"Don't Farm"

By Jane Hodge

“Dont farm.”  This was the advice from one of our farm mentors, Jean-Paul Courtens of Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook, NY.  His advice was in response to our question, “If you could give us one piece of advice (as beginning farmers) what would it be?”

Roxbury Farm was founded in 1990, and today grows vegetables, herbs, and grass fed pork, lamb and beef on 300+ acres.  Jean-Paul has been farming since he was 18, and he and his wife Jody joined forces in 2000. They are one of the few biodynamic farms in the region, and they have grown to feed over 1200 families. They also have a wonderful reputation for their role in building the CSA movement, biodynamics, and for running a tight ship.

Karen and I recently joined Jody and Jean-Paul as part of a mentorship, sponsored by GrowNYC’s Farm Beginnings program. We’ve committed to 200 hours, and every Wednesday we drive 2 ½ hours up to the farm to spend the day working with them.  So far, we’ve been wowed by the amount of land (300+ acres is big to us city folk!), the number of tractor implements (they have everything!), and the successful retention rate of their staff (most employees hae been there at least 4 years, if not up to 7 or 8). We have also been wowed by how much we have been welcomed into the farm, and how patient everyone has been with us.

Roxbuy has efficiency down to a science. On harvest day, they know exactly how many bunches of kale or radishes fit into a case; they know the best ways to hold rubber bands so they don’t get in the way while harvesting; and they have plenty of surprisingly effective raingear for unexpected impromptu volunteers (us). From a newcomer-outsider perspective, they’ve got it all figured out.

So when we asked advice from Jean-Paul and he told us “Don’t farm,” it was the last thing we expected to hear. Perhaps he could tell that we were not convinced, because he chuckled and followed up with some other thought-provoking words of wisdom. Don’t try to do too much at once. Start with just a few crops and get really good at them. Experiment with different varieties and growing techniques. Become the experts of those particular crops, and then expand.

Jean-Paul explained that farmers have a tendency to do too much, to want to do everything and to do it all well. Before you know it, you’ve made a ton of sacrifices and life has passed you by.  

Jean-Paul's advice resonated with us, because quality of life is a huge part of our farm vision. It might sound naive, but I figure we’re still getting started so we have a right to be naive.  We take it to heart when we hear, from a highly experienced farmer who we respect, advice to take it slow and stay focused. To prioritize quality rather than breadth in the beginning. As New Yorkers, slow is not something we know how to do well. We’re used to taking on everything at once, to changing the world RIGHT NOW. But just like plants take time to grow, we will too.