Friday, July 29, 2016

Farmer Friday - Lazy River Farm

 Intern Amanda is back with another profile of a local farmer...

There are some people in life that you just immediately connect. This is how I felt when I met Mike Watkins at his farm, Lazy River, in Hermon. His patient demeanor coupled with his knack at reading someone’s personality makes for good company. What is more, I was impressed by his immaculate gardens. They leave a person to believe Mike hires help, but in reality he does the majority of the work himself with a little help from his son, Raymond, and brother, Bill. When I complimented Mike on his success, knowing how much time (at least twelve hours/day) and effort he puts into each plant, he modestly responded, “Oh, I putter around.”

21 years ago, Mike Watkins oversaw the growth of a thousand pheasants on only two acres of land. He moved to the North Country, searching like David Rice for that perfect slice of land to satisfy his desires, a hunting preserve and a quiet place to fish. He quickly discovered lending his land to seasonal hunters was not enough to sustain his family. “When you have five hungry kids and a wife that works part time, you learn to do a lot of things,” he quietly commented. Mike began picking fiddleheads and leaks for the spring sale. He used to ship over 800 lbs./week, but the demand was too much as he juggled other jobs. Now Mike sells 200 lbs./week to a company in Vermont. He also has personally cut, sawed and delivered lumber from his hardwood lot to make ends meet.

For 18 years now, Mike has grown a wide range of vegetables. He had no prior experience in farming; nonetheless, his work ethic gleamed in the sun’s rays reflecting on his 200-acre farm. The growth of his vegetables was through a process of trial and many errors. At one point the grassy spots surrounding the house used to be tilled for vegetable cultivation; however, the lack children’s hands permitted grass to grow. Even so, Mike’s sizable beds and three greenhouses make a person wonder if hides extra hours in his day somewhere.

Mike’s success is an upshot of his keen business oriented mind. He can state how many markets worth of produce are in a given row (generally four), and his math skills are quick as well as calculated.  Any excess produce he donates to community members as well as the local food pantry. Mike’s generosity outshined his prickly beard as he encouraged me to take home sweet onions, yellow beans, and blueberries. “Take what you need…do you want anything else?” he kept asking. His kindness isn’t just an after thought or a neighborly gesture either. For example, Mike harvests his watermelons and cantaloupe at a smaller size because he recognizes often commercial size melons spoil before elderly can consume their juicy summer flesh. He also grows sweet corn at the request of Farmers Market customers, even though doing do costs him money.

Mike is what I call a “thinker.” He “tries to make the most with what [he] has.” For example, he
built his greenhouses out of repurposed materials. On the 16’ x 90’ he only spent $300 to build, using his own lumber and labor. The other greenhouse is two pre-made greenhouses from Tractor Supply Co. put together after they failed to make the growing process worthwhile. He braced the metal poles with three foot stakes, 2’x 6’ cedar boards and recycled last year’s plastic from the 16’ x 90’. “Desperation is a great provider,” he remarked. That is not to say Mike is desperate or in need; he simply lives a life of innovation and logic.

Management wise, Mike uses the least amount of chemicals necessary, but occasionally will treat his plants with Bull’s eye, Miracle Gro, or CaMg+. To prove wife’s tales are sometimes true, he also spreads dog hair around the garden because deer do not like the scent. Forage oats planted between rows during the summer serve as a cover crop, returning needed nutrients into the ground and cutting unwanted weeds. On a side note, I was surprised at how lush Mike’s gardens appeared. Many farmers are struggling with irrigation as a consequence of this summer’s dry season. Yet, Mike’s sandy soil has withheld fairly well. He bent down to show me this, squeezing a handful of dirt to show how the moisture caused the particles to stick together.

The visit to Mike’s farm reminded me of how life is a process. We often forget when eating a meal that someone, somewhere (hopefully nearby) grew that eggplant or tomato. Someone spent countless hours freeing onions from weeds, milking cows, or planting new crops. We take for granted farming is not only a hobby, but also an occupation. Supporting local food systems is critical for people like Mike who rely on our community for his income.  I left Lazy River Farm feeling like I do after a long conversation with my dad: settled, comforted and informed. I also left with a job blueberry picking…and how could a girl turn that down?