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Background photo by Tom Lyons

Ron Backer

Soil Surgeon

In 1965, I ended up going to medical school in Switzerland . . . The thing I liked best in Switzerland, other than learning the discipline of medicine, was the farmers market that we had in our town twice a week. Its main area was about half as big as Mashpee Commons, with lots of outlying stalls.

There was a tradition of buying fresh-local, and you learned so many things. From the meat vendors who had fresh rabbits, you learned to examine the area around the kidney, which told you the health of the animal—things we don’t look at when we grab a package of prepared meat at the supermarket. Appreciating local cheeses that came from certain sections of the town . . . There was a feeling for localism, and that brought me to continue to ask, “Where’s it coming from?”

Ron Backer

•••

My wife and I first came to Brewster in the mid-’80s to vacation. We kept an eye on the house we live in now for five years, and we ended up buying it two or three recessions ago . . . The architectural disposition of the homes, and the absence of having a formal town center, made Brewster seem more relaxed. The access to the beaches was more set apart, rather than having a big sign that says “This Way to the Beach.” And I knew I was going to start gardening on a bigger scale.

I started from scratch. I put in about 13 raised beds, I did all of the landscaping here except for the walls, so there was sand and crabgrass . . . I put in 40 Liberty apple trees growing in an espalier, which is a fan-like disposition. In the winter time, it looks like a post-and-beam fence. Then in the front yard, there’s another 20 mixed fruit trees—I planted all of those, mulched them, and then surrounded them with Siberian irises and some very nice day lilies.

I really paid attention to the plants—a lot of lavender, which is very environmentally friendly to the insects and the birds. I am just overwhelmed by the abundance of birds. There’s no hummingbird feeder here—we just have Lonicera and Buddleia and lots of blossoming plants.

When I first went to the Orleans Farmers Market with my perennials, I made a stark discovery after about six weeks. Perennials are purchased from mid-May until, say, the Fourth of July. Our local residents and our seasonal residents aren’t interested in plants very much after then—they’ve got everything in. They want to eat. So for the next year, I started with potatoes, tomatoes, bush beans, and cucumbers. After that, I started to branch out.

Surrey Farms formally began five years ago . . . I really started to diversify, and I joined with Billy and Jimmy Kaser in co-growing and co-marketing products. There’s 23 acres between all of us. They grow what they grow, and I participate in the decision process. They have customers, I have customers, and we communally market everything.

When people think of a farm, they usually think of an open area. Mine’s more like a quilt. The quilt has an overall pattern—it has an aesthetic as well as a function. So I look at farming and landscaping and gardening as part of a whole and a continuum. So it’s okay to have flowers and vegetables and fruit trees and bushes and animals all growing together since there’s a pattern to it.

The basic lesson of small-scale agriculture is you can’t always grow what you want to grow. You have to grow what the environment is telling you to grow.

Presently, I go to the farmers markets in Wellfleet and Orleans, and I sell to a few restaurants as well. They’re supportive of all of us who are growing. I sell to 10 Tables in Provincetown, the Brewster Fish House, Sunbird Food Truck in Wellfleet, Harvest Gallery and Wine Bar in Dennis, Pain D’Avignon—Pain D’Avignon makes a lovely panna cotta out of my red pineapple sage blossoms—as well as local chefs.

In the summer, it’s like the Garden of Eden here. If I don’t have it, another grower has it, and there is such a diversity of food that we can make ourselves. My wife is a fine, fine chef, and really enjoys working with the ingredients we have available here—not just on our farm, but in the greater community.

•••

When I was in the private sector, I had a practice where I had 4,100 patients. I built a group between 1995 and 2006 that had close to 20,000 patients before I decided to retire for the first time (laughs). Now, I work for Cape Cod Community Health Care, and I really believe in the community health center experience.

The relationship between being a doctor and being a farmer is complementary. I’m just a custodian of the healing tradition—that’s all I am . . . Things like dying, things like bad things happening to good people—those are part of a continuum. The same thing happens to crops and the same thing happens to the earth. You just want to be able to deal with the continuum in a positive way.

I used to think that was hokum, the whole concept of having a spiritual energy with your environment. But maybe it’s as you get older and you realize you’re a short-timer, you stay to say, “Yeah, it really does exist.” The color of the grass, the color of the plants, it all gives you a certain energy. And it’s something that people start to see enriches their whole existence.

About

Jeff is the Managing Editor for Cape Cod Life Publications.

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Factory Village, West Brewster, MA

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