End of Season Reflection, December 2022
Every year, I write an end-of-season reflection. The italics are meant confer to dignity, but if I’m being honest, the piece should probably be called what we hoped to accomplish vs. what we barely survived. Hope you enjoy the 2022 edition…
I jumped into last winter determined to start addressing the question of farm succession—who will lead Restoration Farm when Dan and I retire. This has become a mini obsession of mine, not because we’ll be retiring anytime soon, but because succession planning is difficult, and because we’d like to retire eventually. Many farmers struggling with succession are landowners drowning in debt, so it’s no wonder few kids want to follow in their footsteps. Our position on Nassau County parkland, however, is very different. Restoration Farm owns no land and has no debts, but that doesn’t mean there's a big pool of successors to ready to fill our shoes—there simply aren’t enough farmers out there! Normally, I'd save this kind of big-picture question for the NOFA-NY winter conference, our annual opportunity to bounce ideas off a bunch of farmers at once, but with the conference on hiatus since the pandemic, I’ve had to seek insight elsewhere. I began by writing an article for the NOFA newsletter as a way of putting our story out there, and hopefully eliciting feedback. I also reached out to Wendy Burkhart-Spiegel, who ran the Poughkeepsie Farm Project (where Dan and I met) from 2003-2012. Wendy’s insight on operating a nonprofit farm was helpful, and ultimately piqued my interest in worker-owned companies. Research down that path was also interesting, but before I could get very far, spring had returned, and it was time to get back into the fields.
Spring was pretty typical—lots of seeding, lots of bed prep, lots of planting. If anything stood out particular, it was rediscovering the juggle of parenting while farming. Dan and I were often out of the fields by 3pm so we could ferry our kids to and from their extra-curriculars, and hopefully prepare a decent dinner somewhere in between. It wasn’t easy, but after two years of pandemic limbo, we were determined to facilitate as much activity—and a break from the screens—as possible. Given all of our investments in equipment, infrastructure, and staff, we felt the farm could handle it.
Summer was when things got off the rails. The rain stopped mid-June, and while the first dry week didn’t worry us, by the end of the second we knew we were facing a different kind of season. Recalling our experiences in 2016—the last year we’d had a serious drought—we went on the offensive, harvesting as much as we could ahead of the animals searching for something—anything—with water. Despite our best efforts, the animals made their desperation known. Birds pecked holes in the tomatoes. A woodchuck burrowed tunnels under the winter squash. By early July, deer were making nightly visits to the lettuce. Overall, we took these challenges in stride, knowing the drought was a passing phase we just had to get through. The deer, on the other hand, had become an existential threat requiring a serious response.
No doubt, the deer were driven to extremes by the drought, but their presence at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration has been a source of anxiety for years. Since 2018, we’ve gone from spotting one or two in the spring to finding fresh tracks every morning. How to address it has been the subject of much debate between Dan and myself. Unlike other issues we’ve faced, this isn’t something we can tackle on our own, i.e. a serious response will require approval from Nassau County. We hadn’t considered fencing in the past because of the cost and the potential disruption to the OBVR park. Hunting seemed like the easier option. But in the summer of 2020, when I broached the topic with the parks commissioner, the answer was a clear no. So this summer, as our lettuce losses were mounting, I sat down to sketch the fence I would install if money and permission weren't concerns. Once I saw it on paper, with multiple gates to preserve the flow of people and vehicles through the park, getting Nassau County approval didn’t seem so far-fetched after all. I decided to go for it. I announced my intentions—which included crowd-sourcing the funding—in the August newsletter. The announcement sparked an outpouring of support from many readers, and heated debate among the crew, not all of whom loved the idea. Nevertheless, with no other options on the table, I moved forward, and began contract negotiations with Nassau County.
The rains returned in September, just in time to germinate our fall cover crops. As we began advertising winter shares, yields on some storage crops were way down—by as much as 50% for potatoes—but other fall crops still had a chance to do well. Lucky for us, most of them did. We ended up with boatloads of broccoli, cauliflower bigger than my head, and more beets, carrots, and cabbage than we could fit in the walk-in cooler. So despite our early disclaimer that this year's winter share might be smaller than usual, members have been getting their money’s worth, and probably more.
Hellos and Goodbyes
As we do every year, this season we welcomed new people to the farm community, while bidding farewell to others. We gave a warm send-off to Josh Wang, whose violin playing had become a regular feature of the Saturday farm stand. Josh started at Columbia University in September, and hopefully he's having a great time rocking out with the other freshman, while also keeping up with his studies. Lucky for us, we made a new musical connection in John Royal, who came for a fig swap and stayed on to play ukelele and guitar. John serenaded our Saturday customers all season long, and his wife, Cara, gamely stepped up to the register whenever Kobi, our 11-year-old cashier, was away at swim meets/summer camp/soccer games. John and Cara brought a wonderful vibe to the Tin House, and we hope they’ll be back in 2023.
In October, we paid our respects to Don Peterson, our long-time beekeeper and friend. Don passed unexpectedly of a heart attack, and with hundreds of hives all around Long Island, he left big shoes to fill. Fortunately, the Long Island Beekeepers Club was quick to reach out to us and send Maryellen Ciuffo to oversee Don’s hives at the farm. Since then, Maryellen and several beekeeping colleagues have been making regular visits, which makes me feel that even in his absence, Don is looking out for us.
Finally, we’re saying goodbye to Peter Notarnicola and Jen Hochuli, who are wrapping up their final season with us. It’s hard to part ways with hard-working employees, and easy to wish things never had to change, but sometimes it’s the best way forward for everyone. We’re grateful for the years they gave us—Peter since 2016, and Jen since 2020—and we wish them all the best as they navigate their next chapter.
If I thought the return of winter meant I could pick up where I left off—tackling that tricky question of succession—now I’m not so sure. Fence approval is in the works, but it’s still not a done deal; once it is, I’ll need to focus on raising the money. I also need to focus on hiring new staff for 2023 (spread the word, we’re hiring!) It may be that the need to prepare for 2023 is enough to fill a winter, and succession planning will have to wait. Dan doesn’t concern himself with this the way I do, choosing instead to believe the right people will come along at the right time. To that I often reply, failing to plan is planning to fail, but after 13 years of marriage, I’ve also learned that Dan can be right, sometimes, too. When you’ve bit off more than you can chew, the only thing to do is spit something back. So I'll keep succession planning on the shelf for now, and hopefully this winter will be more manageable—and enjoyable—for it.
As always, Dan and I are eternally grateful to the CSA members, farm stand customers, family, friends, volunteers, and staff who’ve been a part of the farm's winding, complex, never-perfect, and ever-evolving journey. We wish you all the best this holiday season, and we look forward to continuing the journey with you next year!