Keith's Farm: The Workers
I STARTED AT Keith’s in June 2015, just a couple of weeks after finishing college. I grew up in northern New Mexico and came to the Hudson Valley to go to Vassar, where I studied geography. This is my first full time job on a farm.
I enjoy the lifestyle that farming on a small, organic farm allows. Daily life on the farm can be exhausting, but it feels good to work hard, and the work is incredibly rewarding. You become attuned to the gradual transitions of the seasons and minute changes in the ecology of the land you work because they affect your everyday reality. Farming well means responding to those changes and being able to prepare, plant, tend and harvest in ways that are not only productive in the present but also promote the land’s future productivity.
Farming takes will, but the fruits of my labor here have been very tangible (and delicious). I believe in the importance of small-scale food production and in keeping the skills needed for less-mechanized farming alive. Subsistence farming still feeds most of the world’s population; industrial monoculture consumes critical resources in order to feed a much smaller portion of earth’s population (and not well). While the local/organic/farm-to-table movement in the Hudson Valley today has made strides toward a more sustainable system, it won’t survive or create enough change without a commitment to lowering the cost of locally grown food. The responsibility for this is not just on farmers who struggle with the costs of land and production—it’s also the responsibility of consumers and others to investigate the complicated reasons that the cost of local/organic food is so high.
A THOROUGH ANSWER to the question “Why farming?” would be as long and circuitous as the route that led me here through myriad jobs at home and abroad. The pleasures of doing physical work outdoors in all manner of weather; the satisfactions of eating produce I remember planting the seeds of several months earlier; the excitement of selling a product I have pride in at market; and the freedom from the desk-bound jobs so many of us love to hate are some of the aspects that drew me most strongly to this lifestyle.
In September, we had a sudden storm come through the farm. What started as a refreshingly breezy and reassuringly distant bit of summer weather soon took on biblical proportions, with the kind of lightning you can taste and the type of rain that comes at you sideways. Except it wasn’t rain—not at first. The really heavy pounding on the roof turned out to be hail, and in a matter of minutes extensive, irreparable damage had been done to almost all of the fall crops.
Yet, between the way Keith calmly faced up to the “hand we’ve been dealt” and the way we had no choice but to push on, there was an invigorating sense of the real, material volatility of our work (even our lives) in the natural world.
After Generations X and Y, I expect we are seeing the rise of Generation Ctrl-Z. And as the world grows increasingly re-doable and ephemeral, I hope to continue to derive satisfaction from the abiding, if sometimes fickle, materialism of the agricultural life.
THOMAS JEFFERSON WROTE that farmers are the chosen people of God. If he were writing today, he might specify small, sustainable or family farmers as opposed to the industrial giants that produce most of America’s food. It is this distinction that draws me to organic agriculture.
I decided I wanted to be a farmer while studying sustainable development at Appalachian State University. I learned that “conventional” agriculture, like most industries, is responsible for innumerable environmental, economic and social evils, while “sustainable” agriculture is part of a larger movement to improve the condition of life on Earth. Conventional farm soil is barren and lifeless, only supporting plants with constant additions of chemical fertilizers, like a cheap, fast-food meal. Organic farms are full of life, and work on them provides abundant opportunities to contemplate it. Similarly, the larger food system is a reflection of society’s values, and the conditions on individual farms reflect the souls they feed.
Farming produces something tangible that sustains our physical and cultural bodies. It places us within a larger, complex whole and connects us with the past, just as seeds and knowledge have been passed on for millennia. Farmers are interconnected with the natural environment and people, depending on both to turn their labor into livelihood. We work within daily, weekly and seasonal rhythms, and deal with unpredictable natural events both destructive and necessary. Farming teaches that most things are out of our control, but it’s still worth trying to make the best out of the given circumstances. For me, sustainable agriculture rests on having faith that nature will provide for us if we cultivate a relationship with it.
I WROTE THIS statement in 2009 for The Valley Table when asked why I wanted to work on a small sustainable farm:
Having spent most of the last several years of my life working as a freelance graphic designer, I feel like I’m ready for a change. I’ve had my own garden and found it very satisfying. Now I want to pursue my ideas about sustainability on a farm that demonstrates responsible stewardship of the land and makes eating a healthier aspect of life. I want to get my hands dirty, enjoy the company of others, roast heads of Rocambole garlic and explore the new neighborhood. My interest in farm life is sincere, and I look forward to the work itself and the opportunities that may come up.
I had no farming experience, but during that first season I found a new work I could sink my teeth into. I love what I am doing now and am appreciative of the opportunities that have come up. I learned how to grow organic vegetables and herbs for market; I met my girlfriend while we were both working at the farm; I left to work at other small farms in New York and Massachusetts and then returned to co-manage this farm with Keith, running our farmers’ market stand at Union Square in New York City; I purchased a house nearby—a place to continue growing fresh nutritious food for people to eat.
I USED TO barge out of the office early, unable to handle the gray walls, fluorescent lighting and screaming bosses. I couldn’t stand having a job where I wasn’t able to move around. All day long I looked forward to being able to get up from my desk for a coffee or restroom break. A short walk in any direction felt great. The final walk out the door felt the best.
I headed to a farmstead in Cincinnati and immediately felt at home in the work. I loved it. It felt like that last few years of unhealthy living were coming right out of my pores. After Cincinnati, I worked for a short time on a farm in North Carolina. Then I headed back home to northeast Ohio, where I spent over a year working simultaneously on two farms. One was owned by a metropolitan park system whose mission was to provide agricultural education for local schools. Residing there were several representatives of just about every farm animal, all of which I learned to care for. The other farm primarily grew garlic; working there gave me a new appreciation for growing fresh produce.
The specific pleasures of farming here move in and out of my life together with the seasons. Each year cycles in both new experiences and the return of activities around the farm that I eagerly anticipate. Every April and May, the whole world turns green again and nature grants us permission to carry out our winter plans for cultivating the land. The first real blasts of cold air in November are startling and welcome, but it’s always a satisfying season. As the twilight of my third year at Keith’s Farm draws near, I sense more than ever that I’ve chosen a fitting path.
FOLLOW ROUTE 32 south of New Paltz for eight miles and you will reach a valley where a weathered red barn sits nestled in 200 acres of overgrown pasture and woods that my great grandfather first settled. A date—May the 10, 1886—is scrawled in black ink on the wall in the oldest wing. My grandfather and his siblings inherited the small dairy farm, though they phased out most agricultural use of the land over the years. Its fate is now grim. A lack of planning regarding its transfer to the next generation, personal differences and the financial burden of owning such acreage threaten its existence as open space. My emotional connection to the land is tied to memories of growing up there. I spent my summers behind the wheel of the tractor while it crept through the hay fields, my parents stacking square bales on the trailer in tow.
In 2014, with the future of my family’s land in mind, I left my job as a newspaper reporter to apprentice on a small farm near Syracuse. I was unsatisfied with my life in Long Island’s suburbs, but I also wanted to learn what it felt like to put in a full day’s work in the vegetable fields. I could never have guessed how impactful that first season of farming would be. I fell in love with the early mornings in the dairy barn, the team of draft horses that gracefully cultivated our fields, the way the beef herd galloped into a paddock of fresh grass. I was also in awe of the strong, passionate and tireless people who were so willing to teach me all they knew in exchange for hard work and a good attitude.
Working at Keith’s Farm (my second season farming) has been equally as rewarding—and every bit as challenging. Farming has strengthened my passion for New York’s rural landscapes and the blood, sweat and tears that farmers, young and old, continue to pour into the soil in order to feed their communities. I intend to continue to support the preservation of farmland in whatever capacity I can, not only to honor my family’s legacy, but to protect the irreplaceable natural resources that sustain us.
AFTER GRADUATING COLLEGE and spending many years lingering in the college system, I was living in New Orleans, searching for a direction that supported my values while laboring in a service industry serving food and drinks for an unbalanced diet. I was looking for: good health given by exercise, a whole diet, clean water and a supportive community. This is the core of what I want to see in the world.
Finally, I had found work that so simply perpetuated what I believed.
Woody Guthrie called farming “God’s highest calling.” If farming is practiced in an ecological fashion, I think it is more positive than any other endeavor. On the other hand, largescale agriculture and bad farming practices have shown us to be one of the worst things for the environment. We need more people growing food and caring for the land. I hope many others join in the effort by starting or working on small, local, ecologically minded farms.
California’s strict laws on importing agricultural products and the lack of rain helps keeps plant disease in check. On the other hand, the current drought in California is serious and likely the main limiting factor for agriculture in the state right now. I wanted to work in a climate where we are faced with plant disease and learn the skills to problem solve and work around disease, while having access to water. I am lucky to work for Keith because here we are also exposed to the business of farming. (We also get a decent wage, which, unfortunately, can be rare in agriculture.) All the planning and flexibility that goes into farming stimulates the mind. I’ve never been more fit and healthy—or happy.
I FIRST CAME to Keith’s Farm in the summer of 2011, between my second and third year at Bard College, and then again for part of the season the following year. The first time around I worked here because I needed a dependable summer job, preferably outdoors. I came back because I was interested in learning more about sustainable agriculture. Before coming to Keith’s Farm, my interest in agriculture was very casual. That I keep coming back speaks to the draw of the land and of the work.
Now it is October, and the signs of the season are all around: The winter squash has been pulled in from the field and crated, fall greens stand in quilted multicolor rows ready for harvest, and the days have become shorter and colder.
Over the course of my three stays here, I’ve learned a great deal about how to live well on the land, and how to live well for it. The work can be very difficult and is occasionally tedious, but the living here is good, and the benefits are worth the strain.
Organic produce from Keith's Farm is available Wednesdays and Saturdays at Union Square Greenmarket in New York City.