Growing a pandemic farm

  • Zak Gregoire tends the tomato plants on Phoenix Valley Farm.

  • Rachel Keating cuts basil on Phoenix Valley Farm. —Julia Stinneford

  • Keating and Gregoire tend the tomato plants on Phoenix Valley Farm. —Julia Stinneford

  • Rachel Keating and Zak Gregoire tend tomato plants on Phoenix Valley Farm in Mason. Julia Stinneford photos / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 8/6/2021 10:27:04 AM

For some people, the COVID quarantine presented time to stay home and try to relax. But for Mason residents Zak Gregoire and Rachel Keating, 2020’s pandemic lockdown meant starting a farm – and eventually, a business: Phoenix Valley Farm.

The couple, who live in a 1700s house – that they’re currently renovating – with other family members, have been in the restaurant industry for about 10 years each. Keating is a director of events for a catering company in Manchester, while Gregoire is chef de cuisine at the Forge and Vine restaurant in Groton, Massachusetts.

Part of the motivation to start the farm was because of Gregoire’s involvement in the restaurant industry as a chef. 

“He knows what chefs are looking for, what restaurants are looking for to make your dish new and exciting, to keep people interested,” said Keating. 

Gregoire said the key is to focus on growing not just New England staples – zucchini and tomatoes, specifically – but to try to grow interesting, colorful crops.

“We give people the cool stuff,” Gregoire said, referring to the cucamelons and heirloom tomatoes that they grow. 

Growing these interesting crops is also partially about price, Gregoire said. Heirloom tomatoes cost “astronomically” more than regular tomatoes, he said, but their seed packets are about the same price, so growing them themselves is economically smart.

In total, the amount of different plants being grown on their farm is impressive. The pair more than doubled their planting space between last summer and this year, but the area is still mostly contained within two relatively small fenced-in plots.

In those areas, they have rows of tomato plants, cucumbers and cucamelons, kale, bok choy, various peas and beans, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, spicy peppers and bell peppers, and different types of herbs and edible flowers. Plus many others, almost too many to count. 

This sheer amount of vegetation is also part of the process, Keating said.

“To support just like the horticulture of all of it, rather than just focusing on one thing,” Keating said, “we’re trying to bring everything together to bring a bee community together and all those beneficial insects.”

Along the front of the gardens, there are flowers planted to bring bees in, although the bees are drawn to the flowers on the vegetable plants as well.

Another benefit of the closeness of the planting is what Gregoire called “cross companion planting,” or putting plants close together that can provide benefits to each other. For example, all along the bottom of their row of tomatoes is a companion row of basil, since basil repels pests that damage tomato plants.

These kinds of farming tricks are all part of the process, Gregoire said. 

“We’ve only officially been farmers for a month,” he said, referring to when they officially started the farm business. Despite obvious enthusiasm for the practice, the couple don’t know everything there is to know about farming, so it takes a lot of research and learning.

“A lot of it is still learning, which is pretty cool,” Gregoire said. “That’s why I got into culinary, so I could just learn something every day.”

Despite their initial lack of expertise last summer, Keating said that they produced a couple hundred pounds of tomatoes – with half the plants they currently have.

The process of maintaining the farm is peaceful and meditative, the couple said. They each spend a couple hours working on taking care of the plants, with each one often receiving personalized care, with how small the farm is. 

In the future, Gregoire said that they have plans to expand. Already, another space is being cleared on the property to house more plants – although they haven’t decided what will go there just yet. Other expansion opportunities for the farm include a planned farm stand building, Gregoire said.

And after spending this year getting the business off the ground and putting out feelers about where and how to sell their wares, Keating said that next year will be important for the two of them kicking the business into high-gear. 

Part of that process will begin this year, with participation in farmer’s markets and Mason’s Old Home Day. 

That aspect of the farm is important to Gregoire and Keating.

“Of course we want to be a part of the community,” Keating said. “And everyone went through such a time last year, and I feel like it brought a lot of the community together and got more people into supporting your local stuff. So obviously, we want to be a part of that – grow local, eat local.”

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