Miss Scarlett's Blue Ribbon Farm
The Rebirth of an Old-fashioned Farm in the 21st Century
Backyard gardens are making a comeback across the Cape, but it is not every day that you hear about a new 33-acre, old-fashioned, commercial farm, complete with livestock. Opening last summer with only cut-flowers and Thanksgiving turkeys, Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm on Route 6A in Yarmouthport was an immediate success. The farm sold every one of its 200 heritage-breed turkeys, mostly through word of mouth. Susan Richardson Knieriem is the driven farmer working the Old Simpkins Bogs farm land—once yielding cranberries, raspberries and blueberries—that was abandoned in the 1960s. She has big plans for the large parcel with 14 acres of upland, yet ultimately her vision goes well beyond turkeys and even the boundaries of her farm.
This hard-working woman, who is constantly thinking three steps ahead, named her farm Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm, after her childhood hero from Gone with the Wind. “I just adored the movie,” Susan said before quoting Scarlett O’Hara: “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” Clearly, Scarlett O’Hara’s perseverance made an impression. As a longtime participant with all of her daughters in the Barnstable County Fair and 4-H, the “blue ribbon” part of the farm’s name naturally represents doing your best.
“I grew up in a three-decker in Brockton,” Susan recalled. “My Italian grandmother farmed the quarter-acre lot in the backyard, because in a three-decker you have your whole family living there. She planted every possible food you can think of, and canned it and put it in the root cellar.” Since childhood, Susan has grown flowers and even won the Barnstable County Fair Silver Bowl for her flower arranging in 2001. But it wasn’t until 1999 that her grandmother’s example was put to good use, when she helped farm a 13-acre, 250 year-old farm in Marston Mills. With farmers’ markets not prevalent like they are today, Susan opened a store in 2001 on Route 6A in East Sandwich, selling the farm’s produce along with E&T Farms’ products and Pain D’Avignon breads.
Unfortunately, in 2003, the farm was sold and Susan became a farmer without a farm.
After many unsuccessful attempts at securing a sizeable piece of land, in 2009 Susan signed a lease on her current Yarmouthport location. The owners of the property loved the idea of having the land, which had become completely overgrown, farmed again. With excellent foresight and working with the Federal National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), she made sure all town permits were obtained before even touching the soil, so she would not be blind-sided with unexpected delays. With the growing season waning, she set to work planting highly diverse and unusual flowers. To sell her resulting florist-quality cut flowers, she co-founded the Osterville Farmers’ Market last year. Having had experience with turkeys, and Thanksgiving being her family’s favorite holiday, it seemed natural to raise pasture-raised, 1930s, all-American, white heritage-breed turkeys.
Less than one year later, the currently cleared 1.5 acres of land is covered by a large variety of livestock, flowers, vegetables and fruits. Another two acres were cleared the day before I visited the farm in early July. New crops like turnips and winter squash will soon be planted in those acres to be ready in time for fall harvest. She considers this phase of her ultimate agricultural plan to be the “birthing of a farm.” She is choosing animals and plants based on what she likes and what does well in her soil, which is currently sandier than she likes; but with compost and charcoal from the burn piles from her cleared land, she is quickly improving it.
The farm’s current list of heirloom and heritage livestock—which are known for their heartiness—includes turkeys, layer and broiler chickens, ducks, geese, sheep and pigs. “Our goal is to have 150 broilers for sale every month,” Susan stated. She plans on using a rotational grazing method with a portable “chicken tractor.” This method of raising poultry reduces the need for grain, keeps the chickens in a protected area, and fertilizes new soil daily. Far exceeding last year’s impressive number of turkeys, Susan has 400 this year, which can be ordered fresh for Thanksgiving. What makes these birds different from store-bought ones is their heritage-breed status, along with the fact that they are allowed to graze on pasture, keeping them healthier and making their meat more flavorful.
Needing more land for her farm’s planned growth, Susan plans to have the pigs help clear the land, using their natural instinct to root to her advantage, while they fatten up at the same time. She has applied for a Massachusetts agricultural grant to purchase movable, electrical fencing to assist in the rotational grazing of the animals and a 60-by-100 foot concrete compost pad to contain any run-off.
A sign of a good commercial farmer is being ingenious with limited resources. To help with her endless to-do list, Susan trades Orleans farmer Julie Winslow’s sweat equity for a small area to farm, describing it as “one farmer helping another.” In another cost-saving measure, she had the students in Cape Cod Regional Technical High School’s electrical department wire her fences. In addition to the natural savings of pasture-fed animals, seed is bought by the ton and stored in the barn, reducing a big part of the livestock overhead. Susan also feeds the livestock the extra squash and pumpkins that aren’t perfect for selling. She exclaimed, “They love them, including the pigs.”
All of the animals’ manure will ultimately go back to feeding the plants through the enriched soil. Shelter for some of the chickens is creatively made by discarded pick-up truck caps that rest directly on the ground. Susan also plans on using more portable “high tunnels,” which are open-ended greenhouses. She was impressed by the positive press they received from a Cornell University cut-flower study. Currently she has one and it has demonstrably increased the growth of her prized flowers, which are planted directly into the ground. The plastic-wrapped hoop structure warms up the soil and air, while the open ends permit pollination and air circulation.
Susan’s fully integrated vision also includes an important artistic component, which she described as, “The dairy cows in the pasture and the rows of crops all nice and neat, and the unusual, picture-perfect flowers bundled and ready to take home.” Pointing to the field by Route 6A, Susan shared another image, “In five years, we are hoping to have an ice cream stand selling my husband’s ‘Farmer Jim’s Cape Cod Ice Cream,’ with a percentage of the profits going to support specific non-profits on Cape Cod.”
“It is no fun having something unless you can share it,” Susan insisted. With that in mind, she also envisions her farm becoming a “Cape Cod rural community center.” Through the non-profit educational farm model she hopes to implement, she wants to expose children to farm life, whether they are involved in 4-H already or are children who have fallen through the cracks in some of the Cape Cod’s low-income areas. “There are a lot of kids who would benefit from it and a lot of parents too,” Susan stressed. As open as she is to sharing her farm with families in the future, she has a strict set of principles each child will need to follow, summed up in four words: “happy, safe and kind.”
Like many farmers today, Susan is not only persistent, but also resilient. She did not give up on her dream to have a farm or desire to share it with the community. She understands that it is the diversity of animals and plants that will make her successful, along with incorporating creative and forward-thinking ideas into her business plan. Ultimately, as broad as her vision is, Susan’s focus is simple, “I want to do what I know and do it well.”
Look for Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm at the Osterville Farmers’ Market on Fridays from 9 am-2 pm and the Orleans Farmers’ Market on Saturday from 8 am-noon. Order your Thanksgiving turkey online. You can also order Cornish Rock X chickens online.
Ellen Petry Whalen is a freelance writer. She grew up spending her summers in Orleans and has been calling it home for eight years with her husband and their two organically homeschooled daughters. Before children she worked in sales and marketing in the medical nutrition industry and the wine industry. A supporter of traditional foods, she is a local Weston A. Price Chapter Leader (westonaprice.org). She holds a B.A. in Economics and Spanish from Wellesley College.