Central MA Up + Comer: Lilac Hedge Farm Co-owner Ryan MacKay
Thursday, March 27, 2014
A conversation with Ryan MacKay
SW: You started your career at 18 with a traveling zoo. You went into partnership with your current business partner, Tom Corbett. How did that come about?
RM: Tom and I had been friends for some time when he started helping me out with the petting zoos, and, eventually with the Christmas tree business. He enjoyed the work and had a lot of self‐motivation. When I processed my first batch of lambs, I said, "Hey, we should start selling at farmers’ markets." He was crazy enough to agree, and we haven't had two seconds to look back since. Tom shares a passion for the business and a love for animals, which is a key part of our success.
SW: You started Lilac Hedge Farm in 2011 at age 20. You were in school full‐time and working a part-time job. What was the vision that made you decide to go into business at such a young age?
RM: I have always known that I wanted to be in business for myself. I started my Christmas tree venture when I was still in middle school, and have always looked for odd jobs to make money on the side. During college, I started contemplating what I was going to do after graduation. One thing was certain; I loved working in agriculture. I decided to grow the farm on a larger scale during my sophomore year. Once the decision was made, I left my part‐time job, invested all the money I had saved over the last few years into breeding stock, and let the dice roll.
SW: How many acres is your farm on?
RM: We are based on roughly 200 acres in West Boylston and Berlin.
SW: You advocate for Community Supported Agriculture, can you explain what that is?
RM: CSA Stands for Community Supported Agriculture. CSA “shares” are purchased by consumers at the beginning of a season, which gives farmers the means to purchase necessary supplies. In return for the purchase of these shares, the consumer receives a portion of the farmer's harvest on a regular basis.
Our meat CSA shareholders receive product once a month. Vegetable CSAs have become very popular among consumers in Massachusetts as a way for consumers to connect with a local farmer, and receive a fresh and healthy source of vegetables all season long. A meat CSA is based on the same fundamental factors. By joining our meat CSA you are connecting with us as your farmer, you know where your food is coming from and how it’s raised, and you’re helping to protect open space by keeping the land in agricultural use. We guarantee that you receive a prearranged amount of meat every month at one of our many pickup locations across the state. The variation of meat and type of cuts depends on what has been processed that month. This provides us stability during slow months and between farmers’ market seasons.
SW: You sell through farmers’ markets only. Why do you consider that the best market for you?
RM: Initially, farmers’ markets provided us with the best way to get our business up and growing. Because we operate mostly on leased land, it wasn’t feasible for us to develop a farm stand. Over the years we’ve been able to develop a loyal customer base which follows us through the market season, and even from summer to winter markets. The markets allow us to sell in high traffic areas where we reach a greater number of customers, which would be difficult to do in the rural area where we’re based.
SW: Can you describe a day in your life as a business owner?
RM: No two days are alike, but animal chores are a part of every day. Most weekdays are spent feeding and caring for the animals, transporting them to or from harvest, and taking care of random errands. Communicating with customers is a 24/7 job; we frequently send email blasts to our CSA customers and are constantly answering calls for special orders. We also continue to work on developing new markets or our product. Weekends are focused on selling at the farmers’ markets. Both Tom and I go to markets on Saturdays. It’s really an all‐day event. We start packing meat around 5:30 in the morning and don't get back from the city until late afternoon, at which time we’ve probably put in a ten or eleven hour day. Then we typically head over to the farm and take care of the animals. It makes for a long day.
SW: Are you aware of the powerful documentary out by Paul McCartney called Glass Walls, which calls attention to the often horrific life and death of animals raised for meat?
RM: Whether or not you choose to eat meat or be a vegetarian, ultimately, the choice is up to you. You have the freedom of choice in not only what you eat, but where you buy it. My customers come to me because they know I treat my animals well and care for them in the best possible way that I can. I have spent countless nights caring for a sick animal, or left school to help birth a newborn animal, and this is normal for our profession. No farmer that I know condones animal abuse. I also know very few people that take more pride in the job they do than livestock farmers—it’s an around‐the‐clock job.
SW: Who or what is the biggest influence in your life?
RM: My family is the biggest influence in my life. My grandfather has always helped foster my love for agriculture. As a child I used to beg him to take me to the local livestock auction and convince him to let me buy a crate of rabbits or chickens, or take me for a visit to my cousin’s dairy farm. Even now he is such an inspiration, as he pitches in by helping to build fences and paint livestock trailers, in addition to running his own wood business while he’s in his late 80s! Although Tom and I started the farm, it often feels like it’s a family business. My mom has graciously assumed the role of our accountant, adding that chore on top of running her own business. My aunts, uncles, and cousins all lend a hand too, helping with everything from sewing tablecloths, building market displays, or delivering lunch to the employees at farmers markets—they do it all.
SW: If you get any down time as a farm owner, how do you spend your free time?
RM: I guess I’m a pretty typical 23-year-old—I enjoy hanging out with my friends. Tom and a few other friends live on a lake, so during the summer we spend a lot of time there fishing and boating. During the winter we enjoy snowmobiling or having campfires.
SW: What is a fact that few people know about you?
RM: I own a camel named Joshua which always seems to shock people when they first get to know me.
SW: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
RM: In ten years I’d like to be farming on my own land. Eventually, I’d like to build an on‐farm retail stand too. I plan to continue to work hard and grow the herds, expand our retail markets, and see where it takes us.
Central MA Up + Comer is a weekly profile of a member of the next generation as they are making their mark on the Central MA workforce and community. Join us every Thursday for a look at the careers and lifestyles of the local digital generation. If you have suggestions for a profile, email [email protected].
Susan D. Wagner is president of Susan Wagner PR, a boutique public relations firm invested in meeting client's goals with integrity and creativity.
Related Slideshow: Foodie Getaways in Massachusetts
Food lovers will love these destinations statewide for indulging your palate.
Vienna Historic Inn + Restaurant, Southbridge, MA
A feast for all your appetites. This historic inn is filled with old world charm, antiques, chandeliers & steins. Each room is adorned with soft music, ambience and uniqueness. You will be delighted with hard-to-find Austrian, German, Swiss, French as well local meats, seafood and vegan options. An extensive gluten-free menu available. The beer garden will be open through the end of the October.
Jewish Food Tour
Ahla Food Tours, Brookline, MA
Explore Jewish cuisine on this eye-opening 3-hour walking tour of historical Brookline and experience what TV Diner called a "fabulous Boston neighborhood tour!" and Jewish Advocate raved is "whetting the appetites of Jewish and non-Jewish diners alike". You'll taste authentic Jewish food - matzo ball soup, latkes, falafel, kosher wines, noodle kugel ice cream and dozens more. Hear unique anecdotes about the welcoming Brookline purveyors and savor the rich history of Jewish Brookline.
Blue Hills Brewery, Canton, MA
We're lucky in Massachusetts to have many microbreweries, large and small, for touring and tasting. But Blue Hills Brewery has combined its makes great tasting beers with a real educational imperative--an internship. A dream come true for beer lovers, candidates can vie for working with Blue Hills' Master Brewer Andris Veidis in a true apprenticeship. Not for the casual brewer. To learn more, check online, here. http://bluehillsbrewery.com/internship.php
Sweet Dessert Bar, Worcester, MA
A dessert lover's destination, Sweet was recently in the news for having challenged New York chef Dominique Ansel as laying claim to the invention of the cronut. Whether you're team Worcester or team NYC, enjoy Sweet's lounge chairs or sit at the bar, have a drink and watch as the chefs prepare a one of a kind dish for you. Not your average piece of cake, Sweet's appetizers and desserts are inspired by the freshest local ingredients, seasonal fruits, and artisan chocolates.
Old + New Dining
The Farm Table, Bernardston, MA
In the lush Pioneer Valley between Deerfield and the Vermont border, this remarkably restored 1800 farmhouse features cutting-edge green energy and the freshest local and regional foods seasonally available. Combine a delicious sojourn with holiday shopping at Kringle Candle and Kringle Christmas Barn.
Fried Clam Pilgrimage
Woodman's of Essex, Essex, MA
Keep summer alive year-round by making a pilgrimage to this institution that is counting down to its 100-year anniversary. Go for the fried clams, because that's what was invented here on July 3rd, 1916. Lawrence "Chubby" Woodman, at the humorous suggestion of a friend, fried up a few clams at his roadside stand in Essex, Massachusetts and the original fried clams were born.
East Dennis Oyster Farm, Cape Cod, MA
If you think oysters are a summer pleasure, you're right but you're wrong. Late October and November yield some of the best oysters, so consider bundling up and heading to the Cape for a tour of John and Stephanie Lowell's farm on the tidal flats off Quivett Neck. To make an appointment for a tour, go here.
Hit the Trail
Massachusetts Wine + Cheese Trail
A wine and cheese trail in Massachusetts? That’s right, the Bay State features 40 licensed wineries, producing wine from a collection of locally grown fruits – grapes, apples, cranberries, peaches, and blueberries – across, roughly, a total of 2,200-acres of wine farm land, where 439 acres are devoted exclusively to wine production. You can download a map and pick up the trail at any place, exploring small and pristine providers.
Wine in the City
City Wine Tours, Cambridge, MA
Want an urban oenophelia adventure? City Wine Tours is the perfect gateway to enjoying Boston's vibrant wine culture and best restaurants. Sip, savor, and explore as we take you on a walking tour through Boston's most historic neighborhoods, with stops at award-winning restaurants, luxury hotels and gourmet wine shops. Cheers.
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Dishcrawl Pioneer Valley, Springfield, MA
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