Friday, July 1, 2016

Farmer Friday - Sweetcore Farm

It's Farmer Friday again and this time, intern Amanda profiled Dave Rice of Sweetcore Farm.  Dave has a long association with Garden Share, having served three years on the Board of Directors, and still serving on our Fund Development Committee.

As a young adult, I am told the world is at my feet. My career options are endless; I need only to pick a direction of and interest and pursue the path. At times the possibilities are overwhelming, but I find comfort in the garden.  One garden I particularly found solace was on a visit to David and Kathy Rice who live what I aspire to one day do. Stories like David’s, however, are what reassures me when I wonder how I will achieve the same end result.

Dave and Kathy working in the field
David Rice grew up on an eight-acre orchard in New Hampshire with a family vegetable garden and pigs. David’s first job was at Friendly’s, although he helped press cider, work retail, and pack as well as deliver orders on the farm. Because there wasn’t much to learn, David distinguished himself by attending New Hampshire University to major in horticulture with a focus on fruit science. In 1989, David began work-study where he met Kathy. When Dave decided there wasn’t room for expanding, he moved with Kathy to work on a 100-acre farm. Dave was the supervisor to the farm, which profited $24,000 in sales and employed nine full-time employees.

Moving on to the next stage in their life, Dave and Kathy relocated to Madbury, New Hampshire after Dave boldly sent a letter asking for paid employment and housing. The farm had 30 tilled acres: 1,200 apple trees, 2000 blueberry bushes, 1 acre of peaches, 1 acre of pears - for a fruit lover like David this place was a sticky sweet deal. Dave had been offered to pay the farm owner for lease at a percent of the sales and equipment after two years. Meanwhile, Kathy worked in childcare to help make ends meet. As farmers, we know farming is a seasonal job in terms of income; like Dave, most farmers work July-Sept seven days a week. Kathy’s income supplemented the small family during the winter/spring months.

Fast-forward four years. David (now age 35) and Kathy are ready for a change once more. David didn’t like the quantity of pesticides used; economically, the management practice cost him around $3000 a year. What is more, Dave questioned how healthy personal exposure to pesticides actually was as he pulled on a full-body suit every day to spray the fruits. “It’s more of a risk to the applicator than to the consumer…I was always worried,” he commented to me. For a short while, David and Kathy agreed to help a couple operate an eighty-acre farm. He grew wholesale pumpkins (his favorite vegetable to cultivate). He also ran a CSA program, which grew to support 50 families. Yet, the David and Kathy could not see raising a family or living their life there, despite their success. David’s dream of homesteading could not be squandered.

At this point some may call Dave picky. Why not just pick a strip of land, cultivate the soil and raise a family? Farming is simple, right? He clearly had the experience, knowledge, mindset and work ethic to make his vision reality. I respect David and Kathy for not settling; they were unstoppable in their quest for the right location, home and community.

2005 marked the year Dave and Kathy committed to the North Country. Dave and Kathy Rice had bought twelve aces adjacent to a long-time 200-acre dairy farm. Six acres were open for tillage, the other six deemed as unusable wetlands. Their custom built home was cleverly designed not only to comfortably fit a family of four, but also to efficiently burn only 8 cords of wood a NoCo winter. The former owner, Rich Douglass, used the land for pasture, leaving the area extremely fertile and chemical free with very minimal compaction. “I noticed the silt clay loam makes for better fall crops,” Dave said as he knelt down to give the cracked soil a poke. To boost the fertility of his soil further, Dave relies heavily on cover cropping. While many farmers worry about over-tilling the land, which eventually creates a hardpan, Dave believes his organic practices ensure the health of the soil. In fact, he once had Cornell Cooperative Extension survey the soil for compaction, but they thought the meter was broken because no compaction was measured!
Student interns help Dave get the produce
ready for the farmers market

By July they bought a rototiller and were selling at the farmers market. Kathy worked part-time at Birdsfoot Farm. In 2006, Dave became certified organic and a member of the Finger Lakes Organic Co-Op. One year later, he was the biggest producer for North Country Grown Cooperative and served as the vice president. Marketing wise, Dave sells at the farmers market, the former Blackbird Café, the 1844 House as well as his new farm stand, which had just been delivered when I arrived for a visit.

Basil, thyme, parsley, dill, chives and storage cilantro, cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, cauliflower, spring kale, zucchini, pot turro pie pumpkins, Adirondack red potatoes, blue potatoes, delacotta, squash, cucumbers, and red onions are just a few herbs and vegetables cultivated with a single walking tractor on Sweetcore farm.

Some of the apple trees
These annual crops, however, leave no legacy for future generations save on the land they grow. The average age of a farmer is 65, and that statistic isn’t getting any younger. Recognizing this national problem, David planted apple orchards. "Liberty, Freedoms, Honey crisp, Gala, Crimson Crisp, Duchess Oldenburg, Macintosh, Cortland, Mantet, Nova Spies, Red-fry:”…David rattled off names of apples like mothers do children. His personal relationship with the apples mirrors his connection to the land. I was amazed by how much he knew about each tree.

After giving me a tour, the most extensive one I have been on yet, David invited me into his home for a drink of water. He pays $400 for fuel a year, which accounts for 100 gallons of propane required to heat the water. They use a wood fire oven in winter months. The solar panel, with eight batteries, is their main source of electricity. In hindsight, Dave said he has not saved money using solar energy. In fact, the solar setup was a quarter of the cost to build his house.

Looking at David’s current lifestyle, I was curious. This man has solar energy, a composting toilet system, and minimal waste; He is practically self-sufficient. What does sustainability mean to Sweetcore? David’s answer seemed like not one at all, “We are participating in the food system, we all go to the grocery store.” Even Dave and Kathy, who personify my future goals, admit to feeding into the system of consumerism. I then wanted to know how sustainable he believes GardenShare to be. Is our vision of  “Healthy Food. Healthy Farms. Everybody Eats.” really attainable? In short, yes. David replied, “In order to survive we have to get food to people- healthy and local food.” Dave caters to all customers by “not trying to limit access”. He offers a wide range of products and prices. Growing and selling vegetables is one way he “beats” the food system.