The Poop on Watts Family Farm
You probably don’t know Ajay Watts. He’s 27 years old. He spends much of his day up to his knees in compost, and every day he’s helping to make your world a better place to live in.
Driving to Watts Family Farms is unlike driving to most farms. Wide, pale fields outlined with disheveled wooden fences, miniature dust tornados swirling in front of your windshield and fat and oblivious bovine swatting their tails at green heads. You’ll see none of that on your way down Falmouth-Sandwich Road.
Watts Family Farms is smack dab in the middle of suburbia, surrounded by modest homes with heated pools, “children at play” signs and frolicking Labs. In spite of my having been there last year just before Thanksgiving, I had to wonder if Crazy Gigi (as we fondly call our GPS) was messing with me again. But she wasn’t, and just as suburbia started to trickle into woods I “arrived at my destination” (thanks Gigi).
I will now make an awkward generalization. Farmers are generally decent, caring and generous people, but first meeting farmers—especially on their farm—can be slightly intimidating and leave me feeling a bit “soft.” It starts with the firm, callused vice-grip of a
handshake they supply (male and female) which inevitably leads directly to the thought “this person has done more physical labor in one day than I’ve done in a month.” Of course, time is money for a farmer so you’d better “keep to the point” as well (and to be honest,
I don’t want to spend a lot of time either because the humidity is killing my hair).
Meeting Ajay Watts is as contradictory to my expectations as the farm’s location. That is to say, I know he could easily bench-press me if he chose to, but his boyish face and uncontainable warmth puts me instantly at ease. He walks me around the house and past the pool, and suddenly a farm appears. The farm was bought by Ajay’s father, Peter, in 1983. “Twin Hawk Farm” was the name when it was purchased and there really wasn’t much to it. Peter dabbled in farming, “A few cows and pigs here and there, not much else,” I’m told.
Ajay, who graduated from Johnson and Wales in 2003 with a major in entrepreneurship, already has over 20 years of farming under his belt. Also working the farm is his mother Claire, his younger brother Andrew and his wife Laura. Waiting in the wings are Ajay and Laura’s 3-year old daughter Isabella, and their new baby Evan—whose paint hasn’t even dried yet—just 5 days old today. The cows that Peter once raised are long gone now, and there isn’t one in sight. We walk by some pigs and a spacious turkey pen and towards the back of the farm’s 14.5 acres where the massive mounds of compost live. Compost resembles dirt, but isn’t, and it suddenly occurs to me that I don’t know anything about the stuff. Ajay is incredibly obliging and patient, fielding questions that he knew the answers to when he was six years old.
Like most composts, theirs is based in lots of manure. An earthy cocktail of pig and turkey waste with dead leaves and wood chips stirred in, a side of imperfect potato chips (thanks to the Cape Cod Potato Chip factory) and cranberries (courtesy of Decas in Carver). Fruit from Shaw’s Market and the Stop & Shop are muddled in, and it’s finished with a sprinkling of sawdust around the rim. The magic happens over a period of six to eight months as the compost “cooks” and breaks down into a material with nutrients perfect for growing just about anything. Composting has become the main focus of the farm—it’s relatively easy to maintain with an occasional turn to keep it cooking. Ajay assures me that the Watts are good neighbors and only turn it when the wind is blowing in the opposite direction of the nearby homes. According to Ajay, “People are getting away from using chemicals for gardening, so composting is huge for us…We moved over 1,000 yards in May and June alone.” This is an amount probably best appreciated when you’re standing at the base of 1,000 yards of compost and looking up.
The farm sells to roughly 15 local landscapers and delivers to homeowners, but the home delivery proved to be a monster over time. “People found us by word of mouth,” Ajay explains, “Or they’d stop by Country Gardens (on West Main Street in Hyannis) who would then direct them to us. Now we make it easier for everyone and sell a bulk of our compost to Country Gardens for retail.”
Although cows and pigs were originally the main focus of the farm, turkeys now trump all other animals on the Watts farm. The Watts are out of the cow business altogether, and pigs, it turns out, are quite the crap shoot (no composting pun intended). You need one boar for every four sows, and if the boar “does everything correctly,” as Ajay says, you might yield up to eight to ten piglets per sow, but you never know. Though the challenge of “getting it done correctly” lies in the performance-pressured boar, the challenge for the farmer is getting the pigs slaughtered for meat. “The price of pork is low and slaughterhouses have been closing. It’s easier now just to drive over to Fairhaven and auction them off—there’s not as much money in it any more.”
Just as we start talking turkey, Ajay’s father Peter strides around the barn in a freshly pressed “Watts Family Farms” collared shirt, gray shorts and muddy boots, holding a small pile of laundry under his arm. He stands at least a foot taller than Ajay and me, and reaches
towards me for that farmer handshake. Standing in the shadow of the compost screening plant we speak briefly, but Peter seems to want keep the conversation to Ajay… “He’s the big boss now,” he tells me. I ask if I can take some photos and Peter happily obliges joking
“Sure…me, my son and my dirty laundry!” Before I can get the lens off of the camera Peter is holding Ajay tight to his side and is smiling proudly. Ajay returns the sentiment. A moment later they are laughing and teasing each other about some family business. A part of me feels like an intruder, and another like a part of the family. All-in-all it feels good to be on this
Peter vanishes as quickly as he appeared and Ajay and I get back to where we left off. Keeping in the spirit of caring for not only the environment, but the people breathing it, the turkeys at the Watts farm are raised free range (not caged) and fed all natural soy bean, corn and wheat-based grain purchased from Ventura Grain in Taunton (the feed is mixed by a nutritionist and their website boasts “You can eat it yourself!”). What marshmallow peeps are to Easter, Watts’ turkeys are to Thanksgiving, and as you read this there are about 250 turkeys on the farm just dying to meet the inside of your oven on November 27th. We walk into the barn where the babies (called pullets) are currently penned before they’re old enough to free range. Part of me wants to jump the barrier and stage a prison break. The other part of me hasn’t had lunch yet and can almost smell the gravy. Like the pigs, the turkeys are in smaller number this year. Composting at the forefront means pulling back a bit on raising turkeys as well. A couple of years ago the Watts were processing up to 1,000 turkeys, which took the better part of 2 weeks. The last couple of years the number has dropped to around 250 and the processing is pulled off over a weekend. Back in the days of the bigger numbers the Watts family had a work-release program with the Barnstable County Jail arranging several inmates to come to the farm and help with the slaughtering of 1,000 or so turkeys (an interesting price to pay for a couple days of freedom). Ajay brings me into the slaughtering area and talks me through the process. Not a pretty picture is painted, but a necessary picture nonetheless. Talking—or in this case writing about this kind of thing—is sensitive to some people, but the fact is it’s a part of life—and when carried out by people who care about the health and stress level of their animals, as well as the quality of the outcome, well it certainly lightens the picture a bit. The birds are never artificially fattened and their healthy diets are never altered in any way, so come November they can range on average anywhere from 15 pounds to 30 pounds—how many of each size is another unknown variable in the world of doing things organically.
The Monday before Thanksgiving is when Ajay’s relationship with the turkeys ends—in the back of a cooler truck in the Watts Family Farms driveway. At 8:00 am Peter, Ajay and the rest of the Watts clan will roll open the back of their refrigerator truck and sell about 250 of the freshest Thanksgiving turkeys known to mankind in under two hours. Cars will start lining up down the street as early as 6:00 am. Styrofoam cups of coffee will be steaming the windshields and little kids will be napping in the back seats awaiting the family tradition of picking out their holiday turkey. If this year is anything like last year, the local police chief ’s wife will offer to make breakfast in the Watts’ kitchen for the overworked but
energetic farmers. And that’s where my relationship with the farm started a year ago…albeit two hours toolate. By 10:00 am a couple of hundred people had already descended upon 23 Falmouth-Sandwich Road and just about picked through the Watts truck like a new Beemer left on the shoulder of the West Side Highway. Luckily there were a couple of 15-pounders left so I bought one. Our Thanksgiving was the way we prefer it—modest, with just a few friends and good conversation. After all the fixin’s were thrown in, our turkey proved to be the perfect size. We roasted and basted it in the traditional fashion, and the bird arrived on the table juicy tender and positively perfect. Best of all we knew that what was on the end of our fork was all natural and organic—and not tarnished or altered, chemically induced or force fed. Though you might not always taste that difference on your tongue, it makes a measurable difference to the taste buds in your mind. Standing back in that same driveway I ask Ajay about his future on Watts Family Farm. His answer makes it obvious, “Running a
farm organically makes me a happy person. I’m my own boss, and my wife and kids are always nearby. My whole life is on this farm…I learned how to drive on a tractor. My dad said, okay Ajay, there’s the brake, the gas and the clutch…I’ll be back in an hour.” And like an old tractor doesn’t have a rear view mirror, Ajay Watts has no intention on looking back. The future is wide open at Watts Family Farms.
Tom Dott is co-owner of the Lamb and Lion Inn in Barnstable since 1999. Before moving to Cape Cod, he and partner Alice Pitcher ran a 4-diamond restaurant in New York’s Hudson Valley that specialized in all things local. Tom promotes “culinary adventures” to inn guests and works part time at The Wine List in Hyannis. He recently won a 2007 Eddy Award for Feature-length Editorial for The Vines that Bind which appeared in the winter 2007 issue of Edible Cape Cod. This content was published in the Fall 2008 Edible Cape Cod Magazine. Copyright 2008 Edible Cape Cod. No part of this article may be reproduced without the written consent of the author or publisher.