Smart Growth: Residents And Volunteers Help Return Putnam Farm To Its Roots

By: Ryan Bray

Topics: Conservation , Orleans news , Agriculture & Farming

Molly Tsongas (left) and Heather Brunelle stand in Tsongas' community garden plot at Putnam Farm. Tsongas, a Chatham resident, was awarded the plot through a lottery drawing in March. RYAN BRAY PHOTOS


ORLEANS – On a warm early June morning earlier this month, James Rosato walked through his garden plot in the back of Putnam Farm alongside 5-year-old James Oringer. A few plots over, young James' mother, Catherine Larkey, watched with a smile.

"James loves to hang out with him," Larkey said of Rosato, an Orleans resident who is in his fifth summer at the farm. "That's the best part, that they get to have time with other people to look up to. It's cool to have someone guide him and teach him. It's not all coming from me."

That sense of community has become central to life at Putnam, where plans for further restoration are in the works that could bring as many as 20 additional plots to the property.

The town purchased the 14-acre farm in 2010 with the goal of returning a portion of the property to active farm land. The property also includes walking trails and easy access to the Cape Cod Rail Trail.

Drusy Henson, who is the conservation commission's liaison to the farm, said the farm required a lot of work before it could be set up again for agricultural use.

"All the topsoil was taken away from that property to build the Orleans-Eastham rotary," she said. "The soil health on the property was pretty poor."

After work was done to create access and make other improvements to the site, the first five plots got up and running five years ago. Larkey, a California native, was selected for one of those first plots via lottery, as was Rosato.

"It's been great," she said of working her plot, which she shares with other families. "It's a lot, but it's definitely what we want to be doing. We're down here picking buckets of strawberries everyday, the kids are outside, they eat the food that we grow. That's why we're here. That's why we do it."

An additional seven plots have since been created, holders for which were selected by lottery in March. Now thanks to $71,250 in Community Preservation Act funding approved at the annual town meeting last month, irrigation and electrical improvements are scheduled that, when finished, could more than double the number of existing plots on the farm.

The funding will be used to install a new well and connect the farm to a nearby Eversource power grid. A frost-free hydrant also will be installed that will allow the plots to be managed during the shoulder season.

Rick Francolini, an Orleans resident who has been instrumental in working with the conservation and public works departments in restoring the property, said the improvements will give the farm its own irrigation source. Currently, the farm is being irrigated using town water.

"Right now we're watering agricultural fields with drinking water," he said. "It's not ideal and not cost effective."

Each plot on the farm is 3,500 square feet. Plot holders pay a $500 annual fee for their space, which is used to offset the cost of using town water. If someone chooses to give up their plot, a new holder is chosen by lottery.

There are also rules that holders need to follow and observe. Plots must be farmed using organic materials (no herbicides or chemicals), and there is no growing of invasive species. Plot holders get an assist from the town's public works department, which donates fresh compost and other organic materials to the farm.

With the installation of the well and the potential for bringing solar to the property in the future, Francolini said fee revenues could eventually go directly back into the farm.

While plot holders share a common interest in farming, each uses their plot in different ways. One plot is run by a mother and daughter from Eastham. Another plot is managed by a Provincetown resident who runs his own landscape design company. Some grow berries, while others grow flowers. Still others sell what they grow to local restaurants, Henson said.

Like Larkey, Molly Tsongas of Chatham also operates a community plot, where she and other families grow countless vegetables and herbs. A new plot holder, her circular garden is divided into different "zones." In the water zone, for example, you'll be able to find wet vegetables such as tomatoes. The fire zone, meanwhile, is designated for potatoes, carrots and other vegetables families grow and eat to keep warm during the cold winter months. Come the fall, Tsongas said, the center of the circle will come to life with crimson and clover.

"It'll become a beautiful red bloom, probably in September," she said.

The list of produce springing from the plot is extensive, including but not limited to cucumbers, green beans, peas, carrots, radishes, spinach, arugula, romaine lettuce, mustard greens, kale, sage, lavender, celery, scallions, broccoli, strawberries and red cabbage. In the front is a pollinator garden, while off to the corner, Tsongas' daughter plays in a small farmstand made for children.

"I sort of went on instinct," said Tsongas, who shares what is grown in the plot with other families on the farm. "I just went with what felt right in my body. It felt good to do these circles."

Despite having never gardened before, Tsongas said she was inspired to put her name in for a plot this spring after spending time over at Larkey's plot. From there, she said she did plenty of research to figure how and what to grow.

"I joke about it, but I think I did 1,250 Google searches since March on how to plant everything," she said.

Tsongas also had some help from some more experienced gardeners, among them Heather Brunelle of Orleans, who also gardens in the community plot. Brunelle also operates her own container garden in town.

"Molly said 'Hey guys, I've got these seeds, I've got this plot, and I want to grow all these things," Brunelle said. "I thought 'This is so ambitious.'"

"Personally I think the fact that everyone is looking at the opportunity differently and executing accordingly is great," Francolini said.

In January 2021, Francolini gathered with other residents interested in furthering efforts to bring farming back to Putnam. The COVID-19 pandemic and rising food costs, along with a society that's become more environmentally mindful in recent years, has brought about a renewed interest in agriculture locally, he said.

"These young parents are just happy to have their children learn that onions don't come from a plastic container in the supermarket, that they come from the ground," he said. "You can watch them grow."

Larkey, who worked through heavy rains last week to cover her crops with mulch, said managing her plot is a way of teaching her children about "the relationship between where food comes from and who sustains it."

"It's much more satisfying," she said of growing her own food. "I'm never as satisfied eating strawberries from the store as I am when I come down here and grab some from the farm."

For Tsongas, who has handed out her produce to families at the Laurel School in Brewster, which her daughter attends, gardening her plot has deepened her connection to nature.

"I've never actually felt more connected to the rain than I do now. I just think about how happy my plants are going to be," she said.

"The growers have been doing a great job," Henson said. "It's great for them, it's great for the community. They're improving the land."

Francolini hopes that the well installation and electrical connection will be completed by the end of the year. After that, it remains to be seen how soon more plots can be set up for future farming.

Orleans Conservation Agent John Jannell is overseeing the well and electrical work, while the town's department of public works has begun trimming red cedar trees on the farm that will eventually be removed to make room for the new plots. Francolini said the town has an arrangement with a tree service that will take the trees away at no cost to the town and relocate them to Martha's Vineyard.

In the long term, the goal is to turn Putnam Farm into a self-sufficient operation. With a conservation staff numbering only two people, Francolini said it is important that the burden on employees tasked with overseeing the land be reduced.

"For them to have some local advocates who are willing to help do the legwork, the advocating and working with the various committees, it's just helped it all move along," he said.

With demand high, there is currently a waiting list for people seeking future plots at the farm. Another lottery could be held sometime next year, Francolini said. Those interested in being considered for a plot can contact the Orleans Conservation Department at 508-240-3700 Ext. 2425.

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