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End of Season Reflection, December 2023
The events of the farm’s first years are imprinted in my memory like they happened yesterday. The night our new tractors arrived. Sautéing greens at our first CSA pickup. Running the Saturday farm stand with my mother, grandmother, and newborn. But as the years piled up, the memories started to jumble. Did we build the second chicken coop in 2012 or 2014? Did Zsofi and Dylan ever work together? When was the last year of the raspberries? It was inevitable that the years would lose their clarity. Chapters, on the other hand, remain distinct. There was the startup, from 2007-2012, when each year involved opening a new field. In the childhood phase, 2013-2015, we moved into the Tin House and launched an arts education program that generated a lot of buzz—and a lot of burnout. We returned to our roots in the 2016-2018 years, focusing on the fields with a small but skilled staff. Now, as we wrap up our 17th season, it feels like another chapter is ending. This was period of tumult. It began with Steve Cecchini’s cancer diagnosis in 2019; it gained momentum with the pandemic; it climaxed with the deer fence. While there’s no guarantee the next chapter will be any less tumultuous, it’s also true that the specific forces we’ve been dealing with for the past 5 years were brought to their respective conclusions in 2023. Here's how it went…
We began the year with our walk-in coolers packed with storage crops and a bi-weekly schedule of markets, walks, and other activities. Year-round engagement was our response to the pandemic, and interest in our winter offerings held steady. We also interviewed new crew members for the upcoming season—for the first time in years, we had multiple positions to fill. Lastly, we continued to make moves on the deer front. Though Nassau County had granted permission for a fence the previous December, it also breathed new life into the possibility of hunting. We'd been operating on the assumption that this option was off the table, but even a tiny spark of hope was something to take seriously—if we could avoid a $50,000 fence, we would! So we made every effort to connect with the various officials whose support we would need. By the end of January, however, with no one returning our calls, it was clear nothing would happen fast enough for the upcoming season. But we had a CSA to feed, so we cut our losses and began fundraising for a fence.
On February 5, Steve passed, following a long, stubborn battle with cancer. He was a friend and colleague since 2011, and a crew member since 2015. When he got sick in 2019, everyone hoped that chemo, radiation, and surgery would restore him to us; for a time, it seemed that would be the case. He returned in 2020, just as the pandemic brought a flood of new staff, customers, and volunteers to our door. It’s hard to imagine how we would have handled that wild year without him. But in 2021, the cancer returned, leaving him unable to work in the field. We kept in touch over the phone, and he occasionally dropped in, but the end was clearly in sight. When he finally passed, it was a heartbreaking relief—he’d been in pain for a long time.
Dan and I spent the following weeks mourning Steve, preparing for the fence, and reconnecting as partners in the field; we hadn't spent that much time together since the start-up. Then, in mid-February, Nassau County officials surprised us by requesting a major change to the fence project. They asked that we exclude Pond Field, due to its high visibility within the OBVR museum. We explained that the field would hold no value for us without a fence, so they offered to swap it for a for a similar-sized parcel directly to the south. The swap presented both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it meant a shorter, less expensive fence, and a more consolidated field map. On the minus side, it meant giving up our blackberry beds, and starting from scratch in an entirely new field. But from the moment the swap was suggested, we knew we would take it. We could always plant new blackberries and build more organic matter, but we might never get the chance to adjust our borders again. Given how much a consolidated map would improve our relationship with OBVR and the County, we agreed to the swap and never looked back.
It took seven months to prepare for the fence, but only 2 days to install it. At dawn on April 3, two flatbed trailers from Pennsylvania arrived, carrying dozens of posts, giant rolls of fencing, two ATVs, two skid steers, and the 5-person LB Fencing crew. After a quick tour around the farm, they got to work. By 4pm the next day, they were on their way back to Pennsylvania. And just like that, the fence was up.
As the fence project neared its conclusion, Dan and I also focused on preparing for our seasonal crew. With three new members on board, we had a lot of team-building to do. So in March we held an orientation with our veteran crew members Nancy Galgano and Jackie Ford and newcomers Mike Simpson, Adam Li, and Mia Goren. In the comfort of our living room, we made introductions, discussed workplace policies, and got pumped for the season ahead. Then we went our separate ways. Mike returned in April and spent the following weeks getting acclimated. Adam and Mia, on the other hand, returned in May, just as CSA harvests kicked off. As promised at the orientation, their first week of was a baptism by fire.
When harvesting is as simple as performing a single motion on a single crop for hours on end, teaching is a breeze. But when there are 12 different items to harvest, and everyone is a beginner, and the first round is a live round, and the clock is ticking, teaching becomes a lot more complicated. And so I found myself, on the eve of the first CSA pickup, awake until midnight devising an hour-by-hour schedule to ensure 1) everyone would get the instruction they needed, 2) no one would be stuck waiting around, and 3) we’d be ready for our 2pm opening. The first harvest went as smoothly as I dared hope, but no two harvests are alike, so the late-night sessions continued into June. In that time, Mike mastered the lettuce and carrots, Adam the scallions and kale, and Mia the radishes and beets. I handled the more complicated crops, Nancy washed everything, and Jackie set it all up in the Tin House. There were plenty of mistakes, beginner and otherwise, but you’d never know it at CSA pickup.
Then the summer fruit crops started rolling in, and the need for late-night plans went out the window. Instead, harvest lessons went something like this:
You see these beans? Pick them. Three hours a day, 2 days a week, for the next 4 weeks.
These cherry tomatoes? Same thing. Two hours a day, 3 days a week, for the next 8 weeks.
Welcome to farming. Be sure to drink plenty of water.
Our summer days were ruled by endless waves of zucchini, cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Usually we picked as a crew, but occasionally we picked alone. Even Dan, who spent much of his time on the tractor, was frequently called to help pick. Initially, we were thrilled—who doesn’t love a bumper crop? But as summer waned and the fruit crops continued to dominate, the abundance posed a problem. Fall crops on the verge of maturity had to be harvested. Winter roots had to be seeded. Winter share and CSA renewal notices had to go out. There was ton to do, and not nearly enough time to do it. But this was nothing new, and Dan and I have grown fairly adept at triage. So in August, as we resolved to relieve pressure somewhere, our sights settled on two things—the winter share and our Thursday market.
Like most things around here, the winter share has changed over the years. It began with a single pickup in 2015 and quickly grew into a 3-pickup share in November and December. This required bigger plantings of storage crops. When the pandemic sparked broad interest in winter markets, we added 4 pickups in January and February, which required even more storage crops. At the time, our crew had both the energy and experience to make it happen. Fast forward to 2023, and things had changed. The urgency of the pandemic had faded. Our crew had plenty of energy, but far less experience. Given this shift, reverting back to the original 3-pickup share was a simple, obvious solution. To maintain an outlet for surplus storage crops, as well as a connection with our customers, we’d host one farm stand a month through the winter and spring.
The Thursday market, on the other hand, was a less obvious target. Our weekly schedule, in fact, is one of the few things that has been consistent through the years. But in 2018, we learned a valuable lesson in streamlining. That winter, I relayed to a fellow farmer my growing fatigue with running five markets a week—CSA pickup every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and the farm stand every Sunday and Wednesday. She suggested I merge the two, and described how her own CSA members and farm stand customers play nicely in the sandbox of her Rochester market tent. So we took her adivce, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. We had Sundays off! We could devote Wednesdays to field work! CSA members and their guests could shop at the farm stand, and farm stand customers could observe how CSA pickups work. Though we were sorry to lose a few Sunday regulars, the streamlined schedule was a huge improvement, and we never regretted it. But then the pandemic hit, bringing with it the pressure to minimize crowds, and our hours changed again. We switched our weekday start time from 3pm to 2pm, and our Saturday start from 10am to 9am. Three extra hours a week may not seem like much, but over the course of a season, it added up. So last summer, as we sought additional ways to relieve pressure, we decided to streamline again.
When Dan and I announced our decisions to the CSA—that we would scale back the winter share and end the Thursday pickup—we were prepared for disappointment. The response, however, was overwhelmingly supportive. More than half of our members have been with us for 5 years or more; a quarter have been with us since the start-up. They’ve seen some big changes over time, and the general message conveyed to us was: Do what you gotta do. So we will.
Fall was quiet and wet. Adam and Mia headed back to school. Persistent rain put a damper on the Saturday pickups. The remaining crew, plus a few volunteers, scrambled to dig potatoes during the dry spells, short as they were. We continued picking loads of tomatoes until finally—finally!—we turned the field over to CSA gleaners.
With the season winding down, Dan and I shifted our attention to a project that had been percolating on the back burner since the spring—opening New Pond Field. Cut off from the rest of the farm by an overgrown fence line, the field was a blank canvas waiting to be mapped. Trees cast shade at the southern end. There was a dip in the northwest corner. The curve of the road thwarted the simplicity of a single, rectangular plot. There was much to learn, but we needed to make a move, so we flagged two plots and started plowing. We even managed to get a cover crop seeded. At the same time, we worked to clear the fence line. Once the line was clear, however, and we had a broader perspective of the field, we realized there was a better way to map it. So despite the progress already made—and the cover crop just beginning to germinate—we decided to start over. Because we know that borders, once established, are hard to change. But we can always reseed.
As Dan and I reflect back on all the changes that happened in 2023, it's clear that this was both a big year and the finale to a big chapter. Steve is now a friend we consult in our hearts. The pandemic pushed us to new limits, but the time had come to pull back. The farm's future, very much in doubt just 18 months ago, is now more secure than ever, thanks to the deer fence. Will the next chapter be any less tumultuous? Only time will tell. With a new field to prepare, a new schedule to adapt to, and the structure of our staff still evolving (spread the word—we’re hiring!), there’s much we don’t know. What we do know is that this work, tumultuous or not, brings us more satisfaction than anything else we can imagine doing. So we'll just keep on doing it.
As always, we are deeply indebted to the hundreds of people who make this farm the community endeavor that it is. To the CSA members who put their faith in us year after year. To the farm stand customers who also support us. To the volunteers who keep it fun. To our parents and kids, all of whom contribute in their own, unique ways. To the Nassau County officials, past and present, who allow us to survive and thrive on this beautiful piece of land. To the crew members who labor with us. We couldn't do it without you.
Dan and I wish you all the best this holiday season. We look forward to continuing the journey with you in 2024!
Fence Fundraiser—Final Note
We never expected to ask for donations. Since the farm’s founding in 2007, we’ve prided ourselves on covering all costs through vegetable sales alone. But farming on public land complicates things. If we were younger, spending $50,000 of our own money might make sense, but at our ages—48 and 41—it’s hard to justify, especially with two kids to support. So we swallowed our pride and put on our fundraising hats. We didn’t know what to expect, but we truly believed the fence was essential for both current and future farming at OBVR. We hoped others would believe and support it, too.
By June, we’d raised $35,000 from 200 individuals; by early December, $42,000 from 250 individuals. With nothing else to reference, we’re inclined to think that’s pretty darn good! To everyone who donated, we are so grateful.
But we’re still $8,000 short of our goal. So in the final days of 2023, we’re making a final appeal. If you value Restoration Farm as a source of nutritious food, open space, education, and community, please consider making a donation. We welcome all the help we can get, and no amount is too small. Please help us bring this fundraiser to a close! We’re ready to start our next chapter, and I promise that once we ring in the New Year, I will never use the f - word again.
Click here to donate, and thanks!
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