Cutting edge: Phoenix Fruit Farm’s all-women pruning crew gets it done

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  • Natalie Goodman, left, and Gabrielle Hardyn, part of an all-woman pruning crew at Phoenix Fruit Farm with owner/operator Elly Vaughan, in background, and Sara Sternick (not pictured), trim a semi-dwarf McIntosh tree at the Belchertown orchard on Friday, April 9. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Natalie Goodman, part of a four-woman crew at Phoenix Fruit Farm in Belchertown, trims a semi-dwarf McIntosh tree on Friday, April 9. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • An all-woman pruning crew at Phoenix Fruit Farm in Belchertown works in a section of McIntosh trees on Friday, April 9. From left are Natalie Goodman, Gabrielle Hardyn and owner/operator Elly Vaughan. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Gabrielle Hardyn, part of a four-woman crew at Phoenix Fruit Farm in Belchertown, trims a semi-dwarf McIntosh apple tree on April 9. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Natalie Goodman, part of a four-woman crew at Phoenix Fruit Farm, climbs a semi-dwarf McIntosh tree to trim a branch at the Belchertown orchard on Friday, April 9, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Phoenix Fruit Farm owner/operator Elly Vaughan trims a stand of semi-dwarf McIntosh trees at the Belchertown orchard on April 9.

  • Phoenix Fruit Farm owner/operator Elly Vaughan, right, and her pruning crew work in a section of semi-dwarf McIntosh trees at the Belchertown orchard on Friday, April 9, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Phoenix Fruit Farm owner/operator Elly Vaughan, left, with her pruning crew, from left, Sara Sternick of Hadley, Gabrielle Hardyn of Amherst, with Vaughan’s rescue dog, “branch manager” Honey Dog, and Natalie Goodman of Hadley. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/ELLY VAUGHAN

Staff Writer
Published: 4/21/2021 8:51:14 AM

Elly Vaughan bought the farm that would become Belchertown’s Phoenix Fruit Farm in 2017 after working as its manager. Since taking over, she has planted new varieties of fruit trees, brought the farm into the vegetable business and opened a farm store. This year, however, something happened on her farm that Vaughan had never seen before: She assembled an all-woman pruning crew.

Vaughan, 35, has been farming since her college years, but she’s never worked on a crew that’s all women.

“Most of the times you’re the only woman on the crew,” she said.

The crew was formed after her assistant grower, Natalie Goodman, suggested bringing in some friends she knew from rock climbing for the pruning work.

“It just sort of assembled itself,” Vaughan said.

More than 1,000 trees have been pruned at the farm since January, Vaughan said, and the crew currently consists of Vaughan and three other women. And while she didn’t set out to create an all-woman crew, she said it is something special.

“For young women to be able to come here and hone their skills with other women, mentored by a woman, is something that never happens for this line of work, which is very male-dominated,” she said.

Goodman called working with an all-woman crew “extremely inspiring.”

“It makes me feel like I can do anything,” she said.

Other crew members shared similar sentiments.

“Jobs that I’ve had in the past tend to underestimate how much women are capable of,” said Sara Sternick. “I think that it’s empowering to see everyone just working hard and getting the job done.”

The job at Phoenix Fruit Farm is her first experience working on a farm, Sternick said, and she’s really enjoyed it. She also said that rock climbing and pruning “definitely complement each other” and that rock climbing may have helped her with injury prevention in her pruning job.

Vaughan said the farm is looking to finish pruning by mid-May, and Sternick said she plans on helping out on the farm after the pruning season is over.

Gabrielle Hardyn, another crew member, said the crew has worked in the snow, in the wind and in freezing weather.

“It’s been really tough, but it’s been a lot of fun,” she said.

Hardyn also said the crew is a space where “no one feels stupid to ask a question.” Additionally, she said that sometimes pruning requires the climbing of a tree.

“Climbing trees is very fun,” Hardyn said.

Honey Dog, Vaughn’s dog, was also praised for her contributions to morale.

“Definitely the most important member of the crew,” Hardyn said.

An operation grows

As a first-generation farmer, Vaughan is actively building and expanding her operation, which is located off Sabin Street.

Vaughan said she has branched out from the wholesale apple business because of the difficulty of competing as a small producer in the global marketplace. Instead, she’s focusing on selling fruits and vegetables directly to customers.

“I can grow just about anything that my customers want to buy,” she said.

Vaughan sells her fruit and vegetables, as well as unpasteurized cider and prepared foods made from her crops, at her farm store. The farm also does pick-your-own apples and peaches and maintains a wholesale business. Vaughan may implement something akin to a CSA in the future.

More than 30 acres of Phoenix Fruit Farm is under cultivation, and Vaughan plans on putting more into cultivation this year. The apple and peach trees that were on the land when Vaughan purchased the property have been joined by grapes, pears, nectarines, strawberries and vegetables including tomatoes, peppers and summer squash.

“All of my new plantings are geared toward direct markets,” she said.

Goodman is also enthusiastic about her employer’s use of direct sales.

“She can pay us living wages because we don’t have that middleman,” she said. Additionally, Goodman is enjoying learning the farming trade from Vaughan.

“Elly is teaching me everything,” Goodman said.

And even though the farm employs predominately women, some men also work there.

Vaughan has lived in Belchertown since 2010, and she said that the community has reacted well to her business.

“I know that the local folks here in Belchertown love having that store,” said Vaughan.

Vaughan’s store, located on 401 Mill Valley Road, sells a variety of different products, from meat, to milk, to vegetables and prepared items.

“We have so many different local products,” said Goodman.

The business also has a commercial kitchen, which makes shelf-stable products, such as salsa, from the farm’s crops.

Vaughan grew up in Andover and she doesn’t come from a farm family, discovering farming while taking a year off from college and working on organic farms.

“I really fell in love with that,” she said. “It just felt honest, and good and right.”

This caused Vaughan to switch her major from English to sustainable agriculture and transfer from the University of Massachusetts Lowell to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she graduated in 2010.

She said when she started working at what would become Phoenix Fruit Farm in 2016, orcharding “called out” to her soul.

“I felt really drawn to the orcharding,” she said.

Additionally, she said buying the farm was the opportunity that presented itself to her.

“This particular orchard is just so beautiful,” Vaughan said. “It’s just such a gift to be here every day.”

Vaughan is a hard cider enthusiast, and she’s been making hard cider for herself for years. However, she said she would also like to become a professional hard cider maker in the future.

Vaughan is also a musician and plays fiddle in the folk band “The Roving Corsairs,” which will be performing at the farm store from 1 to 3 p.m. on May 15.

As for what she’s looking forward to this year, Vaughan brought up peach season.

“I don’t eat peaches any other time of year because they’re so disappointing,” she said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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