At times, it seems as if our food comes from a far-off place, finding its way onto our dinner plates from parts unknown. But it turns out there’s plenty being harvested right in our salt-sprayed backyard.
Here, we meet a few of the folks who are keeping the Cape’s agrarian traditions alive on scales big and small: a mother who collects eggs from a chicken coop right outside her front door, a family going whole-hog—and whole-goat—into raising their own food, a lifelong grower at the helm of one of the largest farmers markets on the Cape, and a fisherman who hustles to make a living wage in uncertain times. Read on, dig in—and eat up.
In just three years, Melissa Caughey has become fluent in hen-speak. As Oyster Cracker, Dolly, Tilly, and the four other members of her gold-and-black-and-lavender brood kick up wood chips in a chicken run outside her Osterville home, Caughey translates their conversation—a staccato bup bup bup means one of the hens is close to laying an egg, a back-of-the-throat bray means hello—and talks back without a trace of self-consciousness.
It’s a scene the Los Angeles transplant and nurse practitioner never imagined before moving east with her husband, Peter Crosson, a decade ago. As their family grew to include two children, the family’s agrarian endeavors expanded beyond gardens and raised vegetable beds. Caughey began noticing chickens all over—on magazine pages, during drives around town—and she decided her children needed a pet. “The local food movement had really started to hit on the Cape, and I figured these were pets with benefits,” Caughey says. When the summer of 2010 arrived, so did a package of Buff Orpingtons, Silkie Bantams, and an Australorp from mypetchicken.com.
Today, Caughey and her family head to the coop twice a day to gather the eggs, a mix of brown and beige, large and small, all with electric orange yolks. For much of the year—especially in late spring—they arrive by the dozens each week. “You get really good at making egg recipes,” she says.
Caring for a chicken has proved surprisingly simple—“somewhere between a cat and a dog,” Caughey says. And chickens have been a gateway of sorts: Because the eggs contain what the chickens eat in their free-range ambles, she began using organic gardening techniques throughout her property, and success with the chickens led the family to add two beehives on its property. Caughey has also joined the Barnstable Agriculture Commission, hosted workshops about raising backyard chickens, and she writes on tillysnest.com about her hen-raising exploits. (She also writes about her backyard gardening adventures for HGTV and other outlets.) Currently, Caughey is writing a book based on her blog for a Massachusetts-based publisher.
The chicken coop at the top of her driveway has been a way for Caughey’s children to learn about responsibility, acceptance, loss and unconditional love. And for Caughey, the chickens provide an antidote during the off-season. “When you’re here in the winter, and the tourists are gone and the leaves are gone, and we have those gray cloudy skies and the landscape looks the same, all I have to do is look through my window and see these little bursts of color running around like it’s the best day ever,” she says. “And somehow, all that gray fades.” tillysnest.com
THE ALVES FAMILY
Before the word “mama” ever exited the lips of 14-month-old Vivienne Alves, she said something else: goat. “It was kind of heartbreaking, actually,” says her mother, Caroline Alves. But in another way, it was exactly what she wanted.
Over the span of four years, what was once a yard with a few raised beds has become the Casual Goat Family Farm, a one-and-a-half-acre spread in East Falmouth populated with chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, a pig, a dog, a cat, three kids, two parents—and, yes, four goats. The farm is both a playground and a classroom, where Caroline and her husband, Michael, teach their children lessons in work ethic, explain the joys of the natural world, and instill the importance of compassion for animals—even the ones destined for the dinner table.
It’s also where the family gets most of its calories. Michael and Caroline have always valued healthy eating and organic food, and they wondered if they could grow their own. Before the farm’s inception, Michael—who grew up picking tomatoes outside his childhood home in Teaticket—saw diminishing returns in his construction company. So after Charlotte gave birth to their son Liam and their first daughter, Charlotte, Michael became a stay-at-home dad. With Caroline as a counterbalance to his most ambitious plans, Michael transformed the land around their home. And last winter, Caroline relented: She would allow goats into the backyard menagerie. Today, two Lamanchas named Eleanor and Josephine and an Alpine named Agnes commingle in a corral, nibbling the hands and elbows of passersby.
Goat milk is a tasty, high-fat, lactose-free alternative to cow’s milk that’s ideal for baking and making cheeses, Caroline says, and a goat can provide a gallon of milk per day at its peak. This fall, Eleanor will be bred to become the family’s first milker. If all goes well, Agnes and Josephine will follow suit next year. (The fourth goat, a neutered male mutt named Marshmallow, is exclusively a companion.) Strict regulations make selling the milk itself a difficult proposition, but the Alveses say goat cheese could be their entrée into local farmers markets.
They still consider themselves “farmers in progress,” and Caroline, an English teacher at the Lawrence Middle School in Falmouth, tracks the victories, mistakes, and day-to-day discoveries of life on a farm on her blog. But they are successful where it counts: The children come back inside with dirty feet, and the family pushes further into every passing winter on what they grow themselves. “We’re obviously not going to be totally sustainable unless we have sheep on the front lawn,” Michael says.
“You’d probably do that if I let you,” Caroline replies.
“I probably would,” Michael says. “But the neighbors would hate us.”
There’s something special about planting a seed, watching it grow, and reaping its fruit. “Some people just don’t know what their mission in life is,” says Gretel Norgeot, owner of Checkerberry Farm and president of the Orleans Farmers Market. “But I feel like growing food is my mission.”
Norgeot started with picking tomatoes off the vine in her family’s gardens in East Orleans and, at eight years old, hanging out at nearby Mayo’s Duck Farm. After studying electronics, nursing and agriculture as one of the first students at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School, she married and had three children with her husband, Jeff.
In 1995, she discovered the Orleans Farmers Market and became a vendor during its sophomore year, selling cut flowers, honey and vegetables. “I realized that people preferred produce,” she says, “and I could grow produce.” In 1999, the market’s original president moved off Cape, and Norgeot decided to fill her shoes the next year. And because she was growing produce for the market—and, later on, markets in Hyannis and Provincetown—she knew she’d need to grow more than her home’s acre of raised beds would allow. So she and Jeff bought and eventually cleared a property in South Orleans so overgrown with brambles and bittersweet that they hadn’t even noticed a two-story building on the property.
Past the yawning front lawns, Checkerberry Farm’s eight and a half acres now have too much going on to fully account for: beds for tomatoes, asparagus, sugar snap peas, and other produce; 75 hens; five beehives; a side garden and greenhouse for her daughter Marie; and the farm’s inaugural crops of wheat and rye, both of which will be out of the ground by the end of August. And, of course, there’s Norgeot’s staple: garlic, growing in dense rows of green stalks rising from the nearly 4,000 bulbs underneath.
The uptick in Norgeot’s farming has coincided with the growth of the Orleans Farmers Market itself, which sees its 20th season this year. And while Norgeot recalls crowds lining up before the market’s early-morning opening even in the mid-1990s, a typical Saturday in 2013 sees an estimated 1,000 visitors patronizing the 30-something farmers and growers, all from Barnstable County. Norgeot says the swelling interest in local food is tied to the local economy, health concerns, and a basic interest in where food comes from. “If you go buy a pepper or a tomato from somebody, you can ask them, ‘Where and how did you grow this? Where did you pick it?’” she says. “And I think consumers like knowing that if they have a question, they can get the answer.”
The offshore breeze dulls the scorching sun as Nick Muto goes to work on the Chatham Fish Pier. He hoists baited traps onto the deck of his lobster boat, threading knots and stacking cages in preparation for a short trip to set the traps off the coast.
Amidst the occupational hazards and headlines that predict the demise of New England’s groundfishing industry, Muto has seemingly done the impossible: He’s making a decent living as a fisherman on Cape Cod in the 21st century. “It’s doom and gloom for some guys who have their backs up against a wall,” Muto says. “But for those guys who are willing to change and willing to expand into new things, there are a lot of opportunities around.”
Muto’s career on the water sprang from inauspicious circumstances. In early 2001, after being kicked out of college, he was living with his parents in Orleans and needed work. He parlayed a few trips on a dragger into a gig cleaning lobster pots. Now Muto—who eventually finished his degree—spends his winters gillnetting aboard the Lori B, his springs working the fish weirs off of Chatham, and his summers hauling in lobsters on the Lost, the boat he’s owned for five summers.
These days, restrictive quotas and stocks slow to rebound have made groundfishing a financially risky enterprise. For fishermen, continuing to work on the water means broadening consumers’ palates beyond cod and haddock to encompass skates, conch and the other abundant species that are being hauled into Chatham. As part of the effort, the newly re-christened Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance hosts Meet the Fleet events, where local fishermen like Muto—who serves as chairman of the Alliance’s board—talk about a chosen seasonal fish, and a local chef prepares the fish for consumption.
Earning a living also means adapting in fallow times. Last year, after a dip in the price of lobster, Muto and Mark Sylvester founded Backside Bakes, a full-service clambake company catering to special events and functions. “If I go there and do the clambake for you, I know the guy who dug your steamers, I know where the mussels came from, I caught your lobsters—and it gives me a chance to tell a little bit of my story,” Muto says.
The era of catching cod 10 months a year and spending all the profits during the other two are over, Muto says: Today, the same fisherman might have to catch scallops, lobsters, striped bass and dogfish. “You might have to work a little harder, but you can still make a year out of it.”