The first message you get when driving up to the Natick Community Organic Farm (NCOF) is to slow down. If the sign isn’t enough to convince you, the pot holes should do the trick. They’re deep, wide, and will swallow your vehicle whole if you don’t navigate the driveway just right. So be warned. But don’t let that minor challenge scare you off from visiting the 30-acre certified-organic farm that has operated on Town-owned land since 1975.
I stopped by recently for a tour of the farm’s quarter-acre flower fields, led by Heather Livingstone, the farm’s flower manager. Although her domain may not be large in size, sales from flowers bring in a sizable income for the non-profit organization. Livingstone, along with assistant Jen Campos and a crew of volunteers, sees to it that the the farm stand is kept stocked daily with bouquets. In addition, they keep running the Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions that range from five-weeks of spring blooms for $100, to a 20-week vase subscription delivered to your home or business for 20 weeks for $600, and other options in between. The NCOF has a table at the Natick Farmers Market every Saturday, and also sells to local Whole Foods markets and specialty grocery stores. Putting together arrangements for weddings and events is a regular part of what they do, as well.
The flower gardens are planted in tidy rows and in full bloom right now with zinnias, dahlias, cosmos, statice, celosia, viburnum, dahlias, rudbeckia, snapdragons, sunflowers, asters, and more, all organic, and all bursting with color. Pollinators such as bees, wasps, and butterflies crowd the gardens throughout the April through late-October growing season, taking advantage of the abundance.
Weeds also compete for space in the rows. Livingstone says they manage to keep unwanted plants at bay by laying down organic weed mats in some spots and humble cardboard in other areas. Still, invasive species do experience a measure of success. In their quest for world domination, weeds creep in and try to crowd out their floral cousins, who prefer to stay in their lanes and focus on looking amazing. Livingstone is philosophical about the realities of gardening without the use of herbicides. “We’re an organic farm, so we use only sustainable farming practices. Sometimes, when you’re farming organically, you have to let go a little.”
The flower operation is a decidedly low-tech concern. Workers get the job done using trowels, hoes, and other hand tools. No big machinery is used. And although the farm is on town water, the farmers try to use sprinklers sparingly. This year, they’re experimenting with a no-till system in an effort to improve soil structure, reduce erosion, and minimize the compaction of soil in the planting area. At other farms, there have been some reports that using a no-till system makes weed control a losing game. Still, Livingstone is interested in seeing what the results will be at the NCOF.
The NCOF is open to visitors, but there are several protocols in place right now to keep workers, visitors, and summer camp participants safe from COVID-19. The picnic tables, barn, and buildings are closed, though the outdoor composting toilet is open and the barn-side sink is operational. Bring your own hand sanitizer.
In addition, the outdoor barn-side stand is open for purchases. The stand is stocked with eggs, maple syrup, woolen yarn, vegetables, and floral bouquets. The selection changes throughout the day based on what’s harvested. Note: eggs are in limited supply until the farm get more hens. Meat may be purchased online.
There’s something about a working farm in the middle of a suburban community that brings in people and keeps them coming. “I started volunteering when I was 15-years old,” says Livingstone, a Franklin High School graduate. “I came to work for a summer, and now I’m out of college and I work here. This place fulfills me and makes me happy.”
Over 20,000 visitors that come annually to the farm agree. They find their own happiness and fulfillment whether it’s in picking up a bouquet of flowers, or fresh lettuce for dinner, or dropping off their kids for a Budding Farmers program. In a location where farming has been part of the landscape continuously for over 350 years, agriculture at the NCOF spot feels like it should be a permanent part of South Natick. The town agrees, and in 2009 the NCOF’s acreage was preserved forever as conservation land by the people of Natick.
Its future secured, the NCOF is busy teaching the next generation about stewardship, land use, community service and, of course, organic agriculture.
Admission is free.
The NCOF is open for you to explore on your own from sunup to sundown, every day, year-round.