New farmers take root at former Green Meadows Farm

Stacey Apple and Alex Cecchinelli are the new operators of the former Green Meadows Farm in Hamilton and Topsfield.

HAMILTON — Green Meadows Farm will soon be back in business under a new name and new farmers.

Through an arrangement with Essex County Greenbelt, the farm that was owned for years by the Patton family will be run by a local couple under the new name of Iron Ox Farm.

Greenbelt, which bought Green Meadows in 2019, has announced that Alex Cecchinelli and Stacey Apple have been selected as the new operators through a 99-year ground lease.

"It feels like a once-in-a-life opportunity to be able to have access to the land but also being able to be there for a long time," Apple said.

Greenbelt, a nonprofit land trust, bought Green Meadows and the adjacent Vineyard Hill for $4 million from the Patton family, who had owned the land since 1928. The sale came after Green Meadows Farm CEO Robert Patton, the grandson of World War II Gen. George S. Patton, withdrew a plan to build a marijuana-growing greenhouse on the farm.

Last year Greenbelt put out a request for proposals from farmers looking to operate the farm, which has not been a working farm for more than 30 years. Cecchinelli and Apple, who currently operate Iron Ox Farm on two-and-a-half acres of leased land at Nutter Farm in Topsfield, were selected from among 17 applicants. The farm at Green Meadows has 20 acres of tillable land.

Cecchinelli and Apple said they plan to grow vegetables, build a new farmstand, expand their current Community Supported Agriculture program, and partner with Lillooet Farm in Boxford to bring in sheep. Eventually they'd like to have farm-to-table dinners and an outdoor wood-fired oven to hold pizza nights.

Bringing in sheep will make use of portions of the farm while giving the soil a chance to rest, they said. The couple said they use organic practices and plan to be responsible stewards of the land, which runs alongside the Ipswich River.

"It's a beautiful piece of property," said Cecchinelli. "It's really important as far as its ecological position right along the river."

Essex Country Greenbelt is also planning to develop new trails on the farm property that will be open to the public. The trails will complement the public reservation at Vineyard Hill on the other side of Asbury Street, which already has public access.

Apple, 33, and Cecchinelli, 30, have known each other since they were students at Danvers High School and have been a couple for 12 years. They recently became engaged and had a baby three weeks ago.

Cecchinelli has worked on North Shore farms since 2013. Apple was a restaurant chef for seven years before starting her farming career in 2019.

Apple said it's "extremely challenging" for young farmers to buy farmland on the North Shore, and short-term lease arrangements make it difficult to invest in their operations because of the uncertainty. Greenbelt's offer of a 99-year lease is an attempt to address those problems.

"The opportunity to purchase land is pretty much unavailable, especially if you're a first-generation farmer and don't have the opportunity to get land through your family," Apple said. "Having the security of a 99-year lease makes this a real opportunity for us."

Greenbelt protects farmland, wildlife habitat and scenic landscapes throughout Essex County. It has protected more than 18,000 acres of local land since 1961.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535, by email at pleighton@salemnews.com, or on Twitter at @heardinbeverly.

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