Work In Progress: Jeff Eldredge’s Dream Come Alive on 17 Acres in Brewster
A winding dirt road past an old cranberry bog just off Setucket Road leads to Eldredge Farm, 17 acres astraddle the towns of Brewster and Harwich. That’s why the farm’s gregarious proprietor, Jeff Eldredge, calls himself a “border farmer”. Chief greeters at Eldredge Farm are the free-range chickens, out and about doing chicken things: pecking, scratching the dirt and looking for bugs. The 48 layers produce beautiful free-range eggs. A tightly knit flock of 30 Indian Runner ducks chirps conversationally, beaks flapping in serious discussion. They lurch about like upright bowling candlepins as they converse, and are as charming as they are funny.
In 2006 Jeff Eldredge bought the farm, in a good way, and became the owner of the former Redgate Farm. His enthusiasm for farming is infectious, and he has a very clear view in mind: to create a place for the community that provides sustenance. He considers farming a very wholesome thing that “puts things in perspective”. His son Jeffrey Davis has Down Syndrome and one important long-term goal is to have special-needs kids work on the farm in an environment that allows them to grow. Underpinning this is Eldredge’s wider goal of creating an “economically viable, sustainable farm which nurtures its soil, plants, animals and community of workers and enlivens the connection between people and the source of their food.”
Eldredge comes from a long line of Cape Codders dating back to the Mayflower. His forefathers include sea captains and coast guard members, as well as farmers. He grew up gardening and became a landscaper. It was a natural progression to farming. Today, farming and his landscaping business, Starboard Side Landscaping in Dennis, comprise the family business.
Prior to Eldredge’s purchase, Redgate Farm operated as a subsistence farm, sold knitted goods, provided horse trail rides, operated a cranberry bog and harvested wood. While it gave Eldredge the acreage to realize his vision, he needed to change the topography to suit his needs. He states that in those early days he felt like a frontiersman with modern equipment. He began to meet the challenges of modern day farming by developing a farm plan. He worked from scratch with different groups, including the USDA and conservation boards. It was a trial-and-error process with some setbacks, including a bout of oak root disease, a fungus that took several years to overcome and is now, thankfully, eradicated. It was hands-on work—he made his fences by hand from his own trees and built the soil to grow vegetables. Eldredge has watched his dream come to life with the help of his team. He insists that, “We need to generate food locally. We need to be able to tell where it comes from and how we grow it.”
To that end, there are four greenhouses, each 96 feet long, busily cultivating seeds right now. Early spring jumpstarts the agricultural year when small flats of rich compost start to yield tender seedlings in the greenhouses’ humid warmth. These tiny things will realize their potential as fully-grown vegetables later in the season when they proudly adorn CSA boxes. Community Supported Agriculture is important as a way to reconnect people to the land and the farms that grow their food. Establishing this link between growers and consumers fits well into Eldredge’s overall community enrichment plan. CSA members pay in advance for their share of produce, creating a sustainable farming model that guarantees the buyer a product and the grower a market. This year’s 50-member CSA operates on a first come, first served basis, and provides a weekly half-bushel box of fresh vegetables and herbs from mid-June through September. One great perk is that CSA members get to pick their own herbs.
Eldredge Farm devotes one and a half to two acres to produce, which is as organic as possible without certification, and grown in compost made on site. Eldredge stresses the importance of knowing where his soil comes from and to that end, makes his own compost. This is a six-month process involving the right amount of moisture, the right temperature and the proper turning of the pile to keep proper consistency. It should result in a product that keeps weeds down, has the right acidity and a lot of good organics. Team member Steve Coleman manages the vegetables with the help of Dave Serluco, the gardener. Their seed list is impressively long and varied, including 35 varieties of tomato alone, including favorites Beefsteak and heirloom cherries. They grow special sandwich-sized tomatoes as well. There are five varieties of potato, and seven of onion. There are leafy greens and cauliflower and sweet and hot peppers. The herb garden is complete and there are strawberry and raspberry patches. Eldredge hopes to extend his produce season into the winter using a wood boiler, stoked from his own trees, for greenhouse heat. He is thinking of selling the produce through local health food stores.
Eldredge gives Steve, a former CEO, and Dave, a retired dentist, a lot of the credit for the garden. Dave learned the secrets of gardening as a boy from his grandfather, which Eldredge thinks of as generational knowledge, delighting in how it continues to be passed down, coming full circle in the garden. He emphasizes the lessons a garden can teach, such as, “slow and steady wins the race” and, “you get what you put in”. These things are certainly true of gardening, and they are applicable to most other aspects of life.
There is a good symbiosis between farming and landscaping. The nursery is in its fifth year, and last year Eldredge grew 50,000 perennials, along with shrubs, trees and ornamental grass. These are sold wholesale to local nurseries and garden clubs, and retail to the public at farmers’ markets. Last year he planted a 2000-sunflower color burst around the farm. When summer is in full swing with the garden growing wildly, he can call in his landscaping crew from Starboard Side to help out as well. Eldredge loves the rhythm of the seasons, the spring planting, the harvest production, and the fruits of his and his team’s labor.
The farm’s livestock occupy half an acre. The chickens produce meat as well as eggs, and their free-range lifestyle, embraced especially by the Buff Orpingtons, produce healthy victuals. There are also fluffy Sultan’s Hens, with their romantic tradition of having lived in the Sultan’s castle gardens at Constantinople. The rooster is a White Cochin, a breed originally from China and received by Queen Victoria. The Indian Runner ducks make great roasting and their egg yolks are a rich sunshiny color perfect for baking or making lemon curd. There are two barnyard geese and last year there were 18 Thanksgiving turkeys—the biggest weighed 50 pounds and was donated to the Noah Shelter. Over the last winter four pigs, which arrived in the fall as piglets and were raised on unsold veggies in a huge pen, were processed. All of the meat is processed off site and mostly sold off the hoof to CSA members.
The momentum will continue into the next year. Future plans include getting the sow to produce the next round of pigs, with the option of having the farm raise and process pigs for customers. There are 50 turkeys projected for next Thanksgiving, and Guinea Hens are scheduled to join the meat crew. Even beef cattle are under consideration. This provides a great alternative to factory-farmed animals and could go far towards meeting the Cape’s demand for locally raised meat. It also furthers Eldredge’s goal of self-sufficiency.
Eldredge Farm has the feel of a work in glorious progress. “It is always changing, always growing,” Eldredge says. He applauds the strong network of local resources that have helped him get so far so soon. He cites Bill Clark at the County Extension office as invaluable and loves having the USDA right here on Cape. Brewster Conservation has also been very helpful. Eldredge Farm does not exist in a void; it depends on Eldredge, his team, local resources, the community at large and even the Runner Ducks. Farming has taught him that you reap what you sow, and so far good things are coming back a hundred fold. Looking to the future, Eldredge expects his farm to become a wonder world for the people who visit it, a place to return to nature, to picnic in the shade amongst the flowers. He hopes to be as good for the community as it has been for him.
Eldredge Farm will be participating in the Chatham, Harwich and Orleans Farmers’ Markets this year (see page 25 for dates and times). Visit Eldredge Farm online at www.eldredgefarm.com for general and CSA information.