by Jane Bollinger
It seems like such a simple question—”How did you come to be a farmer?” Greg Swartz laughs contemplating his answer. “Well, how much time do you have?”
Greg and his wife Tannis Kowalchuk are organic farmers who own Willow Wisp Organic Farm in Abrahamsville, Wayne County, about four miles west of Callicoon, NY. Their 12-acre farm is well known in the area, having been voted Best Local Farm of the Year in 2010 by the River Reporter.
Greg and his crew are busy with spring planting on this particular day in late May. The seemingly endless days of rain this year have delayed their work by a week or more–weather being one of the many challenges a farmer has to take in stride. It’s part of the job.
Greg, who was raised in the Boston suburbs with no connection to farming–not even a backyard garden–says his interest in farming grew out of his life-long interest in food. “I always was into food!” he exclaims, but credits his older brother, a chef, with bringing him a whole new awareness about it.
Connecting food, agriculture and environment
Greg decided he wanted to know more about where his food came from and how it was grown. At the same time, he was developing an environmental awareness. ”At some point these two things came together,” he explains. “I realized that our food choices not only impact our own health, but affect the ecology, the economy and all of society. Eating is single-handedly the most influential act that we partake in every day.”
After college—where, by the way, he majored in French literature—his passion for real food led him to seek out a farm apprenticeship. “I saw an advertisement for Wild Roots Farm in Youngsville, NY, right across the river in Sullivan County,” he reports, “and I decided to sign on. I was planning on moving on in six months to whatever the next thing was going to be after that.” He pauses and smiles, “That was twelve years ago.”
Greg describes his study of agriculture “not in school, but in doing a series of apprenticeships and working on other farms and going to conferences and field days and farm visits. It took eight years before it felt like I knew enough to do it on my own, before I was ready to buy my own farm. Eight years is equivalent to a Ph.D., I think,” he grins. During part of this time, Greg also served as executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY), a job he held until 2009.
Everything changed in 2007, when Greg bought 12 acres of a former dairy farm in Damascus Township from landowner Art Rutledge. The following two seasons, 2008 and 2009, Greg farmed part time and by 2010, he quit his other jobs for full-time farming.
Willow Wisp, which received its organic certification in 2010, grows 50 different kinds of vegetables, as well as a variety of culinary herbs, cut flowers and some fruit including strawberries, blueberries, apples and pears. The farm runs a year-round CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. In a CSA, people become members by buying shares in a farm’s crops for the season. In exchange, they receive a regular portion of its bounty.
Willow Wisp’s weekly summer CSA runs from June through November; in winter it’s every other week from December through May.
There’s a summertime routine for Greg’s CSA customers. When they arrive at the farm to pick up their produce, they walk right through a field of vegetables to get to the barn. This scheme is no accident. “It means they see for themselves what’s going on here,” Greg explains. “They see when the fields are wet from rain, when there’s been a frost, et cetera.”
“In summer we set up our CSA in the barn as if it were a farm stand and our members can choose what they want—within limits—from the nine to fifteen items we have that week. We also have some U-Pick items like peas, beans, cherry tomatoes, and flowers.”
“The other really nice part of having an on-farm pickup is the social aspect. Neighbors, who might not have time otherwise, get to know each other, come to hang out and talk. It’s a way to build community. In addition,” he continues, “as I see it, half of our job here is educating our customers about food, about cooking, about what to do with what they buy.”
Greg is delighted that the nationwide trend to “eat local” is growing here, too, not only with CSAs, but also with farmers’ markets and local chefs featuring local food in their restaurants. “In the past five years, the increase in people demanding locally-grown food has been tremendous!” he observes, adding, “There are more things happening right here in Wayne County than most people realize. With a little effort, you can seek out a pretty amazing diversity of products—from vegetables to fruit to meat to value-added products.” He also mentions two resource guides, Shop Local, Save Land and Buy Fresh, Buy Local, that help put consumers in touch with local farmers.
From growing local to growing organic, Greg talks about his work with passion.
“Over the millennia, farming may single-handedly be the most destructive act [to the earth] that humans have engaged in,” Greg explains. “Organic is a way to do this thing called farming with the fewest negative impacts. As much as possible, organic is about staying in sync with natural systems and that’s really the essence of what organic farming is about.”
“Organic is the only sane farming model,” he maintains. “It’s based on looking to the future instead of looking for short-term gains. It’s about stewarding the soil for the long term. In all parts of society and in our lives, we have to look at ways to work with natural systems, ways that are sustainable and renewing.”
Can Organic Feed the World?
“Sometimes when people ask how we will feed the world’s growing population and what farming methods will be needed in the future, they think that the only way is with a second green revolution. They believe we need a whole new technology that will allow us to increase productivity. I believe so much that this is the wrong direction to go because it’s based on trying to correct problems that are caused by our present industrial farming practices in the first place. It’s not a holistic view that looks at the whole system, but a reductionist view where the [conventional] farmer needs to keep adding big inputs [to his soil] to make the system fly.”
People ask whether organic can feed the world; Greg believes the studies that say it can. But there’s also the question of feeding ourselves in the future. “You know, we talk about national security in many ways,” Greg observes, “but not often in terms of our food security. We need to be talking about this. At some point in the not too distant future, our country will be a net importer of food. This will be a shocking moment when that happens,” Greg says. “Potentially, it will be a wake-up call, but who knows?”
“Just like we’re already dependent on a very complex global distribution system for all of our trade, with food, too, any sort of interruption to that—for example, natural disaster or geopolitical concerns of war, or any crises where oil tankers may not be able to get here—whatever it is, there are many openings to disruption [of the supply chain]. It’s something we should think about.
“A study—I think it was done in the 90s—showed that there are only three weeks of food in the metro New York City area. So if some crisis affected the distribution system, within three weeks there would be 20 million people with no food. This is another good reason for why we should be repopulating our farms for the next generation,” he adds, pointing out the need for more young people to take up this important work. “As a nation we are at severe risk of losing our communal farming knowledge. The time is now to capture that knowledge and to take care of the arable land before it’s too late. And there will come a time when it will be too late,” he warns.
Farming, food and fun!
Greg loves his vocation despite the hard work and long hours of being a farmer. “I would say 70 percent of it is fun, which is a pretty darn good percentage.”
“Finally, eating is awfully fun. Conversations around food are interesting and fun and offer a great way to interact with other people. Farming at Willow Wisp has opened up a lot of opportunities and connections for us, and I do feel like we play an important role in our community.”