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GETTING SALTY

On being a small family farmer during a pandemic

Kim Denney bought a farm as a single mom with two young kids. Now Hardwick's Chestnut Farms is a pioneer meat CSA in Massachusetts.

Kim Denney from Chestnut Farms.
Kim Denney from Chestnut Farms.Courtesy Photo

Kim Denney, 58, is the cheerful, self-described “cranky old hen” who runs Chestnut Farms in Hardwick. A familiar face at farmers’ markets throughout the area and at the Boston Public Market, she began operating a meat CSA in 2005.

“I had my first round of breast cancer, and I’d always wanted to farm. I thought, ‘I’m pretty sure I could get about seven years before bankruptcy.’ So I decided to take the leap into farming, and we were the first meat CSA in the state of Massachusetts,” she says.

During COVID-19, her mission of connecting people with sustainably sourced food seems all the more poignant.

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Let’s talk about your farm. When did you buy it?

I purchased in 1998 as a single mother with two small children, ages 4 and 7. Two daughters. My line is, I read the “Little House on the Prairie” series too much and did not have effective therapy. So in lieu of that, I got divorced. I was living in Harvard and chose to buy a farm in Hardwick as a single mom, thinking I was going to braid my hair and take my horses in the field. Reality set in when there were literally bats in the attics and snakes in their nests in the basement of the farmhouse. A nice man who had been my insurance salesman came to look at the property and said to me, “Where’s your husband?”

I said, “I’m not married right now.” I’d just gone through a divorce. And he said, “Oh, well then, I can’t give you insurance,” and got up and walked out. This was 1997! I soon met my current husband who was native to Hardwick, and we have built the farm together. So to be fair, it’s nice to say ‘single woman farmer,’ but I am well-married in that he’s got a lot of skill sets and he’s a good guy. I ended up with three kids, and they were all raised in our farmhouse with no central heat.

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What has changed since COVID-19 set in?

Probably the same things [as everyone]. You look around and say, “Hmm, this is my family. And I chose this? Really? Can I just go have a little alone time?”

There was a blip in probably middle May, end of May, when we were all still in lockdown, and the meat shortage was all over the news. There was a meat pandemic. And I would wake up to 250 e-mails, which, because we are a CSA farm first and foremost and because we really work hard to connect communities to agriculture, I really want to focus on my community. I can’t just conjure up a cow. Right? So just because we have 200 people who want to be new members doesn’t mean we have 200 available slots, and the lead time for a cow is 24 to 29 months. I don’t have an office . . . I’m not operating out of a tech center. We actually have a farm, with animals, with 158 acres. We have partner farmers. We know their families and their children very well who have their own couple hundred acres and their animals. But none of us can just fly the animals in.

How do you meet the demand?

We don’t. And that’s OK. You know what? That’s OK. Back to connecting communities to agriculture: We’re not in this to make millions. We’re in it to do a good job of educating people on the birth-to-plate process, what it takes to have an animal go from birth to your dinner plate in a happy, humane, and sustainable way.

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How does that happen?

Making sure that babies stay with their mothers, excepting poultry. Poultry hatch, and our poultry comes in the mail. But the babies are allowed to stay with their moms. The moms have, in the case of the hogs or the goats, a pen that’s clean so that the animals are safe. We let animals nurse for six weeks — six to eight weeks for our hogs, three months for the sheep and goats, and up to six months for our cows to give them a really good start in life. And then when we go to harvest, we use our own trailer and we use slaughterhouses that are fully USDA [compliant] as is required by law to resell.

We choose ones that are family-owned and that are small. The advantage of the smaller slaughterhouse is you still have one full-time, government-paid USDA inspector there, but most of our slaughterhouses have two or three rooms. They might have a kill floor, a butcher room, and then the freezer and office space. And that’s it, maybe 1,200 square feet. So it’s a lot harder for things to slip by an inspector in that space than it is if you’re in North Dakota, and you have a Hormel plant of 400,000 square feet.

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What would you say to people right now who are changing the way they buy food, changing the way they shop, and changing what they want to eat?

Spend your dollar in the local economy. A dollar spent in the local economy goes around that same economy seven times, I believe is the number. A dollar spent in a big-box store or in a large national or multinational chain at most will go around a community three times. … I think people underestimate the power of the local economy. [A CSA] is not for everybody, and it certainly isn’t for everyone at all phases of life. If you’re traveling a lot or whatever, it might not work, but there are many ways: There are farmer’s markets. There’s the Boston Public Market. There are many ways to support local.

You wanted to talk about social justice and agriculture. What do you want people to know?

I think we have a long history in this country of ignoring the fact that agriculture particularly was built on the backs of people of color. There’s a long history of exploitation of people in the agricultural world across platforms, whether you’re talking dairy, vegetables, meat, et cetera. Even today, it’s going on all through central Florida, all of the migrant workers that are there, still living in horrible shacks and being exploited. Most of them are immigrants and people of color. They don’t have voices in the South where, particularly North and South Carolina and Georgia and Alabama, which are huge poultry and pig producers for this country — these are formerly lovely rural communities that have been sort of eviscerated to the point of vacant homes, vacant lots.

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Large multinational corporations have bought up the land, and what they typically do is put a mobile home park in the center of the community. [Employees] are paid minimum wage, federal minimum. This is not Massachusetts, this not 15 dollars an hour, this is whatever the federal wage per hour is right now at 40 hours a week. They live in a mobile home park, and the hogs and the chickens are raised indoors in these huge facilities. …

As a country, we really need to look at all of our systems and structures and talk about what that looks like and have really uncomfortable conversations and educate and communicate. Only then will change happen. It’s a lot more comfortable for people to sit quietly and think that their food is coming from a tomato that’s picked at Newton Community Farms. That’s great for the three weeks a year that Newton Community Farms is producing tomatoes. The other weeks a year, it’s coming from industrial agricultural production, and I don’t think we talk about that nearly enough.

What can an average reader, or customer, do?

To read, to become informed, to communicate. . . . The beginning is really having uncomfortable conversations about reality and listening to others’ differing viewpoints respectfully.

Speaking of reality, or detaching from reality: What have you been doing to cope psychologically these days?

My life doesn’t change. You work, you get up, you work. Honestly, we’re seven days a week. This is another conversation I’ve had this week. As we’re getting older, the seven days a week gets harder, but I’m 21 years without my children ever having a holiday without doing barn chores. You feed and water and check everybody before you open Christmas presents, before you sit down on Thanksgiving, before you look for Easter eggs. . . . What has changed is my oldest daughter and grandchildren have come from New York City, and we’ve had the joy of having them here for five months, so that has been fantastic.

What’s your favorite snack?

Beef jerky. By far. Come on. That’s easy. That’s a no-brainer.

Interview has been edited and condensed.


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.