Amherst’s Sunset Farm a pick-your-own cornucopia

  • In addition to produce, Sunset Farm grows a wide variety of flowers for sale. CISA/EMMA GWYTHER

  • Connie Gillen tends to flowers in one of the farm’s many gardens. FOR THE RECORDER/CISA, EMMA GWYTHER

  • The Gillens’ dog, Luna, pauses along a flower-lined track on the farm. FOR THE RECORDER/CISA, EMMA GWYTHER

For the Recorder
Published: 8/12/2020 1:50:45 PM

With summer field crops and flowers in full swing, Bill Gillen is hard at work offering a wide variety of products at his farm stand and at the Amherst Farmers’ Market. “It’s like theater — we’re on stage every Saturday, and strive to be able to offer something unique and exciting each week,” Gillen explained recently.

Bill Gillen, with his wife, Connie, is the owner and operator of Sunset Farm in Amherst. The 10-acre fruit, vegetable and flower farm offers pick-your-own for all of their produce. Pick-your-own is open 24/7 and operates on the honor system. “Come at 3 a.m. with a flashlight if you can’t sleep,” Gillen said with a laugh. “Help scare off the deer.”

Pick-your-own customers will find a list of currently available products attached to the side of the yellow farm stand out front, detailing prices and which row each crop is located in.

Known for offering an incredible variety, Gillen said, “It would be quicker to tell you what we don’t grow.”

Currently, customers can find cantaloupes, okra, silver queen corn, tomatoes, kale, chard, peas, summer squash, onions, rhubarb, basil, dill, parsley, lettuce and cilantro, with watermelons arriving later this month.

Flowers are currently at their peak on the farm as well. Find premade bouquets at the Amherst Farmers’ Market, at the farm stand, or at Whole Foods. If you want to arrange your own bouquet, stop by for pick-your-own, and choose from an array of zinnias, delphiniums, sweet peas, straw flowers, snapdragons, peonies, marigolds, gladiolas, bells of Ireland, yarrow, lisianthus, decorative grasses and more.

The flowers make a happy environment for the beehives kept on Sunset Farm by a local beekeeper. Honey is sold at the farm stand when available. This spring, Gillen got chicks that will start laying eggs for the farm stand, hopefully sometime this month.

Gillen explained that his farm has seen quite a bit of change since its founding in the summer of 1972, including a name change. It was originally called “No Book Farm,” the name serving as a counterpoint to the highly academic community of Amherst. “Like us, like the weather, like the government, everything is constantly in a state of change,” Gillen remarks. “After 20 years, I decided to change the name. In that time, I hoped that I would have learned something — no sense in being deliberately uneducated.”

The farm was started on just a small piece of their land, 100-by-100 square feet. Gillen contracted with the local pickle factory in South Deerfield to grow cucumbers. The factory would send them a tin can filled with cucumber seeds, and Gillen would go to work.

“They paid us $1 for the cucumbers they wanted, and 10 cents for the ones that grew too big to make relish out of,” Gillen recalls.

Today, Sunset Farm has grown bigger both in size and in the variety of products offered. One of the greatest joys of farming for Gillen has been hearing from customers excited to find produce not always available in supermarkets such as okra — a vegetable native to Ethiopia and brought to the Americas by enslaved people. Thriving in warmer climates, it has become a Southern staple commonly fried, roasted, pickled, or used in soups and stews.

The farm has seen more customers this year than in previous years, something Gillen attributes to the coronavirus pandemic. “I think one of the silver linings of the health crisis we’re in is that it has encouraged people to look within their own communities and connect with local farmers,” Gillen remarks. “It’s very exciting — we always love seeing new faces out picking.”

In addition to selling produce, Sunset Farm has been used as a scenic community space and park. From hosting kindergarten class picnics and farm tours, to serving as a UMass research site for farm pests, Sunset Farm makes the effort to connect with the surrounding communityn.

You can visit Sunset Farm’s farm stand at 20 Brigham Lane in Amherst. To find other local farms near you, check out CISA’s Online Guide at buylocalfood.org/farmguide.

Emma Gwyther is the development associate at CISA, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.




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