Steve Johnson interviews Eero Ruutilla

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Eero Ruutilla is the Farm Manager for Nesenkeag Co-operative Farm, Located on the banks of the Merrimack River outside of Litchfield, NH. Eero oversees operations for 40 acres of farmland, all of which is Certified organic.

Where did you get your start in farming?
At the age of 16, I visited relatives in Finland for a year (1966-67), and helped them with their farming. It was a typical northern European working farm: dairy cows, fruits, hay. Later on, when I was in college (St. Olaf's College in Northfield, Minnesota 69-73), I maintained my own first kitchen garden at a house where I lived off-campus. I was inspired by the wife of an English professor of mine, an Englishwoman who had an extraordinary garden of culinary herbs and salad greens. But I guess you can say that this had been in my blood all along, since my grandfather was an old-school organic gardener in New Hampshire-back before any non-organic farming ever existed.

What contributed to the development of your own professional sensibilities?
I was influenced greatly by reading: mainly Thoreau and Gary Snyder, an American poet from the 60's with a strong environmental voice. Words my grandfather spoke also stuck with me, "Organic gardening is the best way to treat the soil. If you have any real concern for the environment, then organic methods are the only way to take care of the earth".

And you've been true to these principles ever since! Could you recount the highlights of your farming career?
Before going into farming full-time myself, I spent seven years (77-84) as the wholesale buyer for NorthEast Co-operatives, a large association of organic New England farmers. During that time, I gave a lot of attention to creative development for the growers. One example: I organized a direct-buying program with smaller local farmers. Also, I solicited federal grant money to help pay for the continued expansion of the Co-op's network of farmers throughout New England, and I was responsible for starting the Pioneer Valley Growers Association in Western Massachusetts in 1977.

After leaving NorthEast Co-operatives, I became the first Massachusetts inspector for NOFA (NorthEast Organic Farm Association) in 1985. My job as inspector was to work with the farmers who were making the effort to convert their farms from conventional methods and seeking certification by the state. While at NOFA, I did some more grant research that resulted in the publication of a manual on post-harvest pesticide use. And during this time, I began working part-time at Hutchins Farm, an organic farm in Concord, Massachusetts. It didn't take long at this point before I became seriously interested in becoming a full-time farmer.

Could you describe your work at Nesenkeag Farm?
First, a little background information. Nesenkeag Co-operative Farm was incorporated in 1982, on the initiative of a gentleman named Bill McElwain, as a charitable, non-profit, educational farm, in the spirit of preserving greenspace and providing healthy food to low-income residents in the area. And for those who do not have access to land, a means of learning about farming. It was operated in the early years by political/hippie-type volunteers.

In 1987, I was hired as farm manager, and my challenge was to organize this farm as a self-sustaining, viable business. To this end, I made organic certification my first priority, a transition that would take 5 years to complete. On the business side, we capitalized on my connections with the distributors, became a member of Deep Root Co-op based in Southern Vermont, and sold to the Northeast Co-operative as well. We added newer equipment and better systems, strove to eliminate waste, and started to develop some restaurant accounts. Later on, we established relations with two Boston wholesalers who were particularly interested in sourcing local farm produce for their customers. We also began working with 2 different distribution services in Lowell, MA (one for the SE Asian community there, and the other for a youth program running farm markets), as well as with the New Hampshire Food Bank.

You are being characteristically modest; what about all those long hours in the fields?
Nothing more or less than any other farmer!

What crops do you grow on the farm?
We concentrate on salad greens, culinary herbs, heirloom tomatoes, SE Asian crops, cut wildflowers, and specialty or exotic items that offer a distinctive niche to our customers.

How has the Boston farmer-chef relationship affected your business?
It's made me a better grower. This I attribute to a great extent to the passion and high standards of the chefs. Currently, we have about 25 restaurant accounts in the Boston area, and this group of chefs demands high quality, flavor and freshness. They really keep me on my toes! Secondly, the ongoing dialogue that exists between the farmers and the chefs in our area has fostered a continuing learning process for both sides, and is wonderful example of the expression "Win-win situation". As much as they have increased their first-hand knowledge of locally-grown fruits and vegetables, farming techniques, seasonality, etc., we continue to learn from the chefs more specifics about what interests them and the dining public, trends in eating, and what's going on in other parts of the country. And thirdly, without a doubt, it's had a tremendous impact on our business in terms of dollars and cents. The Boston chefs are tremendously supportive of the region's farmers, and their commitment shows very clearly by their dedication to purchasing locally whenever and wherever possible. Related to this point, the chefs have also used their influence to help raise public awareness about the benefits of purchasing locally-grown produce-superior flavor and freshness - and this gets back around to us in any indirect ways.

What does the future hold for you?
I'm looking into building greenhouses to help extend our early and late season production. Storage facilities are in our plans, too, which would allow us to produce, store and supply more onions, potatoes and squash later into the winter. These two improvements would address one of the major problems facing all New England Farmers: a short growing season.

Other than that, we face the usual challenges that are typical of our region, related to economy of scale. It's important for us to focus on the area where we have an advantage: we continue to work hard in the research and development department to specialize in "fringe" items, where we can compete better with the "big boys" out West, rather than suffer in the mainstream categories. Working closely with the chefs gives us the advantage of being very in tune with their needs, and we can deliver specialty items from the farm to their door in less than 24 hours. You can taste the difference!

Visit the Farm Fresh area on StarChefs for more on organic and sustainable foods.

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