Young agrarians find happiness in working the land and building community in the Champlain Valley
By Tracy Frisch
WHEN ASA Thomas-Train met his future wife, Courtney Grimes-Sutton, she was skinning a pig. Rather than wonder why an attractive young woman was doing a job usually reserved for big, brawny guys, Asa reacted with admiration. “She’s an incredibly capable, charismatic, and strong woman,” he said recently.
That summer of 2010, they were working at Essex Farm, a mecca for edgy young farmers honing their agricultural skills. Founded a decade ago by Mark and Kristin Kimball, the farm has had a prodigious influence, spawning new farmers and a warm farming community. Kristin recounted the farm’s unfolding in her memoir The Dirty Life.
After leaving Essex Farm, Asa and Courtney forged ahead with plans to develop a meat farm on a 120-acre property—dubbed Mace Chasm Farm—that they purchased in the Champlain Valley town of Chesterfield in 2012. They’re raising grass-fed cattle, pigs bred for foraging, and pastured poultry.
The couple is also retrofitting an old farm building for a butcher shop. In the meantime they process their meat and make sausage in a commercial kitchen at North Country Creamery down the road. To supplement farm income, Asa does stone masonry, and Courtney has worked as a welder. We’re both of the style to jump in over our heads,” remarked Courtney.
She and Asa exemplify the new wave of agriculture sweeping Essex County and other spots around the country. Typically in their twenties or early thirties, these farmers find happiness in working the land and revel in the challenges it places on their minds and bodies. They feel they’re making a meaningful mark on the world around them.
This certainly holds true for Asa and Courtney.
Growing up in Keene Valley, Asa developed a love for the Adirondacks and wanted to work the land. As a teenager, he spent two summers working at Rivermede Farm in his hometown. After studying art and geography in college, he traveled the country doing trail work. Yearning to return to his Adirondack roots, he found work at Essex Farm. “I was hooked,” he said.
Raised largely in a small town in central Massachusetts, Courtney got into farming because she wanted to feel connected to what sustains us—“food and practical skills.” She skipped college to follow her dream. “Now, years later, I still feel good about my career path, though my motivation has changed a bit,” she said. “I want to work outside and be in the weather, to do physical work, creative work, and to work in an industry that has a positive impact on its environment and consumers.”
This new wave reflects a fundamental shift in thinking about food and where it comes from. For decades many Americans took agriculture for granted, and few without a farming patrimony aspired to the occupation. In recent years, the Slow Food movement (which favors small farmers over corporate agribusiness), the rise of community-community-supported agriculture (CSA), and the proliferation of farmers markets have fostered demand for locally grown food that is good tasting and healthy.
Paradoxically, the disappearance of much of the agricultural base in New York’s Champlain Valley opened many opportunities for new farmers. Land is available in relatively large blocks here. Vermont, in contrast, has retained much of its working landscape, and the crowded niche for small farms is difficult to break into.
Mark and Kristin Kimball came to Essex to farm thanks to an offer they couldn’t refuse. Mark said “a curious Norwegian” named Lars gave them a trial one-year lease on 504 acres. Against the backdrop of an increasingly desperate land search outside the Park, they gave it a try. The couple had a combined net worth of $18,000.
“Lars gave us wholehearted support for our bravery and idiocy,” Mark said, describing him as a “perfect landlord who doesn’t micromanage.” He’s been selling the Kimballs portions of the farm at a very generous “farmer” price.
Many young farmers worked at Essex Farm before going off on their own. Others found different ways to acquire practical know-how in advance. Take Courtney. She ran a vegetable farm and little CSA program for several years with a couple of girlfriends and later immersed herself in livestock production at Essex Farm. She also apprenticed with a blacksmith, graduated from industrial welding school, and gained competency as a butcher.
The dynamic Essex County scene caught the attention of Severine Von Tscharner Fleming, the force behind the Greenhorns, a national organization that aims to “strengthen the cultural and social fabric for the next generation of farmers.” The six-year-old, largely volunteer group throws parties for young farmers, produces festivals, hosts a radio show, and engages in all sorts of creative collaborations. It has published several books and released a full-length documentary.
From her cross-country travels Severine was acquainted with manifestations of what she calls “the punk yeoman movement” in many locales. But several forays into the Champlain Valley to hold Greenhorns events persuaded her that something special was afoot here. In 2012, she relocated the Greenhorns office to Essex County.
Despite abundant land, buying a farm is often not affordable to beginning farmers. In December 2012 the Open Space Institute launched a Champlain Valley land-conservation program to address this problem. Among the beneficiaries is Mace Chasm Farm, which is selling its development rights to OSI. The nonprofit organization also crafted an innovative lease-to-own program. It purchases a farm at full value and leases it back to a farmer. The farmer then has five years to establish a farming operation and the credit history to qualify for borrowing. Funds from selling these farms return to the program.
“A lot of these farmers have worked at Essex Farm or been introduced to us by Essex Farm. They’re often unable to get financing because they don’t have history,” said Katie Petronis, OSI’s Northern Program director.
OSI established the program with a $1.2 million gift from the Klipper Fund and its own half-million-dollar match. The funding is earmarked for farmland, open space, and forestlands.
Last spring the lease-to-own program gave Ashlee Kleinhammer the means to take possession of Clover Mead Farm, less than a mile away from Mace Chasm Farm. The small dairy came with a cheese plant (but not equipment), cheese cave, and retail store. As part of the deal former owner Sam Hendren taught her how to make his signature cheeses.
“The market is not yet saturated, unlike across the lake in Vermont,” she remarked. The Essex Farm alum from California had previously worked with cows on four farms. Renting out the farmhouse to a local CSA member gives her income to pay the lease. She lives in a small house on wheels that she built.
Another young farmer, Ian Ater, preceded Ashlee on Clover Mead Farm. He originally stumbled into agriculture when a college buddy invited him to milk Clover Mead Farm’s small herd of Jerseys with him. “I had never milked a cow in my life,” said Ian, who grew up in suburban Rochester.
They built an apartment in the barn and later, with the owners’ blessing, began growing vegetables for sale. Ian stayed five years. Later he arranged for a crash course with several Hudson Valley organic-vegetable farmers in preparation for starting Fledging Crow Vegetables with Lucas Christenson six years ago.
They began with seven “very bony” leased acres in Chesterfield. The field lacked water or power but was “what I had available to me at the time at the right price, which was free,” Ian recounts.
Two years ago, the landowner leased them ten more acres—rock free but wet—at a different site. After a seventy-horsepower tractor got stuck in the mud, the Kimballs gave him a short-term loan to have drainage tile installed. “We finally have enough land,” said Ian.
Racey Bingham changed careers to become a farmer. Working as a development adviser in Africa for the World Bank, she found that “the more advanced I got in my career, the less I saw farmers and had my hands in the dirt.” She discovered Essex Farm after her dad and stepmom retired to the area. After volunteering at the farm, she quit her job. Now she straddles two careers—as a development consultant and farmer. The outside income enables her to tackle grad-school debt and subsidize a slow start-up at Reber Rock Farm. “I’m producing good, healthy food for myself and the community,” she said.
The farm is a joint project with her fiancé, Nathan Henderson, a seismic engineer, and Chad Vogel, a draft-horseman who worked at Essex Farm for four years. “Our main goal is to fit into the Essex foodscape because it’s pretty full with CSAs and young farmers,” Racey said.
Alex Eaton said he and his partner, Margo Brooks, a dairy farmer’s daughter, wanted to buy a farm “while our bodies are still capable and we have enthusiasm.” They’d been looking for a farm in Vermont, where they were managing a farm known for its award-winning cheeses. Deterred by high land prices across the lake, the two Saint Lawrence University graduates purchased an overgrown farm in Upper Jay in 2012 that had languished on the market for years.
With a remarkable amount of work the couple transformed the property into an up-and-running cheese farm named Sugarhouse Creamery. The land is encircled by mountains. “The first thing we did was work on the old farmhouse and rent it out,” Alex recalled. Then they fixed up the mother-in-law apartment and started renting it to tourists via the Air BnB website, where it has “totally taken off.”
As a teenager Adam Hainer sold produce from his home garden at a farmers market, but did not imagine farming could ever be his livelihood—that is, until he met Melody Horn while on a carpentry job at a greens farm in Westport. She brought a more positive outlook on market gardening from an apprenticeship at Roxbury Farm, a leading Hudson Valley CSA.
In 2007, when Adam was twenty-two, they started Juniper Hill Farm on the Wadhams farm he grew up on. He said he already possessed “the skills to do it right the first time,” referring to construction trades, mechanics, and welding that every farm needs. From an initial three acres they expanded at a dizzying speed. After Tropical Storm Irene wreaked havoc on their floodplain fields, they moved production onto better rented land. Now they grow twenty acres of vegetables and flowers. “We’re getting by, doing what we love,” he said.
Sam Hendren, the retired cheesemaker, deserves credit for growing markets for local farmers. Over a decade ago, he started producer-only farmers markets in Lake Placid and Schroon Lake, later adding another in Saranac Lake. Since he and his wife Denise had been instrumental in reviving the once-dying Ausable Valley Grange in Keeseville, it became the market sponsor.
The Ausable Valley Grange also is integrating the young farmers into its ranks. “There’s a lot more energy out there. And some of the products they’re producing are pretty darn good,” Sam said of their contribution.
Ultimately these farmers must contend with the finite pool of customers in the Adirondacks. Grappling with how to deal with these limits, Racey suggests unfilled niches like mushrooms, berries, specialty game birds, and organic orchards.
After Juniper Hill hit a wall in its CSA membership, Adam developed a workplace-delivery program in Glens Falls and Saratoga Springs. Customers pay in advance for the season, and get weekly deliveries of what they order from the farm’s virtual storefront.
For a larger product selection, Adam partnered with Ashlee and Asa and Courtney. “We generated over $7,000 upfront for their farms,” he said. Mace Chasm and North Country Creamery also cooperate by sharing equipment and they have marketed jointly. And a bunch of these farms trade their products.
The young farmers have been embraced by the local community. When Ashlee hired people to clip pastures or move animal bedding, they were reluctant to charge her because they want her to succeed. “The folks who grew up here want to see the land continue to be farmed,” she observed.
For Sam Hendren, all the developments he has witnessed add up to something remarkable and unexpected. “Years ago in the video Three Farms I said I’d like to live in a community of farmers that are productive and happy and cooperating with each other,” he said. “Just a few weeks ago someone pointed out to me that that’s what we have now on Mace Chasm Road.”