckets of produce are shuffled around, stacked here and restacked there. An apprentice drives produce from the wash shed to the pick up shed at the mouth of the driveway. He sets up tables to hold the week’s produce. At the far end, individual red coolers full of cheese from the Appleton Creamery stand in line next to paper bags of mushrooms from Oyster Creek Mushroom Company. Bottles of artisan olive oils by Fiore are lined up atop coolers that contain duck eggs from Rooster Ridge Farm. Another cooler nearby contains half-gallon jars of milk from the Hatchet Cove cows.  It’s much more than a vegetable only pick-up.

“Maine is an incredible place to be a small-scale farmer. There is a lot of support here, from MOFGA to the kind of co-ops that are around here to the communities of people who are interested in eating real food,” says Reba. “We’ve got over 200 families who are excited about local products. By offering these add-on shares we’re making other local products available to our membership.” She continues, “Being able to get so many different things has become a really important part of people’s relationship with the farm. It’s just fun. It adds a lot of complexity but it’s definitely worth it because I know more people are eating more locally produced products than they would otherwise. That feels very good.”

Bill and Reba’s start in activism has immensely shaped the operations at the farm. They regularly donate food to local food pantries and Reba has put enormous effort into ensuring a diverse CSA membership. Bill explains, “She makes sure that this food is not just available to privileged people who can afford it but also to folks on food stamps, who rely on EBT payments for food. And Reba does a lot of work on getting grants and holding fundraisers for the CSA Financial Aid Fund. We are trying to make it more broadly accessible. And we offer a flexible payment plan which adds a lot of complexity on the bookkeeping side but…”

Reba adds, “It feels like we are touching a lot more people that way than we would have otherwise, which makes it a lot more satisfying for us.”

It’s no surprise that Bill and Reba’s dedication to organic farming and their commitment to getting their product into the hands of as diverse a population as possible garners immense admiration. Reba tells me, “People are always saying to us, ‘Oh it’s so great that you’re doing this for the world.’ But Bill and I feel like, actually this was sort of the easy way out.” She pauses, looking for the best way to verbalize a complicated sentiment. “I mean, of course I love farming but… It’s just less structural, it’s less societal, it’s more like being the change you want to see in the world and less like organizing on a larger scale.”

Bill concurs. “It is being the change you want to see in the world. It’s leading by example. And perhaps it’s more effective [than organizing], but it’s indirect.”

This is not the story I expected to hear. It’s easy to slot Bill and Reba into a trending model of educated, passionate, enterprising 30 something-year-olds eschewing the paved paths to personal prosperity and taking on farming as a chosen form of activism. Farming is a return to the earth, a stance opposing big business, and an avenue towards change in the world. I, and many others it would appear, have so effortlessly bestowed that narrative upon Reba and Bill. 

Though the pickup doesn’t officially start until 5, cars start pulling in at a few minutes past 4:30. For the next couple of hours a steady stream of CSA members passes through gathering up bags or baskets full of produce and more. For some it's a quick stop on the way home. For others, this is a weekly chance to catch up, converse, and decompress. Family news is shared and community news is spread. At the end of the day, a very long day at that, this community that has developed around the CSA and the interactions with members is where Reba and Bill derive the most satisfaction.