Serial entrepreneur and investor Susan Danziger is applying her definition of sustainability to transform farming and communities right here in Columbia County.
“Fun” and “joyous” may not be the first words that spring to mind when you think of climate issues, but entrepreneur and investor Susan Danziger is on a mission to change that. Throughout her life, she’s approached her career in an adventurous and creative way. Born and raised in Westchester County, she became a lawyer and left that to lead bicycle tours in Europe. Back in New York, she worked in publishing as a literary agent before launching her first company, Daily Lit, in 2009—a digital publishing venture that serialized novels so commuters (like her at the time) could read in five-minute chunks via email.
After selling Daily Lit in 2012, she became involved in other tech startups, including Ziggeo, a video tech company, which she founded and ran. She also began mentoring other female entrepreneurs, hosting salons for women in tech and business, and investing in over 100 startups and funds, most of them run by women. Now Danziger is spearheading novel ways to tackle sustainability issues in the Hudson Valley.
“Like most people, climate was not on my radar for many, many years,” she admits.
That changed in 2018 when she and husband Albert Wegner found and fell in love with a 600+-acre plot of land in Taghkanic. A one-time sheep farm, the land was a collection of fields, woods, and wetlands—the perfect place to build a home, which had been a dream of theirs. They bought the place and named it Wally Farms, after a beloved German nanny from her childhood.
“As soon as we became stewards of Wally Farms, we knew we had a responsibility to preserve the land and do something important for our community and the world. It was exactly at that time that we understood how critical climate work was—and we quickly realized how Wally Farms could be a hub for experimenting with climate solutions,” says Danziger, who lives in New York City but plans to build a home on the property so the couple can spend more time there. “Plus, we’re serious foodies—and we knew the farm could be wonderful for cultivating delicious ingredients,” she adds.
The operative word is experimentation. “What’s driven the work at Wally Farms is this idea that we don’t have answers, but we’re trying to figure out what are potential models that can ideally be used by others,” she explains. She met like-minded people in the Valley and built a team (which now numbers eight) to start an ongoing series of enterprises: an incubator program that’s paying four farmers to start micro-businesses on the land, such as growing hydroponic produce in containers and a perennial nursery; cabins constructed with hempcrete, hemp-based blocks that can offset carbon; and a program that shares electric-powered tools and machinery with nearby farmers.
Some of these experiments work, some don’t. A field of willow trees to capture carbon ended up becoming a field of “mush and dead things,” Danziger admits. On the other hand, the produce grown in the container farm was a success and was donated to the Columbia County Recovery Kitchen, a chef-prepared meal-delivery service started during the pandemic for food-insecure adults and kids.
But whether they fail or thrive isn’t the point. “If you’re not constantly failing, you’re not trying hard enough,” Danziger explains. Instead, she wants these new models of land-use to change people’s sense of doom and gloom about climate change to an attitude of joy and opportunity as they learn what’s possible when you grow and distribute food in more sustainable, equitable ways.
To that end, Danziger and Alyssa Mittiga, the farm’s managing director, plan to share what they’ve learned via open-sourced workshops and events. Another goal: To make Wally Farms an open campus for visitors (who’ll pay on a sliding scale) to walk the trails, speak to the farmers, and learn how the operation works. Mittiga, who works closely with Danziger, calls her a motivating force and inspiration.
What’s Driven the work at Wally Farms is this idea that we don’t have answers, but we’re trying to figure out what are potential models that can ideally be used by others.
There’s a community aspect to climate issues too, says Danziger: “It’s about making sure that everyone is thriving, and that people are financially secure and have homes to live in.” That’s the philosophy behind HudsonUP, the pilot program in Hudson that guarantees a universal basic income (UBI) of $500 a month for five years. The program, co-founded by Danziger, Wegner, and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, started in 2020 with 25 recipients. It’s now added another 50 people, all selected by lottery, ranging in ages from 18 to folks in their 80s, says Director Joan Hunt. It’s about 1 percent of Hudson’s 6,200 residents.
Why Hudson? “It is a perfect microcosm of what’s happening all around the country,” explains Danziger. You have the super rich and the super poor—a big white population, a big Black population, a big gay population, a big Latino population. So there’s not a better place to run this experiment.” To be eligible for HudsonUP, you have to be a resident of the city, over 18, and make less than the median income, which is just shy of $40,000.
So far, HudsonUP has brought tremendous relief to the people participating in it, says Hunt. Having that extra $500 a month has allowed them to make their rent, provide for their kids, contribute to the community (like one recipient who’s donating money toward the construction of the Hudson Islamic Center), or even go back to school.
But HudsonUP isn’t the only community-based project in Danziger’s Valley portfolio. She is also the founder of the Spark of Hudson, a learning hub that funds HudsonUP and other organizations in the city. “We’re in this fortunate position where we can use our funds on a philanthropic level, but also just as important, we’re able to invest in local entrepreneurs and help them launch businesses that will ideally benefit the community,” she says. One such startup is Unity Now, an internet provider that offers high-speed wireless service for a reduced rate to residents in Hudson and Columbia County.
Danziger sees her role in all these Hudson Valley projects as “one small piece in a much bigger puzzle of these incredible organizations.” What unites all three enterprises is the philosophy behind Danziger’s foundation and investment company, Eutopia Holdings. Unlike “utopia,” the Greek word for an ideal place, she explains: “Eutopia is Greek for a good place. And that’s really what we’re trying to do: Sustainability, to me, is all about creating a world in which people have opportunities, are thriving, and where physical nature is protected—as we’re doing with Wally Farms—and we’re all living in harmony. I don’t know if it sounds cheesy or poetic, but it is something I believe.”