Sarah & Ryan Voiland, Red Fire Farm

“One of the goals of the farm is to provide as much diversity of food for as long in the season as possible. We’ll use the machine for bagging up a lot of the storage crops that provide the community with local food options year-round...”

“Local food is built by everyone,” says Sarah Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm in Montague and Granby MA. “We grow it, and the community makes the choice to eat it.”

It’s that sense of local food production as a community-wide project – involving farmers and consumers alike – that inspired Harold Grinspoon to establish the Local Farmer Awards in 2015. Now in its fourth year, the awards provide farms in the Western Massachusetts region up to $2,500 to fund infrastructure improvements. Major partners Big Y and Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation fund the awards along with a group of sponsors that continues to grow: Hood, Friendly’s, PeoplesBank, Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place, Ann and Steve Davis, Baystate Health, Farm Credit East, and Florence Bank.  

Sarah and her husband, Ryan, own and manage Red Fire Farm, one of 59 farms that won a total of $135,000 in awards this year. The awards aim to strengthen local farmers’ ability to compete in the marketplace so that the region benefits from the environmental, health and economic advantages of local farming.

Just how farmers grow and deliver the food that winds up on our tables is a bit of a mystery to many of us. But it’s second nature to Ryan, who started his first farm business at the age of 12 (“I was serious right from the beginning,” he says) and in 1990 started the business that became Red Fire Farm, one of the first certified-organic farms in Massachusetts.

For office dwellers taking a break from cubicle life, a spring visit to the farm provides instant enchantment: the tangy scent of fertile soil; long rows of churned up earth ready for fresh seeds; humid greenhouses packed with fresh, brightly colored sprouts. The farm offers an escape from email and quarterly reports and traffic congestion, as visions of a life more in tune with nature flash before the eyes.

But farming isn’t all sun, seeds, and soil. Anyone who’s enjoyed one of Red Fire Farm’s 300 varieties of 40 different crops might be surprised to learn that a heavy binder overstuffed with spreadsheet print-outs makes it all possible. The spreadsheets outline the planting plan for the season, and they’re a reminder that local farms are also local businesses.

“People shop on price, and it’s a challenge to compete because Massachusetts has some of the highest wage rates and land costs in the country,” Ryan says. Although Red Fire Farm produces food that’s fresher than other options and doesn’t have the same shipping expenses as farms operating in other regions, Ryan and Sarah have to find ways to keep operating costs down in order to provide food at a price point that appeals to consumers.

“A lot of what we’re doing to stay viable these days is getting more efficient,” Ryan says. “We’re always thinking about our processes.”
This focus on efficiency led Ryan and Sarah to request a root crop bagging machine in their winning Local Farmer Awards application. The machine will allow the farm to streamline the process of weighing and bagging crops such as carrots, beets, turnips, onions, rutabaga, potatoes, celeriac, kohlrabi, and winter radishes for retail and wholesale sales. They estimate the machine will allow them to pack the root crops twice as fast as their current, manual system. And the process isn’t just faster, it’s more ergonomic, reducing the strain of the work for farmhands.

The Local Farmer Awards are helping farmers like Ryan and Sarah address dollars-and-cents concerns because the relationship between local farmers and the local community creates value that money can’t buy. Red Fire Farm shares their food knowledge through their website and social media, providing recipes and tips that help people make healthier and more nutritious consumption choices. “We want to make it easier for people to eat local produce with the seasons,” Sarah says. “One way to do that is to give them more information.” Red Fire Farm also participates in the popular CSA farm share (Community Supported Agriculture) program, through which customers pay farms up front and receive a share of their harvests through regular distributions. About 1,500 households invest in Red Fire Farm in this way, enjoying fresh, nutritious produce in return. Red Fire Farm also donates food each week to a number of organizations in the area, including food banks and food pantries.

While the root bagging machine will help Ryan and Sarah stay competitive in a crowded marketplace, they still had the community in mind in their Local Farmers Award application. “One of the goals of the farm is to provide as much diversity of food for as long in the season as possible. We’ll use the machine for bagging up a lot of the storage crops that provide the community with local food options year-round,” Sarah notes.

Ryan and Sarah grow food with the community in mind, and there are local restaurants and stores that reciprocate that community focus by making the purchase of local produce a goal.  Many local businesses even work with the farm to plan in advance a whole season of crops they want to buy; with these arrangements Ryan and Sarah know there’s already home for some produce before the seeds are planted.
Ryan is thankful for the support that sponsors provide through the Local Farmer Awards, but not surprised. “It reflects an ethic that’s emerged in this valley about why it’s important for agriculture to be viable and local. This is an extension of the ethic that started CISA [Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture]. Local is catching on all over, but it’s not just a trend in this region. This idea started earlier here than in other parts of the country.”

With support from local agricultural ‘Buy Local’ organizations Berkshire Grown and CISA, the Local Farmer Awards program is announced in December to their member farmers; the application is open until the end of January. To be eligible, farms must be members of Berkshire Grown, CISA, or located in the Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire counties of Massachusetts, with gross sales of $10,000 or above. This is the second award for Red Fire Farm, which received funding in 2015 to upgrade their salad mix packing area.

Red Fire Farm can be found on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.