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On the Upswing: Pepperell organic farmers have growing success

  • A gas-powered tractor at Pepperell’s Upswing Farm. Co-Owners Brittany and Kevin Overshiner completed the purchase of the farmland in January. JACOB VITALI/LOWELL SUN

  • Upswing Farm co-Owner Kevin Overshiner drives a tractor used for cultivation on Friday, July 23. He completed the purchase of the Pepperell farmland with his wife Brittany in January. JACOB VITALI/LOWELL SUN

  • Upswing Farm co-Owner Brittany Overshiner shows off some of the farm’s summer crops in late July. She completed the purchase of the Pepperell farmland with her husband Kevin in January. JACOB VITALI/LOWELL SUN

  • Upswing Farm co-owner Brittany Overshiner shows off some of the farm’s summer crops on Friday, July 23. She completed the purchase of the Pepperell farmland in January. JACOB VITALI/LOWELL SUN

  • Upswing Farm co-Owners Kevin and Brittany Overshiner completed the sale for their new Pepperell farmland in January. JACOB VITALI/LOWELL SUN

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PEPPERELL — A new farm, sitting on a historic piece of property, has been on the “upswing” since January.

Upswing Farm is a certified organic farm off Brookline Street, owned by Brittany and Kevin Overshiner. Earlier this year, they officially closed on the farmland. They’re kept busy by a well-diversified group of crops that include cucumbers, zucchini, swiss chard, kale, beets, parsnips, potatoes, carrots and different varieties of squash.

“We are officially going to be a year-round farm,” Brittany Overshiner said. “So we are not stopping. I really love having food that I grew to eat in the winter. And I find that I’m able to maintain really dedicated customers if I can just keep it going.”

Upswing’s decision to be a certified organic farm was a conscious one, Overshiner said. As the farm continues to grow, she’s not sure she could see doing business any other way. Because the land had been without activity for so long, they were able to certify it “almost immediately.”

Sweet corn is also a part of Upswing’s crops. It can be purchased through one of its community supported agriculture members and if you’re willing to overlook a blemish, Overshiner says you’ll be surprised by the taste.

“When you get the corn from us, we’ve just picked for you — it’s always just-picked corn, it’s never corn that’s been sitting around. So it’s so sweet. You can eat it raw,” Overshiner said.

Despite coming to Pepperell this year, Upswing Farm has been in operation for a few years now, having started in Ashland. But there, the Overshiners didn’t own the land they were farming on and security wasn’t guaranteed.

“We had an agreement with the owner that we could try to preserve the land and put it under an agricultural preservation restriction and then purchase it. And we were actually successful in doing so (with the trust). But we ended up not being able to purchase the property, and we lost that lease. And … that was the end of 2019. So last year, we were leasing land in three different towns, Ashland, Holliston and Franklin,” Overshiner said.

Since moving to the neighborhood, they’ve found supportive and welcoming neighbors.

“Everybody around here actually has a story and a connection to the farm,” Overshiner said. “We’ve felt really welcomed and supported by our neighborhood community.”

One neighbor is the owner of an old dragonfly farm. When Upswing first moved in, they realized their greenhouse wasn’t going to be ready. The neighbor let them rent their greenhouse so they could have a propagation house and start seedlings.

Now that they have their own property for growing, they’re focused on providing an environment for their employees to grow too. Overshiner said oftentimes people who want farm jobs can’t take them due to lower pay. She said everybody at Upswing Farm makes at least $15 an hour.

The farmhouse, originally a point of contention in the property purchase, has also proven to be an added benefit.

“We’re able to provide housing for almost all of our employees, except for a couple who choose not to live on-site, or who already lived in town and then got jobs here,” Overshiner said.

Overshiner said even though they try to pay a competitive wage, it can still be challenging to afford housing in the area. Some of their employees, she added, are farmers trying to build up their own careers and skill sets.

Since making the move to Pepperell, they’ve been able to maintain their 400-member community supported agriculture customer base. In the past year, 40 new members have joined.

“We maintain those old distribution sites that we had, so we have one in Holliston,” Overshiner said. “We do 150 members in Holliston. We do 150 members at Western Nurseries in Hopkinton. And then we do like 40 here, and then we have 60 in Medford, actually.”

She added one of the community supported agriculture partners is a farmer who wasn’t able to grow this year. Upswing Farm pitched in to help him keep his farm going until he was ready to return.

Between the CSA and their spot at the Ashland farmer’s market, Overshiner estimates they’re moving two tons of produce a week. They’re also selling 120 flower bouquets a week, put together by a special flower manager they work with.

Part of Upswing’s mortgage included a special portion to build a wash and pack station. The wash and pack, as well as a rolling cooler, are still works in progress. They also received a partial grant from the state to purchase a used box truck for transporting goods, which is currently under repair but should be back soon.

While they didn’t participate in the Pepperell farmer’s market this year, Overshiner said it remains a possibility for the future. She said she was cognizant of the many “really quality” farm stands in the area, however, including Wilkins Farm on Route 119.

Most of their sales are still conducted through CSA partners. The CSA helps Upswing Farm pursue diversity in what they grow and acts like an “insurance policy” on the land, business, and vehicles. If one crop isn’t doing well, there’s a chance another one is.

Their new location includes more than 40 acres. Overshiner said she had initially become interested in the land in fall 2018.

“It (was) really a little bit bigger than anything we were looking for to begin with,” Overshiner said.

However in fall 2019, she reached out to an organization called Dirt Capital Partners. The organization specializes in providing financing and mortgages to organic farmers in the Northeast, trying to acquire properties larger than 40 acres in size.

The company helped them negotiate with the sellers and navigate getting a partial mortgage through the Farm Service Agency, a program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Farm Service Agency helps farmers who can’t secure credit otherwise to purchase farmland and equipment. They’re happy with the land they obtained.

“Once in a while when I’m really stressed out, I just like stop and, like, look around. I was, like, looking where you are like, ‘this is amazing.’ “

Overshiner admits they have “a certain level of privilege” with their success with Upswing. Overshiner said she knows of people who would be in farming today but faced barriers that made it “impossible.”

“I think that as we look at climate change and just sort of face the pandemic and disruptions in the global market, having a really diverse group of small-scale farmers producing for local consumption is a really smart way to go,” Overshiner said.

Overshiner also suggested rethinking the way land is held, with towns being able to own the land and leasing it.