WEST NEWBURY — For Erin Stack, the 7 acres at the corner of Church and Bridge streets that she bought last year are more than just a place to grow zucchini, Swiss chard and radishes.
At New Harmony Farm, Stack is also working on cultivating a “more intimate and conscious relationship with nature” — a mission she hopes others in the community will embrace as well.
While sustainable and organic farming may be “the new buzz words,” Stack sees herself more as part of the regenerative agriculture movement that focuses on the broader importance of farmers in society.
In addition to farming organically grown herbs and vegetables on 2 acres of her land at 77 Bridge St., Stack, who is also an artist, has embraced an “articultural approach” to the design of her farm. The goal is to create a dynamic and sustainable, eco-friendly space that is agriculturally productive while at the same time beautiful and nurturing.
Stack calls New Harmony her “magnum opus” — or great work — and sees it as an alignment of all the other aspects of her life. After years of teaching painting and drawing at the University of Iowa and gaining attention as an abstract painter, Stack shifted gears — earning a master’s degree in psychology. For a time, she specialized in counseling for addiction and healing.
In 2006, she co-founded the Green Artist League — a collective of artists committed to creating public art that challenges people to adopt more nature-friendly behaviors in the face of the global environmental crisis. The Alchemical Garden, a permaculture and edible art park on the Clipper City Rail Trail in Newburyport sponsored by the league, is one example of the group’s efforts.
“Art brings deep thought about how we do other things in the world,” Stack said.
As part of its mission to educate and strengthen the community, New Harmony will also offer farm tours, “wild walks” in nature, contemplative practices such as chi qong and community potlucks. She said in just one year, the town has welcomed her. She has also joined the West Newbury Grange.
New Harmony sells summer, fall and winter shares in its community-supported agriculture program, which offers its members classic, heirloom and hard-to-find crops and varieties of herbs and vegetables. Starting July 26, Stack is also offering a 12-week Peak Harvest CSA; the cost is $280 for a small share, $435 for a large.
Stack believes one of the benefits of belonging to a CSA is it encourages members to appreciate local food in season. “If you can get everything all the time, then it loses its meaning,” she said.
Stack, who says she is the only certified organic CSA farmer in Greater Newburyport, is always seeking ways to encourage shareholders to sample food they haven’t had before — such as the curly tops of garlic plants known as garlic scapes or the German cabbage, kohlrabi. Shareholders get extra cucumbers if they add a less commonly known item into their weekly CSA.
“I guess it’s the teacher in me — or the mom,” Stack said.
Stack hopes once people learn about sustainable practices and “awaken to the richness and vulnerability of our eco-systems,” they will approach life in a more Earth-friendly manner. For this reason, she partners with similarly minded local groups to offer workshops on organic and permaculture practices, food preservation and other homesteading skills.
The new farmer takes pride in the fact that her operation was chosen as a test site for a study being conducted by Dr. Tom Goreau, a consultant for the nonprofit organization Remineralize the Earth. Goreau, who is also president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, is researching less-expensive, greener methods for increasing soil fertility. Stack has been injecting soil and seeds with beneficial microorganisms and bacteria in hopes of giving back to the Earth and helping it renew.
This micro-approach to growing has been eye-opening for Stack. But although she’s learned that “some bugs are really helpful,” she admits she hasn’t “yet learned to love cucumber beetles, squash bugs or cabbage maggots — but I’m working on it.”
Situated near the Merrimack River, her rich, river-bottom farmland also has a downside — flooding in the spring and after heavy rains. So Stack is adapting to what nature has provided by designing her property’s infrastructure, farming methods and crop choices to accommodate the periodic flooding and investigating crops that thrive in these conditions.
In the face of climate change and the heavy influence of corporate agriculture, which she said prizes uniformity over natural diversity, Stack said it is easy to feel gloomy about the viability of being a local farmer. But she refuses to let that stand in her way.
“Despair is so useless — worse than useless — it’s dangerous,” she said.
She views regenerative farming as a way not only to help foster the Earth’s capacity to heal itself but also as a way to strengthen the community’s collective body and soul by providing nutrient-dense foods and lessons on leading a more environmentally sound lifestyle.
“I like to call my place an interspecies healing center,” she said. “We are all interdependent and nature is the connector. Nature wants to heal itself.”
Stack ultimately sees farming as a “profound spiritual opportunity” that emphasizes the importance of “surrendering and listening very hard.” In her first year, she’s coped with wind storms, floods — not to mention “the need to embrace heavy machinery.” But as an artist, she knows it’s the limitations in life that can lead to the most profound creative solutions.
To learn more about New Harmony Farm or its community-supported agriculture programs, visit wwwnewharmonyfarm.com.