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Farewell to a Mentor

February 12, 2021

Just before Christmas, on a whim, I bought a 25 lb. bag of bird seed and poured a pound or two into several ball jars as gifts. I figured what was left would last the rest of the winter. Five weeks later, I’m about to crack open my third bag. Watching the cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers, bluejays, and nuthatches (I could go on) swoop outside my window has been a welcome distraction from the computer. This winter I vowed to tackle several office upgrades, and I’m making good on that promise, but holy moly it’s been a slog. Cleaning up my computer act isn’t nearly as satisfying as seeding cover crop, but it’s long overdue. Thank God for the birds.

And thank God for the snow, which has provided entertainment for the kids and a reason to get (and stay!) outside. For anyone inclined to worry about Judy’s chickens, they like it just fine. When heavy snow is in the forecast, Judy loads them up with enough food and bedding to get through the 24-hour period they’ll be locked in their coops. Once it’s safe to travel, she and I head to the farm to dig them out; if Dan isn’t plowing at his other job, he joins us. When the chickens hear us approaching, they start clucking in excitement. I used to feel sorry for them, thinking they’d be frantic to fly the coop (ha!), so I’d made a beeline to open the doors as fast as possible. Most of the time, however, they'd just crowd at the threshold, the looks on their faces saying it all: Do you actually expect us to walk on that? Now I make it a point to shovel a proper run around the coops before opening the doors. Sometimes I get fancy with roundabouts, intersections, and service lanes. The chickens love it. I open the doors and they hit the ground running.

February thus far might have been indistinguishable from January, were it not for one notable event. On February 1, Dan Guenther, former boss and mentor to Dan and myself, died while shoveling snow at his home in New Paltz. He was 77. Guenther was an active, larger than life visionary. Without a doubt, he is the reason Dan and I are farming today. It’s hard to know where to start in the story of our connection with Guenther, so I’ll just start at the beginning.

Guenther was raised in Manhattan and earned an engineering degree, but he and his wife Ann, a naturalist from Chicago, charted an unconventional course as back-to-the land homesteaders in upstate New York. They raised two children and eventually established themselves in New Paltz, where they became known for their environmental activism. In the mid 1990s, Guenther helped launch the Phillies Bridge Farm Project in Gardinder, NY; it was one of the country’s first CSA farms. Over the next decade, he’d help launch three more.

In 1999, Dan Holmes moved to New Paltz with his girlfriend. Armed with an English degree but leery of white collar work, he took a position at an AmeriCorps community garden on the Vassar College campus. That’s where he met Guenther, who was opening a 10-acre plot next door—the fledgling Poughkeepsie Farm Project. Guenther was a master at recruiting help, and in 2000, Dan Holmes jumped the fence to join him. He stayed on as Guenther's assistant for three years. I worked there in 2002, along with several other apprentices.

For Dan and myself, our time working for Guenther was transformative. He was towering, intimidating, inspiring. Many people called him a “gentle giant,” but that’s not how we remember him. He set an unbelievably high bar for himself and for the people he worked with; I’m sure some employees felt abused by him. But he was a boots-on-the-ground kind of visionary. Whatever he asked of others, he was willing to do (or had already done) himself. And no matter how demanding he could be, there was no question it came from a deep well of love. Guenther and Ann recognized the threat of climate change long before most others, and they devoted their adult lives to fighting it. To that end, they enlisted the power of community. On the farm, that meant getting people into the fields as participatory members. Guenther didn’t sell hayrides or apple picking; instead, he offered sweat, muscle strain, and dirty hands. For many people, the experience was transcendent. He made me believe organic farms can save human life of Earth. I believed it in 2002, and I believe it now.

In 2003, Dan Holmes left Poughkeepsie for a head grower position at Sophia Garden, a 1-acre CSA in Amityville. Meanwhile, two years of white collar work in NYC was enough for me, and I joined him as assistant grower in 2006. Within months, we were firmly committed to each other and to a future in farming, but we needed more potential that Sophia Garden could provide. We reached out to Guenther, who invited us to help him with his newest CSA, the Brook Farm Project, on the Mohonk Preserve. Dan and I moved back upstate in the winter of 2007, living in a communal farmhouse with Guenther and Ann. Ultimately, however, Dan concluded that returning to the role of Guenther’s assistant was a step backward, not forward, so we moved back to Long Island. Several weeks later, Nassau County called for bids for the creation of an organic farm at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. We submitting the winning bid, and we’ve been there ever since.

When Dan and I launched Restoration Farm, the Poughkeepsie Farm Project was our model. We wanted our CSA members, staff, and volunteers to experience the magic we had experienced upstate. So we planted pick-your-own berries, herbs, and flowers. We hosted volunteer days. We invited members to glean the fields after the harvest. We hosted various events, some more successfully than others. My favorite event took place last October, when we performed an interactive Halloween play in the fields (the Guenthers were famous in New Paltz for their elaborate Halloween productions). As suburban farmers without much land but with plenty of neighbors, we believed a strong community connection would be essential to our success. Plus, we’d bought into Guenther’s notion that if you connect people with the land, they’ll care about it, and that if they care about it, they’ll fight to protect it. I’d like to believe Restoration Farm has already cultivated—continues to cultivate—its own crop of future environmentalists.

If you knew Dan, you’d smile at how perfectly his death suited him. Full of spirit and action to the end. May we all be blessed with role models like him. I’m so grateful for the influence he had on my life, and I thank him for shoveling the path forward.

Dan Guenther on Brook Farm in 2006. Photo by Lauren Thomas

—Caroline Fanning


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