The Alpaca Farm That Wasn’t: The Birth of Longnook Meadows Farm
Peter and Dilys Staaterman, owners of Longnook Meadows Farm in Truro, had the very romantic idea that they would raise alpacas in their retirement, according to Peter.
Devout “WWOOF-ers,” the pair signed themselves up for four months of intensive remedial training in alpaca care, in both New Zealand and Australia. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that has chapters worldwide. Basically an exchange program, WWOOF’s mission is to share local organic farming and sustainability practices and to foster global friendships. The Staatermans have traveled via WWOOF nearly every winter since retiring to the Cape seven years ago.
“We simply contact different WWOOF member farms, list our backgrounds, and they reply, ‘Come. We can use you,’” says Peter. “It’s a wonderful way to travel to places you’ve never been, learn about different growing techniques and crops, and make new friends.”
“You commit to working a daily four- to six-hour shift in return for room and board for the duration of your stay,” says Dilys, retired after thirty-plus years of teaching school. “The rest of the day you’re free to explore.”
Peter, a former independent designer and building contractor, whose last job was a 15-year project in Saudi Arabia, shares, “We both had skill sets from our previous careers that were transferrable.”
Energy is not a problem for either of the pair. The two frequently find themselves in the position of mentoring other WWOOF-ers often decades younger. “On one of our trips we completed the first to-do list much to our host’s delight,” says a grinning Peter. “He explained that it was, in fact, not our initial day’s work, but a week’s worth.”
Dilys, just in from a 50-mile morning bike ride, is training for her third or fourth PMC Challenge, a two-day 200-mile fundraising event for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She slathers on sunscreen before heading back out for several hours of picking, weeding and planting in the gardens.
“The very quick history of Longnook Meadows Farm,” explains Peter, “is that we are only the second family to own this property.” Originally established in the 1700s by Thomas Paine, one of Truro’s founding fathers, the land was formerly used for grazing sheep, goats and cows.
“This site was most certainly used by the Payomet Native Americans, members of the Wampanoag tribe before the arrival of the Pilgrims,” says Peter.
Dilys’ father mowed the fields as a young man on the property, which is located in Truro, just off Route 6 on the way to Longnook Beach. The owner offered to sell him the 180-acre parcel in 1941. “Part of that parcel was later taken to add to National Seashore lands, and some of it my father sold off to pay for the education of my siblings and me,” says Dilys.
The couple bought the homestead and the ten acres that remained from her father in 1982 and when they could, they spent summers in Truro with their children. The original house sits at the base of one of the highest elevations in town, with peeks of both the bay and the ocean. Although Peter offered to build her a new home at the crest of the hill, Dilys favored restoring the old house.
“My great grandmother lived in Truro in a fish house located right in front of the cottages at Corn Hill, before they were even built,” says Dilys. Like the legendary lady who tossed lupine seeds, she was rumored to have scattered wild roses across the Cape and would swim with friends from Corn Hill across the bay to Provincetown.
“This place has got history,” says Dilys. “I took my first steps in this house. I knew from years of preparing the property for summers how badly in need of restoration it was,” says Dilys. “I wanted windows that actually worked, because I could put my fingers right through the wood under the sills.”
Cooking was originally done in a stand-alone cookhouse behind the main house. “We rehabbed that structure, as well as a small former barn into rental cottages first, so that we could have a small income stream as the project unfolded,” says Peter, who favors sustainable building practices.
Peter met Dilys’ request for windows by relocating a large barn from Vermont, and attaching it to the small footprint of the original home. Light floods the living space through the massive hand-hewn wood beams that are well over two hundred years old, according to Peter, and held together only by wooden pegs. “It’s taken ten years and it’s evolved over time,” says Dilys. “This old house is a labor of love.”
Like the home rehab, the alpaca farm concept proved more complex than Dilys and Peter had imagined. They envisioned a New England farm raising alpacas for their fiber, intending to sell it to weavers. Peter, with his inimitable zest, immediately purchased an enormous pole driver, thinking he would soon be planting posts up and down his acreage to fence in his alpaca herds.
The WWOOF experience down under and research elsewhere proved invaluable. “As we looked deeper, we realized that for us, in our Truro situation, there would probably be little profit in an alpaca farm,” says Peter. “In Peru, farm labor might be a few dollars per employee per day, and a quality alpaca can be purchased for several hundred dollars. That labor structure doesn’t work in the U.S., and here, the animals themselves may cost thousands of dollars each.”
“In retrospect, caring for the alpacas all winter long would have also precluded any further WWOOF adventures unless we hired a winter caretaker,” says Peter. “We knew we needed to change course.” But without the Staatermans foreseeing it, a new vision emerged almost entirely on its own.
“I had grown vegetables in our family garden plot for forty-five years here in the summers, and that first summer in 2005 when Peter retired we simply just grew way more than we could use,” says Dilys. “We propped up just the ugliest little card table on the roadside, and made a sign on an old piece of chartreuse oak tag to see what might happen,” remembers Peter.
“I guess we were ahead of our time with organically grown vegetables, because it was all gone, and fast. We were completely wiped out,” says Dilys. “Longnook Meadows Farm was born.”
“I’ve been an entrepreneur and Dilys a teacher, but there’s just so much to learn about organic growing,” says Peter. “Like the old farmers say, it’s all about the dirt. You’ve got to feed the dirt well to raise anything of quality.”
To increase the fertility of their soil, the Staatermans use a three-pronged approach. Salt hay and lobster fertilizer, tons of manure—seven truckloads full so far—and “mix-ins” of self-made biochar.
Longnook Meadows Farm hooked up with Bob Wells, owner of Eastham’s Redberry Farm, and partner Peter Hirst of New England Biochar. The Staatermans purchased their own “tin man” biochar furnace, and they burn waste from their property, mainly pine and locust. Globally, char is created from all types of local waste biomass. The byproduct of the process is large pieces resembling the remains of a bonfire, which are broken up to a gravel-like size and mixed into the soil.
Once invested in their dirt, the Staatermans chose their seeds, always heirloom or organic, and never genetically modified. “We like to position ourselves as being artisanal growers.” says Peter. “You’ll find things on our table that you’ll rarely find at the grocery store.”
Their past winter’s WWOOF excursion to Italy adds a Sicilian flair to this summer’s vegetable varieties, including Finocchio Chiarino (fennel), Melanzana Rotonda (eggplant), Porro Gigante De Invierno (leeks), Zucca Lagenaria (bottle gourds), and De Pergola Lunghissima (winter squash). “I had our cache of prized seeds in my luggage and on return found the very same packets for sale at the local Christmas Tree Shops,” says a chuckling Peter.
Their complete crop list, posted each year on their web page, is a diverse, global menu, nothing sort of impressive. A few 2013 entries include Crosby Egyptian beets; Pyong Vang, Belarus and Thai Purple garlic; Cherokee Purple tomatoes; Minnesota Midget melon; New Zealand spinach; Sweet Scarlet Nantes carrots; La Ratte fingerlings; and Shuko pac choi.
Their Jersey Giant and Purple Passion asparagus patches are yielding well now after a three-year start-up. “We usually open up the stand in May for this crop alone, but this time the chef at Blackfish, a restaurant in Truro, bought our entire yield,” says Peter.
Each day the Staatermans post their offerings on their Facebook page, along these lines:
On the table today…
Maybe TOMATOES by the weekend?
Boston Bibb and butter crunch lettuce
New Zealand spinach
4 types of squash
Dark red Norland potatoes
Sun gold tomatoes
Aside from vegetables, there are occasional appearances of raw honey collected on-site, homemade soaps, raspberries in season and usually jars of just-picked flowers created by Dilys. The table opens at 7 am daily during summer and fall, and they are often fairly sold out well before midday.
“One customer of Italian descent, who owns a fudge shop in Provincetown, stops by for the varieties of Italian produce that we grow, leaving us boxes of candy and biscotti, too,” says Peter.
There have been some huge frustrations, like the apple orchard they hope will thrive one day. “Horticulturist Russ Norton, of the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, is really helpful,” says Peter. “To be chemical-free is difficult, but you have to be true to it.”
“One of the biggest recent surprises was finally discovering the red-handed culprits who were chomping away with gusto on my beets,” says Peter. “It’s the box turtles!”
It’s the joys of becoming organic produce farmers that tip the balance way to the other side. For Peter the response from people is just tremendous, and for Dilys, to be successful for your community and just to see things growing every day is magical.
The Staatermans look forward to vending their produce and Dilys’ flowers at the Truro Agricultural Fair, a community event held Labor Day Sunday each year. They’ve taken to growing and entering giant pumpkins in the annual contest, sparked by a chance listing they spied in a catalog for Dill’s Giant Atlantic Pumpkin seeds. “We had to try them,” said Peter, “they had her name!”
“From our start in 2005, we can’t know who exactly we were feeding, and we still don’t—maybe it’s just Truro—but we’re successful.” says Peter. “We’re terracing the original family gardens near our home and expanding the areas across the street. It’s evolved slowly. Beside ourselves, we employ 1-2 seasonal workers, often from Jamaica or Nepal. We’d love to see someone interested in local agriculture help us long term to complete our farm restoration. Oh, and did I mention that a big reason we do this is that, in our retirement, we hope to reinvent ourselves?”
Fear not, Staatermans, you already have.