Student Profile: Marcia Harrington

This month, Groundswell is proud to spotlight Marcia Harrington, a trainee from Groundswell’s New Farmer Training Program!

A lifetime New Yorker from Syracuse, Marcia grew up spending time in the garden and has happy early memories of her grandfather’s small urban farm. Her interest in agriculture continued in her teen years, when she enjoyed visiting family member’s farms. 6 years ago, after years of backyard gardening, she began seriously looking for a property where she could create a farm of her own. Two years ago, she bought a beautiful piece of land in the town of Skaneateles, and found herself living her dream of getting back to the land. Although Marcia did have an understanding of agriculture that she gleaned at an early age, she felt she needed to get some training to refresh her knowledge and says the New Farmer Training Program has given her the confidence to begin some of her dream projects. 

Although she spent brief periods of her life in other places across the Northeast, Marcia has maintained a very close connection to the Central New York area. As a young adult, Marcia got a Fine Arts Education between Carnegie-Mellon and Syracuse Univeristy. She had a studio at Eureka Studios in Armory Square where she founded a figure-drawing group called the “Walton St. Irregulars” that provided local atists with an opportunity to work with live models. In the 1980’s she became a cartographer at SU, where her work focused on thematic mapping of post-colonial Latin America. Marcia has also been a committed community organizer, active in the Interreligious Council’s Community Dialogue to End Racism, Syracuse’s Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today community councils, working in community gardens, and on the Board of the Syracuse Neighborhoods Initiative, addressing neighborhood vitality and safety. For the past 12 years, she worked for United Way of Central New York as the Marketing Vice President.

Marcia’s 8-acre homestead has been the same contiguous parcel since the house was first built in 1830, and has been a family homestead farm ever since. The previous owners had bought it just after the Great Depression and raised a family there. When the patriarch passed away, the home sat empty for about 5 years before Marcia moved in. Because it had not been updated in some time, Marcia hired a contractor to renovate the home. But when he went bankrupt in the middle of the project, Marcia realized that she was going to have to learn much more than just how to farm. She soon found that home renovtions can be a time and money pit, but the the work itself was something she could learn to do and she steadily took on each new challenge. Working on the home renovations gave her time to observed the land’s life through the year before she planted or modified the landscape, but this spring she could wait no longer! She prepared a 50’ x 50’ garden (see above; Marcia’s garden in June 2011) and has already grown a wide variety of herbs, flowers, and vegetables (see below; September 2011). You can see the joy in Marcia’s face when she describes the beautiful land and its Wassaic silt loam soil!

Facing the complexities of planning and managing many aspects of a farm venture, Marcia felt she needed to enroll in a famer training program to learn “how to get from where I am now to the beginnings of a farm.” When she began searching out farmer training courses, she originally explored an online option but decided it was worth travelling to get the practical experience that Groundswell’s New Farmer Training Program offered. Marcia says one of the greatest things she has found through the program is connection to a diverse community of people and resources that have helped to put her farm vision into perspective and make realistic plans. She has been delighted to be part of a diverse cohort that is enthusiastic and supportive. “The program and people seem well sensitized to the complexities of diversity—age, gender, life history as well as racial diversity,” she says. “There weren’t any cliques, just a lot of intermingling, and the electives are a wonderful personal setting to get to know people.” 

Marcia also found mentorship to be a key component of education. “Some things you learn from the farmer educators are technical, but there are many things that you learn about the life of farming as well.” Marcia has found that the farm tours and workshops have given her insight to the pragmatic decisions that farmers have make in order to make their operation run. “It’s not about being right, it’s about what works with what you have, and what you’re going to do. It’s really artistic design, and it’s iterative. You go back and forth between your farming ideals and the reality of the land you’re on.” She has realized that enterprise farming is very different from gardening or homesteading. Since enrolling in the program, Marcia has realized that her primary interest is in creating a productive homestead rather than operating a commercial farm.

Now 5 months into the program, she has found that one of the greatest things she has gained is the realization that she might know more than she originally believed. There is so much that she had internalized during her early experiences that she is tapping back into and getting reacquainted with. She says she has also lost some of her anxieties about getting it “right” and realized that though you may try your best, some things will be out of your control. “And it helps to know,” she says, “that each year you get a fresh slate.”