Michael Robertson started Sawkill Farm in the fall of 2010 in Upper Red Hook, NY. Named for the Saw Mill Creek that runs through the property, Sawkill Farm is situated on 65 acres of land protected by a conservation easement.
Walking into the field in Hector, New York, I find two farmers cheerfully harvesting basil and hot peppers. Meet Aaron Munzer and Kara Cusolito, founders of Plowbreak Farm.
Plowbreak Farm began in 2012 when Aaron and Kara leased three acres of loamy soil in the agriculturally rich Finger Lakes region. Their farming philosophy is simple: they grow good food because they like doing it, and they want to bring good food to other people. 2013 is only their second season in Hector, but they’ve already built a 50-member vegetable CSA. As we harvest green beans, Aaron decides that it’s time to pull the plants up by their roots and strip them of their fruit. “This is my favorite way to pick beans. We’re like individual green bean picking machines!” he laughs.
Tell me a little bit about your farm.
The operational story of Diamond Hills Farm could fit on the back of a napkin as it has only been a physical entity for about a month. The real story of the farm lies in its conception and realization in the hearts and minds of the farmers Lori and Jason. The idea for the farm was conceived on camping trip to in Brooklyn, New York (Yes, there is one campsite in Brooklyn.) This annual vacation served as family reunion for members of a multi-city bicycle club. Over beers with friends our conversation turned to the fact that we were both tired of our work, our lives, our situation and towards the dream that we could have all that we wanted from the land for ourselves and for our families. We quickly realized that we were both looking for something that provided new challenges, while at the same time giving back to the those around us. Inherently dynamic, innovative, and integral to communities, farming seemed like the perfect ﬁt.
Looking back, our nascent plans sound ridiculous. Lori wanted a ﬁber farm, I wanted to farm vegetables like my Polish grandparents, but as we did our research and began to loosen our grips on our former lives, we realized that we couldnʼt plan the farm as much as the farm would plan for us. In addition to not knowing what to farm, we didnʼt know how to farm. After our brief vacation we both began seriously researching farming and I began the process of securing a succession of strange and wonderful apprenticeships. Around the same, time Lori was relocated by her employer to Hudson, New York and the search for land began.
We were very fortunate in that it only took six months for us to secure 80 acres of fenced pasture with a ten year lease in Claverack, New York. The land was a partnership between the land owners and a previous farmer tenant who, because of personal reasons, had decided to stop farming the land. This winter, I quit my job of eight years and moved to Hudson. Now every morning, after feeding and listening to the chickens gossip, I start out my day with a long walk to the back forty to speak with the pigs and to dream and listen to what the land wants to be.
What difﬁculties have you had, or are you overcoming, and how?
Honestly, we are so new to the game that everyday is exciting and fun, no matter how difﬁcult or trying it may be. We encounter problems and have to make difﬁcult decisions just like any other business, but for us getting to this stage was the real struggle. Early on we began to focus on livestock farming. We found ourselves drawn to the added challenges that caring for and learning from what other critters offered. I did my apprenticeships with farmers who were practicing unconventional farming in Virginia. Since the move to New York we have struggled to meet like minded farmers who are farming on the scale that we aspire to, while still practicing holistic management practices. It can be intimidating to be the new guy at the farm store or auction explaining to a bunch of old school dudes how we only plan to feed our cattle grass and refuse to ween our cattle at two weeks. As of recently we have been meeting more and more farmers that are practicing similar techniques. The possibility of integrating into a like-minded farming community is really exciting and the potential for assistance and guidance is already apparent.
What are your goals in the next 5-10 years?
We want to grow healthy humanly-raised plants and animals. We also realize that we are growing a business and would like to be able to make our living farming full time. At the moment I am on the farm full time while Lori is still working forty-hour weeks at her job. We want to develop healthy and diverse breeding stock that compliments our space in the hopes of providing others with stock. From the beginning we decided to include education in our plan. A portion of our mission statement addresses providing unique and functional educational opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds, and to grow a family of resources with other farmers and consumers. Although these goals are important, the longer term goals are not the ones that keep me up at night. Today my goals include ﬁnishing the rabbit pens, moving the pigs to start tilling out our new garden, keeping the chickens off the top of the hover, and planning the corral.
How (if at all) do you see your work as a farmer ﬁtting into the larger movement for social change from the ground up?
As a necessity, and a commodity, food has sweeping effects on many different parts of society, the economy, and the environment. Careful consideration of its production and impact is required to ensure the planetʼs well being. It is no longer about feeding the most people but how to get the people to feed themselves. The pendulum has swung back and we are realizing that we, as a global entity, need to be more responsible for our food production and less reliant on large scale and chemical driven farming. There are many ways that we as farmers can effect social change. We get to set a clear example through the operation of our farm. Speaking honestly and respectfully with people who do not share your views or philosophies can go a long way in opening up a dialogue and making friends. Hosting and attending educational events can provide information for others that would not normally be accessible to them. Basically, we work from the ground up by working in the ground, not being afraid to be ourselves, and respecting all the creatures we encounter on a daily basis.
I first met Anthony Mecca months ago, when I started farming in the Hudson Valley. He struck me then as a gentle, steady, patient sort of fellow, but standing in his fields at Great Song Farm on a brisk September Sunday I gained a new appreciation for these qualities. One senses it in the way he clicks and murmurs to his horses and in the way he describes his two-year search for land, which ultimately brought him to that hilly, picturesque plot in Red Hook, New York. He and his co-farmer, Jennifer Carson, have tilled about four and a half acres of a 90-acre property, from which they feed an 80-member vegetable CSA. Rather than a set basket each week, their shares are by volume–either a peck or a half-bushel–but Anthony says they mostly work on the honor system, with members taking what they’ll eat in a week and not measuring the precise volume. This season they raised a batch of broilers to sell to CSA members, have an egg share provided by Gray Horse Farm in Clinton Corners, and sell fruit from Threshold Farm in Philmont.
On the afternoon I visited, Anthony talked of frustration and disappointment as different leasing arrangements fell through and his search for the right land dragged on, but in the same breath spoke of his finally landing in the right place. Jen and Anthony have a unique farming partnership: Each of them has a romantic partner who also farms. Anthony’s girlfriend, Lisa, will be joining the Great Song Farm team for next season, and Jen’s boyfriend runs nearby Lineage Farm. Both couples were looking for land separately until they recognized their common farming interests and decided to seek land together. Jen expressed their situation aptly, saying, “While I love my boyfriend, I’m also in love with animal-powered farming and he very much appreciates the power of tractors. So, for farming partners, it seems that Anthony and I are a good match.” The pair connected with an interested landowner through the Columbia Land Conservancy, a land trust in Columbia County, New York, and, although they are still in their first season farming there they have developed a truly supportive relationship. Their lease stipulates that the farmers will not pay rent until the farm is able to provide them a living wage, which has certainly helped minimize the financial strains inherent in the early phases of a farm business. The landowners have also allowed Anthony to pitch a tent on their land, use the shower in their home, and irrigate fields with water from their home’s well. The process of finding land may have sometimes felt endless, but Anthony’s sense of humble satisfaction was clear as he surveyed the farm and pointed out that an extra couple of years, even making a meager apprentice salary, meant that he had enough savings to get the farm operation off the ground. He points out that he found land to farm only after he had matured enough to be ready for it and “ready to have a real conversation with someone,” discussing mutual interests rather than demanding or feeling entitled to certain treatment because of his status as a poor, young farmer.
Both farmers at Great Song Farm have drawn inspiration from the different places they have worked. Anthony learned to lead a team of horses during his time at Natural Roots in Conway, Massachusetts, Jen apprenticed at the oxen-powered Spring Meadows Farm in Pennsylvania, and they now have a team of horses and oxen, respectively. Anthony also worked at Essex Farm in Essex, New York, and at one time aspired to follow a similar model for a full-diet CSA. Although Jen and Anthony do hope to experiment with integrating livestock and grain in the future, he says that now he is “focused on just growing good vegetables.” Jen described some specific goals of hers as they strive to be better farmers: “My main focus is bettering our vegetable growing, adding rhythmic, soil-building and weed-controlling cover crop and tillage practices.” Next year, in addition to their on-farm CSA, Great Song will collaborate with Lineage Farm to provide vegetables to a CSA in near-by Poughkeepsie. Each farm will grow different vegetables, allowing them to focus on crops that do well in their soil and that they especially enjoy growing.
No farm’s first season passes without hiccups, and Great Song Farm has certainly had its share—while I was there, Anthony talked about discovering rock outcrops with his plow, breaking equipment, coping with less-than-ideal water access, difficulties in training the animals, and hurting his back midseason. Somehow, though, he never sounded like he was complaining. On the contrary he seemed upbeat, and emphasized the importance of cultivating good relationships, from their landlords and CSA members to the local chiropractor and an established farmer down the road. The farmers at Great Song displayed a cautious pride and optimism toward what they have accomplished this year and hope for the future. Jen reflected, “With all the ups and downs this season has offered us, I’d rate our first season as wonderfully smooth sailing. While I know we have a lot of learning left to do before we know this plot of land and how we may best steward it, I’m also highly impressed with what we’ve been able to accomplish, both as farmers and as part of a larger community.”
By Cara Fraver
Quincy Farm is still in its first days, but we have been working on the plan for years. Luke Deikis, my partner, and I will cultivate organically grown vegetables on abeautiful 48 acre farm on the Hudson River in upstate New York. We plan to sell CSA shares as the years progress, but in our first year we will market exclusively through farmers markets until we feel confident that we know our land and what we can produce. In the second year, we hope to sell CSA shares to our neighbors and in the following years branch out to other upstate neighborhoods and eventually New York City’s CSA network. We have hoped that the direct marketing of CSA shares would allow us to avoid the cost and headache of organic certification, but we are committed to using organic practices.
Like many of the other young farmers we meet, neither Luke nor I come from farming families. I became very interested in the CSA movement in college and have always been an enthusiastic cook, but never grew a garden. During the first month that we were dating, we grew a little container garden on his porch in the north Bronx. After that, we always had a garden and with each year, and each new apartment, it grew a little larger. During our last year in Brooklyn one our friends jokingly dubbed our Quincy Street backyard “Quincy Farm”. Finally, we left the city to pursue a career in farming by apprenticing on successful CSA farms.
We feel that CSA offers a unique opportunity to farmers. Logistically, it provides income in the spring when most of the operating costs are due. It also provides security for the farmers; we will know exactly how much food we need to grow and will be able to predict our income. I think that CSA fills some deeper needs that I have as a farmer, too. Knowing the people for whom I am growing food is part of the draw of farming.
I am excited about farming for a multitude of reasons. Running an organic farm feels like a way to affect change with the daily motions of my life. We will work to improve the land where we will live and make it more fertile and healthy every year. Farming provides me with super-high quality food and the opportunity to talk to others about eating and cooking. In addition to the idea of connecting with people over such an intimate and important thing as food, I am constantly tested by the day-to-day challenges farming provides. It tests my skills of observation, mechanics, human interaction, on-the fly decision-making and even my math skills. As the daughter of a small business owner, the idea of managing a family business is exciting, if a little terrifying. Luke and I are happy to create a family where we can raise our children as part of our entire life, not needing to separate home and work. We also enjoy making decisions and plans together and it is satisfying to work alongside my best friend.
We developed our business and financial plans over the past two years. We want to use all of the farm’s income in the first years to build infrastructure quickly in the first years, allowing us to grow rapidly and avoid operating loans. However, in order to achieve this, we will need to earn enough money off the farm to support ourselves. While we know this is the best plan for us and know that many other farmers have created their farms while holding down other jobs, we are sometimes overwhelmed by the thought.
The coming months will see major changes for Luke and me. We’re thrilled for the opportunity to start this business and, at times, frightened by the tasks involved. I’m encouraged by the other young farmers who showing that this can be a successful enterprise.
Interview with young farmer Dana Gentile, by Devin Dinihanian
Let’s start with the H’s and W’s. Can you tell me who you are, what and where you farm, how long you’ve been farming, and lastly, why you’ve chosen to be a farmer?
My name is Dana Gentile and I am a meat goat farmer. My partner Abbi and I started our farm, Darlin’ Doe Farm, in October 2009. We are currently renting land in Saugerties, NY for our small herd of meat goats. We believe in a natural and holistic approach to raising healthy livestock. I enjoy working with animals on a daily basis. I like growing my own meat and becoming a local source for naturally raised goat meat. Being able to provide my family, friends and customers with healthy, high quality meat is why I became a farmer. (more…)