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Instant Inspiration: An Interview with Sara Sirois

Sara Sirois is the owner and operator of Georgic Farm located in beautiful Virgil, New York. This is Georgic Farm’s first operational year, mainly driven by CSA sales.  Sara’s journey into agriculture is one we can all relate to – and of course, be inspired by. A recent grad of Groundswell’s Grow Your Farm Business Course, Sara has taken away new skills to help drive the success of Georgic Farm for years to come. This summer she’ll be selling yummy produce at the Virgil Farmer’s Market, so be sure to check her out!

How did your journey into agriculture begin and how did you get to where you are today?

  • I began my journey into agriculture sort of unwittingly. I grew up right around here in Homer, NY, a town steeped in agricultural history. But I wanted nothing more than to get out of Homer and get away from agriculture. I ended up as a laboratory researcher in Bethesda, Maryland in a very urban setting and just wasn’t happy so I moved back home to Central New York and it felt really right. I started working at Cobblestone Valley Organic Dairy Farm and loved it, so from there I began a series of apprenticeships.

Can you talk a little bit about Georgic Farm and its mission?

  • I’m focusing entirely on annual vegetable crops and my main sales outlet is through a CSA. (Shout out to all my CSA members!) Joining a CSA is always a leap of faith because the fate of your vegetables is tied to the weather and other forces outside of the farmers’ control. But my members have been especially awesome in being willing to join my first CSA so, props to them. The plan is to continue a classic, at least 20 week CSA, vegetables every week, etc.

Are your CSA members part of the local community? How does your CSA work?

  • There are a few Virgil residents. Virgil is small enough that I’ve looked outside of the town for more members. I have CSA members from all over Tompkins County. I think a lot of my vision of what I want my farm to grow to be is based on Caretaker Farm, which is a CSA that has been around for decades, is super well established, and has this wonderful membership base. One of the main goals of Caretaker Farm is to get the shareholders onto the farm, so there are no off farm deliveries, they sell produce to only shareholders, and they have a work requirement and other things to draw people onto the farm like U-pick crops. It was so powerful to have been there and see people really connect with the land and connect with where their food comes from. Georgic Farm of course is still figuring it out and finding our way but my CSA members will come here to pick up their produce.

Where did the name ‘Georgic’ come from?

  • The word georgic means pastoral, rural, and rustic. It’s sort of synonymous to bucolic. There’s that element. I wanted to choose a name for the farm that was going to be fitting even if the farm experiences some large changes. I’m also shouting out to the Classics nerd in me and the farm’s location in Virgil, NY, which is named after the poet Virgil, one of whose great works is a series of poems put together called the Georgics. The poems contain an overview of multiple agricultural techniques which may …or may not be relevant to a vegetable farm in Upstate NY and there’s a lot of completely factually incorrect information but they are truly poetic and beautiful.

This is your first operational year. What are the biggest things that you were thinking about going into a first year operation and some wisdom you would give to first timers?

  • I would say that one of the biggest things that I was thinking about was capital – how do I fund this farm, how do I fund my own life in the early years of this farm? Agriculture is notoriously not about getting rich quick and you are especially not getting rich quick for the first few years. I began the financial planning for the farm a few years ago, which is really to say that I began saving money to support myself for the first couple years – whether or not that has actually happened is another question. So yes, my personal finances are such that if the farm fails I’m not losing my life savings. I am prepared to be financially independent from the farm.
  • But that being said, I have no farm capital. All of the capital that I have is a result of my previously mentioned amazing CSA members. The CSA really is what has allowed me to start the farm. Also, we are based here at Hollenbeck’s Cider Mill, so I’m relying heavily on that social capital. Matt Hollenbeck who is the owner and my partner has been very generous in helping me get this started. I’m renting land from him for the actual growing space. My CSA members and Hollenbeck cider mills have been really instrumental.
  • I don’t know that I have any wisdom to offer but one of the pieces of wisdom that I have really taken to heart, mostly listening to farmer to farmer podcasts by the late great Chris Blanchard: So many of the farmers that he interviewed said, “Start small. You don’t need to right out of the gate have the big tractor, the big implement, the big systems.” It’s okay to start small and see what works and grow with enough data. Give yourself time and space to collect data and go from there. I’m trying to do that-  come talk to me in 5 years and I’ll let you know how well that went.

Looking into the future, where do you expect or hope to be in 5 years time.

  • Well, I’m going to meld my hope and expectations into one intention and say that the 5 year plan includes continuing in this same location and expanding my CSA membership considerably. This year there are 10 memberships. In the future, I’m hoping for more like a 40-60 membership range. I really want the shareholders to feel as though the farm is not just this place where they pay their share fee and they get their produce for the summer. I want this to really be a community center where shareholders can connect to the land and the agricultural roots that are inside of them. Pretty much anyone you talk to has some fond agricultural memory. I feel like we as humans have this strong connection to the land whether or not we make space for that in our daily lives. But it’s there in all of us and I want farm members to be able to nurture that in themselves.

How was your experience with the Groundswell Course? What was the most valuable thing you took away from it?

  • It was a super valuable course. I definitely benefited from the financial mechanics portions of the course. That was very helpful to just have someone there to directly ask questions to. Of course, it’s stuff you can read about but there’s conflicting opinions and some of it can be unintelligible. So that was great. I feel like I have a much firmer footing in the financial mechanics of farming. I’m also very glad that a big part of the Grow Your Farm Business Course was the social justice aspect of the course. I think it’s so easy as a farmer to push that onto a back burner. So many people want to make that part of their farm and it’s really easy to just get lost in it all, you know farming is stressful. Like I said, no one is getting rich quick so it’s hard to find the space for [social justice work] in and amongst these other things that we’re trying to accomplish and stresses that we might encounter. I’m really glad that the Groundswell course sort of centered that. I think it’s something that I feel like I have more room to grow in and I’m really looking forward to continuing working with Groundswell as an educational resource, because they know what’s up.

As a woman farmer, a demographic disproportionately underrepresented in agriculture, have you encountered adversity that may be attributed to this gender imbalance?

  • I would say yes. I’ve definitely felt not taken seriously by older men who farm. It’s hard for me to attribute it to the fact that I’m a woman, that I’m young, that I’m just starting out, or a combination of all three. However I would say that on the whole, the farming community, especially the small organic sustainable farming community in this area, is phenomenal and has been super supportive. I’m close friends with a network of farmers and their support, advice and willingness to help me is just priceless. I’m really grateful that I have that community and I look forward to proving wrong those people who don’t necessarily have faith in me.

What has been the best part of your first year?

  • I would say, and I know I sound like a broken record here, but I think the best part has been my CSA members. More than a quarter of them included super sweet notes to me in their like envelope with their first CSA payment check which was completely unexpected. That was really heartwarming.

Thank you to Sara for taking the time to interview with Groundswell. Much luck to Georgic Farm!