Farms don’t exist only in the low-lying floodplains, they can be found all over. What is farmed depends on location; but what kind of farming can be done in the densely forested hill town of Worthington, MA? J.P. and Marian Welch found a way to farm there; for the past 30 years they have made a home, and a livelihood, as the owners of Justamere Tree Farm.
What does tree farming entail? For the Welches it involves more than 50 acres of land, maintenance of a healthy forest, and a drive to be as independent as possible. “We saw a window where we could possibly live off the land,” says Marian. The work that the Welches do is varied, but each aspect uses trees sustainably; this means no chemical fertilizers, planting new trees each year, and keeping the forest intact to preserve the health of the land. So if you imagined tree farming to mean Christmas trees you’d be right; if you pictured tapping maples and sugaring you’d also be correct. These are two of the three types of production that make up the Welches’ livelihood. The third aspect is handmade brooms, for which they wild-harvest sassafras for the handles. With such a varied yet sustainable lifestyle, it’s easy to see that the Welches put a lot of thought into their farm.
“We didn’t have a master plan” says J.P. “We still don’t. Everything we did just kind of evolved.” The Welches’ evolution began in 1982 when they purchased their property on Patterson Road. Shortly afterward, the Christmas-tree farm became the first part of their venture. It was during the wait for their first saplings to grow that the second part emerged. “We had to keep from getting bored,” says J.P. The purchase of a handmade broom, combined with the gift of some broom-corn seed, inspired the Welches to learn the craft of broom making. In a book of old-time crafts from the Foxfire series, they found one style of broom. After mastering that, they took a workshop at Hancock Shaker Village, learning the Shaker style. Over the years they kept studying and today they produce seven distinct types of brooms. Their mastering of this artisanal craft has won recognition from Martha Stewart, who featured J.P. and their brooms on her show. But long before Martha made them nationally known, the Welches had incorporated another old-timey craft into their production: maple sugaring.
This part of their production began when they helped a neighbor tap trees one year. Today it is the largest area of their production, and using the majority of the land. Keeping true to their desire to live sustainably, the Welches have developed a highly efficient and eco-friendly method for tapping and sugaring. Thousands of feet of tubing run from maples throughout their own 25 acre property and adjoining acres that belong to neighbors. This tubing is part of their collection system and is completely airtight, allowing sap to flow directly into a holding tank. From there the sap is filtered twice, removing water and allowing sugar to remain, which cuts down on boil time. Finally the Welches have installed a wood fired smokeless boiler, designed to ignite all gasses released during burning and direct the heat straight to the boiling pans. This increases the energy efficiency of their boiler while at the same time reducing CO2 emissions from smoke, making their system overall more energy efficient and eco-savvy.
The Welches are busy each season of the year: during the spring they sugar: during the winter they sell cut Christmas trees, and offer cut-your-own trees at their farm; during the summer and fall they have booths at farmers’ markets and fairs throughout New England; all year round they make brooms, maintain the land, and ship orders for maple products and brooms placed on their Web site. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s so important,” says Marian.