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Elly Vaughan

Elly Vaughan with some of the trees that will blossom with life — and fruit — when the weather warms up.

Elly Vaughan knows a lot about the global food system — and the myriad problems it has posed over the decades.

“Local food is so important for so many reasons,” she said. “The global food system has a lot of issues — environmental issues, workers’ human-rights violations, the way the global agricultural food system tends to strip people of their water rights in some countries.

“Globalized food — a large, centralized food system — can really damage the environment and communities, and when we buy local, we break that cycle,” she added. And, as owner of Phoenix Fruit Farm in Belchertown, she’s certainly doing her part.

“We’re delivering money directly from the consumer to the farmer, so that eliminates the middleman — the consumer gets a fresher product, and the farmer gets a better price point,” she said. “The farmer can pay their workers living wages and can be conservative about environmental resources, which affects climate change, while offering affordable, high-quality food to local communities and families. That’s what a local food system does.”

Taking notice of how Vaughan has grown and diversified Phoenix since purchasing the property in 2017, the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce gave her the Leader in Innovation Award at its 2020 A+ Awards, “for being instrumental in cultivating relationships with other local businesses to improve the economic climate of Belchertown.”

That’s gratifying for someone whose business motto is “fruit with a conscience.”

“Small farms are disappearing all the time in this country — it’s been a perennial struggle for the last 30 or 40 years,” she told BusinessWest. “You keep seeing more and more small farms going out of business as they succumb to the pressures of trying to compete with large agribusinesses that are the worst offenders in terms of environmental damage and pollinator collapse and workers’-rights violations.

“But I think that local food is a model for an alternative to that,” she went on. “Producing food and feeding people doesn’t like to look like this. It does not have to be actively harming the environment; it does not have to be actively exploiting workers and excluding low-income families from being able to afford healthy food. Small farms don’t have to struggle to compete in a wholesale marketplace when they can deliver directly to their community.”

 

Community Focus

Vaughan became interested in farming as a career while in college, and she worked on various organic vegetable farms for about a decade before becoming the orchard manager for Phoenix, which was then owned and operated by Amherst-based Atkins Farms.

When Atkins decided to sell the Belchertown property, Vaughan bought it, and renovated the 1935 horse barn on the property as her residence.

“When I first bought it, it was apples and peaches — and those are still my largest crops,” she said. “But I have replanted and started diversifying.”

New crops include more varieties of apples, as well as table grapes, strawberries, and other fruits. In 2018, she planted new blocks of peach, nectarine, and pear trees, and she’ll see the first harvest of peaches and nectarines from those trees this spring, with the pears coming along in subsequent years. She’s also begun planting more vegetables, including asparagus, tomatoes, kale, onions, and basil. “I want to ramp all that up, now that I have a store and an outlet for a diverse market garden.”

The nearby store on Route 181 was a dilapidated garage with no foundation, plumbing, or … well, much else, actually, when she decided to turn it into a country store.

“Small farms are disappearing all the time in this country — it’s been a perennial struggle for the last 30 or 40 years. You keep seeing more and more small farms going out of business as they succumb to the pressures of trying to compete with large agribusinesses that are the worst offenders in terms of environmental damage and pollinator collapse and workers’-rights violations.”

“It was just a shell of a garage,” Vaughan said. “It was a major, major undertaking to get it to where it is now. But it’s really starting to catch on, I think.”

Since opening in July 2019, the store sells locally produced fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy, eggs, bread, baked goods, and coffee, as well as prepared foods, like grab-and-go wraps, side dishes and soups to heat up at home, and plenty of pantry staples. “You can grab everything you need to make a meal for your family in the store.”

That’s been a plus for patrons who don’t want to go in supermarkets these days; in response to COVID-19 anxieties, the store launched curbside pickup last year and expanded its product lines — with items like cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and more staple foods — to minimize the need for shoppers to visit large stores.

Phoenix Fruit Farm’s country store

Phoenix Fruit Farm’s country store has been growing in popularity since its opening in July 2019.

“It was an effort to create a more comprehensive, one-stop grocery experience. They could get a lot of what they needed from us,” Vaughan said. “I think people really appreciated that.”

While offering an outlet for other local food producers, the country store is a critical element — along with a growing business in pick-your-own apples and peaches — in selling Phoenix’s own products directly to customers.

Vaughan wholesales apples to Big Y and a couple of smaller stores, for about $30 a bushel, because she produces too many — on more than 20 acres of apple trees — to sell on her own.

“But when I sell them in my store, I can get $50 to $60 for that same case because I’m eliminating the middleman, selling direct to the consumer, all while giving them a reasonable price point; it’s not a super expensive apple,” she explained. Direct consumer sales, in fact, are “the difference between me paying my bills and not paying my bills. As a medium to small-sized farm, it’s important to be able to market directly to people in a community-based system like this.”

Not that people should abandon the supermarket, she added. “You need to go to the supermarket for some things. You need paper towels; you need a big case of ramen noodles or whatever. But if you go to a local farmstand and get as many items as you can there instead of the store as part of your weekly or monthly routine, that makes a huge difference. And I wish people knew how much impact they can have just by including more locally oriented shopping in their routine.”

One benefit, of course, is fresher produce; while local chains like Big Y do buy from local farms, many of the fruits and vegetables they sell are not local, and, in many cases, not even in season in Massachusetts. So people are eating produce that’s been in transit for a week or two.

Switching exclusively to local produce requires some changed habits from consumers, she added, and occasionally some sacrifice.

“Part of it is people learning to eat in season and not expecting to have strawberries year-round and not expecting to have perfect, flawless-looking fruit if they want to eat organic; something grown with less chemicals is not going to look as picture-perfect,” she explained. “There needs to be somewhat of a shift with the way that people view what kind of produce they should have, and in exchange for making that shift, they can have high-quality, locally grown food that doesn’t break the bank and can support local farmers.”

While that education process is ongoing, it’s a culture that has taken root (literally and figuratively) in Western Mass. more than in many regions of the country.

“I think we are very fortunate in this community — people are really hip to local foods, and we have so much great local food in this region, and you don’t have to look very far to find everything you need to feed your family just with food produced in the Pioneer Valley,” Vaughan said. “There’s such a wealth of really great, locally produced foods around here. I’m really proud to be a part of that.”

 

Looking Ahead

Now in her fourth year running the farm, Vaughan has no intention of slowing down. As she waits for the first harvests from those new peach, nectarine, and pear trees and diversifies into vegetables, she’s also looking into new business opportunities, like making hard cider. For that, she’s been gathering equipment and trying to nail down the right recipe.

The store continues to grow, too. “It typically takes a few years for a business like that to optimize and settle into what it’s going to be like,” she said, adding that she also wants to expand the pick-your-own business.

“That’s another necessary piece of the business. Our fruit is the difference between being in the red and being in the black. We need direct markets through the store and pick-your-own to survive, and we’re still building those things up. Both need to continue to grow if the business will be sustainable.”

But, as evidenced by that A+ Award and, more importantly, the growing number of locals heading to Phoenix for something fresh, she’s on the right track.

“We’re not there yet,” Vaughan said. “It’s going to be a lifelong journey, shaping this place into what it’s going to be for the future.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Nicholas O’Connor says recent projects have created considerable momentum in Belchertown, “like a snowball rolling down a hill.”

Nicholas O’Connor says recent projects have created considerable momentum in Belchertown, “like a snowball rolling down a hill.”

Nicholas O’Connor says there’s a generational split in Belchertown when it comes to new amenities and development in general — but that line has become increasingly blurry.

“There’s the old guard who don’t want anything to change; they want it to be a bedroom community, and they still lament the fact that we have a Stop & Shop and a Family Dollar. There’s no changing their minds, and I get that,” said O’Connor, who chairs the town’s Board of Selectmen.

“But by the same token,” he went on, “we can’t sustain the services that we provide in a town this size, with the great schools we have, without revenue, and 93% of our revenue comes through taxation. We don’t have a big business base — so, in order to have more, you need to generate more.”

And ‘more’ is a good word to describe economic activity in town, particularly along the section of Route 202 running from the town common past the Route 21 intersection to the Eastern Hampshire District Courthouse, a mile-long stretch that has become a hub of development, from a 4,500-square-foot Pride station currently under construction to a 4,000-square-foot financial center for Alden Credit Union; from Christopher Heights, an assisted-living complex that recently opened on the former grounds of the Belchertown State School, to a planned disc-golf course.

These projects, balancing town officials’ desire for more business and recreation, have been well-received, O’Connor said.

“Even among the old guard, I sense a split. There’s a large community of longtime Belchertown residents who are yearning for these things that are finally happening. I think it’s a minority of people who wish Belchertown would be like it was in 1970. That dynamic has shifted a bit.”

That said, it takes plenty of planning to build momentum for projects — not to mention state and town funding and approvals at town meetings — but he sees the dominos falling.

“We don’t have a big business base — so, in order to have more, you need to generate more.”

“With a lot of the ideas we’ve had over the past few years, shovels are finally hitting the ground. We’re really in a year when things are starting to progress.”

The 83-unit Christopher Heights has been a notable success, growing its resident list every month and exceeding its forecasts, O’Connor noted. Nearby, Belchertown Day School and Arcpoint Brewing, a veteran-owned business run by a couple of Belchertown locals, both plan to break ground on new facilities in the spring.

At the same time, Chapter 90 money came through for the renovation of that key stretch of Route 202, a project that will include new road signaling, crosswalks, sidewalks, and bike lanes, making the area more pedestian- and bicycle-friendly. Meanwhile, Pride owner Bob Bolduc will put in a sidewalk and a pull-in as part of his new building, which will accommodate a new PVTA stop.

“People will be getting out in front of his store, and that’s a win-win for everybody,” O’Connor said. “That whole road project will certainly change things from the common down the hill, all the way to the courthouse.”

The Great Outdoors

Belchertown has plenty of potential to expand its recreational offerings, O’Connor told BusinessWest. For example, a town meeting recently appropriated funds to create an 18-hole disc-golf course in the Piper Farm Recreation Area.

Belchertown at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 14,838
Area: 52.64 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.19
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.19
Median Household Income: $52,467
Median Family Income: $60,830
Type of government: Open Town Meeting; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Hulmes Transportation Services; Town of Belchertown/School Department; Super Stop & Shop

O’Connor said disc golf has been rapidly gaining in popularity. “We’ll be clearing in the spring, breaking ground, and hoping to be throwing discs by the fall. There’s been interest growing in town, which is good because we’re going to need public effort for the clearing. I think a lot of that’s going to be done by community members and volunteers.”

He envisions the course as another piece in a day-long outing families could have in that area of Belchertown, with attractions ranging from baseball at the town’s mini-Fenway Park to Jessica’s Boundless Playground, to a 1.3-mile walking trail behind the police station that circles Lake Wallace. Meanwhile, state Sen. Eric Lesser was instrumental in securing money to tear down some tennis courts and build a splash park.

O’Connor would also like to see ValleyBike Share make inroads into Belchertown, and he wants to revisit discussion around expansion of a regional rail trail through town.

“A lot of people in town have tried these things before. The rail trail got voted down years ago,” he said. “Belchertown hasn’t always been ready for this type of progress, but we’ve had a large influx of younger families over the past 10 years or so, and different people standing up in positions of leadership. Just in the last four years, we have a new chief of police, a new Recreation director, a new Conservation administrator, a new senior-center coordinator. Not that the leadership before wasn’t doing the job, but I see new folks stepping up, and new ideas and new interests coming to the fore. That’s not a comment on the past, but it’s progress.”

And progress takes time, O’Connor said, noting that roadwork plans for 202 have been in flux for years, while Bolduc owned the future Pride site for a long time with no shovels in the ground until the assisted-living complex and other developments began to come online.

“It takes one project, and everybody starts going, ‘oh, there might be something there,’” he said. “The governor has been out here, and we’ve seen a lot of the lieutenant governor the last couple of years. Once you start brick and mortaring, now you get money for roads, you’re awarded more money for cleanup, and people really get on board. The momentum becomes attractive, like a snowball rolling down a hill. Nobody wants to go it alone, but then they see all these ancillary businesses, and it really starts to come together.”

What’s the Attraction?

To O’Connor, it’s not hard to see why businesses would want to set up shop in Belchertown. There’s the single, low property-tax rate, for starters, the well-regarded schools, and a widening flow of road projects aimed at making the town easier to navigate.

But not simply pass through, he added.

“I grew up in Amherst, and my dad lived in Wales while I was growing up, so I drove through his stretch every weekend. Then I went to UMass, and I saw them build all the hotels on Route 9,” he recalled.

“Now, I certainly don’t want to be Hadley — we want to keep our business within the character of the town; no one’s interested in a dynamic change to the town. But I thought to myself, a lot of these parents are driving home to Boston after parents’ weekend — maybe they don’t have to stay on Route 9; maybe they can stay here and take a walk on the Quabbin and hit an antique store and whatever else gets developed. I think there’s a lot to be said for us being a main thoroughfare between Boston and Western Massachusetts. Everybody gets off exit 7 and 8 to drive through here. We see a lot of cars, and it would be nice to get them to stop.”

Of course, for business owners, a lot of cars is a good thing, and the impending development of sidewalks, bike lanes, and bus routes will continue to drive traffic into what has really become the heart of activity in Belchertown.

“We love our town common, but in terms of a business center, an economic center, that’s moving down the hill. And a lot of the businesses there will benefit from the infrastructure upgrades.”

O’Connor told BusinessWest he can envision a future where Belchertown can be both the scenic, classic New England town of the past and a bustling destination. Illustrating that picture for other people can be a challenge, but he keeps trying.

“We need patience to get these things moving,” he said. “There’s definitely investment that needs to be made by business owners — not just in money, but in belief.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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