Matt’s Organic Gardens Sharing the Passion
BY MICHELLE KOCH
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE KOCH
APRIL 17, 2019
A man’s silhouetted hand directs needle-nosed tweezers, as he teases out an onion seed from the plastic seed dispenser cradled in the other hand. Selecting just one, he places it into a single circular opening of an improvised wooden grid. Homemade and terrifically clever, it rests atop the surface of the soil in the pot he’s focused on, getting the spacing just right. Dozens more empty pots and trays await their turn.
“It’s a labor of love,” says Matt Ernst.
The grandson of Jack Stacy, who ran this nursery and vegetable growing enterprise following his brother Mike’s passing, Ernst is excited in resurrecting his grandfather’s mission of organic gardening, but also in educating the public, particularly our youngest Cape Codders, on the joy of gardening and raising their own food.
Glancing at its location on Upper County Road in Dennis Port, the two heatable greenhouses and two unheated production hoop houses that comprise Matt’s Organics are nearly hidden from view by the commercial buildings in front. At the abutting property next door are the office and garages housing the trucks and equipment that power Mike Stacy Landscaping. Originally his Great Uncle Mike’s operation, then grandfather Jack’s, it now belongs to him, Matt Ernst.
“I’ve always had my fingers in the dirt here, either feeding the chickens we keep, or helping with the watering. During high school, I worked with my grandfather taking care of the vegetables and selling from my own little lean-to farm stand and pitching in at some farmers’ markets,” says Ernst. “After attending the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst, I’ve run Mike Stacy’s Landscaping, doing traditional lawn and yard care and garden design as my primary work for the past decade.”
Jack Stacy, his grandfather, is known for growing a gorgeous selection of organic vegetable and herb starter plants for the home gardener, as well as for the impeccable produce that he sold at area farmers’ markets from 2004 until 2015. Three years ago Ernst began the process of restarting Stacy’s business model, and is thrilled that Jack is often there to lend a hand and be a sounding board. By the summer of 2019, Matt’s Organics production should be humming, with new tweaks and add-ons on the way.
Presently Ernst oversees about 18 employees: a full-time crew of ten at Mike Stacy’s, three to five at the greenhouses; his wife Jan and even their two young daughters, who do what they can to help. “My real unsung hero, though, is Diane Waters. She is the backbone here, doing payroll, administration, scheduling, A/P, A/R, taxes and other things here and there, too.” He says of this stellar employee (who also goes by “Mom”), “We wouldn’t exist without her and that’s all there is to it.”
Beginning early in the new year, Ernst, his wife and a few part timers began the sowing indoors in the bays of the one-time industrial garage space now turned seed emporium. He says, “I was fortunate to find some retired people who love growing as much as we do.”
Rows of labeled trays nestle under a grow light system designed by Jack, providing the light and temperature necessary for sprouting. The rich musk of the soil and the varied palette of green shoots unfurling atop its deep brown-black surface are welcome scents and sights during some of the coldest days of the year.
Boxes of seed packets stand at the ready, adjacent to a blotter-sized calendar with planting dates meticulously penciled in. “We tend to favor Johnny’s and High Mowing seeds,” says Ernst. “This year we’re more organized than ever in keeping good records.”
Wanting to get an early jump on things, his onions, shallots, leeks, kale, broccoli, cabbage, celery and chives are well underway. Peppers, chervil and chamomile will be among the other 70 or so choices offered for sale, plus more unusual varieties like anise and artichokes. Ernst says, “We open May first and expect to have a good array of starts for the garden…both vegetables and herbs. Raspberry plants too, plus a variety of mature ready-to-eat early greens will be available for purchase for spring salad making. We’ve got thirteen different varieties of lettuce already seeded now.”
“I want to resurrect Jack’s mission of bringing organic growing to our small community. I love it when I see all the familiar faces here,” says Ernst. “Once the vegetable and herb starts have made their way to home gardens this year, I hope to continue to harvest and sell vegetables and greens well into the fall season.”
As stalwart supporters of organic practices, nearly everything at Matt’s Organics is begun from seed in McEnroe-certified organic soil. A few items that either have an intense retail turnover like basil, or are slow growers, like rosemary, are grown from organic plugs sourced from Hillcrest Nurseries. Ernst stays abreast of current research and best practices at Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) annual events.
Should the bad guys, the bugs, show up, Ernst is prepared to attack them organically too. Practicing IPM (Integrated Pest Management), he’s sown pots with barley seeds, the preferred food of a certain variety of aphid. These particular aphids are needed by the predator wasps that will be introduced later to the greenhouses. Ernst unwraps some mature barley grass from its hairnet-like covering and points to the dark aphids feeding on the gorgeous greenery. “The wasps insert their stingers into these tiny aphids and actually lay their eggs within them,” says Ernst. “When I release the predator wasps [who will later consume great quantities of pests], if these aphids are absent, they’ll just leave my greenhouses and fly off somewhere else.”
“For myself and my wife, a former dental hygienist, it’s a struggle to maintain this on a single income, but we’re committed to it because we love it,” says Ernst. “We’re eating healthier, and as our girls, now 4 and 7, grow up, they will be learning to be ecologically mindful and to grow off the land. They will be active in this until they move out. We look forward to bringing it all full circle back to the community.
“Getting the community involved is huge for me. Knowing about the seasons, the growing and eating of organic food, and supporting the Live Local movement are all important. We’ve lost the trust,” says Ernst. “I want to earn it back by being a consistent source of good food: sustainable and reliable.
“We’ve started small, but I hope that by fine tuning and driving our decision making with the data we get back from the varieties that sell best, we’ll have a great offering of regularly reoccurring crops,” says Ernst. “I’m so pleased that a group of interested people are my employees. Gardening is therapeutic, and that’s one great perk of these positions, which also serve to strengthen the local economy. With some experience, later I can step back and let these knowledgeable employees teach others.”
Ernst believes simple activities like seeding and tours of working greenhouses can introduce very young children to skills that can help them become lifelong gardeners. “Growing is fun, and becoming involved with local schools from my daughters’ grade levels to high school and beyond is huge for me,” says Ernst. “But I also want to show young adults that growing food can be a viable way to earn an income, even here on Cape Cod.”
This is where Ernst’s ambitious plans for Matt’s Organics kick in. He’s been thinking long and hard about his growing facility sitting empty for more than half of the year, and now he envisions the possibility of keeping his structures filled with vegetables and micro-greens that could be harvested as needed. Ernst envisions, “Arugula down the side of this greenhouse as far as you can see.” He reaches through the icy February air to grasp a stunningly beautiful tomato; firm, bright and fragrant. “I want to be able to offer you a tomato right off the vine, as fresh as I can get.”
With this fruit now existing only in his mind’s eye, Ernst’s bold future plan is to up the ante, and offer vegetables upon demand in all four seasons. He says, “The time is right for growing organic produce year round, and I think we can do it.”
Ernst pauses a moment, thinking deeply, before raising his gaze and grinning. “Baby steps.”
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