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The Mahoneys start witha vision and a patron

Last modified: 12/2/2011 12:00:00 AM
Brookford Farm in Rollinsford generates about $800,000 a year in revenue, but it doesn't have a single cash register. Customers avail themselves of organic vegetables, dairy and meat products in a cramped farm store and leave bills $10 and larger in one unlocked metal box and $1 and $5 bills in another.

"We trust people," said Luke Mahoney, who runs the farm with his wife, Catarina.

Tomorrow, the couple - who have three sons, ages 9, 5 and 2 - are trusting the future of their family business to the people of Canterbury. At a special town meeting, residents will have the final say on a proposal that would allow the couple to move their organic farm to a former sod farm owned by the

town. If the proposal fails, the family will need to find another spot by April, when they vacate the Rollinsford location they've been leasing.

"We put all our eggs now in this basket," Mahoney said. "There's other property, but we haven't entertained it."

The Mahoneys came to Rollinsford in January 2007 and nurtured the 300-acre farm into an enterprise with about a dozen full-time employees and annual festivals featuring hayrides and "heifer parades."

But the couple needs a more flexible arrangement than what they have now to expand their operation.

With the help of Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg, the Mahoneys would transplant their business to the 613-acre sod farm. Hirshberg, in a transaction that has no connection to his company, offered to buy the farm for $900,000 and lease it to the Mahoneys. Hirshberg's bid was the highest the selectmen received after listing the property in September. Eventually, the Mahoneys would like to buy the property from him.

"You've got to take steps," Mahoney said as his 2-year-old son, David, clad in leather overalls and rubber boots, played in the mud nearby. "Our goal is big. If you've got a big goal, you've got to take steps."

Unlike the other bidders for the property, brothers Eric and Peter Glines, the Mahoneys have no family in Canterbury. Luke grew up in Catskill, N.Y., and said he didn't even consider farming until he worked in a natural food store during his senior year at SUNY Oneonta.

After he graduated, he interned at an organic farm in Pennsylvania that also helped train people with mental disabilities for jobs in agriculture. Through the same organization that ran the Pennsylvania farm, Mahoney later spent five years on a farm three hours east of St. Petersburg, Russia.

"I had a travel itch," Mahoney said.

He said he felt like a pioneer not just because he was working in a country where he didn't know the language, but because the farm's work was so unusual.

"It was a real adventure," he said. "What we were doing was really pretty rare, and . . . it was soon after the restructuring of the Soviet Union. Laws weren't really clear, there was a lot of bribery," he said.

He learned a lot about organic farming in a cold climate. He said the first frost would usually be in the last week of August and the last frost would be in the first week of June.

"You can still do everything in a shortened growing period, you just have to hustle," he said.

It was on the farm in Russia that he met Catarina, whom he would marry in 2007. The couple had their first child in Russia and moved to Germany, where his wife had been born, in 2004. They came to America because there would be more opportunities for independent farming, he said.

It's been a busy week for Luke, who will be at tomorrow's town meeting. He is minding the farm and his three boys while Catarina, 30, is out of town at a cheese seminar.

Mahoney said his organic methods will help heal the soil in Canterbury, which has been farmed with herbicides and pesticides for more than half a century.

Because the farm runs along the Merrimack River, the selectmen wanted to sell the land to a farmer with methods that would not continue to pollute the water.

The Mahoneys don't specialize in one crop. Instead, each product helps sustain the next. So, for example, the chickens are housed in a converted trailer with a false bottom. The staff moves the trailer to a different location each day, removing the bottom and letting the birds fertilize the spot. The cows and pigs eat the grass, which they also help fertilize, and the eggs, bacon, sausages and vegetables thus nourished are consumed by humans.

"It's a very good system," said Patrick Gale, 23, a Rollinsford resident who works at Brookford Farm and wants to own his own farm one day.

He and other staff members liken the dynamic at Brookford Farm to that of an extended family. Every day, they eat lunch prepared from food produced on the farm.

"I've never had a bad meal," Gale said shortly after unloading dozens of jars of yogurt he helped make. "It's food that other people would like to be eating."

It's food that a loyal customer base goes out of its way to eat.

Sue Parent, 39, of Nottingham, said she turned to raw milk produced on the farm because her 7-year-old son was lactose intolerant. Soy and almond products were okay, she said, but he loves cow's milk and has no problems digesting the unpasteurized milk at Brookford.

She, however, prefers the Camembert.

"I love this cheese," Parent said dropping money in the unlocked cash box. "It's the best."

Customers said they hoped to continue to purchase the farm's products after it moves, and some of the staff said they hoped to make the move, too.

Mahoney admitted he has felt some stress because of the uncertainty around his business, but he is optimistic the town meeting vote will go his way.

"We have a trust in humanity," he said.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com.)


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