the big new farm
The Slightly Abridged Backstory
We purchased our home and current farm site in December of 2015. The first time we visited this 1850s farmhouse, I immediately noticed the cleared, undeveloped parcel across the street. As an aspiring grower (about two years into my dream at that point) I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to have access to that land. It was five relatively flat acres surrounded by trees on all sides. While I’ve always liked our house and saw plenty of space for a substantial microfarm or market garden, I couldn’t help but wish there could be more room to grow things. It felt at times that I could only do so much here before I would need to do major, expensive grading work and terracing to expand my growing area - or give up on my aspirations entirely.
Each year since buying our house, I continued to look out from my garden, across the street to the blank slate parcel, and dream of what it could become. I even thought about reaching out to the owners to see if they’d ever be willing to rent the space to me. I had heard from neighbors that the couple who owned it lived in town but had plans to build their rural dream home there, so I didn’t think it could ever really happen. But fast forward to spring of 2020 (four-and-a-half years living here and my third year of growing professionally), and by some stroke of luck, the property went up for sale. My sister, who had already been looking for the right property in our region for over a year so she could be closer to us and our children, decided to purchase it so she could eventually build a small home and home-based business there and rent the land to me for my own business. I am so deeply and indescribably grateful that I have someone in my life who both sees the value of my vision and is in a position to support me in this way; capital is certainly one of the most restricting hurdles in regenerative agriculture, and I’m not afraid to admit that we never would’ve been able to make the financial commitment ourselves as a family of four with one public school teacher’s income. But challenges related to onboarding aspiring agrarians into the regenerative agriculture profession is a very big topic for another day.
It’s been just over a year since my sister closed on her new property across the street, and while it would’ve been all too easy to literally dig in over there, it also would have meant biting off far more than I can chew on my own at this stage in my life, not to mention making many ecological mistakes (which I’ll touch on shortly). In a way, for someone with big dreams like mine, the forced slow expansion of my business has been a very good thing. First and foremost, at this stage, I am a stay-at-home parent and currently homeschool my oldest child, and this means that my farming work will remain part-time until they are both public school aged. Each year since my oldest was born, I worked by myself to double the space for annual production until I finally reached my current area, which is a bit under 5,000 square feet. As I primarily grow quick-maturing salad vegetables and specialty cut flowers right now, this is plenty of space for part-time work. Secondly, it's given me the chance to experiment in a small space, figure out what I enjoy (and just as importantly, what I don't), and decide what my work-life boundaries need to be in order for me to prevent burnout. And lastly, it's given me so much time to simply observe, explore, and enjoy the new property without the pressure to utilize it right away.
Just as we say, "Follow the child," in education, I view agriculture through a lens of, "Follow the land."
Ecology: The parcel is an open field with a few shrubs and saplings, mostly red maple and quaking aspen. The herbaceous brush layer is mostly goldenrod, redtop grass, and sweet vernal grass. There are a few mature white pines and birch trees spaced sporadically in the back of the property. Because we’ve been able to observe the property for so long without making any changes, we’ve been able to get a better sense about the things that are already thriving and the things that may struggle. While one could look at a land survey or a bird’s eye view from Google Maps and develop many grand ideas, it really isn’t until you walk the property every month of the year, track changes throughout the seasons, test the soil, and analyze the existing flora that one can make informed decisions for a property. For example, the entire southern half of the front two acres has loads of blackberries that are absolutely thriving. While these are invasive thorned varieties that we probably won’t keep in the future, I can use this as data and conclude that the soil in this section must not stay very soggy for most of the year because blackberries are notorious for struggling when they have wet feet. I can also see the invisible wall where the vegetation changes drastically and immediately from dry land lovers to wetland lovers, and this will inform what I plant and where, too. It will be many years until the orchard is in full production, but because we recognize that building better soil and establishing deep perennial root systems is the real end goal, we are totally comfortable waiting for the return in our investments.
Soil: The soil that we have investigated appears to be a sticky, silty clay. The water table is seasonally high in spring but lowers throughout the warm season. While it retains moisture well it also drains poorly overall. Without doing any formal soil lab analyses, I can already tell that the addition of organic matter will be key to improve the drainage and tilth. Even in non-wetland areas, it will probably make sense to slightly elevate the soil (i.e. small berms) where the fruit trees will be planted, and simply plant less fruit trees and instead focus on more fruiting shrubs.
Wetlands: 2.1 of the 5 acres are Palustrine Scrub-Shrub. Because I have some background knowledge about flora in our region, I could get a sense of the wet areas of the property just based on the presence of things like sensitive fern, joe-pye weed, and swamp milkweed, just to name a few, on my first walk of the property. While an official wetland assessment doesn’t mean that farming is off-limits (especially because we are completely spray-free and no-till, and because of the relatively small area on the parcel, we can continue with all regular farming operations as desired), it does present some hurdles - not barriers - related to growing orchard fruit, particularly stone fruit that tend to be rot-prone. If we hadn’t had to wait until spring 2022 to start the orchard, we would’ve set the farm up to struggle from the start. We would’ve planted things in all the wrong places and disrupted crucial wildlife habitat in the process. We can still find places for all of the crops we want to include in the plan while working with the land instead of against it. Knowing that we can set an example here for farming responsibly and respecting our native wetlands feels like a good fit for us, too. It makes complete sense for us based on our strong interest in research about regenerative and sustainable practices.
The farm will be located on someone’s residence and therefore needs to be a balance of privacy, productivity, and beauty. We have closely studied the work of Stefan Sobkowiak at his farm, Les Fermes Miracle, in Canada, as well as research on the importance of perennials in addressing climate change, and have worked hard to create a vision that is both ecologically and emotionally sustainable. We feel like we’ve found our strength and niche in perennials. This interest began during our first spring season on our home property when we were enamored with the number of mature, albeit overgrown, perennial cut flower varieties that were dispersed throughout the land that we never even knew about when we purchased the house. We have saved hundreds upon hundreds of dollars because we have such a healthy mother stock of heirloom peonies, lilacs, narcissus, raspberries, blackberries, and rhubarb. It felt like a missed opportunity not to delve into that aspect of the business. Since then, I’ve dedicated a great deal of my time to researching holistic management practices and identifying the highest quality and most disease-resistant cultivars on the market. For food production, that means that we will put more of our energy into mixed-culture organic fruit and herbs, focusing on a healthy mix of familiar favorites and hard-to-find specialty crops with exceptional culinary appeal for local chefs. For flower production, that means that you’ll see more botanicals in the “margins” of the growing season, such as designer-quality flowers and foliage in the early season and evergreens and decorative branches in the late season. We also see this as an opportunity to house an affordable native plant nursery and a chance to free up more time in the main season for dahlia breeding and education, two of our passions.
The residence on the property will be surrounded by a grove of almond and hazelnut trees, redbuds, dogwoods, and an assortment of pollinator-friendly cottage garden flowers. We grow a lot of flowers and we want people to know that as soon as they drive by!
The majority of the first two acres - the highest ground with the best drainage - will be dedicated to our mixed culture orchard. Our orchard will be organized not by like-crop but rather by harvest window, so harvesting will be something like walking down a grocery aisle. For example, during this time of year, mid-July, you might walk down a row and find apricots, plums, blackberries, black raspberries, black currants, blueberries, chives, oregano, and sage all in the same row. Every fruiting tree will be placed next to a nitrogen-fixing tree, many of which also have value as a source of cut flowers and/or foliage and serve as a natural trellis for seedless grapes. While growing in this way cannot be mechanized and must be done on a smaller scale, it means that we will be able to grow the crops we desire without the need for synthetic chemical interventions. Wildlife is always welcome on our farm; we view the farm as an ecosystem, and that means that we always account for wildlife to enjoy some of our harvests, too. (Here is the science: compared to conventional monoculture where one crop is grown on a massive scale, research has found that a combination of regenerative practices like limiting soil disturbance, keeping soil covered, establishing deep perennial root systems, applying naturally-derived fertilizers and compost, and biodiversity can (1) sequester carbon in the soil, (2) discourage erosion, (3) reduce weed pressure, (4) improve soil tilth, (5) increase soil organic matter. In particular, biodiverse plantings have been found to reduce pest and disease pressure.)
Behind the orchard will be the market garden, where we will grow a mix of seasonal vegetables and annual specialty cut flowers. Each field block will be separated by an herbaceous perennial flower strip to bring in pollinators, trap pests, and attract beneficial insects and spiders. We haven’t decided on the exact size we can handle, but we know that it won’t be bigger than half an acre.
The southeast corner of the property, about three-quarters of an acre, is a hill that we will use for all of our woody cut flowers/foliage and evergreens. We lovingly call this "yule tree hill" for now, since this is where we're able to harvest a lot of our existing wreathmaking materials.
The two acres in between all of these things is the designated wetland, and we plan to utilize this space for walking trails, native plantings, and some of our wet soil-friendly crops like medlars, mulberries, and decorative willows. We would love to connect with a local beekeeper to care for hives in this space, too.
A Sustainable Business Plan
If COVID taught farmers anything, it was the importance of diverse streams of income. We enjoy selling direct to consumer, but we also love growing for wholesale. The truth is that while the unit price is lower, it always feels good to move 20 pounds of something at one time. We look forward to continuing to expand our inventory so we can delve further into bulk sales for local chefs and floral designers who care about sustainably-grown product. The right relationships will be with professionals who value sustainable, regenerative growing practices and welcome the fleeting seasonality of various crops throughout the growing season.
At this time, for retail sales, we expect to follow Stefan's farm membership model. Farm membership will be our small farm’s alternative to the traditional CSA structure, where instead of paying for an entire season at one time we will charge a small household membership fee (i.e. $50) in order to shop with us. We like to think of it like the Costco of farming models. While we don't currently require membership fees for our subscribers, the benefit of prepayments like this for the farmer is that it supports and sustains our small farm and our commitment to sustainable agriculture in the off-season when we make a majority of our expenditures but have little cashflow. In turn, buying a seasonal farm membership will offer your family access to the best resources that our farm has to offer - the same resources farm residents enjoy throughout the year - at wholesale pricing.
Sharing big plans makes me feel uncomfortably vulnerable, but the truth is that this property is a dream realized. I don't take for granted for one moment the serendipity that led to having access to it. Every time I walk over there to harvest blackberries or simply to clear my mind, I feel myself literally vibrating with energy. I've been farming long enough to look at things with a realist's eyes, but it's hard not to see such a big open space and become overwhelmed with the potential. At the end of the day, this is more about setting a proper example of the possibilities of regenerative agriculture and about my own family's quality of life than anything else. Nonetheless, we're so excited to bring you all along for the ride as we make this happen from scratch.