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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Gabriel

Letter from the Editor, Scaling Up & Down

Rachel stepping down from combine
Rachel stepping down from combine

Over the weekend, I was honored to attend the wedding of one of our area's most respected organic farmers.  Wearing a summer dress and, as instructed, shoes comfortable for uneven farm terrain and possible mud, I walked across the mowed clover cover crop parking lot. I joined the crowd - celebrating already underway, the bar within the metal shell of a grain silo made exclusively for the party.  Under mostly sunny skies, with the backdrop of three large barns, machine sheds, and half a dozen grain silos, 400 friends and family watched the groom arrive on his grandfather’s large tractor, followed by the bride, driven in on a huge combine.  Laughter, joy, abundance, and love were so thick in the air that they were palpable. 

By prioritizing soil health, Oechsner Farms grows 1200 acres of corn, winter and spring wheat, buckwheat, rye, soybeans, clover, hay and cover crops throughout the Finger Lakes. They process, clean, and ship food-grade grains ready for small flour mills, bakeries, malthouses, distilleries and breweries to use. 

But what’s special about Oechsner Farms is that they have always prioritized people. They are not only leading the growth of a sustainable grain economy, but they are also building a stronger community.  Teaming up as a triumvirate with millers, Farmer Ground Farmer, and bakers, Wide Awake Bakery. Collectively, they farm, mill, teach, communicate, play music, and feed people (literally and figuratively). 

While I knew these visionary humans had impacted our regional eco and food system (not to mention have greatly improved the quality of life for all of us who love grain and gluten), the vastness of their influence on the greater community at large became crystal clear on Saturday.  While we gathered to celebrate the love of Thor and Rachel, intentionally or not, what it felt like was a gathering to celebrate all that is a sustainable food economy.  Some of our region's most honorable and awesome farmers were mingling among the crowd.  

Though I’ve lived here for almost 15 years, participating as a community activist, farmer and introverted socialite, what struck me more than ever before was the presence of multi-generations of farmers - each farming in the footsteps of those before them but also plowing their own way forward - finding a way that fits their landscape, their interests, their family and their enterprise goals.  Long-time leaders of organic farming like Brian Caldwell (Hemlock Grove Farm), Mike and Karma Glos (Kingbird Farm) and Maryrose Livingston and Donn Hewes (Northland Sheep Dairy) were communing with the newer generation of phenomenal organic farmers like Aaron Munzer and Kara Cusolito (Plowbreak Farm), Katherine Carestio (Backbone Farm) and Paul Martin (Sweetland Farm).  (All of these farms - and many more - had stocked this wedding with vegetables, beef, flowers, bread, pork and cheese).  And in between, yet just as essential to the whole, were other folks finding unique ways to fill the gaps; one who wild-forages the best cider apples in the region (Open Space Cider), another who grows beans for a community beanery (Buttermilk Bean), and another who works for a company that aggregates regional local foods and makes sure it gets to the people, to the schools, and to the prisons (Headwater Foods).  The list of changemakers goes on. 

Of course, there have been hardships. Within the abundance of this party’s incredible food-system-centered visionaries, cancers have tested - and sometimes defeated - the seemingly healthiest (physically active eaters of whole, local, and organic foods), fires that have ravaged barns and homes, entire flocks - curated and cared for over decades to become there own hardy and productive breed - have been lost to illness. Entire crops have been killed to frosts.  There have been late-term miscarriages and emergency C-sections, boar attacks, and chronic health and mental health issues - all have tested friendships, challenged businesses, and broadened the strength of this community.  Within each of our own journeys, as we figure out what works and what doesn’t, we’ve been in it together.  Our journeys are unique.  Our businesses, our farms, and our families look different.  Some of us have chosen to go big and grow big, while some of us have chosen to start and stay small. Some of us have needed to scale back by choice or by circumstance, and some of us have stopped farming completely, also by choice or by circumstance.  It’s the collective of all of these people and all of the journeys that make the whole that is this community. 

I originally titled the theme for this issue just “Scaling Up”, but soon after, I needed to add “Scaling Down” because even though we’re socialized to think bigger is better, the choice to do less is sometimes harder and more important (on people, the animals and the planet) than the choice to grow.  This issue is filled with stories about different producers' journeys.  As you read, as always, I encourage you to learn and find inspiration.  I also encourage you to lean into anything that feels uncomfortable, to sit with a desire to expand what you do and who you are, and to simply reflect on your needs, the needs of your partner and family, those of your animals, your land, your farm, and your community.  No one path is replicable. We each have to make our own and each figure out if it should be plowed, seeded, mowed, tarped, paved, or composted.

Elizabeth lives in Trumansburg, NY on the unceded land of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ: people, where she, her partner Steve and children Maiya and Aydin manage Wellspring Forest Farm the best way they know how but always making mistakes and trying again.

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