Sustainable Heritage

By Nancy E. Berry

Appleton Farms preserves cultural and historical landscapes while practicing sustainability.


Walking down a pristine gravel road past the fields of grazing Jersey cows, meandering stone walls, and historic dairy barns, a pastoral landscape unfolds. Appleton Farms in Hamilton and Ipswich, Massachusetts, is one of the oldest and largest (with more than a thousand acres) continuously operating farms in the United States. Established in 1638 by a land grant to Samuel Appleton, the farm today preserves a bucolic landscape, agricultural traditions, and historic farm buildings that are disappearing in the eastern part of the state.

The working farm is just one of 114 properties located on more than 25,000 acres across the state under the auspices of The Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts that not only preserves land and historic buildings but also works in ways to support the vitality and sustainability of the communities in which they exist. The Trustees was founded by landscape architect Charles Eliot in 1891. The properties are open to the public with a vision toward creating more healthy, active, and green communities across the Commonwealth. Acquired by the Trustees in 2000, Appleton Farms has the ambitious goal to become carbon-neutral in its near future. “This is no small feat,” says Jim Younger, director of structural resources for the Trustees. Because farming can be incredibly damaging to the environment—fertilizer, livestock production, and food distribution all create greenhouse gases—farming has become a leading contributor to climate change.

Organic Growers

To move toward this goal, The Trustees began to farm the land sustainably. “All the vegetables are grown in an environmentally sustaining manner,” says Ryan Wood, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program manager on the property. Practices are guided by the National Organic Standards, which means synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides are not used. Instead, the farmers employ aged animal manure compost and organic fertilizers. Legume cover crops are planted to regulate nitrogen, build soil organic matter, and prevent erosion. Seeds are organic when available and include heirloom and open pollinated varieties. Wood controls pests through the use of crop rotations, biological insecticides, and cultural practices such as the use of row covers. “Some bugs we’ll just tolerate,” he notes. “We grow about 200 different vegetable, fruit, and flower crops on the farm.”

Left: Appleton Farms resident cheese maker, Anna Cantelmo, uses the Jersey cows’ rich butterfat milk to make divine cheese, which is sold through Appleton Farms’ dairy store. Appleton Farms is open to the public and holds educational events during the year on the importance of local, sustainable food production.

Appleton has become a dynamic resource for the community. Its CSA program established in 2002 offers shares to CSA members to receive fresh produce, flowers, and other farm products. The 100 shares available in the first year sold out in two weeks. Today 650 families have shares in the CSA. Once a week, they head to the farm to pick up a bag of up to 15 different varieties of produce. Wood, who turned to organic agriculture in 2008, keeps a weekly blog for CSA members sharing the joys and wows of farming at Appleton.

The old dairy barn has been restored at Appleton Farms. Today 22 dairy cows live at Appleton and all the milk is processed onsite.

This Old House

Another sustainable move that The Trustees made was to renovate the original farmhouse at Appleton Farms. In 2010, work began to convert the property’s 1794 farmhouse into the Appleton Farms Visitor Center. Today a net-positive energy building, the farmhouse serves as a demonstration model for sustainable restoration for other Trustees properties. The renovation was made possible by an outpouring of support from donors. Approximately $1.75 million has gone into the restoration, including endowment funds. The Trustees hired the local firm Allsopp Design in Hamilton for the planning, engineering, demolition, structural repairs, and exterior renovation of the house.

“More than 85 percent of the demolition and construction waste was recycled or reused in the process,” notes Younger. Salvaged lumber became shelving to hold educational materials, and unpainted plaster from the house was composted, which was a great lime source for the soil. “Deep energy retrofits—spray foam insulation, air handlers, dual flush toilets, cisterns to capture rainwater, and solar array panels were placed on the property,” notes Younger. “The facility serves as a home base for all of the farm’s programs,” says Younger. While the farm is heading toward a carbon neutral goal, having cut its carbon footprint from 380 metric tons to 184 over the course of five years, the house is a net positive energy producer—producing more energy than it uses. Appleton Farms also secured the funding to incorporate a solar water heater for the dairy barn and an electric ATV for getting around on the farm. There was also an ingenious system put in place that collects and reuses heat from the farm’s dairy cows.

Sustainable Farming

Fresh eggs are collected daily from the farm’s hen house and free-range grass-fed beef cows graze in the Great Pasture. During the haying season, the farm produces thousands of bales of hay to feed the livestock, and all farm waste is composted and turned out on the fields. Hundreds of families visit the farm during the growing season to pick their own vegetables as a part of the CSA.

Dairy farmer Scott Rowe makes his way before daybreak each morning to milk the Jersey cows, which have an integral history on the farm. In the 1800s, the Appletons brought Jersey cows to this country for the first time for their high butter fat content. Today 22 Jersey cows roam the property. The milk is processed onsite to make cheese and yogurt. Rowe does not use antibiotics on the cows, which he says have “low stress and are well cared for.” He does not push for the most milk production but rather provides more targeted care. “The old ways of farming are simply not working. What The Trustees are doing is the future of the New England Farm—creating a local sustainable model is going to be the driver,” he says.