Local farms look to diversify while battling set backs

By Maria Uminski


As the early morning fog slowly lifted above the open fields along Stockbridge Road in Amherst, just miles away, Joe Boisvert was busy adding wood to the fire blazing inside of the evaporating machine as he and his family prepared to open the North Hadley Sugar Shack to its visitors.

Once primarily just a maple syrup producer, the Sugar Shack has expanded its production to a wide variety of maple sugar candies and produce, which they sell to customers far beyond the Pioneer Valley by mail order.

Not far from the Sugar Shack, Bill Gillen’s Sunset Farms, near the Southwest Residential Area, allows its visitors to pick their own produce and flowers, such as roses, kale, eggplants, cilantro and more.

According to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, there are 7,700 farms in Massachusetts, 711 of them in Hampshire County alone.

With high numbers like that, local farms throughout the Pioneer Valley like the Sugar Shack and Sunset Farms have started to diversify themselves from one another by expanding their selling markets and products they are selling as well as the experience they offer to their customers. Between weather setbacks and breaking into the market, it has not been an easy feat for them.

Though the Boisvert brothers specialize in maple syrup, they also sell butternut, acorn and buttercup squash for the wholesale market, but they have a strategy: contract products out to specific buyers before they are even planted.

“You don’t just want to jump into something and not know where the finished product goes,” said Boisvert.

For Gillen, he enjoys growing a large variety of crops and tries not to focus on one product.

“You can’t put all your eggs in one basket,” said Gillen. “You have to stay pretty diversified because if you decide to do something that made you money last year, by next year there might be 10 competitors.”

Gillen’s wide variety strategy paid off big time this year after suffering a major set back from the October snowstorm.

During the unseasonable snowstorm, 25 of Gillen’s chestnut trees where devastated.

“That was a huge tree and now it’s just limbs,” Gillen said of one of his maimed trees.

Though Gillen still collected 2,000 pounds worth of chestnuts for the season, he was unsure of what would happen to the trees.

The Boisvert brothers, on the other hand, did not face setbacks from the October snowstorm because the trees they tap were sturdy enough to withstand the storm.

“Most of the leaves were off the maples before the storm came,” said Boisvert.

Though they got off easy in October, the upcoming winter had other plans.

The mild winter and lack of freezing nights left the brothers debating when to tap their trees.

In the end, the brothers tapped early because, “the weather was telling [them] to,” and they were able to reap the benefits of their venture.”

We could have lost, we could have got burnt,” Boisvert said, “but we didn’t and I’m glad we gambled because we made a lot of syrup.”

The syrup they produce at the Sugar Shack is sold in their store in North Hadley, their online store and even in the Whole Foods Store on Route 9 in Hadley.

According to Rachel Hackett, a local forger for Whole Foods in Hadley, they buy the locally grown products, such as chestnuts from Gillen and maple syrup from the Boisverts, because Whole Foods strides to provide its customers with the “highest quality national organic products,” which, for Hackett and Whole Foods, includes local products.

Though farms usually contact Whole Foods to make sales, Hackett said a lot of shoppers come in asking for specific products from local farms, causing them to seek out the local farmer.

For Whole Foods, though buying local can be expensive at times, depending on the product, it is worth buying because according to Hackett it is, “just too darn good.”

The process of getting their product on the store shelf was never easy for the Boisvert brothers.

“It was hard to get into Whole Foods,” said Boisvert. “But once we proved to them we could provide year round, things are going smoothly.”

Gillen is not concerned with getting too far the commercialized market.

“When I have a product that I think will interest Whole Foods I bring it to them and ask them,” said Gillen.

But he isn’t too worried about breaking into the market because he does not have the resources or man-power to mass produce a specific product other than chestnuts.

“We don’t grow a field of any one product, except the chestnuts, and we don’t have the staff to pick, place to pack, coolers large enough to hold them, refrigerated trucks, the insurance, the big boxes want you to carry. That’s another level of farming,” he said.

As both Sunset Farms and the Sugar Shack begin to prepare for the upcoming summer season, they are looking towards the future of their farms.

The brothers are planning on expanding the Animal Village at the Sugar Shack as a, “hands-on learning farm that families can spend as much as a day here doing all kinds of activities,” said Boisvert.

Though Gillen has no major changes and advancements brewing for Sunset Farms, he is still very happy with his work.

“I like doing it,” he says, “I am proud of our accomplishments.”

Maria Uminski can be reached at [email protected]