Farming ain’t what it used to be. The image of pitchfork-wielding menfolk in overalls has gone to seed, replaced by a new generation not to the haystack born. Educated but willing to get their hands dirty while they experiment with new ideas, they are making their mark right here in the Hudson Valley. Just pay a visit to the two-year-old, women-owned venture Ironwood Farm in Ghent and see for yourself.
All in their early 30s, co-owners Jenny Parker, Lauren Jones, and Aliyah Brandt met while working at Little Seed Gardens in Chatham, a member of the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT).
“There are a lot of young women nowadays managing farms; it’s becoming more common,” says Jones. “Most of the farms that aren’t in that category are run by couples. Still, it feels special to us to be running the business as women.”
The trio pool their talents to work their seven-acre organic plot. Even though each has her own principal role, all three jump in and do whatever needs doing, whether it’s bookkeeping, tractor work, greenhouse managing, or vegetable processing for wholesale and restaurant clients, as well as their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), which allows residents direct access to fresh produce grown locally by regional farmers.
“The hardest thing I had to learn was how to drive a tractor straight,” Jones laughs. “It has to do with not overthinking it. Tiny little turns of the wheel can create pretty big shifts, so you have to find a bit of a Zen mind space and focus on the distance and not think about anything else.”
With a major in anthropology and a minor in studio art from the University of Virginia, Jones didn’t seem destined for farming but took the plunge when she realized she preferred being outside to having a desk job. “Growing food is a primal activity,” she says.
Similarly, Brandt, who previously worked on the Poughkeepsie Farm Project and on a farm in her native Connecticut, earned a BA in environmental science. When she broke the news to her parents that she wanted to go into farming, they were taken aback at first. “They were like, ‘Why do you want to be a manual laborer?’” she recalls. “But now they’re proud.”
Parker grew up in southern Virginia and North Carolina and always thought she’d be a sculptor, having earned her BFA from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When she went to teach art at a charter school in DC, part of the job involved gardening with the kids. “It was life-changing,” she says. “I had a lot of friends who were working on farms — it was kind of hip, a young movement.” She then went to work on a farm in Virginia, spent time with farmers in Guatemala and worked at a farmer’s market in Brooklyn prior to heading upstate, to work on a sheep farm in Washington County. “I don’t even feel like I could do sculpture anymore,” she says while digging potatoes out of the dirt and gesturing to her dog Loretta, the Brittany spaniel mix by her side. “She’s the farm’s morale officer.”
Loretta is a big help when it comes to chasing down farm pests like groundhogs and mice. And this is definitely a plus when you’re running an organic farm and can’t just spray away your problems. Instead, deer fencing and row covers (made of synthetic fabric that allows light and water penetration but keeps pests off) are key parts of the solution.
Such a smooth-running venture doesn’t happen overnight. The partners spent a year crafting a business plan that would qualify them for a loan, then it was imperative that they turn a profit right away.
“If people want to buy it, then we try to figure out a way to grow it organically,” says Jones. But sometimes they take a chance, by growing something unique, hoping it’ll catch on. “Right now, we’re growing pea and radish shoots for wholesalers who buy big amounts. But for our own CSA and winter CSA, that’s a different market. People want hardy, delicious, basic stuff they can cook with.”
“Having the market of New York City is unique,” says Parker. “And that’s key to how we can grow our business.”