by Mike Gioscia
When I moved to my neck of the woods from Dorchester a few years ago, I enjoyed passing by the local farm and watching the crops being planted in spring and coming up all summer. While living in the city, I’d almost forgotten about how the colors and smells of the country coincided with the changing of the seasons.
When my son proclaimed, “Here comes the corn” from his car seat a few years back, I knew our reasons for going rural were taking hold. I wanted my kids to have a closer connection to their community, fewer distractions, and a better understanding of where our food comes from.
Billingsgate Farm in Plympton, Massachusetts is one of my favorite places to shop—and to learn. It’s what country living is all about: local people growing food for the local community. Billingsgate is a working farm that grows vegetables, fruit, and cut flowers, both organically and conventionally. Over 90% of the high quality products they offer are grown on site; the remainder of what they sell comes from local vendors such as Old Cottage Farm (eggs), beekeeper Martin Touhey (honey), and Chatham Jam and Jelly. The operation has nearly quadrupled in size since its inception and now boasts over 75 acres of lush and fertile farmland, a farm stand, and greenhouses.
The farm has had six owners since the 1800s; “Farmer Pete” Reading has been the proprietor since 2002. His wife Lynn manages the farm stand, and their daughter Christie often puts in long hours as well. Reading’s connection to the farm goes back a ways: he started picking corn for “Mr. Billings” in 1964. “We got bread and a glass of water for lunch,” Pete said.
After leaving the military, Pete came home to farm with his dad, and then looked to expand his family’s Pembroke operation, which led him to one acre at Billingsgate. “One acre turned into 75 acres,” he said. The farm keeps expanding. Pete did all the bookkeeping for years, as his parents did, but his wife Lynn took that over when his parents passed away. “I couldn’t do it now, we’ve grown so big. And now [that] it’s all on computer, I’d really be in trouble,” Pete joked.
The farm is currently the only GAP (Good Agricultural Practices; see below) certified farm in Plymouth County growing small fruits and vegetables. The Readings are committed to producing and marketing food that focuses on the highest standards of safety and quality. “That’s what sets us aside from our competition,” Lynn explained. “We’re audited every season, our soil is tested, our water is tested. Food safety is what we’re all about. All the workers who work here go through GAP training—worker hygiene is so important to food quality.”
In addition to Billingsgate’s farm stand, the farm offers activities for the whole family. These begin in the fall with the Grain Train ride, assembled with help from students at Silver Lake High School in Kingston. New this year, a tractor pulls “the train” around the farm. In mid-September the “You Pick” pumpkin patch opens. And don’t forget to try Billingsgate’s own organic popcorn. “We sold every jar last year,” Lynn said triumphantly. On September 15th Billingsgate will open its first corn maze, along with some kids’ rides.
Billingsgate offers a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program as well. Now in its second season, it has grown tremendously. Some folks don’t know what to do with certain items in their CSA basket—Swiss chard or bok choy, for example—but that’s not a problem at Billingsgate. “We have a swap table, so if you don’t need something, you can swap it with something else. Customers loved it,” Lynn said. “And we provide recipes for items customers may not be familiar with.”
As the business grows, so do the local connections. “We have a great partnership with our wholesalers, and we’re very particular [about] who we do business with. We’ve established a great group of restaurants and supermarkets that depend on our food. We’re also getting involved with the Farm To School programs, introducing our corn in school lunches,” Lynn added.
And it’s not just any corn. Pete’s corn is a regular blue ribbon winner at the Marshfield Fair. “Our corn prices haven’t changed in four years; we have to stay competitive,” he said.
The Readings don’t just run the place. They’re ready to help, with a smile and some small talk, or even gardening tips (if it’s not too busy). On a spring visit, a question from my wife about her asparagus resulted in Pete walking her across the street to his own crop for a close-up look and some “farm coaching.” Can you get that online or at the big box store? No way. And Pete has given my kids a ride around in his John Deere tractor more than once. The little things can truly be the big things in life.
“We’re honest and we take pride in what we do, and we like to go the extra mile with our certifications for our customers,” Lynn added. “We want them to feel good about the food, keep it affordable, and keep them coming back.”
Going back is never a problem: it makes me feel good. I’m particular about who I do business with too!
In 2011, the USDA Audit Program performed over 3,000 Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) & Good Handling Practices (GHP) audits in 46 states and Canada, covering over 90 commodities. Audit programs such as GAP offer voluntary independent audits of produce suppliers throughout the production and supply chain, verifying that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored in the safest manner possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.
Billlingsgate Farm Stand
6 County Road (Rte. 106)
Plympton, MA 02367
Mike Gioscia is a writer who lives a bike ride away from Billingsgate Farm and is currently stuffed with Farmer Pete’s award-winning corn. He was a semi-finalist in the Showtime Screenplay Competition at the Nantucket Film Festival in June.