Category Archives: class fieldtrips

The Class Goes to Phillies

Our class recently visited the Phillies Bridge Farm Project in New Paltz, NY. It was a rainy April day, but the energy and excitement of the farm team kept us going!

The Phillies Bridge Farm Project – if you can, consider donating to help the farm get a new tractor! All donations are matched.

The Phillies Bridge Farm Project is run by a large team of directors, managers, farmers, and apprentices. On our visit we got the chance to meet a handful of them – Dan Guenther, one of the co-founders of the farm, Mr. Guenther’s wife, who described herself as a “naturalist who hates farming,” Myriam Bouchard, the farm’s administrative coordinator, and Rhyston Mays, a farm apprentice who recently graduated from Vassar!

The farm project has a really interesting history. A non-for-profit farm since 1999, Phillies Bridge provides a wide range of educational opportunities centering around local agriculture. They offer a summer day camp for kids where they can get their hands dirty and explore the Discovery Garden, as well as agricultural workshops for adults. But don’t get me wrong – they also grow a ton of

Tasty tasty tasty produce!!

fresh and organic vegetables and herbs. The farm operates a large CSA program that allows customers to pick up a box (one of two sizes) of fresh produce and herbs every week. The farm offers over 150 varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers that you can get. And what’s more, CSA customers get the option to ‘pick-your-own-field’ any day of the week during daylight hours.

Prof. Nevarez and farm apprentice/Vassar alum Rhyston Mays look out over one of the farm’s growing acres

Hearing about Dan’s motivations for farming was pretty inspiring. One of the first things Dan did was hold up the acclaimed book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. Dan told us that basically everything he does falls along the same argument that Pollan makes – the American food system is unsustainable and unjust, and we need to do something about it. That something, for Dan, was starting the Phillies Bridge Farm Project. The farm seeks to show that local and sustainably grown agriculture can be economically feasible, ecologically sustainable, and can be done in a way that is socially just.

Mr. and Mrs. Guenther tell us about their produce

At this point in the visit the wind and rain were making it a bit hard to sit still, so our hosts took us on a walking tour of the farm. Though the nature trail was closed, the farm’s land was plenty beautiful. Phillies Bridge also has a recently built, climate-controlled hoop house where they grow plants until they’re ready to be transplanted to the outdoors. Inside, safe from the rain and surrounded on all sides by lush vegetation, our hosts afforded us the opportunity to simply look at and smell their produce as we pleased.

The Phillies Bridge Farm Project is a really cool place. The farm is beautiful, its motivations are so good, and everyone we met seemed to really believe in the farm’s mission statement. Plus, I would’ve loved to go to a summer camp there as a kid. I definitely recommend paying the farm a visit and meeting with the cool people that run it. For more information about the Phillies Bridge Farm Project, check out their website!


Rise & Root Farm

By Aidan Zola and Tamika Whitenack

We arrived at Rise & Root Farm, located in Chester, New York, on a sunny Friday afternoon. Rise & Root Farm was founded in 2014 by four women–Karen Washington, Lorrie Clevenger, Jane Hodge, and Michaela Hayes–who all had a vision. On their three acres of leased land, they grow a huge range of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, most of which go to farmer’s markets in lower-income parts of New York City as part of their food justice and sustainability mission. They farm side-by-side with three other farms, all of them pledged to grow organically, in the rich black soil that Chester is known for.

When we first stepped out of the van, we were greeted at the farm by Michaela. She gave us a very brief introduction to the farm before Karen Washington emerged from the storage barn, welcoming us to the farm and inviting us inside. Ms. Washington served as our guide for the farm, and throughout our visit we gained an insight into her vision and mission through her charismatic personality and conversation.

We began our visit in the storage barn, where Ms. Washington explained that this space and land is actually shared between Rise & Root and three other farms. The land is actually owned by investors, which was helpful in Rise & Root’s initial establishment on the land. As Ms. Washington explained, getting land is one of the most difficult aspects of starting to farm, and being able to lease land from the investors assists in this challenge. Rise & Root and the three other farms on the land cooperatively share the storage space, farm fields, and greenhouses on the land. Although they are each independent farms, Ms. Washington highlighted that they share many of the same values and have an understanding about acceptable farming practices and land use.

After showing us some seedlings in the storage barn, we ventured out into one of the high tunnels. Ms. Washington explained the way in which high tunnels allow farmers to extend the growing season by allowing plants to grow protected from the outside elements and weather conditions. The abundance of growth in the high tunnel showcased the fertile properties of Chester’s black soil, and we even got to taste some of the edible flowers flourishing in the corner. Most of us were pleasantly surprised, the taste was similar to raw broccoli.

Ms. Washington then brought us into a second high tunnel where she talked about her experience as a food justice advocate and social justice activist. A resident of the Bronx for more than 25 years, Ms. Washington discussed her first-hand experience with low-income communities and disparities with access to affordable, healthy foods. She lamented the lack of whole produce that is made available to these types of communities, and shared her vision for the future. Ms. Washington also runs an urban farm in New York City–Garden of Happiness–and has kickstarted a local farmer’s market that is located in the Bronx. She concluded our tour with some words of encouragement and wisdom: always chase after your dreams and don’t let anyone stop you.

Letterbox Farm Collective – by Julia and Greg

The Letterbox Farm Collective, located up in Hudson, is a young farm worked by young farmers growing organic vegetables and meats. The farm was founded in 2014, when the 64-acre property was purchased with the help of ambitious fundraising events as well as crowdfunding and the Young Farmers Grant from New York State. The farm is run by Faith, Laszlo, and Nichki, three young farmers committed to sustainable farming and running their farm in almost a co-op business model. In just a short time, the team at Letterbox has grown the business from neglected lands into something marketable and economically viable, providing high quality produce and meats to the Hudson Valley and even as far south as Manhattan.

We were greeted by Moo, the friendly and excitable farm sheepdog, as we arrived, and then Faith led us on a tour of the fields, greenhouses, and livestock houses. The farm produces primarily for restaurants (including the farm-to-table restaurants in Hudson), for farm markets, and also for local CSAs. About 80% of the farm’s revenue comes from wholesale selling to restaurants and the farmer’s markets, with only about 20% coming from the CSAs. The team at Letterbox works year-round, with over 300 plantings a year. Faith showed us the peas that had just been planted, as well as microgreens, beets, scallions, herbs, and turnips, all growing in the greenhouses. In addition to these businesses, to help increase profits the farm acts as a venue for weddings as well as a site for a rural Airbnb. Faith also works as an agricultural educator, teaching (and learning) about market gardening and cooperative farming. All of their hard work has really paid off, as their sales have grown 19 times since the farm’s founding in 2014.

The farm crew works with small equipment, densely growing their crops on small plots of land in order to maximize yield from a given space.  They implement various methods to ensure that the soil remains nutrient rich; these include ground cover and various methods of fertilization, including a chicken tractor which deposits chicken manure as it moves across the farm. Small scale farms require this imported fertility, as the land is farmed intensively.  Another method for maintaining fertility is crop choice; for example, Faith showed us their pea crop, which fixes nitrogen and increases soil nutrients for the next crop. Market gardening, the business model that Letterbox Farm has adopted, tend to make more money per acre due to their farming techniques and crop choices.  Overall, the farm dedicates 3 of its 64 acres to intensive vegetable production.

One of the keys to the Letterbox Farm Collective’s success has been its establishment of many “enterprises,” as Faith calls them.  In addition to produce, the farm also raises meat chickens, pigs, and rabbits. About 80 birds per week are raised and processed on the farm’s pasture system.  With so many different endeavors taking place on a relatively small property, Faith admitted that the greatest challenge on the farm is creating consistent and efficient systems so that all enterprises can run smoothly without unnecessary challenges.  As we know, depending upon the weather for crop production is already challenge enough.

We ended the trip by visiting downtown Hudson, home of the world’s most expensive antique shops, as well as several ice cream parlors that don’t serve ice cream until May.  A quaint and aesthetically pleasing town, it was very interesting to observe the type of restaurants to which Letterbox sells of its produce.

The treasure in our backyard: Sprout Creek Farm

 The first fieldtrip in the Field Experiences in the Hudson Valley class was a near-by destination: Sprout Creek Farm, located in the eastern part of the Town of Poughkeepsie. Our visit began with a few words from Sister Margo Morris, who co-founded the farm in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1982, originally as an educational off-shoot of the Convent of the Sacred Heart school. Novice farmers, Margo and other teachers taught students how to farm while they were learning the ropes themselves, an experience that proved transformational for that first generation. Eventually the farm moved to its Poughkeepsie location, inheriting a dairy operation from the estate of Elise Kinkead, a landowner (and Vassar graduate, Margo says) who wanted her farm preserved as a non-profit educational institution.

Sister Margo Morris

Today Sprout Creek Farm is known for many distinctions. Its award-winning cheese and other products are found in finer grocery stores and on restaurant menus across the Hudson Valley. Children get their hands dirty on the farm through school field-trips, day-long activities, and summer camps. A number of young farmers apprentice their way through Sprout Creek Farm; one of them, educational director Katie Williams, was an eager guide for our class visit. Executive director Mark Fredette (a.k.a. Chef Mark) prepares farm-to-table menus at public and private events on the farm. An inviting farm store is the typical final stop for guests visiting the farm.

 This wide-ranging educational mission isn’t cheap. Although Sprout Creek’s cheese is sold commercially, it costs about $7/pound to produce when all educational expenses are considered, I recall Chef Mark saying somewhere (though I can’t remember the source, so don’t quote me). By 2017, Sprout Creek Farm was in serious financial trouble and undertook an ambitious fund-raising campaign. (I was a speaker at a fund-raising event last fall.) The story has a happy ending: in January, Marist College agreed to take control of the farm while letting Margo, Chef Mark, and the others in the nonprofit continue to manage it. Marist has undefined plans to incorporate Sprout Creek into its curriculum somehow, but Margo said everyone is very happy with the autonomy the college is giving the Sprout Creek crew.

I hope my students appreciate the economic context and innovative solutions highlighted by this story, but I fully understand if the thing they took away most from their visit was the first-hand encounter with the animals and land at Sprout Creek Farm. Cows, goats, pigs, chickens, guinea fowl, farm cats, and a reclusive family of mice (am I missing anything?) aren’t things that college students — or most anyone else today, for that matter — interact with everyday! I assigned everyone to take a “goat selfie” for their first blog posts, and I suspect these pictures will burn up their social media feeds. (The farm of course recognizes how excited people are to get nuzzled and nibbled by goats; wisely, this has become another opportunity fund-raising and farm marketing.)

For more history of Sprout Creek Farm, this 2012 article on the Rural Intelligence blog is a really good source.

Thank you, Margo and Katie, for your hospitality!