The New Face of the Small Farm Is Female
Diane Zlotnikov, Z Farms Organic Food
The face of the American farmer has changed over the decades, from a man on his horse-drawn plow, to a man on his tractor, to a man overseeing other men on a factory farm. Now America is returning to its agricultural roots, embracing small farms run with natural practices. And often as not, the face of that small farm is female.
Farm Director, Common Ground Farm
Located on nine acres leased from Stony Kill Environmental Center, in Wappingers Falls, Common Ground Farm has a small footprint but a big mission. Part of a larger nonprofit that focuses on food access and education, it donates half the organic produce it grows, operates farmers’ markets that accept food benefits, and is working with schools to get more locally grown food on kids’ lunch trays.
Farm Director Sarah Simon says Common Ground relies on volunteers and supporters, as well as partnerships with local businesses, to keep the mission going. Sallyeander Soaps, in Beacon, uses the farm’s organic flowers in his calendula dandelion soap, and gives part of the revenue back to Common Ground. The farm has a similar arrangement with another Beacon business, Drink More Good, which uses the farm’s cucumbers, mint and jalapenos in its seasonal soda syrups. Hudson Valley Brewery is also working on a beer made from the farm’s fresh herbs.
“These value-added producers turn our perishable produce into a more shelf-stable and diverse array of products,” she says.
Simon would like Common Ground to be a connection between the local farm movement and food access in our communities, so that small farmers can help prevent hunger while running viable, resilient businesses.
“Every community needs strong local businesses to provide meaningful employment and quality products,” she says. “Farms are an especially important part of this picture because they preserve open spaces, provide food security in an otherwise fluctuating global marketplace, and offer a way for people to remain connected to their food and the means of agricultural production, which otherwise frequently results in worker exploitation.”
She says it’s important for farmers to focus on the well-being of their workers, and for the general community to be aware of the financial challenges many farmers face.
“The minimum wage in New York State is going up, which is a very good thing but a challenge for many small farms,” she says. “When you look at the price of local produce, it’s important to understand that you are helping support local jobs.”
Owner, Ryder Farm
Family farms were once the mainstay of American agriculture, but the industrialization of farming pushed most families off their land and out of the business. Not so with Ryder Farm, which is proof positive that with tenacity, good management and fair government, the family farm can survive and thrive.
“Our family farm goes back to 1795,” says Elizabeth Ryder. “In 1975, the pressure of rising taxes was weighing heavily upon our fallow farm, and we acted upon a new initiative put forth by New York State in an effort to save small family farms such as ours.” As the Ag District Law provided some tax relief to operations meeting certain requirements in agricultural production, the Ryders decided to go organic.
Now Ryder Farm produces organic vegetables, herbs and flowers, and it recently acquired Red Angus beef cattle. It also won a Natural Resources Conservation Service grant to enhance its pastures for grazing. One younger family member founded an artist retreat center, Space on Ryder Farm, to engage local residents and give them access to the farm. “Space has proclaimed their dedication to keeping agriculture here on the farm in the foreseeable future,” Ryder says. The farm also welcomes farm visits and offers programing that’s open to the public.
By keeping the farm viable, Ryder says, the family hopes to retain the rural character of the Westchester-Putnam area. “That’s a challenge,” she admits. “Our proximity to New York and local transit encourages population growth and the associated loss of open space. I’ve always felt that farms provide the working landscape of open space. A farm such as ours gives people an opportunity to buy local farm products from a known and trusted source, while helping preserve the area’s historic character.”
It makes sense that Ryder is very supportive of other local farmers, whom she sees as collaborators in a greater mission. “We understand that feeding the soil is what feeds the plant that feeds us,” she says.
Partner/Farmer, Meadowland Farm
Meadowland Farm is a small small farm, a market garden operated by just two people, MaryKate Chillemi and her partner, Chris Hausman. It is located in Clinton Corners in Dutchess County, on an original homestead that dates back to 1790. Over the years, the farm has been home to dairy and livestock animals. Now Chillemi and Hausman use biodynamic growing methods to produce heirloom vegetables, fruit, mushrooms, flowers, herbs and honey.
“We’re students of biodynamics and continue to educate ourselves on such practices,” Chillemi says. “We use the biodynamic planting calendar and make our own compost, herbal teas and preparations. We are also transitioning this property to no-till, and by next year all of our beds will be permanent. It’s overall better for our soil not to be compacted by tractors, and for our rocky soil, it is the most manageable for our scale.”
She and Hausman lease their pasture to Dirty Dog Farm, whose grass-fed cows provide the manure necessary to build Meadowland’s compost, which Chillemi calls “the heart of the farm.” They are also building a greenhouse on site, which will eliminate the long drive to rented greenhouse space at a neighboring farm 30 minutes away. Future plans include introducing some high tunnels to the operation and improving the farm’s overall infrastructure.
Farming is hard work, physically and logistically, Chillemi says, but it’s worth the good results: closing the carbon footprint, giving more people access to organic, local food, and empowering small communities to resist the encroachment of national corporations.
“It's not easy or lucrative, but you don't farm if you're trying to make money,” she says. “For us, it's a spiritual journey, one we see as playing an important role in the world. And for that I feel very proud and honored.”
Manager, Z Farms Organic Food
Diane Smolyar-Zlotnikov, M.D., is an internal medicine doctor and endocrinologist who works in general practice and urgent care online, through telemedicine. Oh, and she runs Z Farms Organic Food in Dover Plains, handling day-to-day operations, management, organic certification and even beekeeping.
“It’s my hobby-turned-small-business that I do part time,” she explains. “I turned to farming to connect to the land and show appreciation for its beauty and bounty. Transforming an abandoned parcel that was last farmed in 1940—overgrown fields, falling-apart fences, a totally wrecked 18th-century farmhouse—into a fully functional certified organic farming operation gives us pride and sense of accomplishment.”
The Z Farms farm stand is open 365 days a year, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., selling certified grass-fed beef, lamb and goat; pasture-raised poultry; eggs and berries. It also delivers to customers in local zip codes within 22 miles from the farm (with a one-time $70 minimum order).
Zlotnikov says she was surprised at first by the high cost of running a certified organic local farm—a cost that must be factored into the price of organic produce, making it unaffordable to some people. “We participate in the Farmers Market Nutrition program, both at the Pawling farmers market and at the farm stand, to somewhat help the situation, and we are trying to restructure certain aspects of operations to make prices more affordable. It is a work in progress for us,” she says.
She’s hoping the farm can establish a local volunteering program, which would ease their labor shortage and enable them to charge less for their products. The farm also might launch a “pick-your-own” program for berries and apples, once those crops are in full production.
As a physician, Zlotnikov sees the farm’s mission as educational as well as agricultural. “Ideally, the farm is not only a source of high-quality food but also an educational center, promoting healthy lifestyle and safe environment. We will gradually develop programs and classes for the community.”
Ultimately, she says, organic farming doesn’t just promote human health; it also promotes the health of the land.
Farm Manager, Fable: From Farm to Table
Bethann Bruno has been farming for 20 years. When not working as the farm manager for Fable: From Farm to Table, she creates small vegetable gardens and edible landscapes for local homeowners. She also teaches gardeners how to use their land more efficiently.
“I began farming at a very young age,” she says. “I have always had a love of the field and placing my hands in the soil. I love watching everything grow. Seeing a seed turn into a seedling, and then produce a crop, really lights me up.”
Fable, a farm in Ossining, is operated by a strong, close-knit team of farmers who work year-round producing organic, nutrient-rich herbs, fruits and vegetables, including leafy greens, herbs, tomatoes and garlic. They use modern technological advancements such as greenhouses, hydroponics and vertical farming to grow their produce as sustainably possible. They also keep pasture-raised chickens for eggs.
Local residents benefit from Fable in many ways, Bruno says. “We supply them with fresh, organically grown produce that we sowed and planted by hand. They can also come volunteer and learn from us. We can show them how to work the fields, and they can apply that knowledge to their own garden. We can also show them how hydroponic growing works in our 200-tower greenhouse. Locals are always stopping by to volunteer and visit and are full of questions. We appreciate their help on the farm, and we hope they leave happy, with the answers they needed.”
Of course there are challenges to farming, she says. “When I wake up in the morning, my list of daily tasks depends on the weather. And I spend a lot of time tilling the fields and laying the plastic and irrigation by hand. A plastic mulch layer and tractor is on my wish list.”