In the early morning hours of March 17, 2021, the beloved Natick Organic Community Farm’s (NCOF) 200+ year-old barn burned down. The cause of the conflagration, which completely engulfed the timber framed structure within 20 minutes, was electrical in nature, Chief Michael Lentini of the Natick Fire Department confirmed in an email. Thankfully, there was no loss of human life, but three sows and 13 piglets perished in the 3-alarm fire, which started around 4:30am.
Everyone connected with the farm agrees that the day the historic barn was lost was one of the most terrible of their lives. But almost before the sun rose, the community was rallying to support the town treasure that is NCOF. “We were so lucky in so many ways. It wasn’t a windy day, thanks to the firefighters there was no spread to the other wooden structures,” said Trish Wesley Umbrell, Assistant Director of Internal Operations, during an interview at the farm. “But it was really dreadful to get here in the dark and see the flames going up in the sky. It was really, really awful.”
The outpouring of support over the past year has included monetary donations from piggybanks and bank accounts; words of kindness; and meals for farmers, staff, and volunteers as they worked through the almost unbearable loss.
The heart of the farm
The NCOF serves Natick and 22 surrounding communities, and the people have spoken. They want the farm to rebuild the barn. It will take about $1.1 million to replace the two-story barn and attached greenhouse, making the farm whole again. Donations have poured in. Over $276K has been raised over the past year via a crowdfunding campaign launched by the farm. Another $400K+ came in through the Natick Community Organic Farm website and through private offline donations. The goal is to raise the barn in its original location, hopefully breaking ground in fall 2022.
The 27-acre NCOF is registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit entity that is designated for agriculture and conservation purposes in perpetuity. The land is owned by the town and is under a multi-decade long-term lease to the nonprofit.
Regarding the insurance coverage that was carried by the Town of Natick on the barn and greenhouse, capital campaign director Rachel Adjemian said in an email, “The barn that burned was owned by the town. The insurance money was minimal (not near the cost to replace what was lost) and did not come back to the farm for this rebuild but went to the town. The town is giving ownership of the new barn to the nonprofit, and the nonprofit is responsible for funding the build. We will own our own insurance on the new barn.”
Currently an architect is working on plans that will result in a barn with an updated interior that will will serve the way NCOF farms today. “We want to build a barn that has the spirit of the old barn but with some modern aspects to it that will allow us to do our work of youth education and farming better,” Umbrell said. The new structure will look a lot like the old barn in terms of shape, and like the old barn, there will be an attached greenhouse. Changes such as a state-of-the-art irrigation system to replace the tangled tripping hazard of hoses from the past will be put in place.
Another practical wish list item is a concrete slab floor so that farmers can drive heavy equipment in and out of the barn, something that the former barn’s heavy oak floors were unable to support. In a nod to 1815, the year the old barn was built, the new structure will be timber framed to honor the essential character of the place. A surveyor’s report advised the barn be raised on its original site. From a practical standpoint, the farm grew up around the barn, and the farm’s many structures and fields were placed due to the barn’s location. From an environmentally sensitive standpoint, much of the farm abuts wetlands, so an attempt to move the barn to a different location would likely lead to obstacles that can just as easily be avoided by keeping the structure on its original footprint.
“It’s an opportunity to build something that will not only serve our current farmers, but future generations of farmers,” Umbrell said.
After the firefighters left, and the charred remains were safe to sift through, farmers saved what little they could. Although most of the wood went up in smoke, some of the beams were salvaged. In addition, Mark Oteri, a professional timber framer and craftsman, worked with the demolition crew that was brought in by the town and found seven of the eight original door hinges. Oteri has led the farm’s Teen Work Crew that timber framed many of the farm’s structures including the composting toilet building and the market stand, and will have hands-on involvement in construction of the new barn.
“We will definitely incorporate bits of the old barn into the new one. We want to honor the spirit of the old barn but still build something that’s more reflective of the times we’re in,” Umbrell said.
Every detail about the new barn is being discussed by the Barn Reconstruction Advisory Committee (BRAC), a brainstorming group that includes NCOF executive director Casey Townsend, former executive director Lynda Simkins, some NCOF board members, an architect, a builder, and town officials.
The BRAC group is working with the town to secure a building permit in hopes of breaking ground once the summer programs, which serve 700 kids, have wound down. Plus, the farm could use a little more time to bring an exciting offer to fruition. An anonymous donor has come forth with a challenge grant—if the NCOF can raise an additional $200k by Oct. 31, 2022, the donor will match that.
The Challenge Grant is an all-or-nothing opportunity. NCOF will only receive the full matching $200,000 if they can raise the first $200k by Oct. 31. Here’s how to donate.
“While farmers are very resilient and tough people, it’s very, very difficult to function without a practical facility,” Umbrell said.
With hard work and community help, the NCOF is getting closer to that goal of a practical facility that will keep the heart of the farm beating.
The Natick Community Organic Farm is a nonprofit, certified-organic farm. The farm provides productive open space, farm products, and hands-on education for all ages, year-round. The Natick Community Organic Farm is about farming in the public eye. Visitors to the farm learn what food looks like before it gets processed, refined, or packaged. Farmers demonstrate how to take good care of the land and the animals, teaching the next generation about stewardship, ecology, and personal responsibility.
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