Incubator Farm News: Drop the Plows!

By Devon Van Noble, Incubator Program Manager

The Groundswell Incubator Farm provides access to land, equipment, infrastructure, and short-term enterprise incubation for diverse beginning farmers.

The Groundswell Incubator Farm provides access to land, equipment, infrastructure, and short-term enterprise incubation for diverse beginning farmers.

I believe everyone comes out of Winter feeling excited about the coming warm weather, but almost every farmer also carries a certain anxiousness about the impending Spring to-do list.  As the sun comes out farmers everywhere are preparing: starting seeds, fixing equipment, planning for markets.  Once the ground thaws, you better be ready to drop the plow, or you are starting the season behind the curve.

In the first 2 years at the Groundswell Incubator Farm, we have found ourselves with plenty of anxiety about the overwhelming farm to-do list and have been in catch-up mode most of the time.  In year 1 (2013) the deer fence wasn’t even complete until late June, and year 2 I felt like I was fixing and re-fixing the irrigation for most of the Spring.  Consequently the planning horizon for the Incubator Farmers was delayed each season, but in spite of the early setbacks each of the Farmers did an amazing job at growing their enterprises.

But this year is different!

Finally, in year 3, I can say that we all have some experience under our belts and have created a much more robust program for the five farmers on the land this year.  We started meeting with the farmers earlier in the year, developed an organic management course, and hired a farm mentor to work 1-on-1 with the farmers.  Through the organic management course the new incubator instructor, Andy Fellenz of Fellenz Family Farm in Phelps, is teaching the farmers about the practices involved with growing quality organic crops in ways that are efficient for a small commercial farm.  The curriculum he has developed is based on a combination of class time and field education that will cover topics from crop planning to soil fertility to pests & diseases.

On top of Andy’s training, the incubator farm mentor, Dean Koyanagi, of Tree Gate Farm in Ithaca, will be demonstrating the management practices he has learned through 9 years of raising a variety of crop families for his CSA and retail farm stand.  Dean will be displaying these practices in a 1/8th acre demonstration plot at the incubator, and he will be giving each incubator farmer direct feedback through a weekly farm log.  During his time on-site each week, Dean will also be supporting the farmers by answering their questions and helping them solve production problems as they come up.

I think all of us, including the incubator farmers, are already seeing the impacts of this preparation and experience that we have collectively put in place.  Groundswell staff have been blessed to be supported in developing this program by a dedicated team of advisors, including Barb Neal of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tioga County, Brian Caldwell of Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science, and Owen Raymond of Farm Credit-East.

Additionally, the program would not be what it is today without the ongoing support of our farm mentor, Dean Koyanagi, who has been a mentor to the farmers since 2013.  Dean’s patience, humility, and keen interest in supporting these new producers has been invaluable to the process of enhancing the mentoring in the program.  And no doubt, we owe a huge debt of appreciation to the first Farmers who started with us and had the patience to stick with it— Surik Mehrabyan of Hill Top Farm, Damon Brangman of Roots Rising Farm, and Ye Myint.

We would also like to express our appreciation for the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program that has allowed us to expand many of these elements of the Groundswell Incubator Program, as well as the Park Foundation which has provided ongoing support to Groundswell since the Incubator first launched.