For this week’s #ShopFranklin Spotlight, I interviewed Seth Rousseau of Akin Bak Farm!
A Franklin institution, Akin Bak Farm has been around in one form or another since Seth’s great-grandfather, Robert Accorsi, arrived from Italy in the 1920s. The farm’s original location on Beaver Street fell victim to the Great Depression, so in 1938, Akin Bak Farm moved to its current location. According to Seth, the Accorsi family had their work cut out for them; the land that is now Akin Bak Farm was “primarily swampland, old Indian land” at the time, but over the years, hard work transformed it into a homestead with a productive small-scale farm. In the 1950s, Robert’s daughter Sandy married Howard Crawford, who came from Maine to join Sandy in taking over the farm, turning it into the Akin Bak Farm we know today. Sadly, Howard passed away earlier this year, but Sandy is still an active participant in the life of the farm.
When Howard and Sandy started to slow down in their 80s, their daughter Bette Rousseau and her son Seth had the opportunity to bring the farm back to life. “Mom and I came here in 2010 with the intention of just doing a small garden or something like that,” Seth says. Instead, Seth and Bette found themselves hooked on full-scale farming. “One field became two, two fields became three, and by 2011 we had dropped tens of thousands of dollars to have all of our land excavated and cleared back out from the invasives, and the madness began!” The modern Akin Bak Farm has about seven acres of cultivated crops, plus 60 acres in Maine that grow hay for the Rousseau family’s interests up there.
Over the years, the farm’s character has evolved. Long-term Franklin residents know Akin Bak best for its famous honey, as Howard Crawford was a well-respected beekeeper with fifteen to twenty-five hives on the property at any given time. Unfortunately, the honey operation has had to be substantially scaled back these days. Attempts to run similar numbers of hives resulted in “horrific failure rates” over the last couple of years, Seth admits, because there isn’t enough undeveloped land left in Franklin to allow the bees to find sufficient food to keep the hive alive over the winter. Seth now has two active hives on the farm, with the rest soon to move to the land in Maine where the bees will have plenty of room to forage. Seth advises that pesticide use is a major contributing factor to colony collapse, so he makes sure to check on each hive at least weekly to monitor for poisoning. “We just try to take care of them and keep them in good health,” says Seth; “one of our philosophies is that we make sure the bees are fed first and the humans are fed second.” For that reason, instead of harvesting all the honey the bees produce, Seth will be leaving 50 to 80 pounds of honey in each hive to help sustain the bees over the winter months. Akin Bak’s honey supply for humans won’t last through the whole winter at this rate, so Seth suggests that honey lovers pick up their winter rations early!
Contrary to the Crawfords’ focus on honey, apples, and “a little bit of vegetable stuff on the side,” today’s Akin Bak Farm gets its main revenue from vegetables. From spring crops like kale, lettuce, and radishes, into summer sweet corn, tomatoes, and zucchini, and fall crops of winter squash and potatoes, Akin Bak produces just about everything the average family needs. “We try to do a little bit of everything,” says Seth. “I don’t call us the jack of all trades, but we try to be.” Fruit still has a presence at Akin Bak too, with about 40 remaining apple trees and a quarter-acre of blueberries. Although all of Akin Bak’s vegetables are organic, the apples can’t be labeled as such because the trees are sprayed once or twice early in the season before flowering. Particularly prone to pests and diseases, Seth calls apples “one of the number one dirty crops in the industry,” because farmers simply haven’t come up with a way to grow a “good solid apple” organically and have a decent return on their investment. Seth is optimistic that things will improve, though; “we’re heading in the right direction but we just aren’t there yet.”
As you can imagine, Akin Bak’s location in a highly developed area of Franklin presents some unique challenges for the farmers. Seth says that his main challenge comes from Route 140, which can make it difficult for customers to access the farm. “If you want to take a left out of here you’re basically trying to commit suicide.” Fortunately, farm regulars know that there’s a side driveway out onto Beaver Street, which makes it much easier to head into the center of town from Akin Bak. Another challenge is the lack of available land to expand the farm’s operations; some of Seth’s farmer friends in Western Massachusetts can rent nearby fields for a season, but that really isn’t an option in Franklin because farmland is so scarce. Even if land were to be found, Seth knows that driving his tractor from one location to another would be difficult on Franklin’s residential streets. “I’m not really eager to even find the land to go somewhere else, because I don’t know that I’ll ever come back home!”, Seth laughs. Seth’s fully committed to making it work with what he has, though. “I’ve got to make every square inch of this place count every single year.”
Last year, Akin Bak launched its very own CSA program, which has been a roaring success. CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is a great way for farmers to plan out their year, because customers apply and pay for their share in the off-season and then receive weekly or biweekly shares of the farm’s produce in season. With advance knowledge of the season’s coming demand and advance payment to fund seeds and supplies, a CSA program makes a farmer’s life much easier. “I’m a math-minded dude and so for me it was just a win-win once I figured it out,” says Seth. Akin Bak’s CSA program is unique because it focuses on a dollar value per share of produce, rather than a volume-based approach. Other farms provide CSA members with their share by the bushel, which Seth thinks is an “insane amount of vegetables to be getting every seven days.” In contrast, Seth and Bette decided to set up their program by taking a look at their farmstand and market retail rates, and deciding that $20 to $25 per week would buy an ideal and “not overwhelming” amount of produce for a family share. Everything that gets harvested at Akin Bak goes into the CSA shares, with the one rule that if a particular crop doesn’t produce enough for everyone, it doesn’t get distributed. This year, Akin Bak has changed their distribution approach; rather than providing families with a pre-packed basket each week, the available items are set out market-style and customers choose their own. With this approach, the farmers don’t have to spend as much time weighing and pre-packing produce, and they get to spend more time chatting with their customers, sharing recipes, and growing more produce. “It allows us to have more members and have more fun,” Seth says, and it will undoubtedly keep Akin Bak Farm happy and productive for many years to come.
Akin Bak Farm is located at 360 West Central Street, at the corner of Route 140 and Beaver Street. Check out their website and Facebook page for more information! For more photos, please visit Focus Designs and Photos’ #ShopFranklin Photo Spotlight on Akin Bak Farm.