turkana Farms

Specialty Meats, Eggs, Produce, Fiber and Fruit

Green E-Market Bulletin April 29, 2024

I have been holding back from telling the sheep, so as not to create jealousy and resentment among the flock, but our much beloved Doodle has had another star turn recently. He had already gained some national recognition as a baby lamb last year, when he appeared in a photo montage at a Washington party for the retirement of my friend, Art, from the Justice Department. As various high level government attorneys, including AG Merrick Garland, praised Art’s significant achievements, a photo of Art feeding Doodle his bottle in the barn flashed on a screen above the podium.

This month, Doodle’s image began to reach a far wider audience. A photo of me hugging a hay-covered four month old Doodle leads off the Turkana Farms chapter of Pieter Estersohn’s spectacular new book, “Back to the Land: A New Way of Life in the Country: Foraging, Cheesemaking, Beekeeping, Syrup Tapping, Beer Brewing, Orchard Tending, Vegetable Gardening, and Ecological Farming in the Hudson River Valley”, published by Rizzoli Press.

As one reviewer noted, Estersohn’s volume is not just “a beautifully shot coffee table book of idyllic rural landscapes, dreamy country interiors, and arresting portraits.” It is also “a love letter to what he calls ‘the new generation of independent farmers,’ both generally and specifically, in 35 ways, one for each of his subjects.” The book celebrates as well, in the words of another reviewer, “the magnificence of this region that’s captivated artists, writers, and visitors for centuries.”

My little Turkana Farms is quite out of its league in the company of most of the accomplished agriculturalists it is featured with. I attribute our inclusion primarily to Estersohn having brought his son, Elio, over for a farm tour, combining produce shopping and entertainment, when he first moved to the area back in 2010. But I understand, too, that he wanted to portray farms in all stages of the life cycle and of every origin. Not just hip idealistic young visionaries starting from scratch, but also those carrying on an agriculture heritage they grew up with and those, like me, who somehow muddled into farming. I started as a part time dilettante but ultimately found myself feeling like a vital organ in a living body from which I cannot imagine disengaging.

I have long likened the family farm to a kind of artwork, in which each farmer or farm family paints a very individual tableau. “Quirky,” in the words of one of the book’s reviewers. But from browsing some of the profiles in Back to the Land I came away with another perspective. Take Philip Orchard in Claverack, continuously farmed by 16 generations of the same family (I found Leila Philip’s book, A Family Place, tracing her family’s history on the farm, an inspiring read). Or consider Chaseholm Farms, a dairy operation in Pine Plains now being run by a third generation of its family. (Their cheeses have inspired me in an entirely different way). Their profiles make clear that a farm is less like a painting, memorialized on canvas, and more like performance art or a jazz classic. There is constant reinvention, as each generation brings a new philosophy, vision, education, sensibility and style to meet the challenges of the day. Consistent themes with dramatic improvisations.

Reading my own profile in the context of some of these others made me realize that I could now be considered a second-generation farmer. My late partner, Peter, and I established Turkana Farms as a melding of our very different fantasies (his a Roman villa and mine a hippie commune). That farm lost its footing, its full-time supervisor, and its primary motivating engine with Peter’s sudden death in 2018. I floundered for several years, trying to find a manageable way forward.

It took a pandemic to make me realize I could work and live here full time (thank you, COVID). But what it really took to get my bearings was to re-establish a “family” at the heart of this family farm. With Eric now as my partner, and with a core group of friends (especially Steve, Paul, and Macho Matt) regularly pitching in, there’s been since last year a new energy; a second iteration of Turkana Farms taking shape.

Some products are returning, others getting new emphasis. The look is changing. At Eric’s urging, we resumed raising our signature product, heritage breed turkeys, last year. Last weekend Eric cleared the overrun-by-weeds raspberry patch so we could determine what remained of it, and this weekend I planted 30 new raspberry primocanes where the original plantings had disappeared.

Not all the changes are deliberately planned. This weekend, Eric, in his passion for order, decided to clear a chaotic jumble of growth and farm detritus behind the woodshed. He removed as nuisance plants some bushes that had been partly smothered by vines and partly poisoned by a poorly placed black walnut tree. “Oh no,” I groaned when I saw the uprooted bushes, “those are currants!” We took the opportunity, though, to transplant them from that poor location to line the driveway, where, if they take, they have a better chance of producing.

Nor are all the changes successful. Last year I decided to establish a new rhubarb patch along the banks of the stream running through the former pig pasture. On the assumption that everything transplants better in the fall, I moved about 15 rhubarb roots there. Only afterwards did I read that rhubarb is best divided and transplanted very early in the spring. Last fall’s plants never had the chance to establish themselves and they disappeared. The 35 starts I divided off early this spring are flourishing, though, and we will begin harvesting them next year.

If the sheep were to read to the end of the Turkana Farms chapter in Back to the Land, they would find an impressive two-page color portrait of the entire herd, and recognize that there is always a second chance, another act. For sheep, and even for farmers of advanced age.