Valley Bounty: Kitchen Garden Farm nurtures expansion, collaboration

  • Caroline Pam and Tim Wilcox, right, with Max Traunstein and Lilly Israel at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Chile Pepper Festival in New York. KITCHEN GARDEN FARM

  • Harvesting cauliflower in Sunderland. KITCHEN GARDEN FARM

  • A rainbow of peppers at Kitchen Garden Farm. KITCHEN GARDEN FARM

  • Some of Kitchen Garden Farm’s value-added products, including their famous sriracha and salsa. KITCHEN GARDEN FARM

  • Skateboard the cat (recently passed on) with some of Kitchen Garden Farm’s dried chili peppers. KITCHEN GARDEN FARM

  •  Caroline Pam and TimWilcox, co-owners of Kitchen Garden Farm, with some of their fiery peppers. JIM GIPE/KITCHEN GARDEN FARM

For the Gazette
Monday, June 28, 2021

A kitchen garden is a place for growing food that’s then brought to the kitchen, transformed into delicious dishes, and shared with people. It’s a place close to home that nurtures the lives of those who eat from it.

Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland embodies that spirit, expanded to a community scale. And from farming, to making their famous sriracha and salsa, to recently launching their food distribution service, the Sunderland Farm Collaborative, the breadth of what they’re involved signals a success born out of staying true to their roots.

Farming comes first. “We started in 2006 growing fresh vegetables on one acre — truly at garden scale,” says co-owner Caroline Pam, who is also a board member for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). “Our goal was always to provide the best ingredients for cooking and to share those with people.”

Now the farm covers 70 acres in Sunderland and Whately, and just as in a kitchen garden, they still grow a bit of everything. “We’re picking lots of greens right now like lettuce and kale,” Pam says. “Our first carrots just finished, summer squash and cucumbers have started, and we have lots of celery and herbs of all kinds — particularly basil.”

Kitchen Garden produce is sold at local grocery stores including River Valley Co-op, Green Fields Market, Atlas Farm Store and the Leverett Village Co-op. Additionally, Pam says, “You can eat our produce locally at restaurants like Coco & the Cellar Bar, Daily Operation, Homestand, Paul & Elizabeth’s, Blue Door Gatherings and Wheelhouse, and order ingredients online through places like Sunderland Farm Collaborative, Mass Food Delivery and Old Friends Farm.”

They also take what they grow into the kitchen and create with it. From the beginning, Pam and Tim Wilcox, her husband and business partner, searched for a value-added product they could make with their veggies.

“In 2013, we sold all sorts of prepared foods at farmers markets,” Pam says, “and at the end of that season we introduced our first batch of sriracha at Chilifest — a weekend of food competitions, music and all things hot peppers they host at Mike’s Maze in Sunderland.”

It was a huge hit, and they decided to stick with shelf-stable sriracha and later salsa as their specialties.

That side of the businesses has since grown enormously, with their products now in dozens of stores around the Valley and hundreds nationwide. And in the past year, demand has surged.

“During the pandemic people’s buying habits shifted, interest in local products increased, more retailers wanted locally made products, and as a result our sriracha and salsa sold three times as fast as we anticipated,” she says.

They kicked production into high gear to meet the moment, but eventually ingredients ran out. “We are, unfortunately, sold out of original sriracha until the new pepper crop comes in,” Pam notes.

Now they’re scaling up. “We’re planting a lot more peppers, a lot more tomatoes, and have a new warehouse, freezer and dehydrator on the farm to process them, thanks in part to a Food Security Infrastructure Grant,” Pam explains.

Another use for this new infrastructure is the Sunderland Farm Collaborative, a division of Kitchen Garden Farm and one of the local farm-to-consumer delivery companies born during the pandemic. They buy and aggregate food from many local producers and deliver it to retailers and other distributors around New England, providing a more direct link between people and local farms.

That might be the biggest way the impact of this Kitchen Garden is felt far beyond where their food is grown. They’ve also started renting warehouse space, freezer space, and their dehydrator to other local farms, and working to coordinate deliveries not just with other farms but regional distributors and food hubs, too.

“We’re starting to look like a food hub ourselves,” Pam says, “but we didn’t set out to be that. Especially with Sunderland Farm Collaborative, we were just answering an immediate need and trying to get more local food to more places.”

Though it wasn’t planned, it’s easy to see how it happened. Pam always seems to be thinking about Kitchen Garden Farm’s place in the food system, and how they can collaborate within their strong network of local farms to make things better.

“I find it really interesting to hear from folks what their challenges are,” Pam says. “I’m always thinking about what mine are, and if there’s a solution that meets my needs and benefits another farm, that’s the direction I want to go.”

The trust within their own team makes these new endeavors possible. “We have a really strong community among our employees,” Pam says. “Max Traunstein, our production manager, started with us right out of college eight years ago. Sales manager Lilly Israel is in her sixth year. They are critical to what we do.”

With Sunderland Farm Collaborative and their value-added production, they now employ more than 20 year-round staff plus seasonal workers. “We want to build a culture of professionals who farm year-round as a career,” she explains. Daily community lunches and a staff community garden – a “Kitchen Garden kitchen garden,” says Pam — help the work feel collective.

With all the hats she wears, Pam’s perspective on the direction of the local food system is well informed.

“We do need more distribution and ways to get local food out, but we could still be growing more, too. I’m often asked, ‘Is the Valley at capacity? Do we need more farms?’ I say yes. We have a big market here, and we’re only providing local food to a small segment of it.”

How can the local food system grow? More collaboration, as modeled by Kitchen Garden and Sunderland Food Collaborative, is a big part of the answer. Growing more year-round would help. More public investment would certainly help, Pam says, referencing the Food Security Infrastructure Grant the farm received from the state that allowed them to scale up.

“When the government decides there’s value and invests in infrastructure for farms, it makes more possible,” she says. “It impacts the whole food system.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA. To find more local food and farms near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.