Hingham’s last working farm ushers in a new era of FARM-TO-TABLE DINNERS and community programs.By Scott Kearnan | Photography by Rosemary Tufankjian
In Hingham, you always remember September.
That’s when the leaves begin to change, shedding their lush summer green hues and bursting into vibrant shades of red and orange. The South Shore air begins to earn a pleasant chill and becomes perfect for canoodling around backyard bonfires. And that’s when, for the past four years, Weir River Farm has hosted its annual Farm to Table Dinner: an annual volunteer-long feast at long, communal tables where forks clang, wine glasses clink and fond memories of Weir River Farm, Hingham’s last working farm, are shared under a big white tent, sound-tracked by a live bluegrass band and illuminated by the vibrant pink glow of a setting late-summer sun.
Seasons change, though. And the most recent dinner, held on Saturday, September 19, 2015, marked the last installment of the event in its current incarnation. The Trustees of Reservations, America’s oldest and largest statewide conservation organization, will reimagine the structure of future Weir River Farm dinners as part of its larger strategy for the 75-acre property, which is among the more than 100 natural spaces in Massachusetts under the Trustees’ stewardship. But the success of September’s dinner is proof that whatever the form of forthcoming events, Hingham residents will always remember the special history and heritage of their treasured farm.
“We want people to know that the community cares. We’re really committed to keeping it [Weir River Farm] an authentic experience,” says Lara Thompson, a Hingham resident and volunteer at September’s farm-to-table dinner. For the community organizers behind the last four years’ worth of soirees, authenticity is an important word that comes up often in conversation. From the outset, the intent of the dinners was to better connect Hingham locals to the farm and help them establish a tangible, visceral connection between the food they eat and the farm that produces it.
“How many times do you get to go out and have an experience that feels as authentic as this?” asks Signe McCullough, the dinner’s founder. McCullough is a passionate supporter of the local food movement who grew up in rural Pennsylvania farmlands. When she moved to Hingham she turned to Weir River Farm, and its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program of vegetables, meats and eggs, to feed her family. She fell in love with the property, walking its trails daily and relishing the juxtaposition of its rural charm with the inspiring, distant view of the Boston skyline glimpsed from atop the farm’s Turkey Hill. She wanted to contribute to its protection, and so the Farm to Table Dinner was born. McCullough recruited a team of volunteers and found supporters in the greater Hingham community—like Hingham Beer Works, which annually donated craft brews, and Tosca chef Brian Hennebury, who every year used ingredients plucked straight from the farm’s fields to create an elegant main dinner.
And though the event was never intended to be a fundraising cash cow, it has certainly galvanized support and appreciation for Weir River Farm from those who may not otherwise engage with the property, says McCullough. The last dinner’s 200 seats sold out in one day.
“When I first started there wasn’t a lot of community involvement. One of the things I’m most proud of is the traction we made in that: creating an environment where people are passionate and want to be part of it,” says Meg Connolly, Weir River Farm’s former education and interpretation coordinator. She recently moved on to another farm-based education center after 11 years spent running after-school programs and other Weir River initiatives. Connolly also played a strong supporting role in the farm-to-table dinners, and grassroots volunteers were sad to see her go. She’s the second longtime Weir River staff member to move on recently, alongside Ed Pitcavage, the farm’s on-site caretaker for nearly a decade.
Pitcavage’s departure for a new job in Vermont felt like “the end of a great era,” says McCullough, among many locals who credit his hands-in-the-dirt dedication for shepherding the growth of the farm from a “petting zoo”-style environment to a more robust property with educational programs, true livestock operations and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Locals have expressed concern over the departure of Pitcavage and Connolly coupled with the end of the volunteer-led dinner series in its current form. Connolly won’t say exactly what precipitated her decision to move on (and Pitcavage could not be reached), though she says she’s not averse to seeing Weir River Farm evolve. What she does hope, though, is that the increased community engagement can be maintained.
John Vasconcellos wants to quell any fears. “The Trustees is not just about saving places. It’s about connecting people to them,” says Vasconcellos, the Trustees of Reservations’ senior regional director of Boston and Southeast properties. He sees tremendous opportunity ahead for the site. “Moving forward, the organization hopes to “build on” the popularity of the annual dinner by instead implementing a recurring series of less expensive “Friday night farm dinners” that feel “less exclusive.” “It’s great that the farm to table dinner can bring 200 people there to celebrate the farm. But why not spread that idea out over a whole season and have 2,000 people come over a series of nights?”
Other initiatives could be scaled back. For instance, the CSA program, which currently produces 160 shares, is “really difficult to sustain,” says Vasconcellos. But in general, the goal is “to come up with models that have many more people coming to the farm, and makes it feel easier and more accessible.” For instance, the Trustees wants to expand the farm’s youth-oriented summer camps to include more young people: “We’re having to turn away too many kids,” says Vasconcellos.
Last year the season was extended by a week, and The Trustees is working with Edgartown non-profit The Farm Institute to develop even more comprehensive programs. Vasconcellos promises that any increased foot traffic won’t compromise ecological preservation. The Trustees’ ecology department studies the level of “visitor experience” each site can sustain while maintaining its integrity. “The spirit of the place is never going to be compromised,” says Vasconcellos. “We want to make sure that more people can experience it, but we’re going to do that in a respectful way.”
Fran Blanchard, who oversees the day-to-day for seven regional properties, has responded to community concerns by instituting a four-part series of meetings designed to “engage the community on a higher level,” says Blanchard. “We want to look at what their programming needs are and make sure that we’re delivering offerings people want.”
Ultimately, everyone shares the same vision: to protect, preserve and honor the history of Hingham’s last working farm. That’s something Thompson made clear during a brief speaking portion at September’s final farm-to-table dinner. She was visibly moved as she spoke emotionally of her first meeting the now-late Vicki Starr, whose mother, noted artist Polly Thayer Starr, gifted the Hingham family homestead to the Trustees in 1999.
“Tonight is a night like all others,” said Thompson. “The sky will turn crimson. The light will fade into darkness. But tonight, unlike others, we take a moment to think about what brought us all here gathered on a cow pasture, connected to the land and to each other, aware that one woman’s generosity has allowed us and our children, and our children’s children, to enjoy this land, this view and this sunset forever.”
The Trustees will host its first farm-to-table dinner as part of a monthly summer series beginning on July 29. Check our datebook or online for additional dates and information.