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Willow Wisp readies for winter


ABRAHAMSVILLE, PA — As the brilliant colors of fall drain from the trees, farm landscapes follow suit. Once the pumpkins are picked and the last papery corn stalks rustle in the faded fields, it is easy to imagine activity abating on the farms of the Upper Delaware River Valley.

For organic farmers Greg Swartz and Tannis Kowalchuk, nothing could be farther from reality, for the autumn farm is a humming scene of continued harvests, new plantings and practices aimed at improving soil fertility for the long haul.

Even as Swartz harvests celeriac, chard, mustard greens, arugula, fennel, kale, parsnips and more, he is busy sowing rye to enhance the farm’s soil, and planting garlic, which will provide multiple opportunities for harvest. Early spring brings green garlic, followed by garlic scapes and later still, mature bulbs.

Planting begins again in April and continues every two weeks into October. Crops are rotated to improve soil conditions. Where potatoes were, oats and peas are planted to help fix nitrogen into the soil.

The farm’s primary source of fertility is cover cropping, in which plants like rye are grown, then turned under to decompose and improve the soil’s texture and nutrient value. Swartz is steadily enhancing the friability of the farm’s soil with organic matter.

Swartz left a position as executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York earlier this year to devote time to the farm. He has farmed in the valley for 10 years, including stints at Wild Roots Farm, Apple Pond Farm and Gorzynski’s Ornery Farm. Swartz is joined in this new venture by Kowalchuk, who is also artistic director of NACL Theatre in Highland Lake, NY. After purchasing their farm in 2007, the couple welcomed their son Simon in 2008.

Kowalchuk is no stranger to sustainable and seasonal food. The grandchild of Polish immigrants who subsisted primarily on a large garden, Kowalchuk learned firsthand how to live off the land. “It wasn’t an option not to help,” she laughed, glancing at her toddler son. Hoisting an apple with a mischievous grin, Simon appears to sense his future.

Flowers are Kowalchuk’s specialty, beginning as a hobby and growing to the larger scale effort that brings floral fans to the Willow Wisp market booth every week.

Together, they are growing their organic farm, selling a broad variety of vegetables and flowers at the Callicoon Farmers Market on Sundays. They also plan a community supported agriculture (CSA) program to start in 2010, featuring both summer and winter shares.

The idea is not only to make local food available year-round to area residents, but to create a community out of the shared vision of this farm family and its CSA members. A barn where produce will be prepared and distributed, to be constructed in front of a new root cellar planned for the hillside, will provide the gathering place. Folks will be encouraged to participate in farm activities, or pull up a chair and catch up on life.

A wide variety of root vegetables being harvested at this time of year will be stored in the root cellar to enable distribution throughout the winter months. Hardy greens that were recently planted in the greenhouse will provide a limited harvest into January.

In addition to the humans they will nourish, the couple considers a broader array of wildlife, insects and unseen soil microorganisms to be important facets of their farm family.

In this sense, it’s about coming to understand the land, its contours and soil, the way light moves across the fields and moisture descends or rises. It is learning the ways of the wildlife that tarry there and how best to foster a farming system that supports all of its members. It’s a holistic understanding that isn’t instantly gained, but rather, earned over time, as one interfaces with place.

For Swartz, it’s a learning cultivated over a lifetime and the journey is underway as Willow Wisp approaches winter. “I’ll start to understand the nuances of this farm in about 10 years,” he said. “Farming is an interesting, elegant, complex and intellectually challenging system.”

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