Farmer Spotlight: Welcoming Director of Agriculture Mark Congdon

Last year we announced that Gaining Ground had embarked on a milestone farm expansion, to bring another 5.1 acres of historically-significant Concord land into cultivation so we may grow and donate more fresh, healthy food for our neighbors in need!

To ensure our success as we more than double our footprint, we created the new position of Director of Agriculture—and we set out to find a dynamic, talented leader who shares our mission, vision, and values, with extensive experience in no-till land stewardship and a passion for community engagement. 

We’re thrilled to announce that in December 2023, Mark Congdon—a.k.a. Farmer Mark—joined our team to oversee the parkland expansion! This month we sat down for a Q&A to learn more about his roots in farming and how he’ll approach his work as our pioneering Ag Director.

Where is home and how did you find your way to Gaining Ground?

I’m born and raised in Shrewsbury, Mass. So that’s been my homebase. I lived in Boston for about 15 years, as well, and managed a restaurant in the South End for 10 years of that time. It was there that I learned how the current food industry is unsustainable. Then, I couldn’t stop learning about what was going on, and the broader mission to create a better system. I knew I had to make a change. 

I started working part-time at Saltbox Farm, here in Concord, MA, which gave me an inspiring experience under the helm of Ben Elliott where my passion was fueled to pursue agriculture as my full time career. After a season of farm hand work under my belt, I was able to become a farmer’s apprentice under Don Zasada at Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, MA, for two years. Interestingly enough, once I completed my farmer training, I headed back to work with Ben at Saltbox Farm where I became the farm manager for 9 years. I then went on to help build and manage an educational farm Honey Nut Farm. My desire to educate as many people as possible about sustainable agriculture, and broaden my reach, is what brought me to Gaining Ground. When the Director of Agriculture opportunity opened up, it felt very in flow with the culmination of all my work. 

Have you always had a knack for growing things? 

Ever since I was little, we had a garden at home. I’ll never forget the sunflowers at each corner of the garden, and the cucumbers my dad trellised with large branches we gathered from around the yard. Once I was in the city for college, I had to turn to acquiring many house plants. It was here that I began to understand the connection between humans and plants and I still love walking into a room and seeing them thriving in the sunlight. I was able to build my green thumb even further once I started gardening in the plot next to the restaurant I managed. 

Do you have a favorite farm task or tool to use? What do you like about it? 

I love and appreciate every step-by-step process that farming entails. If I had to choose just one, I would say planting potatoes. Partially because they are one of the first plants to go into the ground once the soil has thawed, and also because of their own step-by-step needs:  acquiring  your seed, cutting them up, preparing the soil, planting them into the ground, and then caring for them for the next 4 months. 

As far as tools, I do love the broadfork. Within no-till systems, it’s great to have a tool that you can still use to make channels for root systems, air, and water to flow into the soil, as well as break up any soil compaction. The broadfork is also just a really fun work out, especially when you’re preparing many fields and many beds. It’s a fun way to challenge yourself physically.

Do you have any favorite farmers or other folks doing work that motivates or inspires you?

I have had many phenomenal folks who have become mentors and inspirations along my farming journey. My farming mentor Don at Caretaker heavily inspired me to be as systematic as possible with my farming practices. He taught me how to continuously achieve efficiency, to stay open to each step, and keep the understanding that you’ll always be learning, and you’ll never know everything. He taught me to remain humble to the process and the practice. 

Bridget, his wife, was also a vital and wonderful leader. Not only was I out in the fields learning from Don how to do crop plans, track my work in spreadsheets, harvest well, and manage the CSA, but we received community leadership lessons from Bridget:  how to stay in touch with people and learn what’s going on in their lives, so we could serve them better as farmers. She also taught us what to do with food after it was harvested, through canning workshops and lessons in preservation, like how to make kraut. 

What is one of your favorite dishes or recipes?

As a farmer, I have come to appreciate the quick construction of a nutritious and delicious salad during the harvest season, especially during that special time when the melons are ripe—cantaloupe. This began when I was a farmer’s apprentice and learned the difference between a sweet ripe melon out of the fields and a store bought cantaloupe. It’s an immeasurable distinction that led to my co-apprentices and I making this salad recipe using cut up melons, jalapenos, feta cheese, fennel, and mint, all mixed together. The flavors combine so wonderfully. It gets dressed with a little olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper. I look forward to making it at least once during the fleeting melon season every August.

Any hobbies or interests outside of work that you’d care to share? 

Meditation has become an essential part of my life for the past 20 years. My fiance and I do everything we can at home to keep up with our practice, such as making sure we have blankets at the ready, meditation pillows, lighting candles, and overall creating a dedicated space that, when you sit there, your mind, body, and soul become connected and conditioned to meditate.  

My other big interests are taking my dog, Ford, on hikes in nature, nature photography, and writing.

We’ve never had a Director of Agriculture before! What makes this role unique, and how are you thinking about the work to come?

I believe that all of the great work that’s been happening at Gaining Ground for the past 30 years is worth expanding. The more awareness we can raise about the need for sustainable agriculture as a path towards ending food insecurity, the better. Being a part of the Gaining Ground team and our engaging community instills tremendous hope for the future of altering food systems for the greater good. 

The Director of Agriculture position here is unique because it focuses the work on the strategic plans towards our expanding goals over the course of the many years ahead. We are in the process of creating our first satellite farm at Minute Man National Historical Park and we’ll now have two plots of land aligned by the same growing model and growing systems. 

This position also becomes a resource and point person to support the entire staff through this expansion and all aspects of the farm. Being an experienced farmer, I’m able to spearhead tasks, such as building out and executing the plan for the new farming property, act as liaison to town and state officials, increasing farm education, construction of farm infrastructure, farm tours, or machinery maintenance, to name some examples. 

Further, I’m overjoyed to be working with such a passionate and talented team of amazing colleagues. Everyone works together with tremendous support to continue to grow effective and efficient systems towards the common goal of hunger relief through our work of sustainable agriculture. Every day, I’m inspired by each and every one of them, and I’m grateful to get to learn and grow together!