Monday, June 7, 2010

New Britain, CT: Urban Oaks Farm

The other site I (Kacy) visited in between hanging out with my important people was in New Britain CT, and it was an urban garden on a pretty large scale.  Trav and I parked in the parking lot of the store that abutted the garden and sold a lot of it's goods.  On the wall were numerous newspaper articles featuring Mike and Tony (who has recently passed away), partners with a passion for the land.  New Britain is somewhat of a rough city, there is a lot of crime there and it is a heavily populated city that is also pretty economically poor.   Mike told us that the lot he now uses as a garden had had 16 greenhouses full of flowers previously, but had long since been abandoned and used as a dump by the city residents.  Mike said there were bullet holes in the greenhouses when he first got there.  He got a grant from the state to clean the site up, and he got to work hauling trashed cars, old greenhouses, construction materials and everyday garbage off the land.  He was able to save several greenhouses from the flower business to use in his food production, and he's been planting ever since.

You are greeted with a phenomenal sight upon walking into the greenhouses; they are a marvel of artistry in there.  There are a few straight rows, but mostly the shrubs, plants and trees just flow in a beautiful design that seems more natural than manmade.  Mike has a fig tree as well as citrus trees, and rosemary shrubs that are huge.  There are rabbit hutches out back that house about 10 rabbits who are living a peacefully retired lifestyle, though their poop comes in handy as fertilizer.

Lancaster Pennsylvania: Spring Hill Dairy, Shirley and Dave Garber.

Lancaster was our destination after New York, a region rich with farms and Mennonites and Amish and Mennonite/Amish farmers. It is also home to my best friend from college, Miss Monica Neufeld (Spory). I could write a whole blog on her supreme greatness, the cuteness of her baby daughter, and her husband Chad's humor and hospitality. We were welcomed into the Neufeld palace and I stayed up way later than I can function at full capacity just to hang out with my old friend. Between ice cream and coffee and walks and delicious home-cooked dinners we caught up on the past 2 years and I still can't believe how blessed I am to be friends with people of such a high caliber. So...

Monica connected us to a really interesting and unique operation- it was a dairy farm run by computers and robotic machinery (with help from the Garber family). Spring Lawn Farm is Dave and Shirley Garber's place right outside of Lancaster City. The dairy has been in Dave's family for 6 generations, and is run by Dave, his brother, and his nephew. They use their unique farm as an educational tool in the community; there are charts to look at, a powerpoint (we didn't view that presentation as we had the real live tour), and computer screens hooked up to the milking machine that showed which cow was being milked, how often that cow is milked per day and how much milk the cow gives.

The way this farm worked is that the milking cows are kept in a barn where an automatic tiny plow constantly moves up and down the aisles where the cows' manure, keeping things really clean. These cows appear to have a lot of creature comforts that I have not yet seen in a barn. For example, if you've ever been to an automatic car wash you have seen those muppety looking things at the end that buff your car; they look like strips of foam on a whirling stick, one on each side of the car. The cows at Spring Lawn have a similar looking toy, it hangs from a pole in the aisle, and it sits idle until a cow comes into contact with it- then it's off spinning it's heart out providing the cow with a back/shoulder/face/behind scratcher and loads of entertainment.

Each cow decides when it's time for them to be milked, of their own volition. They line up at the milking parlor. A gate opens and ushers them in one at a time and then closes behind them. They must pass through this milking area to find their way to their food. From where we were standing we were eye level with the cow's udder, and we watched an infrared laser focus on each teat one at a time, then in one or maybe two tries a teat shaped tube would vacuum onto each teat and disinfect it. Then that scenario would repeat, but this time the tube would milk the cow, and the numbers on the computer screen would start changing to reflect the cow's stats, via an electronic collar that each one wears. If a cow doesn't show up for awhile to be milked Dave can see that via the computer, and his dad will find that cow in the barn and see what the trouble is. If the system fails for some reason, the computer will call Dave's phone to tell him there is a problem. It is a very systematic way to run a dairy.

One concern that the the Garbers have is the huge cost of mechanizing and computerizing their dairy. The price of milk fluctuates wildly in the U.S. and is set monthly by the federal government based on supply and demand. Since 2002 it seems like there have been extreme valleys and peaks in milk prices, and currently the price of milk is pretty low for dairy farmers. Dave and Shirley have no control over how much they can sell their milk for, and the threat of losing their multi generational farm is a constantly looming cloud on the horizon.

Despite worries and concerns that seem inherent to farming, the Garbers were the happy kind of people you just want to surround yourself with. As we walked down to where the pregnant cows are kept we got to see a cow just minutes old! Dave scrubbed it with hay and noted with some disappointment that it was a bull, but even so, what an event to witness.

Brooklyn, Connecticut: Katie Bogert at the Golden Lamb Buttery

"In 2000, my mom married Jim, my stepdad, which is the Booth son. I was a senior in high school. We just lived in the next town over and I was working here before that. My mom waitressed here before I did. I started at 13 as a coat girl."

Italic "My grandparents, they're both 87. They're currently in a nursing home, but my grandmother Jimmie, she cooked for 42 of the 47 years, so really till they were 83 or 84 they were running it. Then there's my stepdad, and then there's only one other son, and he helps where he can, but the rest of the extended family, no one lives around here. And actually, in three weeks...we have a family reunion every five we have about 60 people coming in from all around the country: California, Seattle, Montana, and then like North Carolina, Atlanta, everywhere."

I took a break from doing the project while we were in Connecticut so that I could soak up being with my family, and I am so grateful I had that time. I ended up being part of 2 of the interviews and my mom actually accompanied us to one of them, the Golden Lamb Buttery, a restaurant in Brooklyn, CT.

She had first taken us there at Christmastime when we visited, and it is in what Connecticut refers to as the "quiet corner"- the northwest section that consists of a lot of farmland and countryside. My mom and her partner Rena were considering having their union ceremony at the Golden Lamb, but thought that too many of their friends wouldn't be able to make the trip out there as it is far off the beaten path.

We spoke to Katie Bogert, who let us know that people do actually travel for many miles to get to the Golden Lamb. It was her grandfather, a gentleman farmer, who bought the property in the '40's and kept sheep there. On the property there was a weaver and a clothing shop that took the wool and made very fashionable suits for men and dresses for ladies. Katie showed us a photograph album that had plenty of pictures of her grandmother, Jimmie, looking like a model in fantastic dresses and matching hats.

"The farm has been in the family was Bob's father who bought it in the early 40's and years ago they sold the development rights to the government, so if the family were to ever sell the farm it would always remain a farm; it couldn't be a golf course or condominiums or a development. Right now there's about 1000 acres left. When he first bought it it was about 1800."

"Well, Hill and Dale Handweavers closed in the 70's when wool went out and synthetics came one in the family wanting to do it. And even though we've always had cattle and sheep it has always been more of a gentleman's farm than a real, true 1000-acre working farm. So, my great grandfather, when he bought it he lived in the city and wanted something out here, found it, fell in love with it, found out it was in 'Brooklyn' and didn't want to go back and tell his Manhattan buddies he bought a farm in Brooklyn, so he bought 50 adjacent acres in Pomfret and the restaurant had a PO Box in Pomfret for years so we could say we were from Pomfret, not Brooklyn."

It is no longer an actively farmed property, other than haying on some of the main fields. The restaurant, with its dinners and events, is the attraction. They started serving meals in 1963.

The Buttery still has some animals. Out in back there are rolling pastures where 5 donkeys who were somewhat rescued graze and frolic. There are cows as well,though not for production. There are still some sheep, but they are ornamental and the dress/suit shop is long since gone. Katie lives in the old weavers' building.

"So, Hill and Dale and women were coming from all over to get these suitjackets and suits made; they were custom, no two were the same. In that time it was growing in popularity but there was nowhere for them to eat. So they opened, just light lunches, very simple, in '63 and it was about 10 years later when dinners started and then it sort of evolved from there."

"At this point we just hay the fields; the major fields are hayed, and then the animals are just pets. We have 5 donkeys, you can see them, blending into the scenery over there. Of the donkeys, Boomer is pushing 40. So, we had Boomer and we had a Shetland pony, and then came Muffin; Muffin's the one who's walking away. She has the donkey body with the horse's face. Since Boomer's kind of getting up there I wanted to have someone for Muffin...there was an ad in the local paper, 'donkey family for sale.' I called and thought 'I can't believe I'm responding to this.' So we went and saw them and, long story short, a couple days later they were her. So now we have Bandit, Sassy, and Nestle."

Eventually the farm transitioned into an upscale restaurant, with most of the existing buildings used for that purpose. The barn is now the dining room and kitchen; you walk in the big double doors and down a hallway that has wooden benches and quilts hanging on the walls, as well as framed newspaper write-ups and family reunion pictures. Continue through the small kitchen to get to the seating in the main area of the barn where beautiful, rustic wooden tables and chairs (mismatched in traditional farm fashion) await you. The Buttery serves as much local food as possible, and the quality of ingredients as well as skill of the chef are highly valued there.

"We have our garden, greenhouse, raised beds across the street and that does the majority of our herbs and produce. And I buy local as much as I can, but we've never raised cows for...I mean, when we used to have sheep, people would be like, 'please tell me that's not my lamb!' So we don't raise the meat for here, it's more vegetables."

"Right now I can do vegetables, I can do herbs, but in terms of meats and everything...I can't get anything consistently. And it has to be consistent. So I would like to see more collaboration with farmers and restaurants. Somewhere where I can go and get these things and not need to talk to seventeen different farmers to get seventeen different things and drive to seventeen different places, because that kind of defeats the purpose. So I would like to see more collaboration.

"You want to be able to use local foods, but again, you've got to be able to get it easily and it's got to be consistent. And right now, around here, we just don't have that."

The Buttery is only open for lunch for 2ish hours from Tuesday to Thursday, and dinner is Thursday through Saturday, reservations are advised. The way it works is people pay a flat fee of 75 dollars per person and get an experience as well as dinner. The evening includes a hay ride, dinner and live music, and no tables are turned over so patrons are welcome to stay with no pressure to hurry along.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Farmers' Market stop: Harrisonburg, Virginia

Well, we've made plenty of progress on the project; we've interviewed at least 35 people in less than a month and a half, a remarkable diversity of agriculturalists from Maine to Virginia. The hardest work is going to be transcribing all of this information!

The blog here thinks we're still back in Vermont. In fact, we've progressed the last few weeks and done interviews in Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia! Tonight is our last evening in Virginia before we head west to West Virginia, down to North Carolina and then onward to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Kansas and points towards the Pacific.

Since we're so far behind on updating the blog (each entry takes a couple hours of photo editing, reviewing the audio and our notes, and typing), I thought I'd share some photos that I took at the Harrisonburg, Virginia farmers' market a few days ago. Kacy went to college in this town and has a friend who happens to be the president of the market.

Here are about 20 individuals of the several dozen involved in the Harrisonburg Market with their miscellaneous wares!

Thanks for reading! We'll do our best to keep you up to date...or at least less than a month behind us. Take care-- Trav--

Tom Hayman: Grains of Sense, locally roasted organic coffee, "divinely inspired."

Sherry Richardi.

Sharon Payne and her granddaughter, Briana Ford.

Rosalind Byler, pies and pastries.

Inger Brown and Rachel Wilson: homesteaders, keeping bees for some income.

Philip Hege: vegetables; he'd seen me taking photos of others and when I approached him he said, "You're shootin' people! I don't believe in that."

Matt Gingerich: produce.

Kate Nussbaum: lavender and related products.

Josie Showalter: market manager.

John Blalock.

Jenner Brunk.

Gayle Shirk: jams and confections.

Esther Ebey.

Derrick Cook and Dora Smith: homemade pasta; in Virginia kitchens don't need to be inspected as long as they are labeled as such. Consumers can choose to trust their producers.

Dennis Evans: cheese and dairy products, including "meow milk", a cultured product for cats.

Beth Schermerhorn: part of the Muddy Bikes project, an urban gardening organization that works with homeless and other populations. We interviewed them as well on their property; look for that post in the future!

Ann Marie Leonard: she has been involved with the market for over 20 years. She gave me two wonderful cookies as market closed.

Andrew Schaefer: produce and plants.

These are the people growing and creating your food, living in your community. They have a hand in the greater agricultural system of this country and deserve recognition; if only we could interview and photograph everybody!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Westminster, Vermont: Paul Harlow, Westminster Organics

The last farm we stopped at before leaving Vermont was Paul Harlow's in Westminster, near Putney in southern Vermont. May 7th was a beautiful sunny day and we were greeted by Paul's little mutt Speckles (or Especkles as we fondly dubbed her, being from Puerto Rico and all). He was meeting with his crew, largely made up of Jamaicans who have been returning seasonally for many years. He took an hour off to talk with us before heading out to transplant broccoli into his fields. Paul's farm is a large produce and vegetable operation with chickens (about 1000), beef, Tamworth pigs, and eggs for sale as well. It is one of the largest veggie operations in Vermont. He is 59.
Many thousands of baby kale plants:

The farm has been in the family for 3 generations (his grandfather purchased it in 1917) and Paul's son works with him as does his young daughter (she sells the eggs to the farm stand just down the road, run by Paul's brother and family). His sister lives nearby as well and is an agriculture writer. Paul decided to transition his farm to organic in 1976 after he noticed that he didn't see many worms anymore, and his weeds were getting resistant to herbicides. It was rough for a couple of years during the transition because he admittedly didn't know how to do it...and there weren't many models of any scale in the area at the time.

Contributing to the community is important to Paul; last year he gave 150,000 pounds of food to food pantries, and he donates his time, equipment, and expertise to a garden the size of a soccer field at his daughter's elementary school. Aesthetics are also important to Paul and the community- when talking about why he plants bright colored produce in the front of his farm closest to the road he said "I do it for the people driving up and down route 5...I figure they could use pretty colors and appreciate straight rows." He is a town selectman and has been involved with local functions and politics for longer than he'd like to admit. He battles with common misinterpretations of organic produce (like expense) and the school lunchlady (who doesn't use or want the produce that he offers for free to the school).

Micromanagement from the government is something Paul struggles with as a large produce farmer- in the upcoming organic standards updates there are regulations about not drinking coffee in your fields and not having cats in your barn etc; it seems invasive and impractical. Paul talked about the frustration it brings when someone who has possibly never set foot in a field is making up rules that the organic farmer must abide by to keep the organic certification, rules that may have no realistic value except on paper. In Paul's words, "I just want to grow stuff... f*** regulations and marketing."

He would like to see all of his produce sold locally, but as it is there isn't enough demand. He sells to wholesalers, Whole Foods Market, etc., but imagines an ideal world where he can be a farmer who provides for his regional community. His produce can be found down the road at the Putney Food Co-op, where his portrait hangs above the produce section, along with other suppliers to the store.

Down the road at Paul's brother's farmstand:

Westfield, VT: Jack Lazor, Butterworks Farm

"Well, he has a radio voice" was what Trav told me when I asked about Jack Lazor of Butterworks farm. Upon meeting Jack I had to concur, he does have a gentle, smooth voice that would be perfect for the radio and he has a kind and welcoming personality to go right along with his voice. Butterworks is located in northern Vermont but the yogurt produced there can be found all over New England, and Trav and I just bought a quart in Maryland at a Whole Foods Market. It is really creamy and naturally sweet; if you happen to see Butterworks yogurt somewhere you would be wise to give it a taste. It puts other yogurts to shame.

Jack invited us to join him in his kitchen for a cup of tea and he began the story of how Butterworks came to be. He and Anne began with a few cows making yogurt in their home for themselves and some others on a pretty small and informal scale. From the beginning they were organic, believing that if you treat the land with respect and honor you will be working with a much healthier system. As Jack spoke about the land I began to understand that he views it as a partner; not to be abused and stretched to its limits but to be nurtured and replenished so that it can continue to foster life. He graduated from Tufts University, where he studied the history of agriculture and moved to Vermont in 1973. In 1976 they purchased 60 acres for about $20,000 and have been growing crops since 1977.

Jack spoke about his cows and their milk with a similar reverence. They are milking around 45 Jersey cows (Jersey's because they give sweet and creamy milk). Jack gave me a glass of milk to try, and it did have a really pleasant, sweet taste. Employees on the farm are also treated with the utmost kindness and respect; Anne just finished a mediation/nonviolent communication course to facilitate healthy and assertive communication within the farm community. There is a farm meeting once per week where business can be discussed and feedback shared.

Jack was gracious enough to spend a whole afternoon with us, and when he got a call requesting some cheese to be portioned and wrapped for shipping (the cheese is processed off the farm) he asked us to join him in the dairy. We got to try a newer product, maple kefir, that was like a fizzy and tasty drinkable yogurt as well as some cheddar cheese that was delicious.

The cows have a unique and beautiful living situation; in the winter they are kept in a large solar barn (like a giant cow hoop house) that lets in a lot of light and has a back door for ventilation. The granary is right next door and while Jack was slicing cheese Trav and I walked down to the mill area and got 5 pounds of whole wheat flour (which was turned into pancakes and really good bread, if I may say so myself). The granary is a tall wooden building that has stairs to take you higher and higher until you reach the top room, which looks like a square steeple from the outside.

Peering out of the windows we could see into Canada and there were beautiful views in every direction. Jack pointed out the corners of the view that were part of Butterworks farm: the wheat fields, the miscellaneous grain crops, the pasture, the feed fields. They now own about 110 acres in pasture and hay and farm at least 350 more. The dairy, though, is what pays the bills.

Until 1990 almost all sales were within Vermont, but now Butterworks yogurt is available through distributors around the country. He and Anne are in the process of transferring ownership of the farm to their daughter, Christine, and her husband. It comes with plenty of challenges and through Jack's honest, open conduct, we learned about the emotional and practical challenges of a family business. They now have over $1 million in sales, putting them in a bigger-business tax bracket, which seems somewhat in contrast to Jack's friendly, humble and kind personality.

He sent us on our way with a few gifts from the dairy and we headed back Montpelier way. I find myself still thinking about what a grand time we had on that farm and what a huge contribution Butterworks makes to the wider community.