Thanks to Douglas Access Cable for making this video of farmer Nick explaining how mushrooms are grown at the Douglas senior center. Lots of interesting information here. Enjoy!
Douglas Orchard & Farm plants cherry tree to replace the dying cherry tree that was planted in memory of two Douglas High school students that died in 1963. In the fall, Farmer Nick will graft branches from the old tree to this new tree to keep the memory alive of the boys who passed too earlyO
Nick Socrat’s love of farming took root at a summer camp on an organic farm in Natick. At first, Mr. Socrat attended the camp reluctantly, but he left with a new-found interest in farming.
The 27-year-old farmer and co-founder of Douglas Orchard & Farm on Locust Street in Douglas brought that passion with him when he enrolled at UMass Amherst’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture. Before he even finished his last exam, his family had purchased 18 acres to start their own farm and orchard.
“I didn’t come from a farming family,” Mr. Socrat said, “but now I’m farming with my family.”
Now three years old, Douglas Orchard & Farm is growing a panoply of fruits and vegetables, from blueberries to shitake mushrooms, and raising chickens and pigs. Mr. Socrat is also practicing a sustainable, natural brand of farming, with hand dug gardens and no weeding; he lets his animals roam free, helping him work the land.
Despite the hardships inherent in a farmer’s life, the simple joys of planting, raising livestock, and working the land largely keep young farmers from questioning the career they chose. You’ll find no better example of this exuberance than in Mr. Socrat, who sees the farm not so much as a means of income, but as an outlet to teach people about where the food comes from and inspire them to plant their own gardens.
He wants the farm to be an experience, rather than just a place to shop. During the summer, the farm hosts the town’s farmers market, as well as nightly concerts. “We’re here to teach, we’re here to feed, and we’re here to entertain,” he said.
Mr. Socrat does not dwell much on the financial health of the farm, though he has been worrying a bit recently about all the kale he still needs to sell. Business will pick up this summer, he said, when blueberry picking starts.
And as far as his hope for the farm’s future, Mr. Socrat has just one overarching goal.
“I want to end up living peacefully without a ton of stress on this property until I die,” he said. “I’m not looking to become rich: I just want to maintain and live a happy life, and watch all of these plants thrive and get old.”
Nick Socrat is the farmer behind Douglas Orchard & Farm. He is a graduate of UMass-Amherst Stockbridge School of Agriculture, where he developed a passion for natural methods of farming. Socrat hand digs his gardens and practices companion planting. He considers the pigs, chickens, ducks and bees to be members of his team, working together to create the freshest produce. Socrat’s parents, Aaron and Patty Socrat, help manage projects, design programming and operate the farm store. Douglas Orchard & Farm will host a bonfire with ice cream and live music Friday, May 24 at 7:30 p.m. to benefit the Simon Fairfield Public Library in Douglas.
What can you tell me about your greenhouse? This whole area was an orchard that was abandoned. We had bittersweet that was literally pulling apple trees out of the ground. We were able to save some, but we turned this area into fields. Last year our pigs were right here and they ran through this whole area. Then we put down some alpaca manure and a bunch of other biochar and wood ash. We had some oxen come during our Halloween event. They tilled it up, then the greenhouse went on it. There was a lot of preparation, but now everything is phenomenal. I took a soil test and conditions are optimal other than the nitrogen. I used fish emulsion to boost the nitrogen.
How long is the growing season in the greenhouse? Ideally, I can grow all year, but I missed the window for our winter harvest because this went up so late. Everything in here is no spray. There’s no need because everything’s companion planted. If this was all kale in the entire greenhouse, I’d have to be spraying like crazy because it wouldn’t survive. One little speck of powdery mildew would just take off in the whole bed.
What did you choose to plant with kale? We planted kale next to leaks, along with some nasturtium flowers and eggplants.
I know you said you’re “beyond organic,” but what does that mean? At a lot of farms, they are testing “organic” kale and finding like five different chemicals on it. And there’s a list a mile long of stuff you can spray and still call it “organic.” It’s pretty scary that organic is supposed to be the safe alternative, but it’s not. There’s really no better way than doing it like this, which becomes confusing on a large scale. Machines can’t really do this. Every town needs a few small farms like this.
Can you give me an overview of the history of this farm? We’re coming into our fourth year right now. This property was previously owned by a man named Robert Werme who planted the apple trees and the blueberries. When we got the farm, the orchard had been neglected for five years. It was being looked at for housing development.
It sounds like the business is multifaceted now. What makes you more than just a spot for apple and blueberry picking? We have duck and chicken eggs. We have the pigs. We have lambs and goats, shiitake mushrooms. My food forests are my pride and joy.
What is a food forest? There’s different layers of a food forest, so in the back you start with the tall trees and then you just work your way down to little lemon balm. I just planted lemon balm today under the apple trees, and hopefully that takes over and stops the bittersweet growth. A lot of what we’re battling here is bittersweet, poison ivy and thorns. We started planting elderberry in there. We’ve got two plum trees in the back. We have black raspberry and then just a bunch of cover crops. It’s a perfect system, and we run the ducks through it, and they eat all the grass. We have our poultry birds in there and they have access to two big grassy areas. There are a lot of professional people you’ll talk to who will completely dismiss having animals with the plants because of the chance of E. coli if you’re harvesting with big machines. But if you’re at such a small scale, it’s not a risk.
What’s the biggest difference between chicken and duck eggs? Duck eggs have more protein and fat in them. They’re really good whipped for baking because they have this nice frothy quality due to albumin.
Do you host a farmers market here? Yes, the Douglas Farmer’s Market is held here now. We have a lot more parking space than the congested corner of a busy street. You can actually come and relax during the market and we’re going to have live music as well. Kids can go look at the pigs while their parents can shop without having to worry.
What else do you want people to know about Douglas Orchard & Farm? I want everyone to question where the food comes from. That’s the biggest thing. If you don’t see it, you can’t believe it these days. The soil is everything. When people keep putting on salt-based fertilizers and tilling deep every single year, they’re destroying the microbiome of their soil and the plants. The plants can absorb fertilizers that are salt-based directly from the water and there becomes no need for any other life in the soil to provide nutrients to the plant. Whereas, in a really healthy soil, the microbes exchange nutrients with sugars and with the plants, providing an amazing ecosystem. Bacteria connect to those roots and help feed them. And then there’s mycorrhiza – mushrooms that connect and they create this layer way deep beneath the soil, especially in the forest. That’s why when you dig down, you see all the white mycelium and everything. There’s a connection between everything. You can’t just get rid of one element. And if you think about spraying, your herbicides are going to kill all the plants the same way insecticides will kill all the insects and fungicides will pretty much kill everything after that.
By Sarah Connell