Sustainable Farming at Abiding Acres

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Photo by Ellen Peterson
Shawn and Anna-Kristin Murphy, with daughters Johanna (standing) and Evalena, are pictured next to two of the shelters that protect Abiding Acres’ crops.

At Abiding Acres, you won’t find pesticides. You won’t find synthetic fertilizers, big tractors, bare soil, or compact fluorescent bulbs to trick their 20 chickens into laying eggs as days get shorter.

Instead, you’ll find netting to cover crops before pests invade, flowers that attract ladybugs who love to chomp on destructive aphids, mites and scales, compost made from chicken manure that serves as nutrient-rich beds to grow seedlings, cover crops to prevent erosion and dehydration caused by bare soil, a push seed planter that resembles a child’s scooter on steroids, and one walk-behind motorized tractor for harrowing the soil.

In harmony with nature

Owners Anna-Kristin and Shawn Murphy – young first-generation farmers – are passionate about preservation and conservation.

As Anna puts it, “we’re feeding the soil and keeping it healthy so this property can be farmed in 50 years or beyond.”

And when Shawn talks about their maple syrup production last year, he bemoans how much energy was consumed. He figures half of the price they were charging went to paying for the propane required to boil off the water. An engineer by profession, he vows to try a reverse osmosis process in the future which would use a special membrane to wick away the water.

How it all started

Before they ever dreamed of buying their narrow, one-mile long, 50-acre farm that stretches from 107 East Street South to near the graveyard on Bridge Street, the Murphys were growing up in the same Michigan school district. They met through mutual friends. He went to grad school in Georgia; she landed in Boston. After a long-distance romance, he moved to Boston where they took to gardening.

Shawn volunteered with the Holliston Agricultural Commission in Holliston, Mass. He helped set up a community farm and worked to promote the interests of local farmers. He learned a lot.

Eventually, the couple decided they wanted to own their own farm. For two years, they searched throughout New England for the ideal farm before settling on the former Maplewoods Farm, which they bought in March 2021.

Today they grow vegetables and raise chickens for eggs on a small portion of their 50 acres. They have a roadside farm stand and were part of the Suffield Farmers Market last year where their prepackaged greens were a favorite.

Self-taught with help from others

The Murphys say it’s taken lots of research, along with trial and error, to help them understand farming. Shawn points to books, the internet and YouTube, “an amazing resource,” for a portion of their education.

Anna-Kristin says free training by the New Connecticut Farmer Alliance has introduced them to other farmers through their Farmer Circles program, which also helped with crop planning.

Shawn praises UConn’s Solid Ground program, designed for young and new farmers, for providing a much-needed grant to build a cooler. The UConn program also taught them about pest management and provided a soil specialist to explain the strengths and weaknesses of their property.

Robust Instagram page

When Anna-Kristin set up an Instagram page to keep family and friends around the world informed about Abiding Acres, she never planned on it becoming such a rich resource for sustainable farming/gardening techniques and more.

She now has sections on raising chickens, maple syrup production, beekeeping, recipes, tunnel building – those plastic covered growing spaces that resemble Quonset huts and protect crops from the elements, mobile chicken coop building and more. The couple believes in sharing what they’ve learned. “If it helps somebody grow their own food, we would love that,” notes Anna-Kristin.

Compost wanted

The Murphys prefer as little tilling as possible, which they say destroys the biology of topsoil. Instead, they overlay their old crops with rich compost and use their walk-behind motorized tractor to harrow the soil. Unlike deep tilling, harrowing is a shallow, vertical mixing that’s much less harmful to the soil, according to Shawn.
Abiding Acres needs lots of compost to farm. The Murphys set up a community compost collection area near their roadside farmstand and welcome food scraps from local residents.

Shawn has also been talking with a Western Massachusetts businessman who collects organic waste from restaurants and consumers for a fee and needs a place to deliver it.

Full-time farmers

The Murphys plan on expanding their operation slowly. For starters they’re striving to become more efficient with denser planting and faster crop rotation. Ultimately, they want to become full-time farmers while continuing to respect Mother Earth.

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