There’s nothing like a road trip to break the ice, invite discussion, and learn from the source. Visiting food and farming related sites throughout New York State gave us the framework to begin navigating the relationships, questions, and themes that will shape our semester of cooperative exploration. Stops at Cornell Agricultural Plant Genetic Resources Unit (Geneva, NY), Hardie Dairy Farm (Lansing, NY), DuMond Corn&Soy Farm (Union Springs, NY), Moosewood Restaurant (Ithaca, NY), and Apple Pond Farm and Renewable Energy Education Center (Catskills, NY) provided the fodder for four fast paced days of debates, inquiries, and altered assumptions.
Starting small, we began our journey with seeds at the USDA funded Agricultural Plant Genetic Resources Unit at Cornell University. Through a tour of the facilities, including the 0°anteroom where the seeds are stored, we learned about the ways in which you use plant germplasm to preserve genes and crossbreed. Tomato, apple, and grape tastings of both wild and domesticated varieties gave us a sense of the vast diversity of genes they are trying to conserve and the rich history of each domesticated food plant.
The next time we piled out of our Vassar van (driven by the fearless genius Mark Schlessman) we were greeted by friendly family dairy farmers, Skip and Holly Hardie. Their wholesome kindness and eagerness to show us their state of the art equipment, milking procedures, and feed growing/storing operation had us all entranced. Discussion surrounding their use of RBST (a bovine growth hormone), cow comfort—they had waterbeds, fans, and custom blended feed—and their Guatemalan immigrant employees opened our eyes to commercial farming. Although we all loved milking a cow, Hardie Farm’s status as a CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) remains a hot topic of discussion in our house.
Our next stop was a similarly commercial farm, DuMond Farm, which focused on corn and soybean cultivation. We were astounded that Todd Dumond managed to plant and harvest three thousand acres with only two full time employees and six part time. In comparison to Hardie’s thirty person staff, the mechanization of agriculture was clearly demonstrated on this farm. In addition to mechanical technology, Todd talked to us about the latest advances in agricultural science related to soil composition, fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides.
After so much intense talk of the economics of agriculture, state and national policy changes, and minimizing inputs while optimizing profit, we were all ready for some fresh, local, home cooked food. That’s just what we got at Moosewood Restaurant, one of the first vegetarian, local, and health food focused restaurants of its time (1973). It was inspiring to talk to one of the original founders and conceptualize how nineteen people cooperatively and sustainably run a business focusing on all things natural and good. We walked away with satisfied tummies and a signed edition of Moosewood Restaurant Cooks for a Crowd.
Our final night was spent at Apple Pond Farm, a haven of renewable energy, small farm pride, community activism, and self-sustainability through creativity. Dick and Sonja welcomed us into their home to live a day in the life of a small farmer. The diversity of tasks contrasted sharply with the meticulous routines of the commercial farms we’d seen previously. Watering the chickens, harvesting eggs, catching adolescent turkeys, grooming the draft horses, milking the goats, and picking and cooking fresh vegetables from the garden were among the many chores we completed. Apart from the active experimentation, we spent hours picking Dick and Sonja’s brains about their beliefs on solar/wind power, political interests, diversifying products, and keeping it simple. We left Apple Pond Farm with hope for small farmers, ready to seek out answers to the infinite questions food and farming practices provide.