The Colgate Scene
November 2003

It's organic
Growing the good stuff at Green Rabbit Farm

Suzanne Slomin '91, proprietor of Green Rabbit Farm in Madison, N.Y. The farm grows big beef, goliath, and seven varieties of heirloom tomatoes in a greenhouse that adds about four months of growing time to the short central New York season. Heirloom plants are grown from non-hybrid seeds passed down hand to hand. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

For most Americans, long gone are the days when preparing a meal began with a foray into the home garden to pluck carrots from the soil or the root cellar for last fall's onions and potatoes. Today, in this meals-on-the-go culture, the pre-bagged grocery store salad on your dinner table could well be a worldly assemblage of tomatoes from California, avocadoes from Ecuador, and carrots from Canada.

For Madison, N.Y. and the surrounding region, Suzanne Slomin '91 offers a different dining scenario, one focused on her hope "that more people start thinking about where their food comes from."

She and her partner, Aaron Locker, are the proprietors of Green Rabbit Farm, a diversified vegetable farm just a few miles north of Colgate that adheres to ecologically responsible growing practices.

Slomin took a circuitous route to becoming a Madison County farmer. Following her graduation from Colgate, where she majored in philosophy and religion and minored in studio art, she had aspirations of becoming an illustrator and, in the meantime, installed exhibitions at New York City's Museum of Natural History. In the mid 1990s, she entered the culinary field, studying at the French Culinary Institute and then running a kitchen in the East Village for several years. In 1998, she moved to western Massachusetts, where she worked as the morning sous chef at an inn in Lenox. While there, she became friendly with a number of local vegetable producers and after leaving the inn spent a year working for one of the local growers.

Through that juxtaposition of restaurant and farm work, Slomin became interested in "the lack of connection between kitchens and where the food comes from.

"In my experience," she said, "unless you are very small or very upscale, you're getting most of your produce from big distributors. You get on the phone, you place an order, and it shows up. If a certain vegetable looks different from one week to the next, you don't make the connection that it came from Ecuador one week and California the next." She also became disillusioned with working in a high-end kitchen that was focused on exclusivity.

Slomin met Locker while working in Massachusetts. He had worked on a variety of organic vegetable and dairy farms from Wisconsin to Maine, including for the same farmer as Slomin, and also had experience at an organic research center and as a mason. They began talking about starting their own organic farm.

Although the idea of setting up in the Berkshire region, with its many inns and restaurants and a widespread commitment to purchasing local ingredients, was attractive, the price of land made it impossible to stay. They moved briefly to Pennsylvania, but soon began looking in central and upstate New York, where land is more affordable.

Slomin's partner, Aaron Locker, harvests beets in early fall.

Setting up shop
It was a coincidence that Slomin and Locker ended up only four miles from her alma mater when in June 2001 they purchased 40 acres on Lake Moraine Road. The parcel, with Payne Creek running through it and an upswept view of the windmill farm in the hills of Madison, included an old dairy barn close to the road.

"We got lucky. This land wasn't even up for sale," said Slomin. "We had gone to the county extension office, picked up the USDA soil maps, and highlighted the areas that would be feasible for growing vegetables."

When none of the available properties they looked at were appropriate, the farm realtor they were driving around with was inspired to approach a Madison dairy farmer he knew, to see if he would sell them a piece of bottom land that he hadn't used for several years. It worked out.

The pair spent the summer of 2001 getting a lot off the ground at once. The fields had to be mowed, roto-tilled, and chisel plowed to lessen the weed bank and aerate the soil. They cleaned up and renovated the barn, installing insulated root cellars and a vegetable processing area on the lower level and an apartment to live in upstairs until they could build a house. They erected their first two greenhouses and by October they had planted their first crop -- garlic.

Through the winter and spring of 2002, they organized their plans, ordered seeds and got settings started, worked on their client base, and built a small farm stand to get ready for their first growing and selling season.

Slomin hauls a basket full of beets -- some of more than one and a half tons harvested this year -- from the field during a morning harvest. Locker cleans produce in vats of water immediately after harvest. Crops are then placed in special coolers to extend their shelf life.

Green Rabbit Farm itself continues to grow and to evolve in its own organic fashion, as the partners learn more about their market opportunities and hone in on the best options. Some of what they grow changes each year, as they work to improve fields through crop rotation, or try new products. Staples include vegetables like heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, roots, potatoes, brassicas (the mustard family grouping that includes broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and other similar vegetables), allia, herbs, flowers, and mixed baby greens, but late this summer they began expanding into fruit, planting strawberries, for example, and within two years they hope to establish a blueberry plantation.

In addition to operating the roadside farm stand -- on an honor system -- and participating in the weekly Hamilton Farmers' Market, they sell wholesale through an organic marketing cooperative and to local restaurants and shops. They also offer a small community supported agriculture (CSA) program where individuals receive a weekly delivery of vegetables for a set fee. In the Utica area, the owner of a coffee shop takes weekly orders from customers, and they also participate in the Small Street Co-Op, a home grocery delivery service. They've sold a significant amount of hardneck garlic and fingerling potatoes at the Hudson River Valley Garlic Festival, and also market storage crops through distributors in western Massachusetts and downstate New York.

Last summer, they hired their first employee, who helps with the crops and assists Locker with keeping the farm's machinery running. This winter, they will build a bakery in the barn, allowing Slomin to return to cooking, which she misses. She plans to start with a naturally leavened country boule. Their hope is that the bakery will also add an element of stability to the inevitable ups and downs of farming -- such as this past summer, which began with weeks of rain that washed away the seeds for Green Rabbit mesclun (very popular at the Hamilton Farmer's Market) but allowed the weeds to invade, and after a brief period of perfect weather suffered 14 days without sunlight that tricked many plants into thinking fall had arrived in mid-August.

"That was unbelievable," said Locker. "Nothing grows. The tomatoes are this big in my greenhouse, but they cannot turn red." Eventually the vegetables caught up, but it turned out to be a late season.

Selling organic produce at the Hamilton Farmer's Market on the Village Green

The organic label
According to a September 2002 United States Department of Agriculture report, the number of organic farmers stood at about 12,200 nationwide, and the value of retail sales of organic foods in 1999 was $6 billion, making organic farming one of the fastest growing segments of American agriculture in the past decade. The USDA's National Organic Program sets standards for the production, handling, and processing of organically grown agricultural products and oversees certification of organic production.

In their first year of selling produce, Slomin and Locker underwent the process of having the farm USDA certified organic. They decided not to recertify this year, finding that the process isn't geared towards small farms that market locally.

"Technically, if someone hollers at me from the farm stand, `do you have any more carrots?' and I run out with my fork, loosen up a bed, and toss three carrots up to the stand, I would have to log that," explained Locker. That amount of detailed record keeping just isn't feasible, and the associated fees are steep as well, he said.

As an alternative, they are working toward certification through a grass roots organization called Certified Naturally Grown, which requires its farmers to follow the same strict organic agricultural practices as the USDA but has a program that is easier for diversified small farms to adhere to.

But ultimately, for Slomin and Locker, selling organic produce is not about the label; it's about the ethic.

"Growing organically should not be exploited as an advertising campaign; it's a holistic ideal. It requires responsibility toward the land you are growing on, the community you are feeding, and the people you employ. It requires a goal of local mercantilism in an effort to cut back on the use of fossil fuels," said Slomin. "We have a very intimate connection with the local community. We cultivate and harvest the vegetables with which people choose to nourish themselves and their children. When mom buys a bunch of carrots at the farmer's market and hands one to her daughter without having to go home and wash it first, that makes everyone feel pretty damn secure."

The days (and weeks) are long -- easily 12 hours a day, seven days a week during peak season -- but both Slomin and Locker find the work rewarding.

"You get to actually do everything, and it's incredibly overwhelming," said Locker. "You have to be a little bit of an entomologist, a little bit of a soil scientist, a little bit of an electrician, welder, carpenter . . ."

"Weeding might not be the most intellectual chore, but there's a great bit of satisfaction of seeing a clean garden bed. I will eat those words throughout the season because I get so tired," said Slomin, chuckling, "but I really do like being busy and focused, and relying on my physicality. And I like demystifying food, making it so simple."

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