Valley Bounty: Can-do attitude at Amethyst Farm

  • Draft horses at Amethyst Farm in Amherst. They are used on the farm for work commonly done with a tractor. BERNARD BRENNAN

  • A new chestnut tree orchard at Amethyst Farm in Amherst. BERNARD BRENNAN

  • The horse stables at Amethyst Farm in Amherst. BERNARD BRENNAN

  • Rows of crops for the CSA at Amethyst Farm in Amherst. BERNARD BRENNAN

  • Hay in windrows at Amethyst Farm in Amherst.  BERNARD BRENNAN

For the Gazette
Tuesday, October 06, 2020

‘It helps to be blindly overconfident. To have an attitude of I can figure it out, I can learn it, and I don’t know how, but I’m going to make it work,” says Bernard Brennan, owner of Amethyst Farm in Amherst.

Brennan purchased Amethyst Farm in 2011. The farm sits on 150 acres of Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) land. Through APR, farms sell the development rights of their land to the state, which ensures that the land will never be developed or used for anything other than agriculture. Today, Amethyst Farm houses everything from a three-season CSA to agritourism activities and a full equine facility for the farm’s team of draft horses.

A commitment to sustainable and regenerative practices guides all work at Amethyst Farm. The CSA housed at the farm, which is called Many Hands Farm Corps and is run by Ryan Karb, offers over 60 different vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplants, zucchinis, peppers, sweet potatoes, spinach and more.

In order to provide a three-season CSA, low and high tunnel hoop houses are used to grow crops that are selected for being hardy.

“Even if we could afford to, we are not willing to build a hothouse that relies on fossil fuels so that we can grow whatever we may want in the dead of winter,” says Brennan.

Take spinach, for example. The sugars in spinach act as anti-freeze, and while growth slows down over winter, the plant can stay alive. Growing a surplus of spinach in the fall allows it to be harvested all winter. Come spring, the plant already has deep roots and is quick to restart growth.

Additionally, the farm uses low-till methods and rotational planting to support the long-term health of their soils.

Prior to Brennan’s ownership, Amethyst Farm had been used to raise dairy cows and grow tobacco; most recently, it was used as an equine facility. With the infrastructure already in place, Brennan bought a pair of draft horses to replace much of the work that he would otherwise do with a tractor.

“They are my solar-powered partners,” Brennan says and laughs. “I am able to rely less on outside inputs and instead cycle nutrients on the farm by growing hay, feeding it to the horses and then using the manure to fertilize fields.”

The horses are used to haul manure, spread seeds, level (or “drag”) the sand of riding arenas, and ted hay, the process of turning freshly cut grass over to expose new surface area to wind and sun, allowing for it to dry before baling. They’re also used for limited logging.

Unlike a tractor, the horses require daily attention, and similar to athletes, they need to train in the off season to be prepared for the growing season. To keep the horses fit, and to bring in additional revenue to the farm, Brennan uses the draft horses for hayrides in the fall and sleigh rides in the winter.

Brennan also partners with Laura Etzel of Infinity Equestrian to offer riding lessons at Amethyst Farm, which has stalls available to board.

This is the first year that Brennan has been able to harvest hazelnuts since converting a 4-acre hayfield into a hazelnut and chestnut orchard nearly five years ago. With 17 different varieties of hazelnut and chestnut trees, Brennan hopes that it will one day become a yearly you-pick operation once the trees are fully mature.

If you are interested in buying produce from Many Hands Farm Corps/Amethyst Farm, you can stop by their CSA located at 132 Pelham Road in Amherst. You may have seen their produce at the Mobile Market, a program funded by Healthy Hampshire, with pickup at Fort River Elementary School in Amherst.

To find more farms near you, visit buylocalfood.org/farmguide.

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