By Francesca Olsen
Berkshire Eagle | September 19, 2013
NEW LEBANON, N.Y. — The farmers at Abode Farm in New Lebanon are all in their early 20s. They’re not sure if they want to farm forever, but for now, they have a pretty good setup: They lease four acres for vegetables and five acres in pasture from The Abode of the Message, a retreat center that has in the past run its own organic farm on the same land. They don’t work the average 12-hour day most full-time farmers do — only about a 10-hour day, give or take — and their goal is simple: to grow food for the local population.
Evan Thaler-Null and his partner, Sarah Stedman, both 23, along with Deleah Elling, also 23, and Jenny Cavanaugh, 21, have been on their leased land since last year. After college and wwoofing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a loose network that provides housing for work across the globe), they “were all in limbo looking for a place to work last summer,” Thaler-Null said.
Coincidentally, New Lebanon is Stedman’s hometown, and her parents met and lived at The Abode. The group found the land with the help of Greenhorns, a nonprofit organization that assists new farmers, and the Columbia Land Conservancy. It’s just the four of them, though friends often pass through and work, then go on their way.
Abode Farm has a CSA with 60 shares right now and sells wholesale products to The Abode retreat. They did a winter CSA last year, where shareholders got 40 pounds of produce once a month, and plan to do one again this year.
“We’re still in the design phase,” Thaler-Null said, “trying to see how best to set it up.”
They plan a fall CSA too, and they are working now to get more acreage, talking to local landowners like the Darrow School, a private school a stone’s throw away from the Abode. Right now, Thaler-Null said.
“We’re fairly landlocked with what we have available,” he said. “We need three to four more acres to be able to cover crop and rest the land as much as we’d like to.”
Along with vegetable pickup, CSA shareholders can come pick their own tomatoes, beans and other basics any time they want. The farm uses entirely organic practices (it is not certified organic) and biodynamic principles. Cabbage and other pickling veggies are also grown for West Stockbridge-based Hosta Hill, Elling’s sister’s line of fermented kimchi and other mixes.
These young farmers use barely any fuel to get their work done. Thaler-Null’s Volkswagen is powered by vegetable oil, and the farm uses two draft horses, Bell and Dante, for plowing and other chores. Thaler-Null is into older farm equipment and owns a few old plows.
They’ve gotten some help via grant funds, too: A grant from Berkshire-Taconic will help build a new greenhouse and grant funds will also help with a walk-in cooler, to be built this fall.
They are their own bosses, which gets complicated. They pay for their own room and board out of the farm account.
“We’re in the best scenario for making a profit,” said Cavanaugh — the land is inexpensive, and the food stays in a shallow circumference from where it’s grown.
Abode Farm is one-third of a loose cooperative, along with two other farms that raise pigs, sheep and cattle.
“All of us are marketing ourselves together. We’re all kind of in solidarity with each other’s growing businesses,” Thaler-Null said.
They teamed up under the same New Lebanon farmers market tent this summer, for example, selling CSA shares and pasture-raised meat.The Abode team all said it’s daunting to be tied to a specific place when they’re so young — while they are passionate about what they do, they aren’t 100 percent ready to commit to farming.
“The responsibilities of the farm, with the horses, especially, don’t really end,” Cavanaugh said. “That gets a little draining. We’re all really young and have aspirations to go places and do things — we also manage it.”
Many farmers have dreams of expansion, but Thaler-Null said he isn’t interested in the extra infrastructure and logistics that would require.
“That’s not really the lifestyle we’re trying to do right now,” he said. “Even if it would mean a more profitable venture for us. We’re trying to be a farm that produces food for this town.”