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Central MA Up + Comer: Lilac Hedge Farm Co-owner Ryan MacKay

Thursday, March 27, 2014

 

Young entrepreneur Ryan MacKay runs the successful Lilac Hedge Farm in Berlin, MA.

Three years ago, 23 year-old Ryan MacKay opened Lilac Hedge Farm in Berlin with partner Tom Corbett. They produce pasture-raised beef, pork, lamb, and poultry, and sell their products at retail through Boston area farmers’ markets and a year‐round meat CSA, as well as to wholesale accounts. They also run a seasonal Christmas tree operation based at Berlin Orchards. Ryan is currently serving on the Massachusetts Farm Bureau State Board of Directors, Worcester County Farm Bureau Board of Directors and is actively involved in the Young Agricultural Leaders Committee and Livestock Committee. He is also a volunteer with 4‐H and the Sterling Fair.

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.

 

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