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How One Farm is Reinventing Agriculture for Better Food and a Brighter Future

Organic Farm
Photo by iStock/Redrockschool

Old McDonald of E-I-E-I-O fame would feel right at home on Essex Farm, a 600-acre spread in upstate New York where the future of American agriculture is being radically reconceived.

For the past 60 years, farmers have been encouraged, seduced and coerced by agribusiness and federal policies to become ever more specialized.  So it’s surprising to walk through a modern farmyard and hear a moo-moo here and an oink-oink there, and see 50 different kinds of vegetables growing in the fields.

And that’s just the beginning of what farmer and writer Kristin Kimball—working with her husband Mark and eight other full-time farmers—provide for 222 members in the Adirondacks and New York City.

Members of their “full-diet” CSA (community supported agriculture) receive a weekly year-round Cornucopia, which can include beef, pork, chicken, lamb, eggs, lard and dairy products. Plus fresh veggies—greens, lettuce, tomatoes, tomatillos, carrots, several varieties of peppers, cabbage, squash, eggplant, beets, onions, potatoes, parsnips, turnips, kohlrabi and more.  Then there’s fresh fruit—strawberries, raspberries, cantaloupe, watermelon, apples, rhubarb.  Grains too—four kinds of flour, cornmeal, steel cut and rolled oats, wheatberries, pancake mix, frozen bread dough. Don’t forget herbs—sage, mint, chives, fennel, meatloaf mix.  And to round out meals—sauerkraut, popcorn and maple syrup. On top of all this, farm-made soap.

‘There’s something about the idea of most of your food coming from one farm that touches people,” Kimball says, noting that Essex Farms’ membership has increased every year since the start in in 2003.

But how can 10 people provide that much food for just $3700 a year (with a sliding scale for families).  “It’s a constant juggle,” acknowledges Kimball, author of the acclaimed The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love“It takes a lot of time and energy to come up with the systems to do it.”

It also takes a transformative vision of farming as a way to provide people local, wholesome food at a reasonable cost using methods that restore the earth, reinvigorate rural communities and fight climate change. Essex Farms is mounting a challenge to the very foundation of industrialized agriculture: mass-scale production of highly uniform and specialized crops for people in distant places.

Showing that another kind of farming is possible remains the animating mission of Kimball and her husband Mark, who first met when she interviewed him for a magazine article. Mark had formulated plans for this new face of agriculture while working on farms across the country on a coast-to-coast bicycle trip.  Kristin shared his vision, and thirteen years ago they settled on a dairy farm near Essex, New York (which had sat empty for 20 years) and worked together to assemble the intricate systems necessary to provide a sizable share of people’s weekly meals from a single place. Even some sympathetic observers wondered if their plans were quixotic.

“There’s beauty and synergy in farming this way,” answers Kimball. “Vegetable skins and skim milk go to the pigs, broken eggs and manure make compost for the vegetables.”

Today, Essex Farms boasts barnyards filled with cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and horses; pastures and paddocks where the animals are rotated for grazing; 50 acres of vegetables; 15 solar panels; four old truck trailers converted into food processing facilities; two daughters; two ponies; a farmhouse where all the farmers sit down to a feast on Friday nights; and Kristin’s writing cabin tucked away in a woodlot near where sugar maple trees are tapped for syrup.

Two years ago Kristin and Mark launched the Essex Farm Institute to share what they are learning, and to draw attention to regenerative farming as one answer to climate change.

This means more than reducing fossil fuel use in the production and long-distance transportation of food—regularly moving grazing livestock from one parcel of land to another allows the soil to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere. Practiced on a wide scale, “carbon farming” could help bring down carbon levels below the climate change threshold of 350 parts per million.

“Farming can go from being part of the problem to being a big part of the solution,” she says.

This Institute operates as a boots-on-the-ground ag school with demonstration projects, public events, an internship program and classes covering topics like welding, economics, and the “mob grazing” techniques central to carbon farming. “It truly is a training ground,” Kimball explains.  “Mark likes to say we give people practical experience but also the courage to try new things.”

As Kimball walked me around the farm, trailed by her 5-year old daughter on a bicycle, a young couple and their three kids arrived.  They were moving here from Rhode Island to study farming as soon as the husband was out of the Navy. Many of those who come to work or study at Essex Farm stay in the area. “We all share equipment and help each other.  That’s characteristic of the region.  We all know this place is too small for us to be in competition.”

Jay Walljasper is a consultant, writer and speaker focusing on how to create stronger, better communities.  He is also editor of the Commons website of the Blue Mountain Center arts community in upstate New York.