Fields of Greens at Remembrance Farms

There is nothing quite like the late afternoon light on a summer day in the Finger Lakes.  As I pulled up the gravel road to Remembrance Farms in Trumansburg, New York, even the dust kicked up from my tires seemed to shimmer.   This was my first visit to a certified biodynamic farm and I was curious and excited to learn more about this unique way of farming.

A fellow farmer taking notes in the fields of greens

A fellow farmer taking notes in the fields of greens

Remembrance Farm offered a fascinating view of how the philosophy behind biodynamic farming turns into something we can see, touch, and taste.  As we followed farmer Nathaniel Thompson down the farm path, the fields of greens rolled out in waves ahead of us, all in various states of maturity depending on when they were planted.  The Golden Cornet hens squawked and ran and the geese honked a warning from their pasture as we walked by.  A row of mustard trials waved their yellow flowers in the breeze, and on the other side of the hedge row, varieties of onions and other root crops stood their ground despite the recent downpours.

Remembrance Farm is the only Demeter-certified Biodynamic farm in the Finger Lakes region, where Nathaniel and his wife Emily specialize in baby salad greens and stored root crops for wholesale markets throughout New York State and a collaborative CSA in the Ithaca area, the Full Plate Farm Collective.   Grains are used on-farm to feed the laying flock, and the eggs are sold to primarily to CSA members.

As the crowd gathered, Nathaniel gave us a brief overview of the history and philosophy of biodynamic farming.   Biodynamic agriculture is a holistic method of farming which emphasizes sensitivity to subtle processes in Nature, with the goal of producing food that truly nourishes the body and spirit. While the fundamental principles of present day organic farming (the exclusion of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in crop production) are included in biodynamic agriculture (and to be certified biodynamic one must first be certified organic according to NOP standards), its breadth and depth extend beyond the technical definition of organic farming.  A biodynamic farm is understood to be a living, breathing organism, so farming practices strive to balance the overall health of the farm in order to produce the very highest quality food.  The role of the farmer in biodynamic farming is to understand and nurture, in very intentional way, the health of the farming organism.

On the farm something was always being planted, germinated, growing, and harvested.  Nathaniel explained and showed how through trial and experimentation he used biodynamic principles to learn what worked best on this particular farm.  In some cases he was partnering with other farmers, such as Fruition Seeds located outside of Naples, to discover which plant varieties had the best germination and production levels in the unique climate of Upstate New York.  Certainly the winter of 2014 helped all of us discover truly winter hardy varieties!

The mustard trials

The mustard trials

Nathaniel also showed how organic and biodynamic farming can also be quite mechanized and efficient in its production. Nathaniel has invested heavily in buildings and equipment and pays close attention to cleanliness and safety in his salad green packing area.

Remembrance Farm was an amazing combination of beautiful, practical, and mystical. As we closed the day and the evening light turned gold, I felt the experience could not really be described fully in the two hours I spent there. For more information, you can check out their website at http://www.remembrancefarm.org.

A Three-Journeyperson-Farm Bonanza!

Last week, I found myself walking fields with some very awesome, very smart, very hard-working new farmers.  I was in the Hudson Valley, where we have a “cluster” of Journeyperson farmers thanks to some generous funding from the New World Foundation’s Local Economies Project.  There was an added effect I hadn’t anticipated, visiting three farms in close succession: I could see a few recurring themes (similar to what I talked about with Ben and Courtney a few weeks back) like the challenge of keeping good notes and records, like feeling limited by equipment, of wondering how to farm and recoup investments, of having enough income to save for bigger ideas and scaling-up infrastructure, of distributing food effectively to those who want it, etc.  Of course there are a lot of common positives, that the farmers are finding solid guidance with very proactive and hands-on mentors, that they are indeed producing lots of good food, they are indeed finding eaters to purchase their food, and they are all finding joy in the daily success, despite the uncertainties.  I thought I’d share a little about what each are up to:

Peter Harrington, Ten Barn Farm in Ghent, NY

Peter’s growing a lot of food–that was my first big takeaway!  I of course was happy to see and munch on my first peas of the season (my odd travel schedule had me miss a few farmers’ markets at home), but could sense that Peter is producing much more food than he’s able to move at his current markets and through his small CSA membership.  He’s learning (that’s the point, to accompany these farmers in their learning process) about how to spread the word to more likely buyers, and is finding out how to be flexible with late sign-ups.  While the initial boost of income before a season helps the farmer make investments, a farmer like Peter might plant a good deal extra to protect against crop failure–that means that when things are going well or if not enough people signed up before he made a decision about how much to plant, he’s got an amazing, unsold harvest!  Though Peter sells at nearby farmers’ markets, casual purchases are note the same kind of security as the support of a CSA.  I promised I’d remind our readers that you can definitely still help him earn back his investment in materials and labor by signing up for his CSA, late!  I reminded Peter that he should be flexible with the commitments, enough to give people a sense of CSA, but he shouldn’t let the logistics of prorated/short-term membership detract from his actual farming.  So, the lesson is that he must keep good notes about planting, harvest, distribution and customer accounts and be firm in his limits with sales options.

What a perfect head of lettuce!

What a perfect head of lettuce!

Peter's mom milks goats and makes cheese, so of course we stopped in and said hello to "the kids."

Peter’s mom milks goats and makes cheese, so of course we stopped in and said hello to “the kids.”

Kohlrabi, already.

Kohlrabi, already.

What a dreamy fence.

What a dreamy fence.

Peter has extra-long beds of vibrant vegetables!

Peter has extra-long beds of vibrant vegetables!

Jalal Sabur, Sweet Freedom Farm

Jalal draws connections between growing food, youth empowerment and a better life for many more people than you’d think could be reached by the action of one farmer.  Food that Jalal grows is added to other local farmers’ vegetables, eggs and fruit in a box that a person can purchase.  The big bonus?  Someone purchasing this box is part of the Victory Bus Ride CSA, which includes a ride from New York City to upstate correctional facilities.  The price is less than other prison bus services, and it builds a community around healthy food and healthy lifestyles.  Beyond his farm fence, Jalal works with youth at River City Gardens in Hudson specifically as a food system educator via Roots & Rebels.  The focus of my visit with Jalal was hearing how these all combine into a unified vision (he’s still hammering out his “elevator pitch”), which he can market and gain support for.  He explained some deep connections between the abolitionist movement and maple syrup (maple producers historically rejected slave labor), which is just one example of what he brings to the surface for youth, adults, and anyone who has a conversation about the food system with this great beginning farmer.  Jalal has no equipment, which has made doing all this work especially challenging.  Thankfully, many of nearby farming community friends and all the people he helps out are pitching in as they can.  I hope you would also read more about this important work and see how you might be able to learn, get involved, and actively support farmer-led food justice projects.

Michelle and Jalal hard at work weeding.

Michelle, Jalal’s mentor, and Jalal hard at work weeding.

Jalal was proud to tell me he'd built this greenhouse on a shoestring, following a NOFA-NY Winter Conference workshop on that topic.

Jalal was proud to tell me he’d built this greenhouse on a shoestring, following a NOFA-NY Winter Conference workshop on that topic.

Michelle, Jalal's mentor, regularly visits to help with production and marketing/promotion of the farm.

Michelle regularly visits to help with production and marketing/promotion of the farm.

John Agostinho, Fatstock Farm

This world of cute/funny farm animal videos (a world I’m happy to live in) hasn’t completely ruined my sense of wonder at watching a livestock farmer in action.  John has a relationship with all the animals on his small multi-species farm.  The sheep herd is one he’s slowly earning equity in: the first year he had the flock he made 1/3 of the investments, earned 1/3 of the income from the meat sales, and owns 1/3 of the remaining flock.  This year, he’s a 2/3 investor-owner, and next year, the flock is entirely his.  This is a simliar arrangement to what is called “sharemilking” and is very useful to transfer livestock and dairy farms to new hands–animals and good genetics are very expensive, so this allows a beginning farmer with the right knowledge and experience to get started much faster, with less initial investment.  John also has lots of experience with pigs, and I was introduced to some very happy, very chatty (yes, chatty) pigs, including one about to give birth (I didn’t get to stay for that part of the day, though).  Again, this farmer is thinking every day about how to best market his product; with meat, there is the added question of humane, USDA-inspected and accessible slaughter and processing facilities.  John sells via a CSA model in conjunction with two farms that distribute in Queens, which helps reduce some of the logistical stress because he knows exactly what is sold, how many animals to process, and how it’s going to reach customers.  Still, he is bound by regulations and the availability of infrastructure.  This is a huge issue in the organic community at large, and is an acknowledged roadblock to success for small-scale organic meat farmers.  Once the animal goes to slaughter, the farmer loses their control, so they must trust the facility and its practices.  The type of slaughter facility, and subsequent processing facilities, determines how the farmer can sell their meat.  If you’re interested in some simple, complete definitions about livestock slaughter facilities, I’ll direct you to the Cornell Small Farms slaughterhouse map.  So, back to John at Fatstock Farm.  I saw how John is attentive to the sheep in the field, plus got to watch Ella the sheepherding dog do what she is clearly always interested in doing–herd sheep!  One got away, all the way back to the house, which was pretty funny to watch.  Seemed like she wanted to hang out in the barn with her friends–John’s been keeping small groups in the barn on rotation so he can monitor and treat a hoof concern.

John Agostino and a soon-to-be proud pig mama.

John Agostinho and a soon-to-be proud pig mama.

The sheep that made its escape.

The sheep that made its escape.

Boars definitely smile.

Boars definitely smile.

 

NOTE: The NOFA-NY Journeyperson Program is part of a multi-state project to support farmers in their first few years of independent farming, modeled off a highly successful program piloted by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).  We take on a few farmers per year for this program, and the applications open in the fall.  Read more at www.nofany.org/jp!

Ben and Courtney: Journeyperson Farmers at East Hill Farm

On June 2nd, when Anne was visiting Maryrose and Donn (and Bob the donkey), I (Rachel, Beginning Farmer Program Coordinator) was on my own field visit!  I spent a sunny morning with Ben Pino and Courtney Sauer, who moved to the long-established East Hill Farm (where the Rochester Folk Art Guild lives and works) this past winter.  As farmers in our Journeyperson Program, Ben and Courtney receive educational and business planning stipends, support of a paid farmer mentor, educational and networking opportunities and a specific commitment by NOFA-NY to ensure that we help them find footing during their first few years of farming independently.  This visit is part of that commitment–nothing replaces real-time observation of the farmers on their farm.  I witnessed how Ben and Courtney communicate with each other (very well), keep records (okay, I encouraged them to record their evening day-is-done conversations on their phones to listen to later), and how they react to seeing fields (they’re a little concerned about the late timing this year).

Though Ben and Courtney have plenty of farming experience and grab at educational opportunities as often as they can, they’re experiencing what many beginning farmers deal with: how to apply what you know to a new place, with its obvious and subtle tendencies and quirks.  Ben and Courtney now know more than they did months ago about the condition of the soil at East Hill Farm, which has a high clay content (so when it’s wet, it’s really wet, and when it’s dry, it’s very dense).  They’re discovering that though they have irrigation and tillage tools to use, their preferred method of production might not sync up with those tools; they ask themselves, their peers and their mentor (and me) about what to do to accomplish their goals, and what impacts new methods will have.  For instance, they are currently wondering if they should abandon the old Allis Tramers G tractor because it works with a bed setup that seems too wide to manage, in favor of bed spacing that they don’t have equipment for, but would give them a more comfortable hand-labor situation.  On top of that sort of thing, they are dealing with the challenges of the floods last month (they’re just a stone’s throw from Penn Yan, which you’ll remember was greatly affected by flooding).  I loved seeing how they were thinking about these topics from a practical and idealistic perspective!

Some brave greens surviving through flood-erosion-drying soil conditions.

While East Hill Farm’s legacy of farmers and gardeners have built up the soil through incorporating plant matter and compost into the ground and utilizing crop rotations to let nutrients and organic matter build up between years of crops, Ben and Courtney are thinking about more ways to encourage healthy, better-textured and nutrient-filled soils.  It’s a long process, but since they are planning on building up the farm’s soil and being around for a long time to manage this the long-term vision of soil health.  Their mentor, Nathaniel Thompson, has been giving them great advice about producing high-quality greens (you can learn from him at our field day at Remembrance Farm on July 10th).  This goes along with their dreams of diversifying the farm to use its large acreage for grazing livestock and growing more grains.  Enjoy a few photos, and if you’re visiting the South Wedge or Penfield Farmers Markets this summer, say hi to these farmers!

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The Journeyperson Program is so rewarding for me, as the Beginning Farmer Program Coordinator, because I get to witness the passion, pain and personal growth (I had to go for an alliteration there) that these high-potential farmers go through.  I get to flex my muscles and work my knowledge to come up with the appropriate training and technical guidance options for these farmers!  While their mentors and the classes they take can give them so much technical knowledge, my job is to facilitate connections, and to reflect back to the farmers about what else they might want to learn about, practice, connect with, etc.  This program has me learning alongside the farmers, in some cases; at other times, the Journeyperson farmers communicate a need for training or resources that don’t exist, and that’s when NOFA-NY sets something into action (planning a conference workshop, writing a fact sheet, encouraging other service providers to offer a service, etc.)

The NOFA-NY Journeyperson Program is part of a multi-state project to support farmers in their first few years of independent farming, modeled off a highly successful program piloted by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).  We take on a few farmers per year for this program, and the applications open in the fall.  Read more at www.nofany.org/jp!