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Kenney Farm carves niche in CSA and terminal market

by Christina DiMartino | November 01, 2011
Andrea Grant, sales representative for Kenney Farm.

Andrea Grant handles sales for Kenney Farm in Concord, MA. The vegetable farm, which is owned by Bill Kenney and was founded by his grandfather in 1992, has evolved in many ways over the years.

“We used to take all of our harvested produce to local markets, but that changed two years ago when people from the area came to us asking that we start a community supported agriculture system,” said Ms. Grant. “Now we do both. We operate as a CSA and we continue to supply fresh produce to select wholesale produce companies at the New England Produce Center.”

Kenney Farms grows fresh produce on about 60 acres of its own land and an additional 40 acres that are leased. It has a large tomato crop, but its line also includes squashes, eggplant, kohlrabi, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, carrots and acorn squash. In late fall, as the farm starts to wrap up production for the winter, it produces decorative gourds, pumpkins and corn stalks.

“The CSA has been a great experience for us,” said Ms. Grant. “We start the third week in June, and once every week for 20 weeks CSA members pick up a wooden crate of what was harvested that week. Since starting the CSA, we’ve gone from growing six crops to about 20 items. Our membership has also grown quickly and is now at about 320 people in only the second year. Members also like that we grow some old-fashioned items that they don’t usually find in the grocery store, like kohlrabi and parsnips.”

Kenney Farms’ CSA members like knowing that their food is locally grown, and they appreciate that Kenney washes its produce in the same water that they drink. Although it is not an organic farming operation, it does not spray chemicals haphazardly or without good cause. Ms. Grant said that the company has been growing produce in the same soil since 1922. It also encourages people to wash the vegetables right before preparing, and it offers helpful information on handling and preparation.

“When you’re buying perishable items, however, it’s never foolproof,” she added. “In that great book, ‘Wisdom of the Last Farmer,’ [by David Mas Masumoto] the author states that shelf life is ruining good produce, and I relate to this. Today, peaches at the retail stores are rock hard to insure a good shelf life, but this isn’t necessarily good for the quality or flavor of the product. The expectation of today’s consumer is that the item must be good looking and last a long time. But it seldom speaks to that fresh, homegrown flavor that growing nearby can provide.”

Ms. Grant said that the farm needs its terminal market customers as much as it does its CSA members, and it produces separate crops to service the market customers.

“Our market customers can move the huge volumes of produce we sometimes have,” she said. “If I have 80 boxes of eggplant, for example, I can take them to P. Tavilla Co., which is a great customer, and they’ll likely be able to move them.”

Kenney Farms enjoys its end-of-season decorative crops because people see them as fun items. Since these items are not consumed, the company doesn’t have to worry about food quality or inspections.

Its highly popular corn stalk crop was the side effect of another ornamental crop it produces.

“Several years ago we were growing some ornamental corn and realized that it produced a beautiful stalk,” said Ms. Grant. “We discovered that corn seed used for cow feed makes the most-attractive stalks. It grows very tall and stays greener longer than other stalks. The corn is harvested, and staff from a local penitentiary picks it up and grinds it for feed for the institution’s cows on its farm.”

Kenney Farms wraps about seven corn stalks to a bunch, and each bunch wholesales for about $2.50, allowing wholesale customers and their customers alike to make a nice margin. Some retailers tie a big orange bow around the stalks, which allows even more of a markup.

“We’ve developed a huge business with the stalks,” said Ms. Grant. “They run from the second week of September through the last week of October. Once Halloween hits, it’s done.”

She said that residents decorate their front doors and lampposts with the stalks, and one of Kenney Farm’s customers stages a corn maze using them. “Corn stalks are a great end-of-year wrap up for the farm,” she said. “Then we stop until the end of January when we start ordering seed for the next crop. We start the plants in the greenhouse in March, transplant them in the ground in May and we’re off to another season.”