Keeping the farm in the family

Maple Crest Farm also can provide an educational experience in environmental stewardship for today’s youth.

Allies and Partners

Editor’s note: This is one in a continuing series of guest opinions about fostering environmental stewardship. The series is coordinated by ACES, the Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards and the Newburyport Daily News.

Question: What percentage of the earth’s surface can be used to raise crops?

In 1917 my grandfather, Albert Elwell, drove his dairy cattle up from Ipswich to Maple Crest Farm. Back in those days most of the roads were dirt and gravel with few vehicles on them, so driving your cattle was somewhat easier, but it was a long trip for the cattle.

My grandfather raised milking cows with some steers for family food, as well as tree fruit and chickens. A garden supplied food for the family all year long. In the fall vegetables were cooked on the kitchen woodstove to be canned and bottled for use during the winter and early spring months. I also recall the wooden ice boxes that a local ice man would deliver ice to several times a week. Back in those days, most of the farming was truly organic in practice. Commercial granular fertilizer was used rarely, if at all. Fields and gardens were enriched with cow, pig, and chicken manure, and manure spreaders were common equipment. Buckwheat and winter rye were popular green crops used to enrich and build up the soil.

With my grandfather’s retirement, the farm transitioned from a dairy, chicken, and fruit tree operation to a zucchini squash and strawberry operation. During that time some commercial fertilizer was used to grow the crops. Chemicals to kill weeds were not used; everything was hand or machine weeded.

When the Indian Hill Reservoir was built in the 1980s, 70 acres of farm land were taken for the reservoir and in several farm fields the good rich top soil was stripped off and not replaced. Around 1990 the farm basically ceased growing crops and remained fallow for 10 years.

In 2001, Carol and I bought the family farm and committed ourselves to bringing it back to life using environmentally sustainable methods. We took Newburyport’s bagged leaves along with local horse manure to enrich the sites where the soil had been removed. Currently, we take grass clippings and leaves to create needed compost. This year we have offered to take more of Newburyport’s bagged leaves – recycling in practice! We also plant sorghum Sudan grass, buckwheat, and winter rye to enrich the soils.

Maple Crest Farm now raises strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and Christmas trees. Our strawberries and raspberries are free of insecticide, pesticide, and weed killer. Our blueberries are only sprayed with an insecticide, Imidan, in early spring to fight off the winter moth, which would strip the blueberry bushes of their flowers.

Weeds are controlled among the blueberry bushes by lining the rows with pine bark chips which restrict weed growth, maintain a wet soil, and help create a needed acidic soil of 4.5 to 5.0. Unfortunately, we currently have to spray limited amounts of glysophate between the Christmas trees to control weed growth, but we continue to explore more organic methods, such as vinegar, which turned out to be too costly. We will continue to experiment because Christmas trees are essential in converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. One full-size tree can create enough oxygen for four people for a day.

Maple Crest Farm also can provide an educational experience in environmental stewardship for today’s youth. We are available for tours of the farm and farming activities to introduce what growing crops entails. We would love to have K-12 school classes come to the farm for hands-on learning activities.

Now to answer the opening question: 75% of the surface is water 25% land, and half of the 25% are mountains or deserts. Three-quarters of the remaining 12% is already built on with houses, roads, office buildings, factories, rocky soil, etc. Thus only 3% of the earth’s surface can be used to grow crops to feed the world. And with global warming that 3% can be reduced to 2%. Sustainable farming and education about respecting farmlands and planet are essential for the well-being of our future and the future of our children.

John and Carol Elwell own and operate Maple Crest Farm. Visit the website at or reach John at

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about the author
John Elwell

John grew up in nearby Byfield, attended GDA, and then received his BA in Economics and Masters in Mathematics Education from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. His career in education was significant as he then taught mathematics for 10 years at Dunbar High School in the District of Columbia. In 1979, he became Assistant Principal at Hamilton-Wenham and 3 years later, became Principal. After 19 years as Principal at HWRHS he pro-tired and immediately became the interim Principal at Newburyport High School from 2001 to 2003. From 2003 to 2017 he ran workshops for teachers and administrators in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and New York City.

A founding member of the Newburyport Education Foundation, John continues to educate others whenever there is an opportunity. In 2002 John and his wife, Carol, bought the Elwell family farm in West Newbury. An ACES Ally, Maple Crest Farms serves as a learning center for other educational entities and John, a member of the BOD, mentors Youth Corps interns whenever possible.  

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