End of Season Reflection, December 2021
In October of 2008, as Dan and I wrapped up Restoration Farm’s first full season, composing an end-of-year letter to our CSA members seemed like a no-brainer. Several months prior, 100 people had opened their wallets based the mere promise that we would work really, really hard to grow the best vegetables we could, so it only seemed right, at the season’s end, that we offer our own reflections on how well we had or hadn’t fulfilled that promise. We also had an ulterior motive. We wanted those same people to open their wallets again. Our mentor, Dan Guenther, had convinced us that the key to keeping CSA members on board was by rewarding early signups with a bonus Thanksgiving pickup, and I believed a letter would help seal the deal. So that’s what we did, and it’s proven to be a winning formula:
October letter to CSA members + bonus Thanksgiving pickup = 75% retention rate
We don’t like to mess with success, but a lot has changed since 2008, including our concept of audience and season. Members come and members go, some temporarily and some forever. The farm stand attracts its own revolving door of loyal customers. Then there are the volunteers and staff who pour their hearts into this place for weeks or seasons at a time. And the season itself? Thanksgiving used to mark the end, but now we’re open year-round. The point here is that an October letter written exclusively to our CSA members once felt adequate, but now that's no longer the case. A December letter addressed to everyone seems more fitting.
So, how did 2021 go? Just like any season, there were highs, lows, and everything in between. We got off to a strong start, with Steve Cecchini and Peter Notarnicola on board as field managers, Jen Hochuli as Tin House host, and Nancy Galgano joining us for the first time in the fields. We were still riding the wave of enthusiasm ignited by the pandemic, and we hatched many plans.
Just as many restaurants expanded their concept of outdoor dining last winter, we expanded our concept of farm tour. Turns out, there’s plenty to see in the dead of winter. From late December through March, on alternate Sundays, I led a series of free walks through the fields, with no agenda beyond fresh air and good conversation. Some walks had three people, some had thirty; some had balmy weather, some had snow. The most memorial walk, by far, was on January 10, when a Cessna plane crashed before our very eyes across the street from the farm. No other walk packed the same punch, but all of them were better than the typical lockdown alternative—hanging around the house.
Cover Crops Experiments
On the cover cropping front, we took a chance on what felt like a bold experiment—reusing the clover pathways seeded between the 2020 tomatoes for the 2021 winter squash. The benefits of cover crop are well-known, and seeding cover crops before or after a cash crop is pretty straightforward, i.e. all farmers can and should do it. Seeding a cover crop between cash crops is more complicated but totally feasible; we’ve been doing it for years, and we’re not alone. Recycling a perennial cover crop, however, is a new frontier for us. It’s relatively easy to prep and plant into an empty field, which is why farmers plow and disk in the spring. To work around an existing cover crop requires greater precision and careful timing, but it’s the next step in the tillage reduction journey. In retrospect, winter squash wasn’t the best choice for this experiment, due to its vining habit, but that’s what experiments are for—learning what doesn’t work draws you closer to what does. So next year, we’ll try it again, with some tweaks.
Last spring also marked the launch of Peter’s Oddballs, an experimental field next to the winter squash. Peter is a hard worker with a creative, independent streak, and by offering him his own field, we hoped to satisfy any restless urges. The result? A rotating roster of unique items from around the globe. In the spring, there was rattail radish and New Zealand spinach. In the summer, there was bitter melon, watermelon, and Carolina reapers. In the fall, there was winter melon, popcorn, and a whole menagerie of oddball squash. Papa had his work cut out for him at the register—Peter, how much for the rattail? Peter, what’s a winter melon? Peter, I’m going to start making stuff up if you don’t answer people’s questions! All in all, Peter’s Oddballs were a fun addition to the farm stand.
The biggest oddball was the 600 lb. giant pumpkin that provided a backdrop to dozens of family portraits. It was also the star of our Halloween play. To anyone who’s ever wondered if I take myself too seriously, or if our crew never has any fun, I respectfully submit Exhibit A, The Great Pumpkin Chase.
Herb Garden Club
In March I emailed CSA members with an invitation to join the fledgling herb garden club. My goal was to gain the upper hand on the perennial herb beds just inside the farm gate. These beds are the first thing people see when they arrive at the farm, but for the past few years they’ve been an eyesore. From 2008-2013, they were so carefully maintained by CSA-member Diane Lockspeiser that when she moved upstate, we had a temporary reprieve from the weeds. For a few hopeful/naïve years, I thought I could rely on kids to keep things under control. That was short-lived, so this year I called in the adults. Seventeen members signed up, each taking responsibility for several beds. Sometimes our crew would see club members hard at work, other times there was only evidence of their presence. Either way, it was a relief to know the beds were in good hands, and the garden itself looked the best it has in years.
As I sit writing on a balmy December evening, I can barely remember the summer weather, but a quick scroll through my photos reminds me that it was very, very wet. The kind of wet that would have ruined crops in earlier years. But you learn from bad weather just as you learn from experiments. Unlike most of Long Island, our soil is heavy, closer to clay than to sand. On the positive side, it can hold onto nutrients for a long time. On the negative side, it’s slow to drain. It used to be that heavy downpours brought fieldwork to a halt for days on end, but we’ve moved on from that, largely thanks to cover crops. The clover pathways seeded between the cash crops act as a natural sponge that soaks up excess water, holds the soil in place, and allows us back into the fields once the clouds clear. I changed my socks plenty of times last summer, but I don’t recall losing a single plant or more than a day to heavy rain. Which isn’t to say the weather wasn’t at all problematic. Trying to cure garlic and onions in 100% humidity wasn’t fun. And we lost more winter squash to field rot than we would have liked. But it could have been a lot worse.
The biggest disappointment of the season was Steve getting sick again. He missed most of 2019 to fight colon cancer, but he was back for 2020 and we hoped it was for good. His unexpected absence this year was hard. At a time when we wanted to support him as a friend, we had to pick up his slack in the fields. No one can fill Steve’s shoes, but in order to keep the farm running, we hired CSA member Jackie Ford.
Several months and a major surgery later, Steve informed us that the cancer has spread. His doctors have a plan to keep it in remission, but they don’t expect to cure it. It’s crappy news, but it’s the truth.
Now we’re operating with a keen awareness of numbered days. Surprisingly, it’s not very different from how we operated before. After all, every one of us is going to die. We should still hatch plans and live our lives. Mostly recovered from surgery, Steve has been out and about in the fields. Just last week, he joined me as I led a tour of high school students studying regenerative agriculture. So that’s where we’re at. Taking it one day at a time, trying to make them count.
Overall, 2021 felt like a continuation of 2020, with a few notable exceptions. Thanks to the pandemic, interest in the farm remains at an all-time high, and we’ve been burning the candle at both ends to convert that interest into something more enduring. We’ve kept the gate open year-round and given everyone, whether CSA member, farm stand customer, or random person off the street, a reason to venture into the fields. We’ve opened the door to partnerships with Cornell Cooperative Extensions of Nassau and Suffolk Counties and with our host, the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. We’re cultivating an active pipeline of Restoration Farm leaders and staff. We've done all this while remaining committed to the simple mission of growing healthy, sustainable food.
Why are we putting so much extra work on our plate? It's because we’re thinking ahead. Restoration Farm was founded by Dan and myself when we were a young couple chasing a dream, but though our story may be endearing, it doesn't guarantee the future. We are stewards, not owners, of public land. Any enduring influence we hope to exert over the land, therefore, means bringing the public on board. At some point, Dan and I will move on, and at some point, Nassau County may reconsider the mission of the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. To prepare for that day, we want to drive home the message that farms are essential—they always have been, and they always will be. The pandemic was the best vehicle for this message; I tried to bolster it in a short documentary produced with several friends last winter. If these efforts are successful, and we cement a network of people committed to supporting Restoration Farm far into the future, I believe the satisfaction will be even greater than the experience of building it from scratch.
Thanks for reading, happy holidays, and looking forward to seeing you back at the farm in 2022!