Thursday, September 27, 2012

Amy Halloran: No Farmer Is an Island

With a new generation returning to the land, the contemporary farmer is both high-tech and old-fashioned, fiercely self-directed and deeply reliant on community.

“I used to be a faceless producer,” David Rowley says, leaning down in a greenhouse to cut a handful of arugula. He shares this food as he shares the story of his life with plants, Adam’s apple bobbing over his British accent.

Rowley’s last job in conventional agriculture was in Pennsylvania. “We grew 2 to 3 tons of tomatoes a week, starting in February. There were six people, no weeds, and no pests,” he says.

Out of the greenhouse: David Rowley and
Santiago Pinat at Monkshood Nursery. 
 Photo by Amy Halloran. 

At the end of 2000, three things happened that led this farmer from old-school ag back to the older school of ag and into organics and direct marketing. Fuel prices went through the roof, pushing energy costs for the greenhouses from $15,000 a month to $45,000 a month. A change of management occurred, and most significantly, Rowley got sick from pesticides.

As he repaired his health and revised his career, the idea of looking the customer right in the eye and saying the food he grew was clean became imperative. His illness was making him physically understand the importance of nontoxic production. Mentally, he understood organics through a very clever interpreter, his 2-year-old daughter.

He and his family had moved to Kinderhook and joined a CSA. Watching his child, who would not eat supermarket strawberries, devour strawberries from the CSA at home and in the field was another arrow toward this other way of farming. The transparency of the relationship between the farmer, the land, and the consumer was critical as he considered how he would live and work.

“When I was working for other people, I had a job. It was a business,” David says, recalling the distance he kept between his livelihood and his living. That gap has been closing ever since.

David Rowley started Monkshood Nursery in 2001 with his former wife Melinda in Stuyvesant. From scratch they were certified organic, and they grew only herbs. "Wholesale" was not the name of this new game; direct marketing was. Longtime fans of Monkshood may remember being wowed by rows and rows of beautiful plants on their tables in the early days of the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market.

Now Rowley is growing vegetables and herbs in ten greenhouses and a number of fields, still in Stuyvesant, near the Hudson River. The produce makes its way to markets in New York City and Troy. In 2011 Monkshood also ran a CSA with the help of Just Food, an organization that, among other food justice projects, helps upstate farmers coordinate logistics to run CSAs in New York City.

Last fall’s incredible rains shaved the final 7 weeks of delivery from those CSA members. Tropical Storm Lee dumped 20 inches of rain, and the farm lost 6 acres of produce and two greenhouses full of food over the course of 10 days. The crops yellowed and went moldy, and the plants suffocated.

Rebuilding the business after such a massive blow was nothing he could do alone. Luckily, Rowley was already undertaking a restructuring of the farm with the help of some broad community shoulders—Columbia Land Conservancy, Scenic Hudson, and the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation. These groups and his neighbors helped secure development rights for more than 150 acres. The Phillips family sold the farm they’d leased to Monkshood for years, and Kieran Goodwin and Catherine Rocco donated an easement on adjacent land to keep this parcel of land in agricultural production.

After the rains, Rowley had to figure out how to meet the bills that kept coming, even though the vegetables were all gone. He also had to retool the farm’s infrastructure and figure out how to pay for that investment.

“It took me 8 years to build four greenhouses, and it took them 8 weeks to build six,” David notes. The "them" in question was a construction crew that came, leveled land, built a washroom and irrigation pond, as well as six greenhouses kitted out to fit a tractor and all its attachments.

This September, these new greenhouses offer a walking tour that illustrates each stage of growth in the 6-week cycle of Monkshood’s salad greens, from the first, where weeds are grown to be killed with a flame thrower, to the newly tined rows of freshly planted beds. Other greenhouses in the group are dotted with tiny shoots poking up from the dirt. Another has small plants, just ready to be cut, and the next has larger plants, almost ready for their last harvest.

A short drive away, the four original greenhouses grow cherry tomatoes trellised 12 feet high, an array of sprouts in trays, and more parsley, dill, cilantro, and other herbs than you can count.

Rowley started young, potting up plants at the local nursery when he was 12. Still in England, he got a degree in commercial horticulture and worked in greenhouses and at an herb farm. When he came to the states, he first worked at a ball-and-burlap tree nursery in Granville.

He has been in greenhouses much of his career, and a lot of the food he grows is still under cover. However, he and his crew also work in the open fields, and this shift can be seen as a metaphor for the gradual and continuing opening of his work and life.

Until recently, he thought of the work at the farm as very separate from the connections he made at the farmers' market. He is a very affable fellow and loves the connections he makes with people.

“I used to think on the farm, it’s just me, and at the market I’m hanging out,” David says — "hanging out" being shorthand for the juicy human intersections that make direct marketing such an effective selling point. Anyone who’s shopped at a farmers' market knows you’re not just buying beets; you are buying a particular vendor’s beets, or carrots, or bacon. That food becomes an emblem of attachment, the relationship between the ground and the harvester’s hand made visible, and then edible.

by Amy Halloran

Original article posted on Metroland on September 20, 2012. Read full article.

No comments: