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Eight Mile Creek Farm
First stop: Eight Mile Creek Farm, a certified organic farm in Westerlo. The house and barns were built in 1835 and the land had been farmed until the 1940s. Pam McSweeney (that's her above) started farming there again about seven years ago.
"My goal was to restore it back to what it was." Between its red barns, green fields, neatly arranged rows of seedlings, and mix of animals it's like the picture that pops into your head when you think "farm" -- like something out of a children's story.
Tamworth pigs, a heritage breed.
Pam has a calm, gentle presence -- but she must overflow with energy. She and her three children -- ages 19, 16, and 12 -- grow dozens of varieties of vegetables and raise grassfed cows, heritage breed pigs, and chickens for eggs. She's currently in the process of restoring an old chicken barn so she can raise chickens for meat, and is hoping to add dairy.
"My goal is to be a one-stop shop." As she added, laughing, "A friend said, 'You're running out of farm!'"
Pam uses this high tunnel greenhouse through the winter. She plants cold weather crops like lettuce and kale in the fall -- they grown until it gets too cold, then start up again as the weather warms again.
Pam says she tries to be as self-sustainable as possible, using few outside inputs. That means she grows her own hay, starts her own plants from seeds, rotates the animals in her pastures, and uses their manure for fertilizer. She says she believes small farms can feed the population -- and they can do it organically.
She only recently got into farming. She was working as a nutritionist at a hospital in Orange County and became frustrated that so much of the attention was focused not on prevention, but rather treating people after their problems had become severe. She was also watching the farmland in her community slowly become consumed by development.
So Pam started visiting nearby farms. "It felt like home to me. The first time I felt truly peaceful." She bought Eight Mile Creek farm in 2005 and describes it as her own "oasis."
"When I'm around my cows or fixing fences, it's an incredible feeling -- a feeling of closeness with my farm and with nature. ... I love what I do and I believe in what I'm doing."
Next stop: Baitsholts Farm in Rensselaerville. Cheryl Baitsholts and her husband, Ray, have naturally raised chickens, turkeys, sheep, veal and pigs just up the road from the Huyck Preserve. They also have a secondhand llama named Mr. Abraham. "We take the rejects and the displaced llamas," says Cheryl.
The turkey peeps were small enough to sneak through the fence, so they had their own enclosure.
The Baitsholts sell the wool from their sheep to a company that makes blankets on Price Edward Island in Canada.
There are new lambs at the farm. This guy has been bottled fed -- so when he sees people walk toward the fence, he runs over. Cheryl picked him up so we could pet him. His felt like a stuffed animal.
Cheryl's husband is from a farming family -- but she's not. She grew up in Menands and Cohoes. But while visiting a friend's farm shortly before they got married, Cheryl asked her husband, "Can we get a sheep?" He said sure. "I got six sheep and it turned into a business."
She was hooked. "I can't imagine not farming, not having animals. ... When it gets you, you're a farmer for life."
Red Waddle pigs. They were shy.
Cheryl and her husband are currently in the process of trying to buy Ray's father's former farm, which is farther up the hill from their current spot. His father was born there, raised there, and is now buried there. It's been in the family for more than a century.
The farm is a beautiful piece of land, with great views. Cheryl says you can see the Adirondacks, Catskills, Taconics, and Greens on a clear day -- and on the clearest of days, way off in the distance, the very top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.
The family is giving them some time to raise money to buy the land. But it's hard -- Cheryl says banks have been reluctant to lend them money.
And all the while, there's the prospect of development. Cheryl says she's had to fight to keep the land zoned as agricultural. "You could put 15 McMansions on it if it was subdivided."
While we were standing there, taking in the cloudy view, Cheryl talked about her plans for the land. "I want to see cows and sheep everywhere. ... I firmly believe I grew up here in a previous life."
Mountain Winds Farm
Up next: Mountain Winds Farm in Berne, where Randy Grippin raises chickens for eggs and vegetables. He also produces maple syrup.
Randy's chickens are free range. They roam around the property eating bugs, seeds, and plants.
Also: Randy doesn't eat eggs. Why? "I don't know," he says, laughing. "I'll make them for you. I just don't eat them."
Randy only got into producing maple syrup five years ago. But it seems to suit his farm, which is lacking for flat land. "There's so much vertical [land] -- maple farming is something I can do."
So he got some leftover equipment, and started with 50 pails on his land's old sugar bush. The result was apparently something on the far side of rustic. But: "It tasted alright -- we ate it."
That modest beginning has grown into an operation with 50,000 feet of tubing running through the sugar bush, connected to more than a thousand taps. The lines run from the trees into one of the barns.
And the syrup has gotten better. Way better. The sample we tasted from his most recent batch was outstanding -- complex, caramel-y, almost smoky. Never mind pancakes, we'd just sip the stuff.
Randy says every he's been able to produce more syrup every season -- even during this year's odd, early, and short season. Maple is now the majority of his farm's business. And he's looking to expand his processing capacity. He's also starting to produce maple candy and maple cream.
One problem: financing. Randy says he's having trouble get of loan to buy more equipment, even though the market for syrup is growing and he can't keep up with demand.
"It's out there," he says of the potential maple syrup sitting in the trees off in the distance. "I can get it, I can make syrup."
The last stop: Gordon Farms in Berne, where Sandy Gordon raises grassfed beef. He's also Sarah's dad. She grew up on the farm.
Sandy stores his packaged beef in two large chest freezers -- he says he can fit about three cows into them.
Sandy says he had 87 head of cattle -- a bit more than usual, because there's a new group of calves. So we take a walk out into the pasture to find the mothers and calves.
Cows, but no calves. Where'd they go? We walked a little farther.
The cows had stashed their calves in a row of trees, with a few cows left behind to keep watch.
Sandy's a strong advocate of grassfed beef -- he frames it as being an obvious choice. "Feed the cow what it's supposed to be eating, because it was working pretty well the way it came." And he says the use of pesticides never felt right. He described years ago seeing the side effect of the chemicals, the way the birds disappeared. "This is wrong," he says he thought at the time. "It's like voting for Nixon."
So his cows are 100 percent grass fed. He grows his own hay for them to eat during the winter. And he's experimenting with timing the herd's grazing in order to cut down on the spread of invasive weeds.
Watching him interact with the cows -- calling to them ("How you doin'? Where's your mom? There she is..."), rubbing the calves' noses -- and talking with him about the collective intelligence of the herd, you get the feeling he has deep respect for cows. That made us wonder if he ever has second thoughts about eating them.
He says he has a motto: "It's good 'til it ain't." For you or the cows? "Yes."
This calf was happy to have Sarah rub his chin -- he stood there for a good two minutes, soaking it up.
Then it was off for a snack.
Walking back to Sandy's house, we were thinking about how the farmers that day had talked about the peace they experience on their land. It's hard not to feel it, too. The wide open spaces, the breeze, the quiet, the big sky.