I had the chance to go to one of the monthly Apartment Therapy Design Evenings in February – “Designing with Farmers: Saving Land & Growing Food in the Modern World.” It was my first Design Evening and did not know what to expect or much about the participants, but was just very interested in hearing what they had to say. I liked the idea of a design blog making the connection to how we think about and bring food into our homes. As Maxwell Ryan, the CEO and founder of Apartment Therapy, pointed out in the beginning of the panel, “Earth is our home. We are rooted in home. The food speaks of earth. Food and design parallel each other. At home we celebrate special times- the food, the décor, the way we set our table, prepare and eat the food.” It seemed like a great way to spend a Wednesday evening.
What I didn’t expect was to learn that there was a more direct connection to Chapter Be through one of the panel participants, Katie Baldwin of Amber Waves Farm. Katie addressed the fact that she had left a job in foreign policy to pursue being a farmer. Her story seemed interesting, and I wanted to hear more. Luckily she is as kind as she is brave and agreed to talk with me some more. Here’s a bit of the discussion that we were able to have a few weeks later…
Tell me a little bit about Amber Waves farm and what you and your partner, Amanda Merrow, harvest?
Yeah – sure! We are going into our 5th season, and I think of the farm as having three pillars. One of those pillars is the educational component of what we do. That means hosting kids at the farm. I’d say from ages zero through college, as we’ve done some work with college kids, too. We try and work the groups into what we’re doing, and the flow of the farm and of the workday to try and demonstrate the seasonality of our work. It just feels more genuine that way. If that day we are mulching garlic and we have twenty extra hands on deck then that is going to be our work project. Then we would do a harvesting component and a tasting component. So, it is a little bit of work, a little bit of tasting the labor and then usually visiting the chickens and just kind of being in an open space and talking about land stewardship and what that means. In the wintertime we are going into classrooms, as well. We just did a presentation on Friday at an elementary school with 2nd graders where we brought in our wheat berries and our mill and were making dough with them. So, that’s the educational component of what we are doing. which really started because in my apprenticeship when I was learning how to farm, Amanda and I were responsible for all of the educational work that that farm was doing. We found that so rewarding that we wanted to weave that into our own project.
The 2nd pillar is the wheat project and trying to close this gap that’s in our foodshed. Specifically on Long Island, but the New York region as well, and reintroduce grains into farmers’ crop rotations and really try and convince farmers that it is now a worthwhile crop to grow again. It is a specialty crop and can be marketed and sold in so many different ways – the whole grain form, milled into flour form, brew beer form. There is a really high value in that product and grains shouldn’t be thought of as a commodity crop grown in the Midwest. So that also ties into our food education component, but there is a product that comes out of it.
Then the third pillar is the production of food and growing food for our CSA members, local restaurants and farmers market sale. That is the overall description of what we do, and when I think in terms of how we created that organization structure for ourselves – it’s pretty overwhelming to a) start any business, but b) let alone a business that is alive and can change at any moment by something that is totally out of your control.
We were given some really fantastic advice when we were trying to formulate what we were going to grow, how we were going to grow it and how do we think of this as a business by the gentleman who started the Rainforest Alliance, Daniel Katz, who is a good friend of Amanda’s. He just said, “Take three things that you want to focus on and make sure everything you do and all your efforts and energy is put towards things that fall under those three categories. That will help you stay focused and efficient and sustain your first several years of growth when things can get so overwhelming when you are starting a business. You don’t want to find yourself down a rabbit hole of working on projects that don’t fulfill your mission.” I thought that was excellent advice and that’s what we have adhered to and it has been very helpful, actually.
The seasonality of the work is so interesting and it’s a lifestyle! There are all these components of “what is work” and of course we are doing work and it feels like work , but it’s a different kind of work.
That seems like a substantial amount of work! Is it just you and Amanda that are doing this work? I know that you have educational programs that come to the farm, so that when they are there you have those hands to help, but is there anyone else on the farm that is helping?
For the first 3 seasons it was just the two of us. We were wearing all of the hats. We were doing the bookkeeping and the marketing and actually going to the farmers market and driving the tractors and taking the food and booking the fieldtrips and doing all of it. Mostly because we couldn’t afford to hire anyone else. So, for the first 3 seasons it was just the two of us. Then last season, which was our fourth season, we hired two apprentices to work with us. We thought the apprenticeship component of the farm falls under our educational pillar. So we are not only teaching people about food, but also now we are teaching people how to grow food.
So, last season we hired two people, which was tremendous I think for everybody. “Many hands make light work,” but also a really interesting new component, which now we are going to continue. It changes our job a lot in being a mentor to people. It’s something that Amanda and I both really enjoy. Scott Chaskey of Quail Hill Farm, who was at the panel discussion, was our mentor, so we wanted to pay it forward. There seemed like there was enough interest right now in the subject where people want to participate in the slow and growing food movement. Our systems are now set up so that we can teach someone the systems and grow new farmers in that way. This year one of those apprentices is returning to work with us, so she is going to be the crew leader this year. The other apprentice took a farming position in Tuscany, so he is going to be farming in Italy for the season. This year, the fifth year, we are going to hire three apprentices. So we are currently in the hiring process and trying to lock in some people for three apprenticeship positions for 2013.
That’s an exciting addition!
It is very exciting! And it’s really nice – not that after 5 years I am really jaded, but it’s really nice to talk to fresh minds and fresh voices and hungry to learn and bright eyed. I mean, I remember what that was like! You step on a farm and are like, “I do not have any idea what to do!” So when we are talking to these people in interviews, the sentiments from the candidates who are interested in learning how to farm – we are getting broad range of either recent college graduates who want to use a season on a farm as an experience that they can then turn into going to the Peace Corps, for example, the following year and have that agricultural experience in their back pocket so if they are stepping into a developing country and they are working with women who are farming then they have some hands-on knowledge. And then there are certainly some people, who are making a career change and who aren’t necessarily satisfied with what they are doing. It is a pretty big leap and change in direction for them!
We are not hiring hourly labor – this is hands-on training and hands-on teaching and we are very present for that in the demonstration role and not just saying, “Ok – go pick 50,000 pounds of tomatoes and we’ll see you tomorrow.” So, it is very much modeled after our own experience with some slight tweaks based on what other farms have said has been successful for them in making sure that the apprentices feel like their time is valued, that they are valuable to the farm and they are learning, as well.
Makes me think about my work – I got into education in a rather non-traditional way and think it would have been very beneficial to have done an apprenticeship and to have been introduced to the field that way. I think apprenticeships are so valuable, so I think there is an opportunity for other professions to learn from this model that seems to be set-up in the farming field right now.
It is a very interesting model and one that is like technical training or learning a craft. We are surrounded by, which the film you watched at the Apartment Therapy event [Growing Farmers] alluded to a bit, so many other farms in the area that have also started apprenticeship programs. I was just in a meeting with all of these farmers last Thursday because now what the farms want to do is collaborate on this apprenticeship program. We are calling it a “craft program,” which is a regional training, so it opens up some opportunities. For example, the guy in the film, Chris Browder, who raises chickens and then eggs, would do a work-share with a neighboring farm that grows vegetables. Then the apprentice gets to see two different models of farms and has a more well-rounded experience. For our farm specifically, the apprenticeship program is still evolving. It’s so new. But the additional opportunities for these apprentices to be able to come to our farm but to do work-stays on other farms or have a day session with a bee-keeper or have access to a local baker just makes a more well-rounded curriculum. That has also started to take shape, which I think is really exciting.
I find it really hopeful to hear that there is such great collaboration amongst the farmers vs. them seeing the various programs as competition. I appreciate the fact that the community of farmers approaches it as working together instead of being closed-mouthed about their respective programs.
Definitely. It feels like, at the moment, we all are so valuable to each other when we pool our resources together – and this is just one other way to do it. Because, then potentially, if we have this kind of program with a curriculum, we could attract better candidates – it’s really just a win-win on both sides.
Your farm has been in existence for five seasons, but how long ago did you leave your desk job in foreign policy and can you tell me a bit about your decision process in deciding to leave?
I finished college in 2003, and was working at the Council on Foreign Relations from 2004 to almost 2007 – I was there for just under three years. It was my first job out of school, in that it felt like my first grown-up job –a real person’s job where I have to put on my suit and go to work every day. I wanted to hold true to what I studied, but I really wanted to be in New York so this seemed like the best place to be and my access point to explore. I knew how to study foreign policy, and I understood the academic side, but wanted to know what it meant in the working world. Thinking that this will allow me to observe what people are doing in this field. Are people actually joining the State Department and working abroad as diplomats? Are people going into the CIA? Is the option to be a career academic?
So, I used that job really as a sounding board for what sort of options there were for me in the real-live working world of foreign policy. It’s kind of funny because I was dating a guy at the time who was also thinking about making a career change. He had made a few before from Wall Street to working with an art dealer. So, I think that in my personal life there was a lot of just being aware and conscious and open to like, “Ok – just because you studied something and just because you have been doing something for three years doesn’t mean you have set your trajectory. So, be open and be honest.” I think that really empowered me to look inside and say, “Ok, but what do I really like, and what do I think that I like even if I don’t know if I like it yet?” I remember a few really honest conversations with friends and family and saying, “Gosh, you know, I really just love going to the Union Square Farmers Market. I just love it. I love buying food. I love talking to farmers. I think those people are genuinely happy and they are warm and they are full of information. And I don’t know much about food, actually, but I want to.” So that was really just getting honest with myself and identifying – this is something that I enjoy, so maybe I should explore that a little bit.
But, you know, the expectation of my family at the time was to be at a 9 to 5 desk job and whether you like it or not, it doesn’t matter. “Work is work;” and “Pay your bills.” It was that balanced with, “You can do anything you want!” So, it’s kind of a funny thing and it’s not like I left the Council and then went to Washington to work for another five years and went back to graduate school. I pulled the trigger much earlier. I was seriously considering going into the Peace Corps and the decision was either going to the Peace Corps or just try and start exploring what it means to be a farmer and how are people growing food and how can I get into that. So, I just kind of pulled the trigger and it changed pretty early on. I think of farming really as my first. Although I sincerely thought my trajectory was going to be very different, but I think since I was able to be honest with myself and aware enough that I still had a chance to explore and that it wasn’t too late.
When you left the Council did you know that you were going to be a farmer? You just kind of had a general interest, but you didn’t know you were going to do the apprenticeship, is that right?
That’s right – yes! I decided to leave the job because I wanted some change. The girl that I hired to replace me, gave me Scott’s book [This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm]. Reading the book was the first time that I had even heard or learned of a farming apprenticeship – or that that was even a thing that people did to learn how to be a farmer. I wasn’t aware of that before reading his book. So that kind of got the wheels turning – “Oh, okay! That seems like an excellent option. Right? To be able to go and work on a farm. Then you can check it out and see – is this for me or not?” It took me almost a year – it was almost a year later, between the time I left the Council and the time I started the apprenticeship with Scott.
In that year’s time, I moved back to California and just kind of regrouped. I was living at home. My family is in Orange County and there are very few farms there. I mean that used to be mostly agricultural land until very recently, like the 1970s. There was one organic farm within reasonable driving distance of my family’s house, and so I just kind of gently knocked on their door and said, “I’m here to volunteer and help and I just want to see what your operation is like and what it means to work on a farm.” I did that for a few months, but I wasn’t growing food. I was packing CSA baskets, so it was still mostly administrative. I was not learning how to grow food. So, I transitioned into another organic farm that was somewhat close to my house. They were doing some educational work there that I thought was interesting. Neither place did I learn how to grow food, but it prompted that I was really sure that I wanted to learn how to grow food. So that’s when the apprenticeship became the obvious next choice.
I’d love to hear a little bit about your thought process during that 9-10 months apprenticeship on Scott’s farm. At what point, did you have an a-ha moment where you realized that wanted to be a farmer and have your own farm? Or was it more of a gradual process?
People ask me that a lot and they also ask Amanda that a lot and it seems like we should have had a definitive a-ha moment, like, “Ah-ha, we both really like farming, we both really like living on the east end of Long Island. Working for a land trust on a farm we have access to other land,” etc., etc. But it wasn’t like a ton of bricks came down and opened up sky and we were like, “Yes! This is it!” But I knew pretty early on, probably around about July. I remember conversations among the crew – there was a group of four of us – talking about what we were going to do next. Oddly it feels like July is in the middle of summer, but on a farm it really feels like summer is over. You are already planting pumpkins and are well into fall preparation. So it felt like in July everyone started poking around about: Would I repeat another season on the same farm? Would I work for another farmer on a different farm and learn another system? Or – would I start my own? Those seemed like the three options and, when I say it out loud, I never really considered not farming. I already knew I was going to keep farming, I just didn’t know how.
It was challenging and it just seemed like something I was going to do for another year, at the very least. And then what happened was that it wasn’t an option to stay on with Scott and increase our responsibilities. So that was eliminated and it just seemed like it was either to work on another farm or we’re going to start our own. Then, just kind of fortuitously, this property that we are on now became available to lease. We had heard whispers of it and rumors of it and then just spent a few months paying attention to if it was actually possible to farm it the next year and would we in fact do that? We could just treat that as our graduate school or 2nd year apprenticeship. We’d be close to Scott and have access to him and equipment, but really kind of testing it out as our own business. I don’t remember considering anything else, actually!
Which is a good sign – I think that means the decision was driven by instinct or your gut, if you aren’t thinking about all these other things. Once you made that decision, was it a quick process as far as getting that lease or did that take a substantial amount of time? What was the process of making that land your farm?
We wrote our business plan, I think it was December and January of that year and submitted it probably in late January. We took about two months to pull everything together and figure out what do we want to do, what do we want to grow and what is it going to look like? They gave us the lease in the beginning of March, which was very late – it’s hard to start from scratch in March when you have no equipment – I mean, we didn’t even know if we were going to get it, so we didn’t order seed. It felt like breakneck speed. It happened really quickly.
Now over the last 5 seasons, has there ever been a point where you doubted your decision or moments where you wished you were at a desk again? Any moments where you changed your feelings about being a farmer?
I think that when the doubts and the hesitations come in, it really comes in because, even now, it is such a financial struggle. So, it is such a gut-check for us constantly about – is this something that we want to continue with? Because at the moment – and I think this is true for any new business in the first five years – there are financial struggles. But, with the long-term vision, I think the hesitation and the gut-checks come in when – you know, food is cheap and no one is getting rich farming. Not that it’s all about the money – and it’s not about that – but is this sustainable? I’m single. I’m not married. I don’t have a family yet. Is this something that I imagine myself doing in 25 years and am I going to be able to send my children to college? And all of those sorts of things. So, it’s not really questioning the love of the work, I think it is mostly trying to map out a plan of sustainability for how to keep it going. I am certainly interested in the process of growing food and the challenges associated with it, as is Amanda, but we also, and this is true for both of us, want to spread what we have learned and what we are doing in different ways. Like writing a book or generating other projects as side-shoots of this project that may make our lives a little more financially secure.
I wrote down this quote while you were talking on the panel, which was “what you do for a living versus what you do for a life.” You’ve touched on this a little bit so far, but I’m interested in your work-life balance. Work-life balance can be challenging when you live in New York City, but I imagine that on a farm, where you are at the mercy of Mother Nature, and it takes up so much of your day, it must be challenging to make the separation from the work? So – both can you find a work-life balance and, with farming, is there a difference from what you do for a living versus what you do for your life?
You know, when I think about work balance now, I just think about it so differently. I think pre-farming I thought of work as a separate component of my life. Like- I had my work to make money, to learn or to create something and it was in it’s own separate sort of cubbyhole. And I think that all the barriers that made me think that was what work was have been stripped away. I think, for me anyways, that the interesting part about life and in trying to be your best self and make yourself and the people around you have a full life means not separating the two. A full integration of living and life and work. They are all just kind of the same thing for me now. I guess I thought work was something that you did not necessarily for the love of it or for the joy of it or for the pleasure of it – it was just to be done. Really my concept of work now feels like it is much more integrated into a full life plan. It just seems a little more well-rounded – in that, this is actually what life is. Working on yourself and working on other things – they are all just kind of touching on each other and integrated. I mean I am still going to work, and I think about it as a job. I definitely do. It’s a really difficult job, but I think the edginess of the negativity that would ever be associated with work and a job has really just been rounded off because there is joy associated with it and fulfillment in other ways that I think it contributes to my life that makes it seem – fun! I didn’t know work could be so fun!
It’s always interesting for me to leave New York, as it is a city that is SO work-driven with everyone’s eyes on the prize. People have a tendency to just put their heads down and work – never really questioning it. It’s what you are supposed to do – that’s what you do as a New Yorker, you work really hard. Yet, people don’t always take a step backwards and ask your point – is my work fun? Am I enjoying this? So, I’ve met some resistance as I go on this journey cause they don’t always get my decision to leave my job. Did you meet any resistance at all when you set out to be a farmer?
I think people were just mostly surprised. Not necessarily discouraging. I mean, my mother was basically like, “I cannot believe you left a secure job with benefits to go into the great unknown.” That just rocked her world and it was just so crazy to her. We are very different people in that way. I think the idea of taking a risk in that sort of way was surprising for her, but I never really got a lot of resistance or “that’s a terrible idea!” Actually I think a lot of people, whether they said it or not, were like, “Eh – this isn’t gonna work.” But it just seemed that when I was making the choice to make the transition – and I struggle with this in my life in that I over-value what people think – I tried to just be honest with myself and say, “No – this is your life. So do what you think you want to do and really try and drown out any sort of grey noise that might seem like interference because this is going to take a lot of courage and be a full thing for you to do.” So, I guess, even if there was any of it, I really tried to tune it out.
I noticed both during the panel discussion and during our conversation that both you and Amanda are very driven by being local – through your education programs, CSA, farmer’s stand, etc. I was interested to hear if you have found differences in building community in New York compared to on the east end of Long Island. In a smaller community do you find that people stay more so it is easier to build community – or does it make a difference? Is it just a matter that wherever you are people are doing their own thing, so it just takes time and investment.
I think that. I think it just does take time and investment. I have been here for five years and when I first moved here there were no other young farmers that I was socializing with. I was socializing with my own crew that I was working with, but there was not a lot of cross-farm pollination. We stuck around, a few other younger people have started farms, so that’s why now it feels a little bit more like a young farmer community. That was not the case when I first got here, though, but people just decided to stay. My family is not here, so I sometimes wonder what am I doing on the end of this island on the opposite side of the country from my family! But, the other part of the community life out here for me is our CSA. I think when you grow food for people there is just inevitably this personal connection and you can’t get away from it because you are feeding people. So, I find, besides the other young farmers we socialize with, I’m socializing with a lot of couples who don’t have kids who invite us over for dinner or members of our CSA who have just kind of become my family out here. So, to create that community I actually just had to start that community – and then people bought in. The community around the farm was created because of the farm.
Sometimes that’s just what people need – something to gather around or have a catalyst to get that started. So, it sounds like that is another positive thing that has come out of your journey.
Yes. I think so. I don’t ever usually think of it like that, but I’m glad you pointed it out. It makes me much more appreciative.
Throughout your 5 seasons, what would you say your favorite part of the work has been?
I think my favorite part about the work is making something. It’s really creating something that is tangible – and in our case is eatable, so that’s really fun. That is definitely my favorite part about the work. You can enjoy your work and I happen to enjoy my work by eating it! It’s just such a fun thing that you can grow food and then also host a party with that food. There are stories associated with it. It is actually the act of growing food that is my favorite part, for sure, and then being able to enjoy it.
If there was someone sitting at a desk job, who was not happy, but the only thing that they know is that they want to work with their hands, what would your advice to them be?
Do it. Number one – go for it. Make the change. Definitely. Just do it. But know, like with anything, there are sacrifices to be made. To me, ultimately, it is just worth it to make the change. Even if you feel like it is going to take a little bit of time to explore what that is. Do gut-checks. Go with your intuition and then start to explore that and then follow through with it. Do it. Because the other side of feeling fulfilled in that way is maybe worth the sacrifice of maybe less money or whatever other sacrifices you are making.
I heard this really nice thing the other day where somebody said, “We make decisions either based on fear or we make decisions based on love.” So, I guess in saying that, just make the decision based on love not out of fear of failure or fear of not being successful or fear of anything else. I think if you can remember to make the decision based on love then that will set the trajectory of good, positive forward momentum. And then it’s just like work really freakin’ hard! If it doesn’t work out, then you go back to the desk job! If you can put the risk in perspective versus the reward that you can create for yourself and your life it far outweighs the risk.
Someone once said to me that you can also see it as a risk to wait 20-30 years and never really do what makes you happy. So, in some ways you are taking a big life risk by not following your bliss.
Yeah – exactly right!
I would love to come to the farm at some point to volunteer!
Please come out any time! In the summer the food starts happening and it gets crazy out here . We have an “open gate” policy and welcome volunteers!
NOTES of Reflection:
- Pay it forward. Katie and Amanda are very contentious about education and sharing their knowledge. How do you think about the next generation and include them in the process vs. see them as competition?
- Katie started not knowing anything about farming. Having a mentor and her hands-on apprentice experience were instrumental in her growth and subsequent decision to own her own farm. How do we create systems that get people involved in careers in a real way that aligns them with real-world experiences?
- They are very open-minded in thinking about how their work can be a positive affect on the world, in that they don’t require their apprentices to go open their own farm, but instead see how learning to farm can be a valuable skill even if not going to be a traditional farmer. How can we encourage people to learn for the sake of learning – seeing all of their experiences as important steps in their journey?
- Katie’s first step, like Rebecca, was identifying what things made her happy, what she loved, and what made her heart glow. It was something as simple as enjoying being at the farmers market. How do you take time to recognize what makes you excited and engaged in the moment?
*Pictures provided by Amber Waves Farm