When we first bought the property, we intended to keep the barns as barns and growing spaces and build a house on the hill. Fairly early on we realized that it would make sense to build the temporary quarters in the barn, but in the back of our mind we kept planning the house on the hill. Our goal was to employ very cost-effective building techniques yet make the house very energy efficient. Time was not going to be a factor and we would do whatever we could ourselves. We would use salvaged material when possible. We loved the idea of slip form masonry construction … we like the look and its energy efficiency. We also explored straw bale construction, prefab options and SIPs and kept waffling between them all. One thing we were pretty sure of was the basic design and the idea of tucking the home into the hillside for maximum insulation on the north side. Suddenly an opportunity struck. Our resourceful neighbor let us know about an auction at the local school where there would be bidding on windows. On an exceptionally cold morning we experienced our first auction and secured 15 windows for $75. They are double glazed and are 5 feet high and 6 feet wide. Now we had a reason to get building.
Well, how long can we keep this up? Are we setting up a sustainable system? What can we learn from permaculaturists, forest gardeners, agro-forestry practices that will enable us to build a system that provides not only our future, but our children’s as well as functioning currently as a profitable farm business. We intend to remain small and not depend on many more hands or equipment than we use now (wheelbarrows do most of the heavy lifting for us now). It’s this part of the journey we think will be worth sharing. I’m sure we will continue to have some do-overs, but we now have a few years of experience as well as years of research about other systems and the dots are starting to come together.
We learned and made mistakes and learned some more. We joke that our farm should be called Do-over Farm. We battled pests, drought, too much rain, too little sun, unexpected freezes and began to figure out how to maximize our resources to build consistency. Of course there are always surprises. Mother Nature just is that way and this year she brought us a potato blight and a tomato “bother.” Although blight-like (the plants got very grumpy looking) we didn’t lose many tomatoes and although they didn’t make it until frost this year, like other years. Unlike potatoes and tomatoes, salad greens have a short seed-to-table cycle, so we grow many, many rounds of greens each year – learning with every round. We anticipate being able to serve up 120 pounds per week next season. Producing one type of product consistently each week is not conducive to something like a CSA or even some farmer’s markets. Variety is important in those scenarios. However it is good for restaurant sales. And that is where we have built the business. We have no intention of giving up the farmers’ market. The opportunity to hear directly from the people eating our food, as well as being able to participate as members of our local food shed is important to us.
By the time our first anniversary rolled around (October 2006) Ed was putting up the twinwall plastic to ready the greenhouse for growing. Cow stalls were being converted into growing beds and Ed decided to make the big move and go live full time on the farm in December. We had gently explored the idea of growing food to take to a farmer’s market and now decided to give it a go in the spring of 2007. We chose a small friendly market and it turned out to be an amazing experience. Through direct contact with the people eating our food we learned so much. We not only learned what people were interested in buying and when but also what didn’t work. Customers shared recipes and processing ideas and we also learned a great deal from our fellow farmers. This enabled us to tweak our product line and reinforced our plan to focus mostly on salad greens and stretch availability to start earlier in than the market season and extend into the winter. The first season we sold about 8 to 12 pounds of greens a week as well as a variety of seasonal items such as tomatoes and radicchio.
During our first year we did a bunch of clean up. Twenty-year old manure got dug and swept out of the barns. We ripped out interior walls of one barn and ultimately got to ripping off the exterior of the south side as we prepared for it to be a greenhouse. It was messy work. Somewhere in the process we decided to make one end of the barn (150 feet long, 40 feet wide) into living space. Originally we had planned to build a house away from the street. But the existing water supply and electricity in the barn made this an expedient option. A contractor helped us do some of the work on the “house” due to skill and time restraints. At that point we were still living 6 hours away from the farm and were both working full time. Only so much can be fit into a weekend. In the spring, we hired an Amish team to topple our silo (with sledge hammers!). It was at risk of falling at some point and would cast a big shadow on our greenhouse. The demolition attracted an audience and turned out to be a rather dramatic event.
We started on this adventure four years ago when we purchased 35 acres in the finger lakes area of New York state. The area had what we thought was important at the time … affordable land, big clean sky and no predisposition to breaking up farms for building housing developments. The property we found also had what we thought we wanted. Barns with a concrete floor (but no house), a potential for a pond (there was evidence of what used to be a pond) and a wooded area. We didn’t have a pre-fixed idea of size but it felt right. However the funny thing was what we thought felt right was based on a misconception of the property lines. It turned out to be twice as big as we thought it was.
That was sort of how it continued to work out. We seem to keep finding unexpected bonuses on the place. An early and delightful discovery was that our land had been certified organic by the farmer who keeps his cows in one field and uses another for hay. Our intention for the use of the land was and still is developing, but one thing we did know is that our intention in buying the place was to create a place where we could live lightly. That meant that any growing we did would be done with organic practices. You have to have a track record of growing organically for three years before you can become certified and here we were with that milestone already achieved. It turns out that we decided not to certify although we do use only organic and natural practices. That is a whole other story. And right now I’m trying to quickly catch us up to the current place in the story where our planning, practicing and research are really starting to come together into something worth sharing. We just started building a house that we hope achieves two goals: a very light footprint at a very low cost. And we are really digging in (and I mean digging) to build a farm that can eventually depend heavily on perennials, trees and bushes for a diverse food crop. It combines learnings from agroforestry and permaculture research, as well as farming with annual crops, but it also depends on what our land can teach us. We are surrounded with bounty that was there before us and we are only just discovering how to make use of it.