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Of the Earth: Atlas Farm’s organic roots run deep

  • Gideon Porth, owner of Atlas Farm, talks about how the four greenhouse bays are joined together at a gutter that channels away snow runoff during Member Appreciation Day. FOR THE RECORDER/WES BLIXT

  • BLIXT


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

It was late January, but much better-than-springtime inside the Dutch-designed “gutter-connected” greenhouse at Atlas Farm. Organic vegetables are spread out far and wide on large flats that move effortlessly on sliders, and delicate ladybugs land on my fingers and notebook as owner Gideon Porth explains how it all works.

The ladybugs eat aphids as part of the integrated pest management program, notes Porth, as I gently brush one off my notebook and try to decipher what I’ve just written. It’s like 72 degrees, humid and quiet, and I’m surrounded by glistening head lettuce, leafy greens, herbs and more. It’s all just about perfect.

“This is my happy place,” Porth tells Member Appreciation Day visitors, pointing out that the four greenhouse bays are joined together at a gutter that channels away snow runoff, and that a nearly-constant temperature is maintained without noisy blowers. Nearby solar panels supply about two-thirds of the power needed to run the operation.

“Atlas is truly unique,” says Carol Whitkop of East Longmeadow and Savoy. She is a Master Gardener and Atlas member who routinely makes the trip.

If the stately 500-acre, Five Point farmstead, perched on the eastern bank of the Connecticut River in Northfield, represents one take on “living the land” in Franklin County, then the 100-acre Atlas Farm — across the river and 20 miles downstream in Deerfield — represents quite another.

Atlas has evolved considerably in size, scope and direction, since 2004 when Porth began to put together fragmented parcels along River Road on the eastern slope of the Pocumtuck ridge. Eventually, it encompassed a much larger contiguous parcel in the western side of the ridge, along routes 5&10 in South Deerfield, which also become the site of the Atlas Farm Store.

At the same time, Atlas has nurtured an environmental focus, a social climate, a way of relating to the local farm economy and a passionate following that appears to be about as organic as its produce.

“I guess we’ve always been very mission-driven,” says Porth. Originally from Florida, Porth worked with the Food Project, dedicated to diversity and sustainability, before earning a Master’s at UMass Amherst, where he studied with Frank Mangan, who has the spearheaded international vegetable initiatives there.

Porth didn’t even plan on the farm store. It, too, evolved, as an outgrowth of a land purchase. But since it opened in 2014, the store has come to nurture something of a community.

“Everything you see here has been talked about, and talked out,” says store manager Beth Fraser, surrounded by head lettuce that appeared to have come directly from the greenhouse. “Who made it? How was it made? Is it good?”

As the hub of its own “value-added” economy, for instance, Atlas peppers go to the The Kitchen Garden in Sunderland and come back as hot Sriracha sauce; beets go to Molly Merrett of Beets & Barley Northampton and come back as soup; beets, cabbage and carrots go to Real Pickles of Greenfield and come back pickled.

Such is the organic nature of his economy, that Porth chooses not to compete where he likely could. Atlas stops growing table vegetables in April when others are gearing up, and focuses on, among other things, garden plants. Atlas also partners with, rather than competing with, places like Old Friends Farm in Amherst and Riverside Farm in Sunderland.

Instead of selling CSA shares as it once did, with the limited selection that often implies, Atlas now sells discounted “member share” cards that can be used to buy anything in the store. Cards sell for $90, $250 and $500 and are worth $100, $300 and $650, respectively. And if you’re wondering, yes, there is a miso bar and a syrup bar. But instead of looking to simply snag the parade of Volvoes on the state road, Atlas has been eager to develop its engagement with the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) in way that has been good for both the farm and lower income people.

“We love HIP” notes store manager Fraser. “We get people to visit the store who might not have come otherwise, and we get to offer them really good organic food.”

To learn more about Atlas Farm and its offerings, visit: www.atlasfarm.com.

The Cutting Board

Curried oyster soup for two lovebirds: David Fersh of Charlemont has offered us this original Valentine’s Day treatment:

Ingredients:

One pint oysters in liquid

Half a medium yellow onion

A dozen peeled baby carrots, cut into fairly thin slices

Half and half or milk

Curry powder

Crushed savory

Paprika

Ground fenugreek or galangal (Thai spice)

Salt and pepper

Instructions:

Saute the carrots and onions in butter or ghee. Add milk and oysters with liquid and cook until soft.

Add spices to taste, and enjoy with crusty bread or crackers.

Coming up: More oysters from David and recipes from Sandy Thomas, Carl Doerner and Trouble Mandeson.

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and the author of “SKATERS: A Novel.” Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at: wesleyblixt@me.com.