Brian and Justine didn't always use natural practices. They started out growing conventionally in Maine for wholesale in Boston.
But after Brian became seriously ill, they made the decision to move off their conventional farm, buy a new one without a history of pesticide use, and use natural practices moving forward.
They've been at their new place in the Hudson Valley for nearly 10 years now, and while Justine says it still feels a little new, it's clear that they are pretty well established in the community. Each week they serve two farmers markets, whole sale accounts, and a whopping 500 member CSA!
We were lucky enough to nab Justine for a brief interview.
Describe your farm. We’re in the Hudson Valley, just a mile or two away from the river. The farm itself is 164 acres, 132 are conserved, and 18-20 under cultivation. The farm is very diverse – we’ve got wetlands, ridges, and creek/river (overflow creek from reservoir) and the fields are all throughout that. Our farm has been conserved as a Forever Farm through the Agricultural Stewardship Association.
Are you the main farmer? My husband is the grower, and I do anything else. My job is primarily with our 500 member CSA. (During the school year, I also do 2-mornings a week at a Waldorf Pre-school mid-Sept to end of May.) Our two daughters who are in their 20s are both involved with the farm – one is more full time at the moment, but that sort of changes. We also have had a wonderful crew of 9-14, a lot of part-timers. We’ve hired H-2A workers, 2 wonderful men from Jamaica, for the past 6 seasons. Without them it would be very difficult to run this farm.
500 members? That’s a big CSA! How do you manage it all? Wednesday is our big CSA day. We pack out about 460 boxes and deliver to 11 sites over 40 miles from Delmar to Healthy Living Market north of Saratoga. We’ve got 2 trucks, one that goes south and one that goes north. [For all you CSA nerds, see more of the details of how Justine organizes the CSA below!] On top of the CSA, we do 2 farmers markets on Saturdays in Troy and Saratoga, supply whole sale accounts, and coordinate egg, fruit, and bread shares that we offer to our members. It’s a lot to keep track of!
How long have you been farming? When we first started out years ago, we started with an acre of cabbage in Maine. I was teaching full time and as the farm grew, I started teaching less. For a little while I did artist in residency teacher work. At first it was necessary for the farm to get off the ground, but now the only teaching I do is because I started a preschool 10 years ago and I’ve got to keep it going. Brian has always farmed fulltime, except the first few winters - he’s trained as a forester, so he worked with a team of horses in the woods during the winter.
Why did you decide to use natural practices? We started in Maine as conventional growers, and we farmed for about 16-17 years. At the end of our career in Maine we were farming about 110 acres with a 30 person crew. We were sending produce to the Boston market, to Hannaford Supermarkets 5 days a week. Then Brian got very ill. Well, nearly all of us got ill - 3 out of 4 anyway - but Brian the most seriously. Conventional medicine couldn’t figure out what was going on with Brian’s liver. We made the decision to stop farming with chemicals. We transitioned to being smaller diversified farmers, growing organically. It was a very conscious decision for us.
Why did you get involved with CNG? Because we wanted to hit the ground running. We felt that with the transparency in our relationship with the CSA members, we wanted certification to explain what we do. We looked at USDA Organic, and I think it’s a great program, but I was totally overwhelmed by the paperwork and the cost. I think it was Sandy Arnold of Pleasant Valley Farm who told us about CNG, so I started researching. I took one look at Certified Naturally Grown and I said sign me up!
I feel I’m able to have the conversation with customers, and explain what we do, and who CNG is. Mostly I find the question is “Are you organic?” Sometimes I come back with “What are you asking about? Soil management? Spray?” It’s a good way to start a much deeper conversation.
Favorite farm tool: Maggie says the favorite is tractor mounted implement, a finger weeder cultivator. It does a great job and brings a really big smile to Brian’s face. That’s nice to see!
Favorite vegetable: When the melons come on. We don’t grow very much in the way of fruit, so that’s why. We had our first melon and I thought ‘this is it!’
What advice would you give to a farmer just starting out? The joke is Brian would tell them to go into a different profession! But really, for a young farmer, I would say seek out a mentor, with great appreciation for what the mentor can give them. Follow your heart and don’t give up. That’s what we did. We had a good mentor in Maine. We couldn’t pay our loans back the first two years, but we just didn’t give up, we kept pushing forward.
Favorite season: Spring, because I love the newly tilled brown earth, those new shoots coming up and the greenhouse full of plants.
What plans or hopes do you have for your farm in the future? Continue the CSA, become more efficient in how we operate from seed to share, the whole system. Maybe that means simplifying a bit.
Talk about the biggest challenge you’ve encountered as a farmer. Irene was a huge challenge for us and we were badly hurt by it. We lost so much of our topsoil, and that was devastating. It’s a huge resource washed into the Hudson. We lost an irrigation pump, a temporary greenhouse, but those are replaceable. Years later, we’re still building up the soil we lost.
Since Irene hit, we’ve been reeling with how the weather extremes are presenting themselves - all the rain, and then the heat. I think the chronic stress from the weather is harder to handle than the acute damage from Irene. For farmers there’s always been an undercurrent of worry about weather, but it’s at a different level now.
What has been your most positive experience? I always return to the CSA. There are times when I read some of the emails that come across my screen that just make me cry. “You have changed our lives,” or “After a season my cancer is in remission,” or “You’ve changed the way we eat” - that is so powerful to hear. I get kinda teary. CSA is an efficient model – we know how much to plant, and how much to harvest – but it’s so much more than that because of the partnership. For me - a farmer who is also teacher- it doesn’t get better than that.
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As promised, for all the CSA nerds out there, here are more of the details of how Denison Farm organizes their CSA:
Monday and Tuesday are harvest days, and Wednesday is assembly. We pack the shares into boxes, it’s not a free choice, and I’ve been very happy with that - I know that everyone is getting a fair share. And the veggies are much more protected inside the boxes.
Our drop off sites are at members’ homes and churches, and we’ve been really lucky that they all have cold - or at least cooled - places for the boxes. The Healthy Living Market takes a whole sale order and is a drop off site. About 75 people pick up at Albany Friends Meeting House and another 40 people pick up on the farm.
We offer several different kinds of shares. We just do vegetables here. Thanks to CNG we have some recognition for our natural practices. We also offer a fruit share (pulled together from several different farms – mostly from Columbia County), a bread share (from The Placid Baker, an excellent bakery in Troy), and an egg share (Argyle).
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