APRIL 23, 2003: Blame it on organic farming guru
Eliot Coleman -- with a hefty hand from the late original
back-to-the-landers Helen and Scott Nearing.
Jeffrey Frank and Kristin Illick were living in New York
City from 1991 to 1999, with good jobs in the environmental
field and a great apartment, they’ll tell you. They
were able to save money and enjoy the cultural benefits of
the big city.
But after a few years, the land was tugging at their hearts.
They wanted to work outdoors more. They wanted to work for
themselves. “A real trigger for me was reading Helen
and Scott Nearing’s ‘Living the Good Life,’”
says Jeff. “I got the impression if you really put your
heart into it, you could do it -- make a living off the land.”
Jeff and Kristin, who hold Master’s degrees from the
University of Michigan in Natural Resources Management, started
reading more about farming, and visiting farmers at the city’s
Green Markets in their off-work time. Kristin worked for the
City of New York on a NYC wetlands project on Staten Island,
and Jeff for a non-profit environmental education center organization.
His environmental education work involved habitat restoration
work with students in Queens and the Bronx, fund-raising,
and pollution prevention projects.
“We were talking to one farmer at the Union Square
market, and while he wasn’t all that encouraging, he
recommended a book by Eliot Coleman, ‘The New Organic
Grower.’ I went around the corner to a bookstore, took
the rest of the day off and read it cover to cover. It’s
been down hill ever since,” he quips.
They didn’t have a car and they had no farming experience.
“We figured we needed a car to start looking for land,”
says Kristin. So they bought one. “We also started doing
research, contacted farmers and looked for apprenticeships.
A lot of how we started in farming was methodical and a lot
was jumping off the deep end.”
Apprenticeships lead to fantastic network
“We had savings,” Jeff stresses. So they were
able to quit their day jobs and take an apprenticeship. They
started their search with farms that were part of the Collaborative
Regional Alliance for Farmer Training and the Craft Program
in the Hudson River area, which could supplement their farmer
training. Every other weekend during their apprenticeship
they visited a different farm, so they got a good look at
farming options available.
They apprenticed at Slack Hollow Farm in Argyle, NY, living
in a 10- by 14-foot cabin with no running water. “We
shared the apprenticeship because we had a child by that time
and we were limited where we could go,” says Kristin.
It was tough at times, but Jeff says he never wavered. “He
was the engine, I was the brakes,” Kristin laughs.
Apprenticing led to a fantastic network with farmers whom
they could contact for information. “We knew nothing
about farming and here we had a dozen experienced people who
we could, and did, call,” Kristin says. But she also
found they had other skills that they brought with them that
those with a farm background often didn’t. “For
us, having done another kind of work, we had organizational
skills, research skills. We had that kind of advantage, and
we were willing to make changes that often people who grew
up with farming wouldn’t make,” she adds.
A tough decision: giving up a great New
York apartment for an uncertain future as farmers
After they had their feet wet, they had to decide where they
wanted to settle. “The hardest part was giving up our
apartment in the city. It was a great apartment,” Kristin
says. And a really great apartment is something that New Yorkers
don’t give up easily or willingly -- even when they
move as far away as California.
But Jeff and Kristin didn’t need to travel nearly
that far. They moved only about 90 miles to the west, to Bethlehem,
PA, where Kristin grew up. “It made sense to come to
the Bethlehem area, where we had support. And I love my family,
so we came back and looked to rent land in the area.”
Jeff’s family was still close by in New York.
“When we decided to move to Pennsylvania, Kristin contacted
Mark Dornstreich, a farmer she had spoken with when researching
apprenticeships. Branch Creek Farm was in commuting distance
from Bethlehem and had a large greenhouse operation,”
explains Jeff. They only had worked outside during their apprenticeship,
so this was a great opportunity. They shared this job, too,
harvesting salad and micro-greens and speaking with Mark and
Judy about their experience farming. “It turns out that
they, too, had left New York City in their 30s to start farming
and raising a family. They have been important resources for
us ever since,” adds Jeff.
During that winter of greenhouse work, says Jeff, “we
had our own plans cooking. We went to Extension for information,
advertised in local newspapers to rent land,” Jeff says.
“We came close a few times, but it didn’t work
out. Then Kristin’s uncle, who lives on family land
in Coopersburg (a nearby small town), said, ‘Why not
farm on this land?’ Kristin’s dad and uncle own
31 acres that was her great grandfather’s land.
The couple moved into an apartment in a building owned by
Kristin’s family in Bethlehem, and began creating their
“farm” on the family land in Coopersburg. “It’s
really worked out perfectly,” they both say.
The couple named their farm “Liberty Gardens”
because it’s on Liberty Road, named after the Liberty
Bell Trolley that used to run between Allentown and Philadelphia.
Their first years: low expectations, plenty
of savings . . . thank goodness
Their first summer as beginning farmers was in 2000, which
was a pretty good year, they say. They started plants in February
in the attic of the old farmhouse on the property. Kristin’s
aunt uses the house an art studio. They dream of some day
having a house and actually living where they farm.
“We had an electric heater and a big window (with good
southern exposure). We built a hoophouse (11 by 44-feet) with
PVC pipe and duct tape behind the house,” explains Jeff.
A quarter acre of land was cleared of trees and brush, and
another eighth of an acre was used for tomatoes. He set about
clearing more land by hand. At the time, the couple’s
only equipment was an old Farmall Cub tractor, a Spring spike-tooth
harrow and a few hand tools.
“I did a lot of spreadsheets in the beginning,”
says Kristin. “Every crop, planting date, days to germination
and harvest. I still do that for some crops, but not nearly
in as much detail.
“Basically, you’re just shooting in the dark
that first year,” she says. “You don’t know
how long crops will take. Even though you know your zone and
the local frost dates, you need time to learn about your microclimate,
not to mention your soil, drainage, pest pressures and so
Adds Jeff, “We treated that first year as a learning
year, which took off some of the financial pressure. We had
low expectations that first year.” Again, he stresses,
“We had savings to cover us for the first years.”
And it was a darn good thing they did. Jeff and Kristin were
peacefully harvesting crops one Tuesday in their second year
of farming. They were preparing for the farmers’ market
the next day in Manhattan. Then the radio crackled with news
that totally derailed their plans. And they knew there would
be no New York market for them tomorrow or for many days and
weeks to come. The date was Sept. 11, 2001.
Greenmarket farmers selling around the base of the World
Trade Center that day escaped with their lives. Many lost
their delivery vans, produce and cash boxes. The city’s
greenmarkets remained closed for the rest of the season. And
Jeff and Kristin scrambled to find new customers closer to
home. “Friends organized a buying group through a local
college to take some of the excess produce,” says Kristin.
“People were glad to have fresh vegetables, but also
valued the opportunity to respond to the tragedy in a positive
Now it’s their make or break year
Now in their fourth season, Jeff says they have been making
money, but not making enough to live on. “I hope this
year will be different,” he says. It’s in their
five-year plan. “We’ve been successful since the
beginning, but if we can’t sustain ourselves well after
five years, we will do some serious reevaluation,” he
Jeff and Kristin have been more than just covering expenses.
They have reinvested heavily in the farm adding an impressive-yet-functional
array of vital equipment that includes a modern 32HP Ford
tractor with a front-end loader, other implements and a double
poly greenhouse. They have reclaimed more of the land that
had not been used for farming since 1961.
“I have every hope -- but I also have some doubts,”
Jeff adds. “The markets are there.” And, adds
Kristin, “The most important thing is we like doing
Jeff and Kristin focus on greens and heirloom tomatoes in
their farming operation.
Progressively, in their second year of farming, they added
a second hoophouse with PVC pipe and electrical tape -- which,
they found, holds better than duct tape. The third year, they
constructed, with the help of family, a 30 by 76-foot heated
greenhouse. They grow micro and baby salad greens through
the winter on raised benches and in seeding flats.
In addition to the greens and heirloom tomatoes, they specialize
in herbs and baby vegetables. They sell at the Green Market
at Union Square in New York City from July to Oct. 15. They
now sell to five restaurants in the Bethlehem area, and five
in New York City (they UPS greens to the city), working nearly
Advice for other beginning farmers? “I want to be careful
here because I don’t want to see people ruined,”
Jeff says cautiously. “It’s a tough business.
My best advice: You have to know yourself, determine the scale
you’d like to farm on, and know your market because
that will determine what and how you like to grow.
“Get to know other farmers in your area, because you
need support when you start. Find an apprenticeship that works
the way you envision yourself operating. Growing isn’t
the hardest part. It’s making ends meet,” he adds.
Kristin says one of the most important aspects of farming/market
gardening is not letting it take over your entire life. Their
children, Emma, 6, and Asher, 2, are much too important for
that. “We take a day off a week. We take Saturday off
and we have fun and try not to talk farming.” This winter,
too, they took a real vacation -- to Puerto Rico.
Ah, yes. How to live sanely and simply in a troubled world,
as the Nearings put it in 1954. Living the good life!