The farm-to-table frenzy has thousands of urbanites trading in their desks for the idylls of agriculture. But one eager young couple learns the hard way that organic utopia is easier dreamed than achieved.
On a sunny fall day in 2005, Kate and Dan Marsiglio pulled their Audi A4 station wagon into the drive at Stony Creek Farmstead, three Tamworth piglets bouncing in the backseat. They had $25,000 and planned to build a second farmhouse on the old ninety-acre Catskills dairy where Dan’s parents had retired.
In the following weeks, Dan set up pens. Kate phoned livestock and feed suppliers. They jotted down goals, such as “feed 100 people everything they need for a year.” The farm would raise organic meats and vegetables. It would become a community center. It would prove the viability of alternatives to feedlots and superstores.
That was eight years ago, when the Marsiglios left emerging careers as schoolteachers for the country life. Today the farm is more or less complete, with thirty cows, twenty-five sheep, 150 chickens and four pigs. There’s a vegetable garden and a greenhouse. More than two hundred families buy products from the harvest each year. The Marsiglios themselves get three-quarters of their meats and vegetables from the farm, and live in the woodstove-heated farmhouse Dan built. In some ways, the farm has delivered the life they envisioned. In others, it’s fallen far short.
While slaughtering chickens for five hours straight in the open-air abattoir on an icy December day, Kate felt the crack in her rubber boots but knew there wasn’t enough money in her bank account to justify new ones. With the rising cost of animal feed and constant repairs to barns, tractors, electric lines and more, feeding people alone is not enough to make ends meet. About a third of the Marsiglios’ income now comes from a summer business hosting “farm stays,” rustic vacation packages for city slickers.
“They’re a facsimile of a farm community experience,” Dan jibed.
Two years ago, Kate was mulling over the compromises of the new venture when a certain Christmas present from Dan brought her to tears. Carefully wrapped in brown paper, it was a copy of The Dirty Life. The memoir of Kristin Kimball, it’s about a woman who, deeply in love with a young farmer, leaves her career in New York City to help him realize the dream of building an organic farm. “It’s our story,” Kate said.
“We never envisioned making a lot of money,” Kate said last January. “Maybe that’s part of the problem.”
Investing everything in an overgrown old farm, the couple in the book harnesses draft horses and solar power to produce a complete diet of meats, eggs, vegetables, grains, milk, flour and maple syrup for more than 200 families. The cover depicts a fresh-faced young woman resting easily against a weathered barn, a chicken clasped under one arm and a bountiful basket of vegetables at her feet. Kate could barely bring herself to read about their success. It reminded her of all the things she hadn’t done with the farm—including write a book about the struggle and make a dollar from it. But, she said, “it was given with love.“ She let herself indulge.
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The promise of a life lived close to nature and in the service of providing communities with local and organic food has lured an increasing number of American families like the Marsiglios this past decade. More people are committed to eating locally—nationwide, the number of farmers markets jumped from 2,863 in 2000 to 7,175 in 2011—and more people are training to farm.
“We’ve seen interest in apprenticeships and our Young Farmers Conference increase by leaps and bounds,” said Nena Johnson, director of the Growing Farmers Initiative at Stone Barns Center, a farm education non-profit in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. The center began hosting an annual conference in 2005 to assess the needs of a burgeoning group of first-time farmers. The 250-seat event has sold out every year since; in 2012, tickets disappeared within thirty-six hours. Meanwhile, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, a federal fund for farmer training projects, helped educate 5,000 people in 2009 and grew to more than 30,000 in 2011. In mainstream food magazines and agricultural journals alike, tales of city kids and hedge fund managers trading suits and ties for overalls have many forecasting a future of yeomanry in America.
To be sure, new farmers remain hopeful that moment will come. But they’re also the first to report that in beginning farming, the honeymoon period is brief. It is almost a matter of course that regardless of how mentally and physically prepared a new farmer is for long, sweaty days of toil and winters of debt, farming will deliver more stress and heartache than expected.
“There’s a general feeling about the American Gothic picturesque today,” mused Michael Duffy, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. “There’s a perception of farmers being the salt-of-the-earth, hardworking individuals, taking care of the world, fixing a bird with a broken wing. It’s kind of a romantic notion of a profession. But you either make money farming, you have another income to cover your losses, or you get out.”
Running a small, diversified farm has a way of sucking time and money, and no one is more acutely aware of this than Dan and Kate. Disenchanted with the prospect of becoming lifers in their teaching jobs at public schools in Ridgewood, N.J., the couple moved—first Kate and then Dan, a year later—to The Meeting School, a boarding school and working Quaker farm in New Hampshire. The campus comprised quaint New England farmhouses, and teachers took turns at daily chores such as milking and cooking as well as lecturing on regular subjects like math and English. Charmed by the wholesome food and community, the Marsiglios figured they could apply their new knowledge to Stony Creek, which Dan’s parents had purchased from a retiring dairy farmer in 1985 for $90,000. His parents had looked forward to their own retirement—in the country among charming, but empty, barns and farmyards.
What started with a simple decision, however, quickly grew complicated. Twenty-eight and thirty years old at the outset, the young couple saw the farm as an enormous blank slate. They had money in the bank and time to make errors. Now, however, retirement looms “foggy” in the not-so-distant future, Dan says. They might like to stay on the farm, but so far it doesn’t earn enough for them to afford hired hands. They haven’t amassed any savings, either, since they’ve never paid themselves a salary from the farm. It grosses about $40,000 a year and sucks every penny back in. To make a living, Dan takes odd jobs as a carpenter and general contractor; Kate has worked part-time at a local library, on contract for a farmers’ nonprofit, and as a healthy-living coach. Time seems in shorter supply now. “We’ve backed ourselves into a corner,” Kate says.
In the beginning, the couple threw themselves with fervor at the difficult terrain. For three years, they schlepped buckets of water up a steep slope to the animal pens. They learned to treat the peculiar illnesses of livestock. One particularly damp season, Kate found maggots covering the whole backside of a sheep hit by flystrike (an infestation of larvae in a living mammal) and combed them out. Another time they let a bull stay overnight in the same pen as the sheep; the next day the bull roamed free, and a very dead sheep was mangled in the broken electric fence. “You never forget those images,” Kate says.
Yet through those experiences they acquired stronger knowledge of the land and livestock. They established more efficient patterns of pasture, installed a water pump and started a vegetable share. There was a certain pride in surviving in what was, historically, one of the last settled and most difficult places to farm in New York State.
“The country is hilly and much of the soil is thin, stony and naturally infertile,” wrote Ralph Tarr, a Cornell professor of physical geography, in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society in 1909. “Even with the best agricultural education and the best connections with the markets, it is very doubtful if the American farmer can in large numbers be retained contentedly on the farms of the less desirable and less productive uplands.”
Correctly, Tarr anticipated that the future of the area lay in dairying and haying, rather than intensive livestock or crop farming. Through the twentieth century, hundreds of dairy farms prospered around towns like Walton, Oneonta and Delhi. New York developed one of the largest dairy industries in the country. But that changed.
The last two decades have brought decline. Twenty-seven percent of New York’s dairy farms closed between 1998 and 2007, according to a 2010 report by the state comptroller. Half were shuttered in the past twenty years, a phenomenon that reflected rising supply costs, weakening milk prices, increasing land values and aging farmers. Second-home buyers seeking a bargain, rather than farmers, began eyeing the clapboard houses and scenic landscapes of Delaware County.
In contrast, Stony Creek’s prospects began rising soon after Dan and Kate arrived on the farm. The Marsiglios started to see a small profit. Once a week on Saturdays, Kate drove one hour each way to a farmers market in Margaretville, selling about $1,500 worth of product each time. If she worked a few more markets, they could make a decent living from the farm.
“But the market was so much hustling,” Kate says, pulling a jar of fresh cream from the fridge for her coffee. It was a dawn-til-dusk job getting to and from markets, where she pitched products to discerning, sometimes skeptical, shoppers. “I saw other farmers doing it, and it just wears you thin and tired. It has a city hue to it. It always seems like you’re not selling enough.”
Nor did Kate enjoy customers quibbling over the price differences between Stony Creek’s products and those of competitors. The Marsiglios source all of their non-GMO, certified-organic animal feed from New York and Pennsylvania—an expensive choice. Kate figures that means an egg costs fifty cents to produce. A dozen should sell for more than $6, but “who’s going to pay that?” Kate says, exasperated. She kept the list price at $6, resigned to breaking even at best.
When her father, who had been her right hand at every market, fell ill with throat cancer in fall of 2007, the choice became clear. Kate finished the market season and decided to give up their spot for the following year.
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“If it was easy, everyone would be doing it,” says Hubert McCabe, thirty-six, operator of 5lbs of Dirt, an organic fruit and vegetable farm in the Hudson Valley. A one-time social worker, McCabe transitioned into farming in the early 2000s and has built up a carefully branded business selling high-end greens at a market on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He works harder and longer now, fifteen to thirty hours before he even gets on the highway. Still, he prefers it to his old city life, saying, “I’m hustling for myself.”
Making a comfortable living is another matter. Like the Marsiglios, McCabe can’t afford hired help yet. He’s also struggled to save enough money to buy land at current prices. For now, like most other beginning farmers, he rents, which limits his long-term investment opportunities. It doesn’t make sense to plant fruit trees, for instance, even if it might prove lucrative. While farming has delivered the emotional rewards he desired, the business plan, for McCabe and so many others, is a work in progress.
“You have to figure out how to get past breaking even,” says Gerald DeWitt, a retired farmer who now helps his son operate an organic dairy in Delhi. From his point of view, that doesn’t have to mean sacrificing the ideological pieces of small and organic farming. But it does mean charting a sound business plan. Through forty years of farming in Delaware County, DeWitt watched small dairies fail due to unsteady milk prices. He was about to retire and sell when his son suggested starting an organic operation. DeWitt hesitated, but the economics convinced him. Organic milk prices are strong and stable, if you grow your own feed grain, he said. They already had the equipment to do it, so their homegrown grain costs $200 per ton, compared to about $700 on the retail market. That savings is crucial, says DeWitt. It makes their business work. Yet raising grain is the kind of capital-heavy investment that’s especially hard for a new farmer without assets and land to make.
Fortunately for the Marsiglios, when they arrived with the piglets, Stony Creek was already in the family and Dan’s parents were willing investors: They have now poured over $100,000 of their retirement savings into farm equipment, including tractors, wagons, a baler and more. As a result, though the Marsiglios don’t grow grain yet, they have harvest hay to feed the sheep and cattle through the winter, and during the cold months have time to experiment with new marketing ideas.
Compared to the summer of the Margaretville farmers market, the growing season of 2008 was quiet. The couple welcomed a newborn son, Kate’s father was recuperating, and Kate concentrated her efforts closer to home. They started their own farmers market fifteen minutes down the road in Franklin, N.Y., where her parents live. And right in the Stony Creek barn, they built a self-serve store where customers can take from the freezers and leave cash in a tin can. “Money was not a focus,” Kate says. “We’ve focused on people, not production.”
Then in fall of 2008, a novel business opportunity emerged. A neighbor suggested they try working with Feather Down Farm Days, a European company that had just entered the American market for vacation farm stays. The idea had appealing qualities. The Marsiglios could draw more money from the land, and Kate could remain close to home. In December, a Feather Down representative visited the farm and the Marsiglios struck a handshake deal: The company would take the majority of revenues earned from farm stays. It would build, book and maintain guest tents equipped with wood cookstoves, canopy beds, linens and kitchenware. The Marsiglios would build outdoor showers and toilets. They’d also provide weekly homemade-pizza nights. That sounded okay. There were other, less appealing, mandates. Feather Down wanted a chicken coop where guests could hunt for fresh-laid eggs, and a petting zoo. The last demand seemed especially phony. But Kate and Dan compromised, and built a miniature parallel farm closer to the guest tents. They took out $45,000 in loans and $30,000 on credit, and hoped for the best.
“That’s why the first year was so disappointing,” Kate says. The first summer, the company booked only twenty guests. Even with a one-night stay billing at $215, the hoped-for financial advantage of putting the farm experience up for sale didn’t materialize. “We had invested so much,” Kate says.
After two years, the business improved, but nagging questions set in. They were putting farm stays ahead of farming food. “Are we really a farm anymore?” Kate wondered. “It felt like a charade.” It was also upsetting to see another farm stay bed-and-breakfast open down the road. To the Marsiglios, the Handsome Brook Farm, which had garnered a spot on Good Morning America as part of a series focused on eco-friendly, budget vacations, seemed to be missing a crucial element: a farm. Although it produced blueberries and eggs for sale, the operator couple relied on full-time off-farm jobs to provide two-thirds of their income. Kate was rankled. “I looked around and saw that the word ‘farm’ had been hijacked by anyone who wanted to conjure that image,” Kate says. She didn’t want any part in it.
For the Marsiglios, the tension between selling food and selling the idea of a farm remains, though to a visitor on a rainy day last winter, it was clear that Stony Creek is a working farm. From tip to tail of the growing season, the Marsiglios rise regularly at dawn to shepherd the animals to new pasture. One morning, Kate and Dan rode their ATV to the cattle fields in the rain with fence posts and a roll of temporary electric fencing. Dan started at the top of the hill and paced out a line, drawing a new pen a little below the cattle’s current spot. Fast and practiced, Kate followed, pushing pegs in the ground and fastening the line. The cattle are moved to new grass once a week; the sheep every couple days; the chickens, in summer, daily.
The technique comes from Joel Salatin, a renegade “beyond organic” farmer whom the celebrated food writer Michael Pollan profiled in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Salatin is also the author of many books of his own, such as 2000’s You Can Farm, a staple of the Marsiglios and other new farmers’ practical education in sustainable livestock management. The idea, says Dan, is to “farm good grass.” Diligently moving different species around the land to graze the vegetation to different heights and excrete different fertilizers helps to enrich the soil, ensuring the land will remain arable for years to come.
That technique is the kind of thing Kate likes to explain to farm-stay guests and other visitors through the summer. She gives more than twenty tours each season and gets a certain amount of professional satisfaction from them. With one group of families last summer, the tour finished near the pig pens, and a particularly curious group of adults kept asking questions about the advantages of small-scale hog raising. A few minutes later, Kate saw that the children had climbed inside the pen and were contentedly feeding and petting the pigs. She marveled at the connection the families seemed to be making with the animals and the land. It helped her rest easier. The farm hadn’t become so much a petting zoo as a school. “I realized we’re the farmers who educate,” Kate says. “The joy of the farm stay is showing the value of rural life that isn’t just water or oil or natural gas.”
With that thought in mind, and in the interest of greater earnings, Kate has diversified her farm activities even further. Last summer, she offered a series of weekend camps for local children, and more than fifty attended. They churned butter and herded sheep, examined compost and wrote animal observation reports. The former teacher with a master’s degree in education has also adapted her farm tours for public school presentation. She delivered a guest lecture in December and is soliciting more opportunities to speak. At the same time, she is writing a book of sorts: a school curriculum about sustainable farming. A copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the young reader’s edition, lay on the kitchen counter through January. Ideally, it would be the textbook for Kate’s curriculum.
The expanded business went well this summer. They hosted five weeks of day camp for seventy-five kids. More than 120 families came for a farm stay, just under the 150 that had come the summer before. Pretty good, Kate thinks, especially since they’ve ended their contract with Feather Down, which means next season they’ll have full creative and financial control. Still, it will take an $80,000 to $100,000 reinvestment in the coming months to rebuild the guest area and upgrade the farm infrastructure, and they still aren’t quite breaking even. But Kate is optimistic. The number of guest bookings, at least, is stable. She’s hired a market research consultant and, in January 2014, plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary funds.
“Sometimes it gives me the icky feeling of mass marketing,” Kate said. “But I’ve realized I can’t ignore the world we operate in.” If all goes well, she can see the farm stay providing her a salary for the next ten years.
Dan is less sure. “The farm needs are endless,” he said, sipping a coffee after dinner one night last winter. Nearly a year later, he feels roughly the same. It’s getting cold out again, and he’s in the middle of a renovation on the house. Time on the farm, he said, is time lost developing other skills and opportunities. Before he became a schoolteacher, Dan trained in industrial design, an interest that still beckons. “I have some ideas to do things that involve different people, different places…” he explains, trailing off.
Kate sympathizes. They are not in their twenties anymore. She acknowledges Dan’s point that other couples are living easier lives in clean jobs and warm houses. But even if they wanted off the farm, their confidence to pursue new careers has diminished. “What can we do well?” she wonders aloud.
* * *
On a frosty morning this past January, Kate packed up their truck with coolers full of stew hens, legs of lamb and sausages. A new element of their business is that past guests have become a small but reliable market for farm products throughout the year. The Marsiglios now make monthly home delivery trips to New York City with upwards of $1,300 worth of goods. The delivery charge is $10, so to cover the cost of gas they need at least six orders. Even so, the profit margin is a slim twenty-five percent, Kate estimated. But that’s better than the ten percent they might make selling wholesale, she said, and “I have to sell my product.” So she got on state Route 17E for a daylong trek into New Jersey, Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“If you don’t feel love from the activities you engage in, you don’t really keep doing it,” Kate said, as the sun glistened high over the forest and snow-covered mountains. She kept her foot firmly on the gas. “We’re at the stage now where we want to just get good.”
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Whitney Light is a freelance writer and photographer from Winnipeg, Canada and a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School.