SEVENTH IN AN ONGOING SERIES
NUTS & BOLTS & DREAMS: A beginner's guide to farming

From big city to small farm: couple successfully follows their dream
Jeffrey Frank and Kristin Illick started farming four years ago as novice apprentices. Now they supply a farmer’s market and 10 restaurants with greens, heirloom tomatoes, baby veggies and herbs.

By Melanie DeVault

Inspiration:
Following the Call of the Land

Jeffrey Frank and Kristin Illick's obsession with working the land was fueled by a few good books and an unforgettable apprentiship.

With a little savings and the following inspirations, they jumped hearts first into their farming dream.

Eliot Coleman
Coleman owns and operates Four Season Farm with Barbara Damrosch in Maine. For more about his book, The New Organic Grower, and other titles, visit their website:
http://fourseasonfarm.com

Helen and Scott Nearing
Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely & Simply in a Troubled World. Schocken Books, Reprint edition, 1990

CRAFT
Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training
CRAFT is an apprenticship-enhancing program organized by regional biodynamic farmers to give farm interns a broader range of experiences than what they would find working only on one farm.
www.brookfieldfarm.org/craft

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“We were talking to one farmer at the Union Square market in New York City, and while he wasn’t all that encouraging, he recommended a book by some guy named Eliot Coleman called ‘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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Advice for other beginning farmers? '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. . . Growing isn’t the hardest part. It’s making ends meet.'"

Posted 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 of contacts

“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 on.”

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 way.”

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 says.

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 it!”

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 year-round.

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!