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,”
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
Apprenticeships lead to fantastic network of
“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
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
“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,”
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
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!