Rural before urban

City garden in Downtown Manhatten, near Battery Park
City garden in Downtown Manhatten, near Battery Park, New York City

My farming experiences in New York so far have been rural and accidental instead of urban and planned. I had hoped to explore the city garden projects that the city is becoming known for but family commitments and some serious sight seeing meant that I didn’t have the chance. I did however have a couple of those surreptitious travel moments where you end up somewhere fantastic that you didn’t really plan to be, which turn out to be for good reason. The first was on a trip back from near the Catskill Mountains to the city where we called into a small dairy farm to collect some milk. Raw milk is banned for direct sale in the state of New York, but some farmers will sell it for around $1 a pint at the farm gate. This gave me the chance to meet the farmer selling it and discover he is struggling to make ends meet as prime land is gobbled up around him and his wife by the giants that dominate US agriculture scene. To my surprise we arrived at milking time, for him around 11:30 am and it made me realise that this was an all day job. He had about 40 cows in the shed (most of his herd) and about three sets of cups to milk the lot of them. Slowly moving the whole cup set, pipes and all, from cow to cow one at a time. Tedious. And a bit like how my Granddad used to do it back in the fifties in England, but even Granddad was faster and his technology more efficient. The only question from the farmer to me was how the milk company at home in New Zealand (Fonterra) sets the milk price to farmers each season. Do they buffer it or is there a big difference between pay cheques? He needs more certainty. The discussion on the way home was how to further assist these small farmers – would it be finance they would need? Or extra land? Better technology to free up their time? Certainly selling milk for $1 a pint is not going to help them get ahead. But perhaps there are better ways for them to do so, combining with other small farms in the region, or taking the MOO Milk approach that Maine farmers do, selling as a cooperative.

Small dairy farm, New York
Small dairy farm, New York

The second farm I bumped into was at a different part of the agricultural scale.  The Pfeiffer education centre is housed on the large property around the Steiner school and community on Chestnut Ridge, New York. Here back in the day Dr. Pfeiffer had a lab where he researched soil science and was a student of Steiner’s in the 1920s. They worked together on farming and soil. Now, almost 100 years later, on land that was purchased by a group of people who owned a vegetarian restaurant in New York, but wanted biodynamic vegetables, there is a a large community garden, farm, school and craft hub with students coming from around the world to study Steiner’s work in many fields of anthroposophy. One of which is literally a field. How amazing, I thought, that a century ago restaurant owners had the foresight to demand regionally produced food on biodynamic principles?! Sometimes we think we are so advanced and modern with our concepts and then it is so humbling to see that others have been doing something for decades. I spent the morning with the gardeners on the farm learning about some of their biodynamic practices and then seeing them set up the ponies ready to sow the fields with carrot seeds. Today is a root day according to the biodynamic calendar, so it should be good for carrots. My taste of biodynamics on this hot July morning was a good one and I realised while brushing down Ella the pony before she went on to plough the fields, that it is best to start with the basics and where things originate from – in this case the rural linkages and to small scale agriculture. With this, I was again reminded of my farming origins and thought of my Granddad and his pony, as I get back to my roots in different ways on different soils.

Ponies ready to plough at Pfeiffer centre
Ponies ready to plough at Pfeiffer centre

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