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!


Cooking Class at Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory

Last Thursday evening, I attended a cooking class at the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory. The Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory is located in downtown Poughkeepsie, about a 5 minute bus ride from Vassar. The space has been renovated by Hudson River Housing and now serves as a combination of affordable housing, open art studios, and the open kitchen space, which is home to North River Roasters and Earth, Wind, and Fuego.

Building community is central to the vision of the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory, and they host various events like the cooking class that I went to. I definitely felt that the class was a community event, with a range of participants, from a local high school student to a Vassar employee. The class was led by Chef Key, who also works with the education program at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. The title of the class was  “A Week in Meals” and the goal was to learn basic skills and prepping techniques for efficient and manageable eating throughout a busy week.

Our little feast 🙂

After some brief introductions, Chef Key discussed her cooking philosophy with us. She recognized the reality that cooking can feel like a chore, but encouraged everyone to find ways to feel comfortable and creative about making food. She also touched on concepts like seasonal eating, local eating, and cultural food heritage. Everything she said really resonated with my personal beliefs and experiences with food.

On the menu for the night were three relatively simple, healthy dishes: sweet potato frittata, spring vegetable stir-fry with tofu, and lentil sheperd’s pie. Chef Key went over the basic techniques for cutting different types of vegetables –julienned onions and peppers, bias cut scallions, diced celery. She stressed that vegetable chopping is probably the most labor intensive aspect of cooking, and that taking an hour or two each week to prep all your vegetables for the week, then storing them in containers in the refrigerator, can make weeknight cooking much easier and faster. One new tip I found especially useful was her suggestion to prep and store diced potatoes in water, which can last for 3-4 days. Due to the starch they produce, I always thought you had to prep potatoes right before cooking, so this was a real eye opener!

After her knife-skill demonstrations, Chef Key made sure everybody got a chance to sharpen their own knife skills, and we collectively prepped all the vegetables we would need for our meal. The cooking was pretty simple, which illustrated her point that prep is the bulk of the work. Chef Key also offered a few tips about prepping other ingredients, such as marinating tofu or meat, soaking beans, and roasting vegetables beforehand. At the end of the class, we all got to taste the food we had made, and I think everybody agreed it was delicious!

While not directly related to local agriculture, I think this cooking class highlights a key, yet often overlooked aspect of food systems. The ability to eat locally and support sustainable agriculture is dependent on the ability to properly prepare the food sold by local farms. Cooking is the final piece of the food system-how do we prepare food after we’ve purchased it–and lack of cooking knowledge or skills can serve as a barrier to healthy, local eating. A sustainable agriculture system depends on consumers who can actually use local farm products. I felt that this cooking class directly addressed the issue of cooking as a barrier or agent of accessibility to better eating, and I think work on this end of the food system is important to supporting sustainable local agriculture and making it a feasible option for all. This also relates to food insecurity in Poughkeepsie, and issue that I learned more about when helping with the Poughkeepsie food security a couple of weeks ago. There are definitely a variety of factors contributing to the 25% food insecurity rate in Poughkeepsie, but I think efforts such as the cooking class at Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory can contribute addressing food insecurity.

Plan B? Must Bee!


Emily Watson is the co-founder of Plan Bee Farm Brewing, producing beer from completely organic and local New York ingredients – including its bees! She is originally from Ohio and her dad is a conventional farmer (hence she is knowledgeable about the amount of corn and soy sold to the state for ethanol, and not food).


Digest of topics in this video:

0:00:00 Plan A — what Emily and Evan Watson did before
0:02:28 growing and procuring New York state ingredients
0:06:29 tilling and “no till” farming
0:09:00 finding the Poughkeepsie property
0:15:00 foraging ingredients for brewing
0:18:13 harvesting yeast from honey
0:23:14 coolship brewing
0:24:53 dirty beer and wild ale
0:31:57 renovating the barn
0:33:08 ingredients foraged from the farm
0:39:22 the Plan Bee beers
0:44:56 marketing their product
0:48:50 opening the farm to the public
0:57:30 keeping bees
1:03:43 working with local farms
1:06:56 Emily’s favorite beer

One of the sustainable and organic farming methods Plan Bee Farm Brewery that Emily emphasizes, is the act of “no-tilling”. Tilling releases natural gases due to breaking up or opening up the soil and therefore, disturbing natural biome and making the soil more susceptible to any seeds. The Plan Bee Farm aims to sustain the nutrient-rich biome of the soil by no tilling.

They also really hone into the organic, natural resources available in the local New York State area. Beer mainly uses a few ingredients water, yeast, barley, hops, sour bacteria. They experiment a lot for flavours and yeast components, even foraging for berries or contacting local farms for their surplus produce to create different flavour profiles. This creates experimental craft beers with fascinating flavours such as yellow corn, pumpkin, peppers, squash, beets, dandelion and her favourite – quince and blackcurrant!

Of course, the bee component is a huge one in which their honey is used to ferment the mead and is used as yeast cultures for their beer, and they use about 120 pounds of honey to flavour. Emily also discussed about the temperateness of the yeast, requiring an environment of not too cold, not too hot, about 68 degrees temperature, and even their own food. Yet, despite the need to control these variables, the founders still brew beers in the Old World Style, with an open batch where the area will cool and the ambient yeast will be around. The surrounding wood also eats the sugar, converting it into alcohol and producing carbon dioxide. Their solution to yeast gone wrong is to put it into oak.

Their distribution is quite unique as they struggle with land and autonomy in Poughkeepsie, and is 1 out of the 5 last farms that are agriculturally distinct. They are still waiting for a license to allow customers into the space but at the moment, have mainly distributors and retailers online and can sell out of the door of their farm.

Race and the “good food movement”: a conversation with Sam Bloch

Sam Bloch is a reporter for the digital magazine The New Food Economy (and an ’09 graduate of Vassar College). He visited our class to talk about his reporting on agriculture big and small, the economic and agricultural sustainability of small farms, and the question of whether the larger “good food movement” that we’ve seen in the Hudson Valley  has a problem with race.

Digest of topics in this video:
0:00:00 what The New Food Economy (the digital magazine) covers
0:08:18 what the “new food economy” (the concept) encompasses
0:15:35 the Hudson Valley and other centers of the U.S. food movement
0:19:25 how sustainable is “small acreage” farming
0:26:04 Mark Bittman, race and the good food movement
0:35:52 the industrialization of “good food”
0:39:08 food trends in Vassar College dining

Sam co-wrote a widely shared article for the New Food Economy about the December 2017 Young Farmers Conference (held at Stone Barns in Westchester County), where prominent food writer Mark Bittman and and Ricardo Salvador (of the Union of Concerned Scientists) gave a keynote address calling for radical land redistribution for young farmers as a means to remedy, among other things, the agricultural land that government and white farmers have seized from farmers of color. In the Q&A that followed, controversy erupted when Bittman answered a question posed by chef/educator Nadine Nelson, “How do you hold yourself accountable to communities of color, and vulnerable communities?”, with what many felt was an inadequate and dismissive response.

For our readings and discussion, Sam pointed us to two further articles that elaborate on the challenge to Bittman and other prominent “good food” advocates who (it’s contended) are unreflective of the privilege they wield in this movement:

Zenobia Jeffries, “What White People Can Do for Food Justice,” Yes! Magazine, January 24, 2018.

Nathan Rosenberg and Clay H. East, “Sorry, pretty much everyone: young farmers are the least diverse – and smallest – group of farmers in the country,” New Food Economy, March 20, 2018.

Our engaging and wide-ranging class conversation ended with the students telling Sam about all the new dining trends at Vassar’s All Campus Dining Center, a.k.a. “The Deece.” After class, I took Sam to the Deece where he took note of how the college is adopting (perhaps superficially) many of the marketing and preparation practices associated with the good food movement. We await his critical follow-up to Malcolm Gladwell’s famous podcast about Vassar’s dining priorities.

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 Farm Bridge: Kingston, NY- Ethan and Diego

April 6 2018,

Ethan Pierce and Diego Encarnacion

The Farm Bridge is an agricultural company specializing in making value added product located in Kingston, NY – last week our class got a chance to visit and this is what we saw.

Greeted by an unassuming and vaguely industrial entrance way our class of Vassar student ventured toward our destination, The Farm Bridge. Our class has set out this semester to better understand agriculture in the Hudson Valley and the effects that has had on a sociological level. After a week one visit to Sprout Creek Farm we took a step down the production line to The Farm Bridge. After we navigated some poor signage and a later-in-a-small-hallway situation we entered the Offices of The Farm Bridge and were greeted by the founder. After a short presentation we donned some almost inappropriately sexy hair nets and ventured out onto the floor. Here we saw the real operation where products sourced from (mostly) local farmers are mixed to a client’s specification to create their product. On the floor we saw lots of carrot peeling and slicing, bone broth pouring, some sort of pickling involving gallons and gallons of Florida’s Natural orange and grapefruit juice and a machine that used to be used from pill counting and weighing that had been repurposed for sunflower seeds. Then then proceeded to the nut roasting room and through some storage facilities toward the conference room we began our journey in.

During our time at The Farm Bridge we pondered many questions of sustainability and agriculture and what role that has to play here in the Hudson Valley. Living in a city where ¼ households are food insecure it seemed almost wasteful to be turning this fresh produce into higher value products that low income/food insecure households would no longer have access to because of the niche markets they serve and the higher cost of the product. It would be a public health interest for The Farm Bridge to do what its title seems to indicate, which is bridging the gap between farms who are looking for markets to sell their products and and the residents that need this most. That being said you have to factor the need of the farmers in here. The Farm Bridge is providing contracts for farmers in the area for large quantities and regular orders even hosting drop off days for tomatoes where they would pay any farmer. This reliable and regular source of income is a huge relief for farmers who often don’t know if they will be able to sell all their produce.





We departed The Farm Bridge after taking a tour of its facilities and meeting many of thepeople working there. Our next destination was the county seat of Ulster County, Kingston. Although our time there was somewhat rushed, we still attained a sense of what the town was like, splitting into smaller groups to peruse the shops, restaurants and monuments of the city. One of the most enjoyable aspects of city was the strong presence of smaller, family-run businesses. Personal favorites include the was Rough Draft, a bookstore and bar that had a certain charm to it. Definitely worth going back to!



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!