'The Good Life' Is Sustainable, and Sweet, Too

By Kristie Snyder, 

GreenLeaf Editor

good_life_farm_mm_spinachIt’s not easy growing fresh vegetables through the depths of a Finger Lakes winter. But Melissa Madden and Garrett Miller of the Good Life Farm in Interlaken have been supplying GreenStar with fresh greens since November, as they work toward building their young farm into a long-term, sustainable, permaculture enterprise.

Perched on a hillside overlooking Cayuga Lake, and largely powered by horse, human and dog, the 69-acre farm was named in homage to both Helen and Scott Nearing (the homesteading pioneers whose famous 1954 book about their “Forest Farm” is titled Living the Good Life) and to Mark Shepard, who mentored Madden and Miller on his “New Forest Farm” in Wisconsin. And, says Madden, “the good life is what we want to provide!”

Madden and Miller bought the land in the summer of 2008 and put up a yurt, where they continue to live, but planted nothing, carefully observing the natural patterns of the land for nearly a year. Starting in the spring of 2009, they began to build and plant — putting in a well, building a barn, and establishing crop areas and pastures.

The greens (mixed Asian greens and spinach) are the first crop they have brought to market. Over the course of 2010 the farm will offer limited amounts of asparagus, as well as tomatoes, Thanksgiving turkeys and fall greens. Winter production will increase next year as well. In years to come, they will produce wholesale quantities of asparagus, along with apples, pears, Asian pears, nuts and other crops. The asparagus is already in the ground, and this spring 330 fruit trees, custom grafted by nearby Cummins Nursery, will be planted among it, followed by another 330 the following year. As the trees mature, smaller perennial food plants and shrubs will be added to the asparagus to fill in the “alleys” of the farm, creating a “polyculture” of varied crops.

Madden was surprised at how popular the greens have been at GreenStar. “We can’t supply enough, but Andy and Steve [in GreenStar’s Produce Department] have been incredibly supportive,” said Madden. “Their support has made it possible for me to think bigger about winter production.”

Andy Rizos, Produce Department Manager, was excited to find a local source of greens for the winter months. “They’re really filling a niche,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing to have these fresh, local greens in the middle of winter.” When he received the first invoice from the farm — invoice number one, as in first ever issued — it really brought home the role that GreenStar can play in supporting new farming ventures. “It’s really great to get in on the ground level with a farm and support them from the get-go,” he said.

Madden came to farming via Cornell, where she came to study soil science. She started working on local farms and “got hooked,” apprenticing after graduation with Remembrance Farm, in Danby, and Cayuga Pure Organics, in Brooktondale (both GreenStar suppliers as well). It was at Cayuga Pure Organics that she met Miller, a Dryden native and carpenter who had spent a year interning on a horse-powered farm in North Carolina. They decided to pursue their shared interest in permaculture by working with Shephard on his agroforestry farm in Wisconsin. They returned to New York and bought the land that is now home to the Good Life Farm. (A related project, the 3Fold Forest, is a collaboration with friend Sean Dembrosky, and involves managing the farm’s forested area for firewood, timber and forest gardening.)

Off the farm, Miller works for local energy-efficiency contractor Snug Planet, and Madden is Organic Farm Coordinator for Dilmun Hill, Cornell’s student-run organic farm, as well as two Cornell-run organic research farms.

Permaculture is more than just a farming technique. It’s an ambitious approach to designing human settlements, using systems that mimic nature, with the goal of creating fully self-sustaining systems. One of the goals of the Good Life farm is growing crops without the use of fossil-fuels. Madden and Miller are planning for “energy descent” — the post-peak oil transitional phase during which we humans will need to wean ourselves from our fossil-fuel addiction. Rather than employ tractors, Miller and Madden use Randy and Betsy — a team of trained draft horses. Rather than use fossil-fuel-generated heat to produce crops in winter, the sun and a little simple technology do the work in their “high tunnels” — unheated greenhouses, in which a light fabric cover over hardy crops protects them from bitter temperatures. Rather than plow the ground each year to plant annual crops, they will rely on a mix of perennials, carefully selected to mimic natural biological relationships. Rather than erect an expensive and unsightly fence to defend their fruit trees and other crops from deer, they use two hardworking canine brothers — Goose and Reepicheap — who also do their part to keep the farm free of rodents and any other hungry critters. Solar energy, rather than the electrical grid, will power the farm’s electrical needs.

“Our premise for the farm is to build biological systems wherever we can,” said Madden. All of these systems are designed to minimize not only energy use, but also other external “inputs,” such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Animal manure and cover crops build fertility. Creating perennial polycultures that recreate the layering of natural forest-edge ecosystems, with their mix of ground covers, herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees, maintains fertility and minimizes the need for weeding open ground. The farm is “transitional organic,” meaning they are using organic methods but are in the three-year waiting period mandated by the USDA for organic certification.

Stepping into one of the “high tunnels” on a January day certainly illustrates that nature has plenty of power to keep things humming, even in our harsh winter climate. The temperature inside reaches the low sixties on a sunny day, and even on the bitterest cold nights the heat of the earth keeps the crops from freezing underneath their protective blankets. Outside, the world is frozen and white, but inside, the smell of damp earth fills the air, and beds of emerald-green spinach beckon. Munching a few of the tender, sweet leaves, life seems pretty good indeed.

New in Produce

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6 Apple varieties

Andrew Hernandez,
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Summer's long gone, but its sweetness lives on in the local apple crop. See how many varieties you can try.

Summer is merely a distant memory as we bundle up and get ready for the eventual snow. Gone are short sleeves and shorts, as we lengthen our garments for warmth and pack on the layers to battle the icy, raking fingers of Jack Frost's frozen grip. But hey, why be bleak? 'Tis the season to eat apples! Indian Creek Farm brings us giant Mutsu, and Black Diamond Farm brings in quite the assortment with Arkansas Black, Baldwin, Black Oxford, Calville Blanc, Golden Russet, GoldRush, Keepsake, Newtown Pippin, Suncrisp, Sundance, and Winecrisp. Also look for apples from our friends at Little Tree Orchard, and certified-organic fruit from The Good Life Farm and West Haven Farm. Stick and Stone Farm and Blue Heron Farm still have all of your greens and winter squash needs covered. Don't forget to keep an eye on our continuing Basics, Co-op Deals, and Member Deals sales for great prices on all of your holiday needs!

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