Behind Cook Hill’s Sustainable Farming

Jean Balamuth is not a fan of Miracle Grow.

She recalls accidentally getting a taste of the plant fertilizer back when she was a city dweller and used it frequently to encourage her vegetable plants. At first, she was happy that the substance helped her nurture “great big tomatoes” and “super-duper peppers.” But then she got some in her mouth.

“It is the most acrid taste imaginable, so immediately my mouth burned and puckered,” Balamuth said. “It was like, wait a minute. I’m putting gallons of Miracle Grow on my tomatoes, and then I’m eating the tomatoes — am I eating the Miracle Grow?”

That was the beginning of her relationship with organic growing, and it’s one she’s continued to foster as the co-owner of Cook Hill Farm in Alstead with her husband, Michael. The farm, which was incorporated in 2011, offers a range of organically grown crops, including onions, apples, tomatoes, raspberries, herbs and fresh flowers.

One of the farm’s specialties this fall is Porcelain Doll Pumpkins, which are a striking pink shade and are on sale just in time for October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

According to Balamuth, an important aspect of Cook Hill’s sustainable organic practices is vermiculture — the cultivation of worms for use in composting or as bait. She raises the worms and harvests their castings every six months to use as fertilizer,

supplemented by seaweed fertilizer, fish fertilizer and compost from leaves, plants and vegetable waste.

The vermicompost, which has an appearance similar to coffee grounds, adds rich nutrients and beneficial microbes to the farm’s soil, building up the soil health over time without the use of chemical fertilizers or insecticides. Balamuth also sells small amounts of the vermicompost to other farms.

“I think it’s very sustainable,” she said. “And for me, it has changed greatly the amount of trash that I have to get rid of because worms can eat anything that was ever alive, and that includes most all paper pulp.”

Balamuth tries to think sustainably when it comes to watering her crops too. She and her husband are what are called “dry farmers,” meaning the farm has no irrigation well and relies on rainfall. So, in a year like this one, marked by drought, Balamuth positions five-gallon buckets under the eaves of her barn to collect any runoff she can. And despite the dry conditions, she said using the rainwater helped produce an impressive tomato crop this fall.

Balamuth sells those and the farm’s other crops every Saturday morning at the timber frame bandstand in the center of Alstead.

Cook Hill is a small operation, with no store or stand of its own, and Balamuth doesn’t envision the farm becoming any larger in the near future. But she said its sustainable practices are here to stay.

“Knowing that this is a really old farm helps guide me to keeping it as a sustainable farm — lots of diversity, lots of habitat for pollinators, lots of habitat for wildlife,” she said. “One thing feeds another, and right down from the worms to the coyotes and the bears, we’ve got it all up here. It’s really kind of a wild place.”

Cook Hill Farm is located at 71 Cook Hill Road in Alstead. To learn more, call (603) 835-2592 or email cookhillfarm@gmail.com. Find the farm on Facebook at facebook.com/cookhillfarmorganic.