Farmer Profile: Visions for a New Sustainable Vegetable Farm in Putnam, CT

by Nako Kobayashi

Farmer Yoko Takemura hopes to incorporate aspects of her Japanese heritage as well as her academic background in environmental sustainability into her new farm business.

Yoko on a large bag of potting soil. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko on a large bag of potting soil. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

While farmers represent an increasingly aging demographic group, a growing number of young farmers in New England and across the country are working to change the food system. Many of these new farmers, like Yoko Takemura of Assawaga Farm in Putnam, Connecticut, do not have farming backgrounds but instead have experiences that bring different perspectives and ideas into their farming practices. Yoko, who I was introduced to through my former boss at Cloverleigh Farm, is drawing inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural practices in her effort to make her new farm a truly sustainable operation.

Growing up around the world due to her father’s occupation, Yoko always had a passion for the environment. She never thought, however, that she would end up becoming a farmer. After graduating from a university in Tokyo, she briefly worked in investment banking so that she could save money for graduate school. She eventually quit her job and moved to New York City to study environmental sustainability in graduate school. Living in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, she became a member of a community garden and started developing a passion for growing vegetables and the way growing food can bring people together. It wasn’t until she joined her first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group while working for a consulting firm in NYC, however, that she really started to think about starting her own farm. Yoko’s “a-ha!” moment came to her when she visited Windflower Farm in upstate New York for the annual CSA member’s potluck. “On the ride back to NYC,” she reminisces, “I couldn’t stop visualizing myself as a farmer!” She then applied for apprenticeships on vegetable farms outside of NYC and eventually found Riverbank Farm in Western Connecticut, where she worked for 3 years.

Yoko and her husband, Alex, in front of a farm building they constructed. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and her husband, Alex, in front of a farm building they constructed. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

To start their own farm business, Yoko and her husband Alex bought 22 acres of land in Putnam, Connecticut in 2016. Because the land had been previously used to farm hay for decades, Yoko and Alex had to build all of their own farm infrastructure from scratch. However, this actually works to their advantage as they now have the freedom to design their infrastructure with their specific sustainability goals in mind. For example, they were able to build their greenhouse in a way that accommodates SolaWrap, a durable greenhouse cover that lasts much longer than many other plastic films used in greenhouses.

SolaWrap being installed on Assawaga Farm's new greenhouse. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

SolaWrap being installed on Assawaga Farm’s new greenhouse. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and Alex take a lot of inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural methods in order to achieve their sustainability goals. The couple spent some time travelling around Japan and visiting many farms and learning about the various ways in which some Japanese farmers have cultivated a harmonious relationship with the natural environment. While organic agriculture can often be heavily dependent on inputs from fossil fuels, Yoko hopes to take her greenhouse off the grid by incorporating the Japanese practice of fumikomi-onsho, which involves mixing a large amount of leaves with some rice bran and chicken manure, applying water to it, and stomping on the mixture in order to generate heat. This variation of composting creates a fairly steady level of heat for weeks. This allows farmers to start their seedlings as well as have heat in the greenhouse without the use of electricity.

Building a relationship with the forest is another aspect of traditional Japanese agriculture that Yoko became enamored with when visiting farms in Japan. “The forest gave the farmers mulch, wood, bamboo, inoculant, etc. and the farmers gave back by maintaining and taking care of the forest through selective cutting, cleaning up, etc.” In comparison, Yoko explains that “the health of our forests around here” is “terrifyingly bad”. Yoko hopes to actively help better the condition of the forests that encompass her land in the coming years “because the forest is as much part of our farm as is our field.” One way Yoko and Alex want to give back to the forest is by applying “humanure” from composting toilets to the neighboring forests, after a two year composting period. For various health-related reasons, the “humanure” will not be used for their actual farming operation, but it is one way Yoko and Alex can create a more harmonious relationship with the forests that surround their land.

Yoko and Alex's DIY composting toilet. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and Alex’s DIY composting toilet that will help them give back to their forests. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

For Yoko, the terms organic and sustainable are not one and the same. While Assawaga Farm has applied for organic certification, there are some additional practices that Yoko and her husband want to incorporate in order to reduce as much waste associated with and inputs required for their farm as possible. In addition to some of the Japanese practices they want to try out on their farm, there are many other sustainable practices not included in the certification that Yoko and Alex hope to take on. For example, they hope to use minimal amounts of plastic by not using any one-time drip tapes or plastic mulch, often used by organic farmers to help suppress weeds. They also plan to eventually create all of their own fertilizer, compost, and potting mix using the Japanese bokashi method of inoculating fertilizer with local culture taken from the nearby forests.

Believing that “organic originates in soil”, Yoko wants to take special care of the soil on their farm by using minimal tilling and eventually transitioning into no-till agriculture. This will help them “keep the delicate web of microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi intact,” in addition to preserving the soil structure, maintaining carbon in the soil and keeping a steady release of nutrients in the soil “rather than short bursts of it.” They plan to have at least one field in their farm dedicated to cover crops year-round which will help prevent the depletion of nutrients and accumulate biomass. The couple also hope to save their own seeds and breed seeds that are adapted to their local environment.

In addition to using Japanese farming practices, Yoko also plans to grow many Japanese varieties of vegetables on her farm. When asked why she wanted to grow Japanese varieties, she responded simply that she just wanted to grow vegetables that she craved from home and that she wanted to eat herself! In addition, growing Japanese varieties helps Yoko target a niche market within the oversaturated market for organic produce in the Boston area. She is particularly excited about growing edamame, as “it’s just not summer without edamames!”

Alex seeing Assawaga Farm's first crop - garlic! (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Alex seeding Assawaga Farm’s first crop – garlic! (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

In the next few months, Yoko and Alex will be busy getting ready for their first growing season and transitioning into the full-time farming lifestyle. They start seeding in three weeks! Look for Yoko and Alex in farmers markets in the Boston area this coming season (locations yet to be decided). They also have some CSA shares available through their website.

Update, March 2, 2018: An earlier version of this article failed to clarify that the composted humanure would be used on Assawaga’s surrounding forest land only, and not on the farm itself. This has been updated for clarity, and we apologize if our omission was misleading to our readers.

Nako Kobayashi is a first year AFE student from Japan who has experience working on a small organic farm, a biodynamic vineyard, for the agricultural sector of a Japanese municipal government, and on a food hub development project. Having a B.A. in anthropology, she loves talking directly with farmers from various backgrounds and hearing about their unique perspectives of the food system. 

I Say Potato

by Lindsay LaJoie, RD

Growing up on a family farm meant changing roles with the seasons, and changing with the times.

For over 100 years, the LaJoie family has been growing potatoes in Aroostook County in Northern Maine. What was once a small farm with fewer than 10 acres has grown into a 1,300-acre operation, and as you can imagine, many aspects of production have changed. My father is a fourth-generation potato grower, and even in the last few decades, he has witnessed a multitude of technological advancements that have led to the growth and efficiency of our farm today. While the horse-drawn plows and potato barrels have faded from the images of the yearly harvest, replaced by high-powered tractors and mechanical potato harvesters, one thing has remained constant throughout the generations: family.


Tractors on the Family Farm. Photo credit: Nic LaJoie


My father and his seven siblings—one brother and six sisters—grew up working on my grandfather’s farm, and as my aunts will tell you, the girls were always the fastest when it came to hand-picking barrels of potatoes. After studying Diesel Technology for a year after high school and spending a few years as a truck driver, my father ultimately returned to Grand Prix Farms, my grandfather’s 400-acre operation, to settle into his own farming career. He recalls using tractors and equipment built in the 1950s well into the 1980s, with little change over that 30-year span. In the 1990s, he witnessed the beginning of a stream of innovations that would forever change his life as a farmer. No longer did he have to rely on CB radios or listening for the sound of another tractor in a nearby field to communicate with my uncle and grandfather—he could pick up his cell phone anywhere, anytime. In the year 2000, when my grandparents bought us a computer capable of Internet connection, the family business was truly revolutionized.

It was at a young age that my siblings and I learned our own roles on the family farm. We’d wake up early, put on tiny work gloves and boots, and ride in dad’s pickup truck to the potato house. There, we stood on step stools to be able to see the potatoes whizzing past on the fast-moving conveyor belts, working alongside our senior family members, and reveling in the nods and smiles of approval from our grandfather. I never knew what happened to the potatoes once they were hauled away in huge 18-wheelers, just that it was my job to watch the conveyor and pull out any bad potatoes—along with rocks or any non-potato objects. At the time when our new computer came along, the market was tough, and my father was looking to find a new niche. In a career where success can be determined by something as uncontrollable as the weather, and with a wife and four young children to support, my father began to view the Internet—a foreign concept—as an opportunity.


Photo Credit: Nic LaJoie

Most of what I remember about using the Internet at the age of 10 is that I could play a lot of computer games, and my mother couldn’t use the phone while I was online. My father, a man who once opted out of taking a high school computer course because he “never thought [he’d] need it,” was initially weary of online communication and its potential implications. He remembers finally finding the courage to contact people on the Internet, hoping to sell a new product he was interested in growing: blue potatoes. He grew small amounts at first, starting with five acres, and increasing to 10 acres the following season. These potatoes—blue on the outside and the inside—were sold to brokers in the beginning, until finally one of my father’s emails was forwarded to a buyer of raw product for Terra Chips. The buyer came to visit the farm, and soon after, my grandfather was trucking a sample of blue potatoes to the Terra Chip factory in New Jersey. The full load was sold, and a long-term relationship began.

Potato flowers.png

Photo Credit: Nic LaJoie

In 2007, our family farm was restructured to create LaJoie Growers, LLC, which is now an operation co-owned by my father and his brother, nephew, and cousin. Previously, the farm was structured in such a way that equipment and labor were shared, but the crop belonged to the individual farmer. This could be a problem if tending and harvesting schedules led to a great yield for one individual, and failed crops for another. Restructuring the company allowed for gains (and losses) to be shared, solidifying the teamwork that is needed to succeed in a large agricultural operation. But the owners are not the only members of the LaJoie Growers team. My grandparents instilled the essence of the family farm in their eight children and 26 grandchildren, myself included. The family is continuing to grow, and each of us contributes to the farm in any way that we can, even if right now it can only be love and support sent up from Boston.

Today, LaJoie Growers, LLC grows 220-acres of blue potatoes, all of which are dedicated to Terra Chips (as seen on JetBlue!) or as seed for next year’s crop. Over the years the scope has widened beyond potatoes to include multiple varieties of beets, carrots, and parsnips, all of which are also made into Terra Chips. There is no question that growing up on the family farm taught me about the importance of hard work, dedication, and perseverance, and I am incredibly grateful for that. Even though I am not at home to work anymore, I observe the business continuing to evolve by growing new vegetables and using GPS technology in tractors to maximize efficiency, and I am inspired to seek opportunities, take chances, and be innovative. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll find my blue potato.


Photo Credit: Nic LaJoie

Lindsay LaJoie is a Registered Dietitian and second year biochemical & molecular nutrition student. Her favorite way to eat potatoes is any way her grandmother cooks them.