Supporting Young Farmers, Local Communities and the Land
Gibbet Hill Farm is a three-acre diversified vegetable and herb farm located in Groton, Massachusetts. Owned by the Webber Restaurant Group, this small organic farm supplies fresh produce year-round to the company’s restaurants and caterers. Sprawling across the slopes of Gibbet Hill iself, the farm offers sweeping views of the Merrimack Valley and borders an expansive pasture of about 40 black angus cattle.
For the past four seasons, the farm on Gibbet Hill has been managed by seasoned grower and Vermont native Kayleigh Boyle. She arrived at Gibbet from Gaining Ground Farm in Concord, Massachusetts, where she worked for eight seasons prior, both in the field and behind the scenes in the office. After discovering that her inspiration was most engaged during her time in the fields, she followed the path toward management and, eventually, to Gibbet.
I spoke with Kayleigh about her experience at Gibbet, her background, what inspired her to pursue agriculture as a career, and of course, about all things farming.
Farming As An Education
“Farming is an education unto itself,” Kayleigh said. “It’s a way for all of us to see what we can do when we put our heads down, and it’s incredible to see such tangible products at the end of the day.”
Having begun her career at Gaining Ground, a volunteer-oriented farm, Kayleigh was introduced to farming initially as a conduit for community engagement, one that exposes the human inclination to contribute to meaningful, tangible work.
“I think it’s a human need, and it’s empowering in so many ways,” Kayleigh said. “No matter how small a task someone does on a farm, they can really see the incredible impact they can make.”
Gibbet Hill is a regenerative, no-till, organic farm— a status that has been spear-headed and sustained by Kayleigh’s work and commitment. In the world of agriculture, these distinctions have profound impacts on the health of the land.
Regenerative agriculture improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them. It goes beyond being simply sustainable, beyond just maintaining resources, to become a truly regenerative, holistic form of land management.
One pillar of regenerative agriculture is the adoption of a low- or no-till approach to soil management. Tilling is defined as digging up, agitating, and breaking up soil, particularly with machinery, prior to planting. A no-till philosophy adheres to the idea that by disrupting the soil as little as possible, the microscopic ecosystems and beneficial fungal networks that make soil healthy can be preserved, and more organic matter can build up in the soil over time, thus improving the overall health of the land.
“No-till revived my excitement around farming,” Kayleigh said. When she discovered that many organic growers actually borrow techniques from conventional farming (like using broad-spectrum, organic-certified sprays), she decided to dive deeper into what truly regenerative farming would look like. “Some large-scale organic farms can be just as detrimental to the land as conventional farming; it felt like I went one level deeper from organic to discover no-till.”
The impact of successive seasons of farming with no-till practices are evident in a palmful of soil scooped from any bed on the farm. It’s soft, fluffy, evidently aerated, and teeming with insect life. Other regenerative practices implemented by Kayleigh and her crew include cover cropping, plant species diversification, and use of compost — all of which improve soil quality, as well.
Regenerative agriculture not only enhances land health, but it also inspires a different kind of relationship with the land, one that honors the natural ability of an ecosystem to heal and regenerate when disturbed. This new kind of relationship ripples out to affect local communities both culturally and socio-economically.
Benefits To The Local Community
The local community benefits not only from the gorgeous views of Gibbet Hill and the open space that the farm preserves, but also from the numerous ways that the farm engages the community. The main exposure to community members, of course, takes place at the restaurants, which serve farm-fresh produce and meat whenever available. Over the course of the summer, farm and restaurant staff host biweekly Farm Dinners, where community members are invited to share a meal up at the farm, which is outfitted with tables, string lights, and portable stove tops for the evening.
As for its farmers, Gibbet’s business model (a restaurant owning its own farm) provides an avenue for each member of the field crew to make a living from this work. While farming is often associated with small paychecks and razor-thin margins, Gibbet’s closed-loop model offers a more sustainable example of an agricultural career — one that will hopefully gain traction in New England and beyond.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Kayleigh launched Gibbet’s first Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, during the 2020 season. CSA members picked up boxes of fresh produce from the farm once a week from spring to fall to reduce the need for shopping in grocery stores and to keep folks connected with the land. For its first year, the CSA reached capacity quickly, serving over 75 families in Groton and surrounding communities.
“I think there were many reasons why people flocked to buying from CSAs and farm stands this year,” Kayleigh said. “I’d like to think people were thinking of the health qualities of buying more nutrient-dense food grown right around the corner from where they live.” She noted that many CSA customers expressed appreciation simply for the ritual of picking up produce at the farm to take home and prepare, and that it added to their overall feelings of health.
As the shift toward local food grows, the shift toward small-scale regenerative agriculture continues to expand and provide boosts to local economies. And as the cultural awareness around local food deepens, communities are presented with the opportunity to learn how to work with nature rather than against it.
Kayleigh will continue to push this cultural shift forward in her next farming endeavor, in which she’ll establish her own small-scale regenerative farm business in her home state of Vermont. Breadseed Farm, co-managed with her partner, will open for its first season in 2021. As Kayleigh moves on, the management of Gibbet will be handed down to Maria Cross, Gibbet’s former Assistant Farmer.
As this piece of land is handed down for continued stewardship, the cycle of care and intention will continue. Says Kayleigh of this transition: “To be leaving this land better than how I inherited it… that’s a really good feeling.”