Weeding, Sowing, Growing
A Look Inside Horne Family Farms
Here’s something rarely heard from a person who just graduated with a degree in economics: “I’m going to become a farmer.”
But that’s exactly what Lowell native Christopher Horne decided when he graduated from UMass Lowell in 2014.
The result is Londonderry-based Horne Family Farms, a half-acre property that maintains only organic practices and last year grew nearly 20,000 pounds of produce that ended up in several local restaurants — including Cobblestones/Moonstones, the Keep, and the Old Court — and dozens of local homes.
The feel-good story is a prime example of how someone can turn a near disaster into an unexpected dream come true. “During college,” Horne, 29, says, “my mom had a heart attack and my dad had a stroke, all in a year.”
Both survived, but Horne knew their lifestyles and diet contributed to those health scares. “So at a younger age,” he says, “I started thinking about the food we are eating.”
Horne began shopping at the Lowell Farmers Market and got the itch to grow his own healthy food. Knowing that he was out of his league, he picked up a copy of the book “Urban Gardening for Dummies.”
He volunteered for the nonprofit Mill City Grows, did his research, and even attended The Farm School in Athol. Along the way, he really got bitten by the gardening bug.
During his time at The Farm School, a friend offered to lease him a half acre of farmland in Londonderry.
Horne knew he wanted to use a technique known as SPIN-Gardening, which is “small-plot intensive,” he says. “It’s utilizing every square inch of space with intercropping — tomatoes, for example, with basil and lettuce — all different techniques to maximize every square inch of the plot.”
He believes in “all organic practices,” and that includes no herbicides and no machine tilling. When asked, as a joke, if that means handpicking insect pests from his plants … well … yes … that’s exactly what he does when necessary.
It’s a family operation. His wife, Michaela, is a Lowell school teacher, but once school is out for the summer, she spends much of her time gardening. Christopher’s brother, Marc, is a behind-the-scenes presence and responsible for many of the recipes the brothers have contributed to the pages of Merrimack Valley Magazine. Their sister Jessica and parents, Paula and Mark, also help.
“There is a lot of labor up front,” Horne says. “Weed management can be a ton of hard work, and it really can only work on this [small] scale.
“But the plants are doing phenomenally. I really think that I am not even there yet for maximizing our space because I’m still learning as a grower. I think the sky’s the limit. We are so ingrained [that] big-time farms are the only way to grow food. But you can grow an amazing amount of food on a small scale.”
This season, dozens of families paid $650 for a weekly bag of fresh vegetables. Horne’s CSA program is expected to run 18-20 weeks, and the operation has been such a success that he is already lining up a waiting list for next year.
It’s not yet a full-time job for Horne; he picks up the odd weekend bartending gigs at the Old Court, and his wife still teaches. But ask him about his goals, and there is no hesitation.
He is looking forward to a “lifetime of learning” how to farm. “I can’t tell you how special it is to feed people good food that I’m really proud of,” he says. “What’s next, though, is to crush it on this scale and grow as much food as possible.”