Young MacDonalds Hit the Farm

Overall, not really cut out for overalls

By Vicky Waltz. Video by Robin Berghaus

The video above shows a day in the life of a couple of city slickers trying to be farmers.

When I was in kindergarten, my class took a field trip to a local dairy farm. That evening I tried to convince my father, who won’t even mow his lawn, that he should ditch his job at the library and invest in a tractor and some cows.

It didn’t happen, but my fascination with farm life persists. So when Jennifer Cermak (CAS’93, MED’94,’98), a fourth-generation farmer who owns a small farm in central Massachusetts, invited me to try my hand, I eagerly accepted. Fellow BU Today reporter Chris Berdik wanted to come along, perhaps for moral support; he lives in Dorchester, I live in Cambridge, we spend our days staring at computer screens, so it was just as out of character for him to be rolling into Berlin Farms at 6 a.m., both of us ready to work (and make fools of ourselves).

Jennifer awaited, coffee and donuts blessedly in hand, and she showed us around the 24-acre property. At first glance, she seems an unlikely candidate for farming. A pathologist at a pharmaceutical company in Cambridge, her slight build, bright blue eyes, and thick brown hair seem suited to modeling more than mucking stalls. But after a day of wrestling eggs from ill-tempered turkeys and hauling buckets of manure, I realized she’s as hardy as the animals she raises.

In 1867, Berlin Farms was a booming Guernsey cow farm. Under Jennifer’s ownership, it’s been transformed into a refuge for rare and endangered livestock: Sumatra chickens, Southdown sheep, Royal Palm turkeys, and a Friesian horse. “Since the rise of corporate farming, more and more breeds that were introduced in the Colonial era are becoming endangered,” she explains. “Globally, a breed goes extinct every month.”

Jennifer hopes her rare birds and livestock will bring agricultural tourism, or “agritourism,” as she calls it, to the farm. “It’s a way to preserve our rural past,” she says. “But even more important, it’s a way to protect the world’s food supply.”

In an era when viruses like Avian flu threaten to destroy entire segments of the food chain, it’s important to raise breeds that are disease-resistant, she says. “Corporate chicken farms raise thousands of chickens, but only one breed,” she says. “If a virus comes through, they’ll lose their entire flock.”

Generations ago, when livestock dwelled in open pastures, farmers needed hardy breeds that could withstand the harsh New England winters. That’s not the case today. Commercial livestock are housed in cramped warehouse conditions, and farmers have genetically modified different breeds into single strains that grow faster and larger in a shorter amount of time. As a result, Jennifer says, “livestock is a lot less diverse. The heritage breeds brought over by French and English settlers are too skinny and develop too slowly to be profitable on a grand scale.”

But she isn’t interested in mass production. And that’s a good thing, because Chris and I retrieved only a dozen eggs from the turkey, chicken, and goose pens. When I commented on the meager harvest, Jennifer shrugged. “These birds were bred to feed a small family, not an entire country,” she tells us. “Think about it. A dozen eggs a day is more than enough for a family of five.”

We hear a lot about wild animals on the brink of extinction, but rarely about domesticated farm breeds in the same danger. With less than 500 left nationwide, Jennifer’s Sumatra chickens — ornamental black birds with long, flowing tails — are listed as critically threatened by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Her speckled Sussex chickens — one of the oldest breeds — are also threatened.

The future looks more promising for her Southdown sheep and Percheron and Friesian horses, which are listed as rare, but recovering. Her Royal Palm turkeys and Toulouse geese are under watch.

Crystal and Melissa, the farm’s two managers, arrived midmorning to exercise the horses. Riding lessons, as well as a farmer’s apprenticeship program, an ice cream stand, and a fall harvest festival, contribute to the farm’s sustainability. “We’ve had to really think outside the box to turn a profit,” Jennifer says. “Without my day job, there’s no way I could afford to keep this place.”

Chris and I returned from the mosquito-infested woods, where we had dumped a barrel of soiled wood shavings, boots soggy and backs aching. “It seems like a pretty thankless job,” I told Jennifer, wiping dirt from my brow.

She shook her head. “Not at all. I love it here. I feel like I’m finally returning to my roots.”

Berlin Farms is at 200 Central St., Berlin, Mass. For more information about the fall festival and the farmer’s apprenticeship program, contact Jennifer Cermak at 617-710-8810 or info@berlinfarms.com.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu. Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

Thoughts on this piece? Sustainable farming? Kindergarten field trips? Comment below.

This article first appeared in BU Today on September 24, 2009.

Leave a Reply