Fighting Food Apartheid and Finding Freedom on a Virginia Farm

Renard Turner on his farmstead in Virginia.


Virginia farmer Renard Turner grew up in a military family that traveled all over the world. That exposed him to different ways of thinking, being and doing.

In the late 1960s, while attending high school in California, he joined Future Farmers of America, studied ag engineering, learned about livestock and aspired to become a large-animal veterinarian. Both he and his future wife, Chinette, also a military brat, were in college in Germany when they met. After college, they moved to Washington, D.C., and lived briefly in a townhouse on Capitol Hill before renting an apartment. They soon found the city to be more of a place of enslavement. And in the early 1970s, they sought a freedom they believed they only could achieve by living off the land as their ancestors had done before being brought to the colonies against their will.

They wanted their own land to be able to grow food in a sustainable way — to eat “clean” food without pesticides or herbicides. And while they explored herbalism, yoga and kung fu, they looked for land.

“We could chart our own course and follow our own stream of consciousness and get the hell out of the city because neither one of us liked it. Liberation was key to everything we did,” Turner said.

In their mid-twenties, they joined up with a cooperative that bought 208 acres in Mineral, Virginia, a few hours southwest of D.C. They lived and worked there from 1977 to 1995, when they grew tired of having to get buy-in through consensus from their far-away partners who never visited. They bought 94 wooded acres in nearby Gordonsville and began developing it into what is now Vanguard Ranch.

At 66, Turner still farms. He has had to create value-added products and services and find niches that others have not filled — all while still confronting discriminatory practices.

“Small farms are always faced with how to generate income,” he said. “This is a capitalist society. You have to reinvent yourself every few years or find a formula that works for you.”

The formula for the Turners as they move into their “retirement” years — Chinette works part-time off-farm — includes keeping their business hyperlocal by operating a food truck on-farm during the four to five music festivals they host every year. Most recently, they set up a system to supply squab to restaurants and others in the region. They also are trying to help other black Americans to overcome the fallacy —“blacklash” Turner calls it — that farming, or even homesteading, somehow equals a return to enslavement. They often encourage young people especially to forgo “urban farming” and seek their own place in rural areas.


As students of the land in a new place, the Turners had a lot to learn. The upside of a downside — when Chinette’s father passed away and left her a small inheritance — meant they had some money to invest in the land. They also worked with the forest service and did a “chop and burn” on 35 acres.

Turner thought it would be helpful to raise sheep — he was familiar with caring for them from his years in FFA — and they bought 65 Horned Dorsets and Karakul. But he did not realize at the time that it takes many years to develop pasture from woodland. That meant buying hay in the summer. They also found shearing to be a chore they’d rather not take on. So they quit raising sheep and shifted to meat goats. They planted sericea lespedeza and got good cereal rye seeds from fellow Louisa farmer. The goats did well on browse, and the Turners learned how to read the land better.

They started with Kikos, a New Zealand breed that, upon researching it, Turner found reportedly resisted parasites. They got good at working with goats and Turner even served as national secretary for the American Kiko Association. But, just like the perennial students they are, they kept researching meat goats and found the Myotonic (also called American Stiff Legged or Fainting) goats had the highest meat-to-bone ratio and switched over.

Turner believes in adapting the animals’ genetics to the land and environment in which they live and so he’s developed his own line based on Myotonic genetics. His herd is essentially closed. “I only have purchased goats from two sources in the last 10 years,” he says.

“I cull heavily here,” Turner said. “Goats are bred, kid on their own, are good mothers and there’s no need to trim much hoof.” He supplements grain, if needed, in the winter when the does are lactating and nursing and also provides free-choice minerals.

The offspring will be in the herd for three seasons and need to be “performance” goats, which includes producing twins. “If they don’t produce to my standard, they go on the grill,” he said.


About that value-added aspect of the Turners’ farm: Sometimes necessity (or want) gives birth to a new idea. The Turners found one in an unlikely place — the state fair.

“I was thirsty and wanted a lemonade,” he said. “It was getting close to closing time. At the first concession, they were fresh out.”

The person at that concession said he would call his cousin four concessions down and then sent the Turners over there.

Turner asked the second man how business was and the fellow pointed out other units that belonged to him and his family. He explained they spent six months on the road doing concessions and wintered in Florida. They made $77,000 a week.

In terms of economy of scale, meat goats were not enough — the Turners could not compete with 500 goats going into the slaughter markets. “If you’re a small farmer, you better figure out a way to tap into value-added markets,” he said.

He began researching mobile concession businesses. And that’s how the food truck came into being. This year marks a decade in that business.

“We had never operated a unit,” he says. “We just jumped in and did it.”

That meant decals, lettering, insurance and getting the goats processed under inspection—“a lot of learning curves.” They deliver goats to T&E Meats in Harrisonburg, get the meat back and retail it through the mobile unit. They also built a stage on the farm to accommodate the concerts they provide the food for — everything from vegan meals to the goats for those who are omnivorously inclined. As the concerts grow in attendance beyond 300, they plan to invite other local producers who serve other niches to join them.

In addition to the food truck and a fledgling squab business, the Turners have also grown various kinds of boutique vegetables over the years, again to fill niches that others haven’t. They’ve sold to the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, which sources and sells bulk amounts of produce, meats, dairy products, eggs and mushrooms from local farms. They’ve also focused on vegetables of importance to people from West Africa because too often immigrants from there have not been able to find foods from back home.


If the vegetables and herbs, Myotonics and squab are the Turners’ retirement plan, what about their community legacy?

This takes the Turners back to the beginning of their own lifelong adventure in homesteading and farming, and raises concerns for Turner, who sees nothing easy or quick about changing the dynamics of race in agriculture. He doesn’t consider Europeans in the Americas “settlers.”

“If I gathered 25 homeboys from the hood and sailed to Ireland next week, they’re not going to look at me as a settler, so how did they become settlers here? It needs to be looked at differently,” he said.

But it may take another revolution to change the dynamics, he said.

“Issues of inequality across the world are real,” Turner said. “It’s a dangerous situation politically what’s happening across the world. Global capitalism is not working. Most people are so dependent. We do what we can do. We’re proponents of local and sustainable: 150 miles or 1 hour from the farm in any direction—that’s enough.”

Turner does not see solutions coming from government, and long-term solutions won’t likely come from nonprofits, either.

He’s also been a member of Chesapeake Foodshed Network’s Community Ownership, Empowerment & Prosperity Project for more than a year. Although the group focuses on food justice and food sovereignty, Turner said they’re only seeing a slice of the pie—what they call “urban agriculture” and he calls gardening.

A lot of times, he said, nonprofits don’t want to talk about big-picture issues because they need to maintain their funding and the big picture invites controversy. Seeing the big picture means recognizing that urban gardens don’t equate to food sovereignty and do little toward decreasing the numbers of food scarcity in inner cities.

Turner rejects the term food desert in favor of food apartheid. Some deserts are natural ecosystems sometimes exacerbated by human activity, he said, but apartheid is “by design.” Food apartheid, he said, is connected to redlining of real estate districts and largely based on subjugation of black Americans.

Real food sovereignty for African Americans, said Turner, would mean owning and farming the land, owning the means of distribution and owning the retail outlets through which they can sell food produced by African Americans. Otherwise, food apartheid will persist and the health and longevity of black Americans will continue to decline.


Turner said one can’t talk about food apartheid without talking about the cause — systemic racism.

When it comes to black farmers, in particular, more and more are getting kicked off their land, he said. As an example, he mentioned a Louisiana sugar cane farmer who went to a bank to get a loan. The bank would lend to him if he would reduce his acreage in sugar cane from 4,000 to 1,200. But he needed 3,000 acres in production to cover the debt burden, so he couldn’t get the loan and he was forced to leave his house and the farm that had been in his family for four generations.

The Turners also lost land through a bad loan they had applied for and were granted by the Farm Services Agency. The main issue was not having enough buyers. Turner said that’s a bottleneck especially for rural black farmers, who lack a customer base of African American eaters.

“You still have to deal with buyers,” Turner said.

As one example, the Turners made an appointment with a store that sources food from local farmers, put together a basket of produce and dressed in matching farm shirts. At the store, the person who had sounded so enthused on the phone told them to check back the following year. Two days later, they learned a neighbor — a white woman — was going to sell her produce to the store.

“These things still continue,” said Turner.

Their case with the Farm Services Agency was eventually litigated and they lost — not only the case, but land. They now operate on 20 acres of the original 94.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would not have done it,” Turner said. “The process was ugly. It’s nothing I would recommend to other African Americans to go through.”

The example raises important questions: Why is it African Americans own less land now than in 1930 and why is it that fewer than 2 percent are farmers and that probably half of those or more are struggling to keep what they have?


Just as there is an aging-farmer crisis, so there is a heritability crisis when it comes to black farmers’ passing along their land. Too often, there is no one to inherit it and the last surviving farmers end up selling the land to developers, which ends the possibility for a young African American would-be farmer to acquire land. That’s a conversation that needs to happen within the African American community, Turner said, because each generation of African Americans starts with zero and has to rebuild.

“Where are these generational black farms being passed down?” he asked.

He means the ones where subsequent generations are not born into debt, but rather, have the infrastructure to build upon in order to be self-sufficient.

Unfortunately, “even family members don’t support you,” he said. “They will drive past your farm and go to the store to buy food even though you’re growing high-quality, non-GMO foods. The value is not there for them.”

Turner has some videos on YouTube that talk about change for African Americans in farming.

“People say I changed their life. That makes me feel good,” he said.

Turner expects he’ll try to win people over one at a time — and maybe more en masse when he finishes a book he is working on about homesteading for African Americans, which will share how to find land, how to build and how to free themselves from the bonds of a capitalist culture, so that they can grow their own food, help others and build good health.

“I don’t hear enough conversation about, ‘Let’s change the whole population density for green spaces, get off the grid, have chickens, goats, feed your family, get out of an environment heavily influenced through drug culture, drive-by shootings and gang activities,” said Turner. “We can see that as a problem and develop the means or tenacity to remove ourselves and can, in fact, change the way our lives are.”

Too often, African Americans are “comfortable slaves,” Turner said, okay with working 40 hours a week in exchange for material goods.

Still, in some online groups in which Turner participates, he sees change afoot, with young people considering trading city for country.

“Change is definitely going to come,” he said, “but it’s not going to include everyone, and I fear that many people are going to be lost because they’re captives in a bad situation with no way out.”

For black farmers still on the land, Turner urges them to take advantage of newer crops that have or are likely to become hot commodities—hops and hemp, for example—and he encourages black land-grant institutions to step up their game and promote such crops and help black farmers get started growing such crops.

Turner wonders what would happen if African Americans were to reverse the urban trend and ag leaders began to speak in terms of “Hey, let’s buy thousand of acres of land and build communities that are self-sufficient and reverse this paradigm.” Anything less will not solve the problems, he said.

Inspired by Family History, Georgia Farmer Shows the Way for Organic Best Practices

Dr. Jennifer Taylor is a leader on organic farming in Georgia and beyond. Photo credit: Rowland Publishing Inc./Lawrence Davidson


It’s sunset on a diversified farm in Glenwood, Georgia. Cicadas sing from the canopy of the woods where a herd of pastured cattle lope toward the sound of a farmer calling them home. Fireflies glint among the rows of regionally adapted vegetables and grains, while turkeys scratch along the grassy rows of the peach orchard for a last bit of supper before roosting for the night. This sounds like an evening on a modern organic farm, but 1940s sharecropper Miss Lola had a vision for sustainable farming long before “organic” became a buzzword.

“Farming is part of my family history,” said Lola’s granddaughter, Dr. Jennifer Taylor. “Even my great-grandmother was using practices similar to those we use today in sustainable agriculture.”

The farming women in Taylor’s family utilized methods that added to the health of the soil, planting crops with time-tested succession strategies that maintained well-being on every level.

“She really enjoyed farming and she was good at it.” Taylor said.

Under Miss Lola’s care, the farm hosted bountiful integrated plant and livestock systems, with pastured beef, dairy, poultry, nut and fruit trees, vegetables, sugar cane and honey.

“She was not only able to grow for her own family, but also for her community,” Taylor said.

When Miss Lola was given an opportunity to buy her land, she and her six children pulled together resources to purchase the 32 acres. Taylor describes the immense joy and self respect Lola felt becoming the owner of her farm: “Imagine being able to envision another future for yourself, another future for your children.”

Taylor and her husband, Ronald Gilmore, continued Miss Lola’s legacy in 2010 when they took over operations of the farm and rebranded it as Lola’s Organic Farm. After studying agronomy at Florida A&M and Iowa State University, earning her PhD. and teaching organic farming at her alma mater in Tallahassee, Taylor brought both an academic and experiential approach to organic farming on her family land.

Organic farming “is really about building a healthy life on the farm,” Taylor said. “Not only in growing the crops but also the soil, the environment, and the produce. The whole system needs to be considered.” Taylor believes farming is about more than just the end product: “We’re the folks that should be out there growing healthy soil, benefitting the environment, being concerned about the welfare of our farm workers and the welfare of our family living on the farm.”

Finding Cohesion with Cover Crops

To produce the organic berries, grapes, persimmons, pomegranates, figs, ginger, turmeric, peppers, kale, sweet potatoes, eggplants and onions, Taylor and Gilmore had to find a way to address the problem of tough Bermuda grass.

“It looks like a beautiful lawn, which is fine until you want to grow something there,” Taylor said. “You have to manage how [the grass] grows so your vegetables can get a head start.”

Taylor spoke about this stubborn weed not with the tone of an adversary, but with warmth of an ecologist:

“It’s beautiful to walk on and the insects and the animals enjoy it,” she said. “We’ve tried to manage the Bermuda grass in such a way so that we’re not leaving the soil open, but using the grass for its own benefit, such as free erosion control.”

Taylor uses this nature-informed approach to decide what crops to plant and where.

“We’ve tried to identify what grows well by what’s already there,” she said.

The farm uses drip irrigation, and mulching with natural pine, straw and bark to give her crops a no-till advantage over the Bermuda grass.

Cover crops have also proved to be the key to overcoming the farm’s soil challenges. “We have very sandy soil with very low organic matter.” Taylor said, but hardy cover crops such as millet, cow peas, and buckwheat have helped the farm’s “Fuquay loamy sand” perform better by opening up the tougher topsoil so crops can access the more nutrient-rich deeper layers without tilling.

“Other combinations of cover crops we grow are hairy vetch, barley and subterranean clover,” she said. “The pollinators love it! You know it’s a good field when you look out and see pollinators everywhere. It’s a good feeling.”

Bringing Knowledge to the Community

Having dialed in a cover crop rotation that would successfully manage their soil and mitigate Bermuda grass, Taylor formed a coalition in her community and applied for a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Development grant from the USDA to test her experience and share it with other farmers struggling with soil issues and Bermuda grass.

“We had two plots for comparison,” Taylor said. “One used multiple tillage, which a lot of farmers engage in, tilling the soil successively to remove the Bermuda grass and the comparison plot was cover crops.”

As the only organic farm in the area, Lola’s Organic Farm’s no-till methods were in stark contrast to the heavy tillage happening on farms all around. On the research plot Taylor set up a side-by-side comparison with a 10th of an acre tilled the way her neighbors advised, and the rest of the field filled with cover crops.

“It’s true that using a tractor is faster,” Taylor said. “On the cover crop plot we used a three cover crop mixture — cow pea, iron and clay pea, and buckwheat — and we found it took a couple of months to get a complete change, but the benefits were so increased due to the presence of cover crops.”

Taylor and her research team found that the vegetables preceded by cover crops were visibly more healthy and vibrant, compared to the same varieties preceded by tillage.

“The same crop in the multiple tillage section were withered and the leaves weren’t as large, you could tell with your eye something was going on,” she said.

The cover crop plot ultimately outperformed the tillage plot on every level. “Not only did we build our pollinator habitat but the soil moisture and organic matter improved” Taylor said.

The test plot drew curious farmers and researchers from all over the state of Georgia, who came and listened to Taylor share their results.

“We continued to get requests from farmers about which cover crops they could use to deal with Bermuda grass,” she said. “So many farmers had Bermuda grass, I didn’t even know!”

The project impacted farmers on a broader scope than Taylor expected, prompting workshops and teaching opportunities. She feels a tremendous sense of calling to share their experience with cover crops not just as a solution to control weeds, but as part of her broader vision to promote regenerative soil practices.

From Impact to Influence

Taylor’s visionary leadership ultimately compelled her to join the Organic Farmer’s Association, where she serves on the OFA Governing Council as the vice chair of the OFA Policy Committee.

“We work to represent the needs of organic farmers across the state and we take those needs and possible solutions to policy makers” Taylor said.

Amid concerns about the integrity of USDA organic labeling, Taylor has advocated for the highest standard of sustainability through her roles in OFA and during her time appointed to the National Organic Standards Board.

“I try to share information about organic farming strategy because when you’re trying to get your products out there in the market it can be easy to spend less time building healthy soil, trying to save seed, or use mulching or crop rotation because the dollar becomes the driving factor,” she said.

While sales are important, Taylor emphasized that “organic farmers need to be caring for the land, and not only our own farm but the farm across the street from us.”

Taylor also coordinates the Small Farm Program and teaches Sustainable Development at Florida A&M University. Taylor describes her Sustainable Development class as “a different kind of approach to understanding the needs in underserved farming populations.”Taylor offers hands-on training in this course to help her students identify farming problems and develop relevant solutions.

“It gets to the heart of the matter. It’s specific but also offers skill building to help farmers make their own decisions and choose their future in organic agriculture,” she said.

As Taylor watches new farmers pick up a pitchfork, whether they be young adults, persons on their second career, or recently retired professionals, she sees a place for them in helping their community thrive.

“I haven’t always seen myself as a leader, but I’ve always been somebody who wanted to share information that would help others,” she said.

Taylor encourages aspiring agricultural leaders to start by living out one’s own agricultural ideas on the farm and then take that knowledge to help other farmers in the community to become successful.

“There is so much good work to be done,” Taylor said. “Be aware of those in your community who don’t have access to organic food.”

Taylor considers her work an extension of the community-minded values shared by her grandmother, Miss Lola. “Our focus should be on doing good in our local community, because the work we do here in our local community benefits the world.”

Humane Hatcheries and Regenerative Poultry

Alchemist Farms prides itself on have a beautiful variety of egg colors. Photos courtesy of Alchemist Farms


“The humble hen can give us so much if we’re willing to give her just a little bit of space, respect and love,” Franchesca Duval says.

Space, respect and love are three values that characterize Alchemist Farms, a beyond-organic poultry hatchery in Sebastopol, California. “We are a humane hatchery,” Duval says.

Franchesca and her husband, Ryan, sell eggs and chicks from thirteen different breeds of chicken and two breeds of quail. Their pasture-based model does more than just produce beautiful chickens with unique egg colors; the Duvals are constantly tweaking their infrastructure, management and resource use to align with the values close to their hearts.

Compassion has not been an ancillary quality of Alchemist Farms — it has driven the Duvals and has informed both the big picture and day-to-day aspects of their business.

“It’s almost like chickens are perceived as if they’re produce — they’re so mistreated,” Franchesca says. “People want the cheap meat and the eggs; it’s such a staple. But most people have never seen the warehouses they’re in. It’s a really intense experience.”

Providing customers with healthy, top-quality chicken breeds and beautiful eggs is Alchemist’s mission.

“I believe there is a breed of chicken out there for every person — kind of like dog breeds, based on the personality they’re looking for and the size,” Duval says.

Alchemist even offers quail breeds for customers who live in smaller places but want the poultry experience.

On top of donating to 1% For the Planet, Children’s Eternal Rainforest and other local nonprofits, Alchemist Farm offers an inspiring example of how a heart-forward approach toward nurturing animals, the land and the community can also create a successful business.

“We’re so grateful to offer something different and show that it’s possible, not only on a small scale but also on a larger scale as well,” Duval says.

At baby chick hatches at Alchemist Farms.

Humane Hatchery

“I have always had chickens in my life,” Duval says. “Growing up I lived on a small piece of land in Santa Cruz, California — just under an acre.”

While her family didn’t have enough space for larger farm animals, they wanted to offer their children the experience of caring for animals. Enter Duval’s first flock of chickens.

“I would spend hours out there — listening to their conversations, trying to understand their language, watching them move — and it always stuck with me, having some kind of animal that I was taking care of,” she says.

Having grown up in Ohio, Ryan Duval was no stranger to agriculture. Franchesca says that when she and Ryan met and married, they knew they wanted to have a little farm with some chickens. “We didn’t know we were going to have so many chickens!”

While looking to place an order for their first chickens to raise as a family, Franchesca and Ryan learned about how typical hatcheries dispose of their male chicks.

“It just crushed me,” Franchesca says. “I felt in my heart that I couldn’t support that, so we began to research other ways we could get chicks that would be cruelty free.”

In their quest to find this alternative, the Duvals amassed a collection of incubators, chick supplies and quality breeding stock. “One thing lead to another, and I started hatching for myself,” she says. A community formed around Alchemist Farm’s burgeoning hatchery as others connected with the Duvals’ vision to raise chickens humanely without the added waste of destroying male chicks.

“It started with a vision to treat the animals better, and from then I got really excited about egg colors. I started picking up different breeds and researching different fun egg colors from other genetics,” she says.

Duval’s rigorous research of chicken genetics led to Alchemist’s original line of chicken breeds, carefully selected for health on the pasture, temperament and delightful egg colors.

“When people see what is possible in the world of chicken egg colors, it stops them in their tracks and really helps them think about their food sources,” she says. “There is a whole world of biodiversity beyond white pearl leghorn eggs — our eggs tell that tale!”

A Heart-Forward Approach

The Duvals strive to constantly improve their animal welfare practices and environmental footprint.

“Every time we would tackle some kind of issue or ‘problem’ it was an opportunity to dig deep and find solutions,” she says.

Rather than follow the mainstream industry’s quick fixes and product-based problem solving, the Duvals prefer to allow their holistic, integrative value system and prayer to guide them toward solutions.

“We feel we have been guided down this path to keep asking how can we treat the people, the animals and the planet as best as possible. Prayer and listening to our hearts has been at the forefront of every single business or farm decision we’ve made, and it hasn’t lead us astray,” she says.

The Duvals not only see their faith as a way of helping themselves feel guided towards solutions to their problems, but also as a way of challenging the status quo in their operation to move toward more conscientious practices.
“Something as simple as seeing our trash in a different light has caused us to ask ourselves, ‘Are we treating God’s creation and the planet well by making all this trash? And the answer was no,” she says.

Franchesca and Ryan believe that the suffering of people and animals in the poultry industry has come from humans trying to play God, rather than following the divine intelligence of animals living in nature.

“We need to slow things down and listen to the way things are in nature,” she says, “People are feeling that disconnect everywhere. We’re on our phones, we’re living surrounded by pavement, and we’re depressed and anxious. We need to get back to the rhythm of being close to nature, and that’s what’s so powerful and beautiful about raising chickens. It’s something that anyone can do.”

Regenerative Chicken Pasturing

Alchemist Farm operates with a pasture-based model, with all their breeding stock spending most of their time outdoors. Duval says, “None of our chickens are in breeding cages. In normal hatcheries, they’re all in warehouses.”

Using a multi-paddock system, the Duvals have dialed in a permaculture-inspired way of housing their birds and utilizing the waste.

“All of our coops are raised off of the ground for predator protection. We clean all the bedding once a week, adding to our compost piles and turning for a year’s time until it’s all cured and good. Then we add it to our vegetable garden.”

In 2019, the Duvals set up a rotational pasture with automatic doors, allowing the chickens to transition between pastures seamlessly and without stress. Duval says, “When we remediate a pasture, instead of tilling, we’re cover cropping with rye, barley and clover, putting straw over it to protect it and trying to build up as opposed to tilling down.”

Alchemist Farm’s automated system makes pasturing chickens much easier and potentially scaleable. “I think this could be applied to a much larger operation, if they were so inclined. We’re a small farm, but also like a test farm showing that this model is totally possible: we can pull chickens out of the warehouses and get them onto pasture where they belong.”

The high nitrogen in chicken droppings presents a unique benefit and challenge to managing pasture forage species. “Everyone wants these nitrogen fixers and we need nitrogen eaters!” Duval says, “We’re working on finding the right mix to improve the soil and handle this excess we have so that we’re not creating runoff. It’s a fun conundrum to play with, and this is the year we’re really tinkering with it.”

Duval is eager to promote the idea of regenerative agriculture through what she and Ryan do at Alchemist Farms.

“People come up to me and say, ‘You’re into sustainable living, right?’ Sustainable to me means staying at a baseline, and we need to be not just sustaining where we are but regenerating and giving back.”

To Duval, regenerative agriculture is about inputting resources back into systems that support the local ecology. Multi-paddock grazing, composting and cover cropping are not just about pasture management, but also protecting the water table that contributes to the aquifer: a major concern for Californians.

“Climate instability is going to be part of our future, so while we’re figuring out what to do with all the carbon, we need to have climate-resilient pastures and animals,” Duval says. “We can do that through that idea of regenerative agriculture and giving back what we can.”

The regenerative model also informs her desire to contribute to her community.

“I try to think about how we can give back as much as possible to our community, to the animals and to our customers, while still being able to keep our farm operational,” Duval says. “That generosity of heart and spirit isn’t us giving anything up; it’s gaining a very rich and incredible lifestyle.”

Zero-Waste Farming

Alchemist Farm has transitioned to zero waste in the last few years.

“When my eyes were opened to our waste and the sheer amount we were putting in the trash each week — from our packaging and our shipping to various farm things like plastic waterers that would break, and we just wouldn’t think about it — we’d throw it away,” she says. “It would get rolled to the curb and disappear in a neat and tidy way. But when I [recognized] that I was filling the earth God has given us with trash — what kind of a thanks is that for this incredible planet?”

In the process of thoughtfully sourcing biodegradable shipping and packaging materials, the team at Alchemist Farms invited their customer base and social media followers to pursue a zero waste lifestyle with them.

“We started looking at wastefulness in all areas of our life. Because once you do that, it changes your mindset so much on how you treat the planet, the animals and your family,” she says.

Alchemist offers completely compostable shipping materials for their chick and fertilized egg deliveries — no small feat for sending living mail across the country. On the rest of the farm, the conversion to less wasteful materials also offered the benefit of more streamlined animal care chores and maintenance.

“With all of our equipment for the birds, we’ve focused on saving up for systems that will be in place for many years,” she says. “We used to just go for a quick, cheap fix because it was easy to just go to the feed store and buy one of those huge waterers that so easily get damaged and crack.”

Duval points out that it’s easy to get caught up in a reactionary cycle in keeping up with animal chores. Putting in more efficient systems for feeding and watering is more than just workload reduction, Duval say; it’s about creating enough margin to see what your land needs.

“We use 55-gallon drum rain barrels with PVC pipe and nipple attachments,” she says. “The chickens drink from those, which keeps it clean. Also, you can open the tops and do rain water catchment with them.”

Duval says anyone can build a watering system like theirs for less cost than purchasing and replacing plastic waterers. In their grid of pasture paddocks, the Duvals place their waterer in the corner so the pipes with nipples can service multiple separated groups at once.

“We are so fortunate to be a part of a micro-grid in Sonoma County that is connected to geothermal energy,” she says. “We pay more each month for clean, renewable energy, but to us it feels like a cost worth paying.”

Duval loves sharing about the many power grids across the country that have access to renewable energy.

“With just a quick phone call and a little bit more each month, you can get renewable energy,” she says. “For us it’s more because we’re running incubators and all sorts of things, but it’s exciting to get clean energy into your house. Most people don’t know about it!”

The Duvals also plan to incorporate solar energy onto their farm in 2021.

Using Male Chicks

Unlike most hatcheries, Alchemist keeps male chicks for a special program.

“We knew that we were going to be having a lot of male chicks from the breeds that we could guarantee as female. And of those breeds, customers prefer the females. In larger scale hatcheries, they will either incinerate the males or grind them alive, and we weren’t going to do that.”

In their endeavor to live with maximum kindness and minimal wastefulness, the Duvals came up with a use for their male chick surplus.

“We wanted to take responsibility for the life that we created, so we decided if that life could go toward feeding someone, it would be better than killing upon hatch,” she says. “Here in Northern California we’re in wine country, and there are a lot of transitory farm worker immigrants passing through or living for a short time working on these wineries. Most of the workers are from Guatemala or Mexico: cultures that have a thorough knowledge of how to work with rooster meat. Each week we have different families lined up that take home a box of baby chicks. They feed them their food scraps until they’re grown up and processed. They’re able to get some protein for their families that they might not otherwise be able to afford. It’s tackling a lot of issues at once.”

The Duvals take seriously their desire to not hide or shy away from the struggle or suffering going on around them: taking a compassionate approach toward their excess of male chicks allows them to address another justice issue in their community.

“We try to have a permaculture mindset of stacking functions on top of each other,” she says.

Regenerative Ag is for Everyone

“Anyone can do what we’re doing,” Duval says. “We started from scratch; we truly had nothing and built it from the ground up, with a lot of sweat equity”

Duval encourages new farmers to not be intimidated by operations that are further along in the process of dialing in their values in their business.

“Just start with one manageable change at a time until you have it down, and then move on to the next change,” she says. “You’ll be more encouraged, you’ll develop more perseverance and then you can make it happen!”

To Franchesca and Ryan, living in alignment with the goals of regenerative agriculture is about building a life living out the great commandment to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Duval says her neighbors are, “the natural world, the soil, the plants, the animals, the humans we never see but whose lives are greatly impacted by our choices and actions,” and through Alchemist Farm her family works to continuously implement regenerative principles to better serve her neighbors.

“We’re regenerating all of it: our land, ourselves, our families, our faith.”

Learn more about Alchemist Farm and Franchesca and Ryan Duval by visiting their website at and follow them on Instagram at @alchemistfarm.

Agroforestry Movement Takes Root

Joe Pizzo and Mike Ortiz, who serve on the Board of Directors for White Lion Farms, an organization the provides agricultural opportunities for returning veterans, sit on the back of a planting tractor to plant hybrid nut tree seedlings on a ridge in Cambridge, New York.


Last May a crew gathered at Kevin Maher’s farm in Cambridge, New York, with an ambitious goal for the weekend: to plant 10,000 hazelnut trees in open fields on the hilly, largely wooded 240-acre property.

The project was the first to be undertaken by Agroforestry Management LLC, a new company Maher founded with Jared Woodcock, a native of the neighboring town of White Creek. Their business is dedicated to spreading the practice of “forest agriculture” — in which tree crops like nuts are planted in widely spaced rows that allow space for complementary farming activities — in New York’s Washington County and beyond.

The effort is part of a broader movement, inspired by the well-known Wisconsin farmer and author Mark Shepard, that aims to get thousands of acres in the region planted with chestnuts, hazelnuts and Korean pine nuts. If it succeeds, supporters say the agroforestry movement has the potential to radically transform large-scale agriculture both locally and nationally.

In this region, where New York and New England meet, the idea of growing nut trees commercially marks a significant break with convention. The local agricultural landscape is dominated by corn and forages like hay, that are mainly destined to feed dairy cows. The only tree crops commonly harvested locally are maple syrup and apples.

The thought of planting rows of nut trees on cropland and hilly fields probably would strike many farmers in the region as a cockamamie scheme unlikely to ever take hold. Maher and Woodcock aim to disprove that by scaling up their vision for regenerative farming.

The concept is to put nut trees at the center of their farming operations while encouraging complementary agricultural enterprises — from pastured livestock to fruit-bearing shrubs or vegetable production — in the ample alleyways between rows of nut trees.

Supporters say this system offers both financial and environmental benefits by developing diverse, high-value crops and by reducing soil erosion, improving soil health and fostering biological diversity. And the trees planted for agroforestry would absorb the atmospheric carbon that contributes to climate change and put it back into the soil.

Maher and Woodcock say success depends on pursuing the concept on a large scale. A critical mass of nut producers will be needed to justify the processing and marketing infrastructure that would give growers outlets beyond U-pick operations, farmers’ markets and online sales. While they work with local farmers and landowners, their primary focus is partnering with investors to purchase farms on which to establish these large agroforestry systems. Combining these methods, Maher and Woodcock aim to get 4,000 acres of nut trees in the ground within a decade.

Seeking a bigger impact

Several other farmers and landowners are putting the concept of agroforestry into practice independently around the region, including two with nut tree plantings in an adjacent county.

But the project started by Maher and Woodcock stands out for its ambitious scale. The two partners say they began with a vision, inspired by Shepard, and created their limited liability company as a means to realize that vision. They decided to partner with accredited investors — wealthy or high-income individuals who meet federal rules that allow them to participate in riskier, and potentially more lucrative, investments.

“We could go to banks and other conventional lenders, or we could work with humans who have the same belief system and can contribute money,” Woodcock explained. “That is why we prefer to work with equity partners.”

Maher, who previously worked in the world of finance and first became interested in farming because of a family health issue, says the nut trees are the sort of investment that requires patience.

“Essentially what we are doing is building a biological factory, so there are start-up costs and labor costs,” Maher said. “Then you have a consistent yield that can last for generations and sequester carbon and increase biodiversity.”

Their company is using investor funds to acquire land, buy and plant seedlings and sustain the trees during the early years. The investors will share in the proceeds from crop sales when the trees mature. At this stage in the development of their business, they are working hard to “prove out” their model, Maher explained.

Over time, Agroforestry Management aims to help other farmers join the movement. Once the processing infrastructure is established, other farmers will have the opportunity to use these perennial crops to diversify their operations with less risk. “We will be working with farmers wherever possible, but we are not raising capital for them,” Maher clarified.

“No one farmer can afford to create that critical mass alone,” Woodcock said. “And groups of farmers can’t risk everything to plant it all at once.”

Maher said they are focusing first on establishing parcels to demonstrate that the model can work. And those parcels will be larger ones. Getting 400 acres established will allow them to put a small-scale processing facility in place, and achieving that milestone will make planting nut trees a more viable option.

“There are two sides to it,” Maher explained. “If we’re working with investors and they see the progress, they may be comfortable before we reach full maturity. As people see it go from theory to implementation, I think we’ll be able to move faster.”

Woodcock said their company is unusual in several ways, especially because farmers and land stewards will make all the land management decisions. He and Maher see that ground rule as a safeguard allowing farmers to use their best judgment to sustain the enterprise and the integrity of the agricultural ecosystem.

“What’s so progressive about our model is that we’re the only for-profit organization that has a pathway for farmers to earn equity in the land and business with their labor and commitment,” Woodcock explained.

Photos by Joan Lentini

A tree-planting adventure

At Maher’s farm, the planting crew was tasked with getting thousands of bare-rooted hybrid hazelnut seedlings into the ground. The crew consisted of a core group of five or six people, with others showing up to help for a few hours here and there. At any one time, eight or ten people were contributing their labor.

Shepard, the author and a national leader in the agroforestry movement, traveled to upstate New York from Wisconsin to lead the first planting of nut trees for the business he’d inspired Maher and Woodcock to start. For years, he has been helping to guide similar installations around the country.

As a nurseryman, Shepard had selected and grown the tree seedlings that were being planted. Shepard also came to offer his expertise in water management and to teach the growers how to lay out the orchard rows to more evenly distribute water and prevent erosion.

“The task is to spread water out by the way you plant, rather than by draining the land,” he explained. His strategy is to keep the water on the land for the benefit of the plants, while managing it so that it isn’t a destructive force, whether through erosion or by oversaturated soil, which can cause plant disease.

Over the course of that one weekend in 2019, the crew was able to plant 10,000 hazelnut trees in long rows that curve and meander with the contours of the topography. On Saturday they labored for 14 hours to plant 5,700 hazelnuts. The next day their performance was much improved. That Sunday they were able to plant 4,000 hazelnuts on a lower, flatter field in just five hours.

On Monday, Maher jubilantly announced, “We cranked out a 10-acre planting in a day and a half.”

Just a week and a half later, thanks to warm weather and plentiful rain, some of the vigorous seedlings were already starting to leaf out.

Yet another reason that Maher is excited about the prospect of growing hazelnuts in upstate New York is that they can be grown as part of natural ecosystem, rather than in a sterile monoculture. In Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley, the U.S. epicenter of hazelnut production, land is very expensive at $20,000 to $50,000 an acre and growers employ harsh practices to produce a hazelnut crop. “They nuke the land [fumigate it] and laser plane it,” Maher said.

Lessons of forestry and life

Meeting the ambitious goal of planting thousands of nut trees in a couple days hadn’t been a sure thing. The tree planters were working with borrowed equipment that malfunctioned. A local nursery dropped off a tree planter, and a generous neighbor lent them a tractor.

But the pull-behind tree planter had come with a broken coulter. That essential piece of iron cuts the sod into which the trees are to be planted. Having grown up on a farm, around practical trades, Woodcock was able to take apart the coulter on the spot and repair and sharpen it. A grateful Maher marveled at his skill.

Woodcock traces his interest in forest agriculture back to his father, who had a passion for the American chestnut. One day in his boyhood, when he was working with his dad in the woods, they happened upon a large chestnut tree.

American chestnuts had been all but wiped out by a fungal disease in the early 20th century. Woodcock remembers the intensity of his father’s excitement at discovering a survivor.

“We planted out its nuts in the yard,” he said. The nuts that grew into trees produced chestnuts, though all of them eventually fell ill from the blight.

Woodcock, 37, brings crucial agricultural skills to the project of planting trees and managing the land. “I took these life lessons for granted until I went to college and realized most people weren’t as lucky as me to grow up in a way that allowed me to learn how to use tools and get things done,” he said.

“My mother always says, ‘Necessity breeds invention.’ That’s her way of saying, ‘I’m not going to buy it for you. Go and figure it out.’”

Woodcock currently makes his living as a private forest manager and grows food for his family on their homestead. With his workhorses he does woods work year round for private landowners. Previously, for several years, he helped get the agriculture program off the ground at the State University of New York’s regional campus (SUNY Adirondack), inspiring students to work with new paradigms for ecological agriculture. Before that, he managed the farm at Merck Forest in Vermont for a couple years.

He compares working a homestead to having a big garden. “It’s based on beauty and poetry,” he said.

In his opinion, full-time farming is “not as fun.” But he recognizes its necessity — and its benefits.

“We know that tree crops have a positive effect on the ecosystem services that we humans depend on,” he said. “And they also produce a long-term food crop, so it’s win-win.”

Cal O’Connell, a landscaper from Cambridge New York, hand-checks the newly planted nut tree seedlings on a planed ridge. The seedlings are a hybrid of American and European nut trees developed to be hardy and to promote a naturally functioning ecosystem of self-sustainable growth.

Finance to farming

Maher came to the partnership from an altogether different background: He moved up to his rural upstate New York county from suburban New Jersey, where he’d been a commodity trader.

“We chose to move up here because my ex-wife was from the region,” he explained. “In 2011, I had stepped back from my trading career and was home with my kids.”

A family health issue with food intolerances first prompted his shift in priorities in the early 2000s. Looking into the source and quality of their food, the Mahers educated themselves about the food system. This exploration led them to join the community supported agriculture project at Farm in Blairstown, N.J. Started by visionary Catholic nun Sr. Miriam MacGillis and run under the sponsorship of Dominican sisters, Genesis Farm was one of the first farms in the country to follow the CSA concept, in which a farm’s customers pay in advance to buy shares of each year’s harvest. Maher wound up serving on the farm’s board of directors for a time.

“I was being made aware of issues in agriculture and how we grow our food and the impacts it has had on ecosystems,” he recalled.

On his suburban house lot of one-third of an acre, Maher and his family had a forest garden – a landscape of edible perennials – installed as a Genesis Farm workshop.

“We had pear and plum trees in the upper story,” he recalled. “Below these fruit trees were other edibles, like goumi, a relative of the autumn olive; bush cherry trees; raspberry canes; and tuber-producing Chinese artichokes, as well as all sorts of medicinal and culinary herbs.”

Even before he moved to this area, Maher was familiar with the work Shepard had been doing in Wisconsin. And he had just this type of project in mind when he decided to buy his semi-mountainous property in Cambridge, though he lacked the requisite practical know-how to realize his dream.

Soon after moving to the area, he met Woodcock at the Cambridge farmers market. The two men were inspired by Shepard’s book Restoration Agriculture, which came out in 2012. Two years later, they both met Shepard when he did a weekend workshop just down the road in Stephentown, New York.

Shepard told them he thought this region was perfectly suited for his agroforestry model, and they began discussing how to overcome the initial hurdles to implementing that model – especially the cost and delayed payback of planting tree crops.

Maher has used his financial skills to guide the limited liability company he and Woodcock formed. In 2018 they brought in Jisoo Noh, a lawyer in the Philadelphia area who Maher said had been a close friend since high school.

“We’ve been looking for a diversity of skills and background to build our woody crop company,” he said.

Keeping farming viable

As the architect of agroforestry, Shepard’s work has drawn interest around the country. While he was in the area working with Maher and Woodcock last spring, he led a two-hour workshop on “restoration agriculture” hosted by the Agricultural Stewardship Association, a regional farmland conservation group. Despite minimal advance notice, the workshop attracted more than 50 people, some from a couple hours away.

Teri Ptacek, the executive director of the Agricultural Stewardship Association, said Shepard’s work offers an intriguing model for helping to sustain working farms in the region, where dairy has been dominant.

“Farm viability has always been a part of our mission.” Ptacek said. “We’re particularly concerned about what kinds of effects climate change is having on agriculture. That’s why we’re interested in hosting programs that orient farmers toward adopting practices that sequester carbon and build soil health so their land is more resilient.”

Promoters of agroforestry say that its benefits flow from the creation of perennial polycultures – in other words, growing multiple perennial plant species together rather than a typical monoculture of corn or other annuals.

Trees transpire as a matter of course, providing natural cooling during the growing season and helping to prevent drought. Tree plantings are better able to withstand the weather extremes associated with climate change than annual crops with smaller root systems.

Forest agriculture reduces farmers’ workload as well as their costs, such as those for chemical inputs, like the fertilizers and biocides normally used for corn and other row crops. And the concept offers the potential for better economic sustainability due to the potential high value of tree nuts and the fact that multiple enterprises can coexist on the same acreage.

Another advantage of mixed plantings or polycultures is their greater productivity compared to monocultures, Shepard told his audience. When plantings contain more than a single species, he said, they capture more sunlight and produce more biomass.

Shepard started with the premise that trees are superior to annual crops in their resilience and their capacity to heal the land.

More than 20 years ago, he founded Forest Agriculture Enterprises, a nursery where he’s been breeding productive, cold-hardy chestnut and hazelnut hybrids for use as perennial alternatives to corn and soybeans. His 105-acre New Forest Farm in southwestern Wisconsin has offered a demonstration of how agricultural soils degraded by row cropping in corn can be restored through conversion into a perennial agricultural system.

Shepard has long wanted to see his vision implemented on a larger scale. Most of those who’ve tried it so far have done small plantings that are too widely dispersed geographically to create any kind of critical mass.

But now in several areas of the Midwest, and in the Ithaca area of New York, nut growers are scaling up their orchards and banding together to form co-operatives to support needed processing facilities. Shepard believes that 4,000 acres of nut trees would be an appropriate target to create the level of crop production needed to support processing and marketing. And that’s the goal that Maher and Woodcock are seeking to reach.

Attracting new nut growers

Lawrie Nickerson owns Hay Berry Farm LLC in Hoosick Falls, a property with a lot of hilly land. She grows perennial crops on the limited level portion of the farm but until recently hadn’t been able to figure out what to do with the slopes.

Last spring, Nickerson went to hear Mark Shepard speak at the Agricultural Stewardship Association event. While that evening almost immediately changed the future of her farm, allowing her to finally begin to fulfill her aspirations for the land, it was only “by a fluke” that she attended.

“I wanted to do this for so long, but I didn’t have the sense that anyone had the scope or the vision or the experience,” she said.

Shepard had come to the area to consult with Maher and Woodcock for Agroforestry LLC. He would be laying out swales to manage water in future nut tree plantings. (His new water management book, Water for Any Farm, gives very specific guidance on how to plant on hills.)

After his talk, a crowd of people surrounded him so Nickerson made a beeline to Maher to tell him that she had land and was interested in joining the agroforestry project.

“Two weeks later I had 6,000 hazelnuts. They had plants that someone else had ordered but had decided not to plant,” Nickerson said. Her response: “Wait a minute! It had all happened so fast!” But she was also elated to find her dream becoming a reality.

Since she had purchased her farm in 2007, Nickerson had been trying to find a way to make use of its hills that made ecological sense. Unwilling to plow up these hills, she had refrained from planting them.

Instead she took the path of least resistance and left the hilly lands on her farm in grass. For a while, she grazed sheep in an effort to diversify and stabilize the farm income. Now all the grass is mowed for hay.

“My main hay customers are goat breeders. Goats do really well on these hays,” she said, explaining that they really like the brushy weeds. But to her, it always seemed like a waste to just sell hay.

“I’ve been teased by the idea of permaculture in the hills for years. I’ve approached several people, but all were dead ends,” she reported.

Nickerson was raised to respect the natural world. She describes her mother, who practiced law, as “a renaissance woman,” who “exuded an understanding of the environment.” When her family moved to a little hamlet on Long Island, her mother persuaded all of their neighbors to stop spraying for gypsy moth so that the birds would return.

In the early 1980s, Nickerson joined the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, not long after the organization formed. She found her niche as a landscaper, preferring to work with trees and shrubs.

“I was 60-something when I found this farm,” she said. The farm has allowed her to pursue her dream of growing perennials. She put in three acres of no-spray blueberries, which she runs as a U-pick operation. This solved the problem of marketing since Hay Berry Farm is located in “a perfect spot” on a state route between the small cities of Troy, New York, and Bennington, Vermont. Besides the blueberries, she also grows other U-pick perennials, including lavender, rhubarb, and asparagus, and she raises shitake mushrooms in the woods. They attend a nearby farmers’ market across the border in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

The U-pick crops make use of the farm’s flat terrain, which is on gravel deposited by the glaciers. Since it’s very well drained, it has to be irrigated. This flat land is also the lowest area and thus in somewhat of a frost pocket.

Financially, Hay Berry Farm is in the black. Nickerson doesn’t subsidize it, nor does she draw income from her operation. Farm expenses include payroll. She has one full-time employee over most of the year as well as summer workers.

Nickerson finds the agroforestry project to be very exciting for several other reasons. “I tuned into it as a farm project. The effort is to be on a bigger scale, not just a backyard project,” she said.

Not only is it “doable for farmers,” but it also fits the needs of their underutilized resource base, namely their untillable hills. In the northeast, she said, many of these deforested hills are going to scrub because people keep their cows in barns.

She is also pleased that, as a member of the project, she is not alone, but a participant with other like-minded farmers in the region.
Installing a nut orchard

Last spring, shortly after he made that local presentation, Mark Shepard came out to Hay Berry Farm. “He surveyed it with Jared [Woodcock] and laid out the lines for cuts to manage the water and indicating where to plant. Gravity is a blessing for these hills,” she added.

“My cuts are 90 feet apart. We are planning very large alleyways to be hayed or grazed,” she explained. That’s also the initial row spacing for the chestnuts to be planted this spring, as soon as the plant material arrives.

A year ago, when it was time to plant the hazelnuts, a local nurseryman loaned them a planter. With Woodcock driving the tractor and two people on the planter – Hay Berry Farm manager Zeb Ferguson and Cal O’Connell, who’s interested in doing the nursery for Agroforestry LLC – they were able to install 6,000 hazelnuts in a single day.

Then in the fall, Nickerson hired Eric Berg, an engineer who has worked with Mark Shepard for years. He came with a bulldozer to make the cuts for water management and he dug ponds in the field. Six months later, all the ponds that Berg created were loaded with frog eggs!

Another farm embraces nuts

In early May this year, Maher and Woodcock came with an Agroforestry LLC crew to plant thousands of chestnuts and hazelnuts on Allie’s Farm in the hamlet of Copake, two hours south of Cambridge, New York. When farm owner Dominik Eckenstein’s tractor died with a couple hours of work remaining, his neighbor jumped in to complete the job.

Like Nickerson, Eckenstein owns hilly land on which hay is made. He, too, has long been interested in growing trees but felt stymied by his limited knowledge about how to turn nut trees into a viable agricultural enterprise. Last summer, after reading a story about Agroforestry LLC, he decided to join the project.

Eckenstein already had experience with Mark Shepard, having traveled to Ithaca, New York, a few years ago when Shepard was leading a weekend nut tree installation at Eco-Village, a pioneering co-housing community that had set aside land for agricultural enterprises.

His experience with Shepard motivated him to apply what he had learned at Allie’s Farm. “We started experimenting on our own,” he said. They put in 200 chestnut trees to make an orchard in a field behind the farmhouse.

Joining Agroforestry LLC last summer immediately opened up new opportunities for Allie’s Farm. “Last fall Mark Shepard and his people installed three miles of swales on my farm,” he said, noting that he was “squeezed in on short notice.” However they had to skip some portions of the farm, as they were too steep and overgrown.

With two weeks of tractor work, they completely changed the farm’s layout. Rather than being divided into separate fields, the farm is now organized along contour lines. Where nut trees have been planted, there is 80 feet open between the rows. The swales are doing what they intended, keeping the water on the hill rather than allowing it to flow off.

For Eckenstein, the agroforestry project feels like the culmination of a lifetime of interest in horticulture. Raised in Switzerland, he grew up fascinated by his grandmother’s impressive vegetable garden. As a teenager, he imagined “doing something agricultural” for his lifework. In his youth he worked on a cherry orchard and at a winery, but his career took him in other directions.

In recent years, Eckenstein, who lives in Brooklyn, has made his living renovating historic buildings in Baltimore and Brooklyn, work that dovetails with his real estate investments. Up until the early 2000s, he worked in hotel management. He said he tends to shift his professional focus approximately every fifteen years.

Three years ago, Eckenstein bought the 70-acre property that would become Allie’s Farm. He envisioned it as a place to explore his desire to farm. The land came with a relationship with Camphill Village U.S.A., an intentional community that supports people with special needs and practices agriculture and artisanal crafts. Every year Camphill harvests the farm’s hayfields for its cattle.

The same group that sold him his farm also owns a level parcel of good agricultural land across the street. On this land, four farmers produce high-value specialty crops as tenants holding long-term leases. Some years ago, that land had been a cornfield, belonging to a now defunct, investor-owned thousand-cow dairy farm. Then, in the 2000s, a non-profit organization acquired the 122-acre parcel in order to build 138 units of mixed income housing, but the proposal ran into snags.

For Eckenstein, the presence of the small, diverse tenant farmers in the neighborhood presents potential opportunities. He said they are looking at informal ways to cooperate and find synergy. This could involve anything from sharing equipment, resources, or labor to marketing together or marketing one another’s farm products.

Last summer Eckenstein hired a full-time farm manager, who lives with his family in the farmhouse. Last year he grazed 45 sheep. In 2020 the flock has grown with 55 lambs, and the farm census also includes 25 turkeys and 40 laying hens as well as 60 chicks. Over the summer he also grazes some cattle from Camphill Village. The livestock are run on an unplanted part of the land, while the area planted in the hybrid chestnut trees gets hayed. A new orchard of a mix of fruit trees, planted in 2019, also requires care.

“Every year we add something,” Eckenstein said.

Testing other approaches

Around the region, other farmers and landowners have becoming interested in this agroforestry model and are working out their own ways of getting nut orchards planted locally.

Nearly two hours to the south of Maher’s farm, in the small city of Hudson, a business run by millennials called Propagate Ventures works with investors to finance the planting and management of nut trees in exchange for a no-cost partnership lease with farmer-landowners. In this model, the trees are managed as investor assets, while profits from the nut crops are shared with each farmer. Farmers do not earn equity in the nut orchards, though they do have the option of buying out the investors and gaining ownership of the trees and the infrastructure that supports them.

Closer to Cambridge, New York, in Pittstown, former dairy farmer Brad Wiley has leased 7 or 8 acres to Russell Wallack, a beginning farmer who planted the field in chestnut trees. That arrangement came about after Wiley’s partner, Elizabeth Collins, stumbled upon Wallack’s entry on the Hudson Valley Farmland Finder. She had been scrolling through the online matching service, looking for a vegetable farmer to lease their tenant house and some of their tillable land.

Wallack, who lives in Amherst, Mass., calls his business Breadtree Farms. The name refers to the chestnut, which in various ethnic cuisines has been traditionally used to make a type of gluten-free flour. Wallack entered into a 30-year lease with Wiley.

“I’m a 30-year-old beginning farmer,” Wallack said in 2019. “So for me, it’s a great opportunity. I can’t afford to buy land.”

Wallack was able to self-finance his tree planting partially through his day job with the consulting firm Terragenesis International, which assists brands in understanding the impacts of their sourcing decisions. He said he used his credit cards to obtain the rest of the needed funds, though he stressed that he’s conservative in his spending habits.

His agreement with Wiley follows a revenue-sharing model. Because Wallack is fronting the cost of establishing the nut orchard, he explained that under their contract, “Brad [Wiley] won’t receive any cash until I’m making money.”

Wallack expects to begin harvesting chestnuts within three or four years. At first he will sell fresh whole nuts, which can go for $10 a pound. They will be husked but unshelled. But by the time his chestnut trees achieve full production after eight or ten years, Wallack said he would like to have access to a drying and milling facility.

Like other current and future chestnut orchardists, Wallack said he sees a market that’s wide open. Currently, 90 percent of fresh chestnuts consumed in the United States are imported.

But that might not be indicative of future trends. Domestic almond production has quadrupled in the past 20 years, he noted.

A model for the future?

Ben Hart and his wife bought land and built their home in Stephentown in 2014. In the spring three years later, he invited Shepard to the region to give a weekend workshop on forest agriculture. The workshop attracted 35 people, including Maher and Woodcock.

On the weekend of that workshop, Hart planted most of his land — nearly 9 acres — in 1,000 chestnut and 2,000 hazelnut trees. He had done little to prepare the land in advance, but it doesn’t seem to have mattered.

“So far the results have been fine,” Hart said, adding that the well-drained soil, although it had been heavily farmed in the past, had lain fallow for two or three years before the tree planting.

Before moving to Rensselaer County, Hart lived in St. Louis, where he was finishing his doctorate in philosophy. While writing his dissertation, he said he realized he wanted to do something more impactful than writing papers that only would only be read by a handful of other academics.

As he pondered his next move, he read Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and considered its implications. He became interested in the permaculture movement.

“But permaculture is not going to feed people at scale in a regenerative way,” Hart said. “I felt like permaculture is great for one acre. It’s gorgeous and productive.”

When he attended a talk by Shepard, he got excited by his vision of an agriculture modeled on natural ecosystems, based on “what wants to grow” in a particular region. He liked the fact that Shepard, trained in permaculture, had taken its principles and developed a model that can be scaled, combining perennials, such as nut trees, with animals.

Within three or four years, Hart expects to be harvesting a lot of nuts, because the trees, which came from Shepard’s nursery, were selected for early bearing.

“I think of it as a long-term investment,” Hart said.

An earlier version of this story appeared in Hill Country Observer, June 2019. Published with permission in Acres U.S.A. Tracy Frisch is a writer with extensive experience working with farmers and eaters to develop more equitable, nutritious and resilient food systems. She is keenly interested in tapping into the wisdom of the earth and realizing the potential of ecological agriculture to heal the carbon cycle, the water cycle and the nutrient cycle. She homesteads and organizes for environmental justice and social change in rural upstate New York.

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