Sign up FAST! Login

How One Farm Saved Essex, New York

Stashed in: Good Eats!, Stories, New York, Food Industry

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

Amazing story of small-town economic renewal started by a farm. I once worked on a somewhat similar farm so I'm aware of how much backbreaking work is involved to use horses. Someone has to muck out those stalls every day even though you don't need to plow or harvest every day!

They found their tribe:

The vision had all started with an apple pie. “I got this nutty idea to make an apple pie that I had completely grown myself,” Mark says. “Everything. Apples, wheat, lard, maple syrup, everything.”

A lanky bundle of muscle with springy blond hair and Border collie energy, Mark had started a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm in Pennsylvania after college. The typical CSA charged members an upfront fee in exchange for veggies throughout the growing season. But Mark envisioned a farm that would, like the farms of old, provide members with nearly all their food 52 weeks a year—veggies, dairy, eggs, meat, even grains. People would take as much as they needed each Friday afternoon. It would be the first whole-diet CSA.

That alone would have made Essex Farm one of the most revolutionary farms in the country, but the Kimballs wanted to be more radical still. Instead of tractors, they wanted to farm with draft horses. The goal was to make sunlight and hard work their only input—no herbicides, no pesticides, no chemical fertilizer, no oil.

As they pedaled through Essex, they questioned their plan. The town seemed lifeless—“more boarded up than opened up,” as one local put it. Essex’s heyday as a port and shipbuilding center had come to a screeching halt in 1849 when the railroad arrived. Like so many other rural communities, the town’s youth had fled for the city, leaving an aging population to make do in what became a food desert. The nearest supermarket was more than 30 minutes away. Local and organic were not even on the radar.

But it turned out that the hunger for healthy food—and for the social environment that food creates—was strong in Essex. Not only did the Kimballs find their members, but Essex Farm became the spark that brought life back to the community. Today the farm feeds 230 people year-round. Members drawn to the region by Essex Farm have started a yoga studio and a wellness center and have renovated the old Grange hall, which hosts a lively series of concerts, lectures and community dinners.

Apparently the census population of Essex is about 650 people and shrinking. So if one farm feeds 230 people, that's a lot. The thing that's amazing to me is that this looks like a town with no money -- not enough to support a supermarket! -- and certainly no interest in hipster stuff... yet the population could come up with the cash one way or another for this super organic, local, fresh food. Big lesson here!

You're right, it's a big lesson. It says to me that super organic, local, fresh food is about will.

And as my mom says, everyone has to eat. This farm costs a max of $71 per week for a full docket of healthful food -- apparently more than you can eat if you don't can and freeze and make pies with lard crusts :). For comparison's sake, the SNAP allowance (food stamps) averages $31 per week, is meant to be supplemental, and is notoriously impossible to eat healthfully on. And paying the farm obviously returns every one of those $71 right back to the community.

I was thinking about this in the context of our ongoing fascination with minimum basic income and my personal interests in food. Even here in the high-tech job-rich utopia that Silicon Valley claims to be, people might make great incomes but find it all eaten up by housing, healthcare, eldercare, childcare/education, and eating out. I don't think most younger people here will be able to retire here... but where will they go? And if jobs are going to wither away and be taken by robots, all of us are going to need a plan B.

You May Also Like: