Its the fall in the 20th growing season that Ive watched
the geese flock over our farm to head for the warm comfort of the south.
As I feel the cool nip of the morning air while heading out to work, I
know that the days of work left in the field for my husband to work grow
short. Our harvest is in, and the farm buttons up for winter. This year,
unlike any other, we are at a crossroad.
It was 1981 and we were finished with college and in our mid-20s
when we bought our 150 acre farm and planted crops. The plan was to grow
low spray produce for the u-pick market. As the years passed, markets
changed and we refined growing practices, we became certified organic
in 1988, a certification maintained until today. Growing in excess of
60 different types of fruits and vegetables (over 125 varieties) on 30
acres made us the largest certified organic grower in Central New York.
Growing on this scale requires that we hire employees to help with both
field and office work. Connecting directly with the consumer has been
fundamental in our marketing with the Community Supported Agriculture
(CSA) concept since 1991 and launch of year-round internet sales in 2000.
Each year our sales have increased, but so have expenses.
Each year has brought both victories and challenges. The challenges have
seemed to be more common than the victories in recent years. Our commitment
to paying our staff a living wage, struggles with viable markets, maintaining
equipment that has outlived its usefulness, keeping up with utilities,
taxes and insurance have all become formidable tasks. Fortunately my off-farm,
full-time job covers the mortgage and household expenses and has on many
occasions assisted with farm debt.
Through the years weve run full spectrum on the emotional scale.
Weve felt the humiliation of not having the money to make a payroll
and with wrenched guts had to as our staff to bear with us. Weve
The pain of reality sears our hearts. Our mission to grow sustainable,
high quality organic produce has always had great merit to both us and
our customers. Unfortunately everything has a cost, and the cost has
Have we failed? No. Weve provided income to hundreds of people
and their families, produced the finest organic fruits, vegetables, herbs
and flowers available anywhere and fed thousands. Weve shared bounty
with the needy and pumped large sums of money back into our local
Also on this farm weve watched our son play in the soil, fly kites in the fields, build tree forts, swim and fish in the ponds with pals, learn to drive and discover our land in new ways each year. Both his father and I agree that we dont want him to hate the farm by forcing him to work. Now twelve years old, I helped him launch his first business growing flowers and selling cut bouquets. Our son agreed to this project, and it was a good experience for him to see the potential of working the land to earn an income - and he enjoyed counting the money at days end. Whether or not he decides to grow next summer will be his decision. Hes expressed that he doesnt want to farm when he grows up - and its ok if he doesnt. My husband said the same thing too of his dads farm. Obviously there can be a change of heart.
Taking stock of our efforts unveils the hard, cold reality that somehow, through our diligence and hard work, we can now be counted among Americas working poor. Now, still standing tall at the crossroad, we must make the decision about the future. The crossroad has two paths. The first involves a radical restructuring of the way we do business and possible future risk of meager financial return. The second is abandoning our lifes vocation and turning to outside employment.
Farming is not a job. Its a lifestyle. Built into this farming lifestyle is both hard work, emotional and financial investment as well as great valueˇand the value has many faces. One face gleams contentedly with the peace of living on and being steward of a wonderful piece of Gods earth. A different face is filled with the pride of knowing who we are and that our work has worth. Another face is frustrated with the lack of status and respect placed on our work by most of society. And there is yet one more face that wears the mask of hope but also is lined by weighty concern for the future.
All of these faces have become our face that now stands at the crossroad. It is not a particularly comfortable place to be, and scrutinizing the paths is laden with complexity.
Victoria Ladd-de Graff, husband Richard de Graff and son, Lucas, own Grindstone Farm in Pulaski, NY.
Postscript: Spring 2002. The Grindstone Farmers plan on growing for the 2002 season. Right now the greenhouses are full in anticipation of the warm weather for planting. Changes are taking place on the farm this year to improve operations and efficiency, but significantly increased customer support is necessary for the farm to become viable.