Community Supported Agriculture, or "CSA", is a growing trend across the region with people who like to know where their food is grown and that it's fresh. It's like subscription agriculture. Members join before the growing season begins, giving the grower the money to buy seeds and supplies. They also share in the farm's seasonal bounty.
One such CSA, Fledging Crow Vegetables, is run by Ian Ater and Lucas Christenson. Todd Moe recently visited their small farm just outside of Keeseville, south of Plattsburgh. Chances are you've seen the Fledging Crow booth at a farmers' market in the Adirondacks or Champlain Valley this summer. Ater and Christenson are both college educated, but growing and peddling spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and carrots wasn't in their early career plans. Now in their late-20's, the two friends are committed -- physically and financially -- to dirt, sweat and feeding the North Country.
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Ian Ater and Lucas Christenson are eager to get keep their hands in the soil. The young men are co-owners of a CSA in the Champlain Valley, and aren’t afraid of the work routine.
Ater says, “Sunday, I wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning, drive 45 minutes to a farmers’ market. Come home, unload the truck, do paper work until the evening. Mondays we wake up, it’s farm day. We wake up at about 5:30. And it’s just farm work, all day. Sun up to sun down.”
That’s just a sample of the schedule that Ater, Christenson and their crew of interns keep at Fledging Crow Vegetables...
They started from the ground up. What began as a tent along a hedgerow just a few years ago, has grown to include a cabin, greenhouse and barn that sit on about five acres of land, a former horse pasture.
It’s midday when I arrive for a tour. Lunch is just ending in the small cabin shared by Ater, his wife and young daughter. Soon, I’m holding a mug of espresso-like Ecuadoran coffee and the tour begins.
“So, yea these are shallots, coming through here. Sugar snap peas, onions, scallions, a lot of lettuces, head lettuce,” says Ater.
Ian Ater – lean and broad shouldered — has farmed in the Champlain Valley for seven years. He helped with milking at a dairy farm while a student at SUNY Plattsburgh, and then got the bug to start his own vegetable farm. He and Lucas Christenson met as volunteers on a farm in South America a few years earlier. They’d joked about being future farmers. A phone call and a few seasons later, and they were business partners. Fledging farmers…
Ater remembers, “Like yea, you know. We slept in a ten man tent over in the hedgerow and hauled water, and, you know, sold thirty CSA shares without growing a leaf of lettuce, you know.” He and Christenson chuckle. “That’s what it takes. It takes a year of living in a tent without water.”
Seriously, they say there’s a difference between back-to-the-land hobby farming and running a fulltime CSA. Farming is high stress.
Sharing responsibilities — from bookkeeping to driving tractor and washing produce — is part of the key to their partnership A touch of humility helps. In the last year they’ve expanded their greenhouses, multi-use barn and walk-in cooler with help from neighbors and family...
Ater says, “We wouldn’t be here unless it was for our friends and family around us. We can’t pay for the stone to finish the driveway to get back to the barn. How much is it gonna cost? My aunt gave us the money. My sister helped us pay for the electrical in the cabin. We’d be lost.”
Help also comes from the farm’s four-legged plows — a herd of seven pigs that turned an acre of grass into a tillable plot earlier this spring…
“And they’re doing it on this portion, aren’t you?” says Christenson. “Look at those happy pigs! Yea, I mean they finished off and worked up fields. The first year we were in business, we had pigs, broiler birds and we also did turkeys, too. Yea, they’ve got plenty of pasture to go.”
Census data shows the number of young farmers in the U.S. is growing. But doesn’t the idea of young people wanting to make a living off the land sound familiar? The “Crows”, as they jokingly refer to each other, give a nod to the back-to-the-landers of their parents’ generation…
“They’ve paved the way, but at the same time, they’re still farming,” says Ater. “And so, people like us have moved in, and compete with them, and it’s really important to us, especially in this area. Although there’s not a lot of growers, there’s plenty of pie for everybody. I think that’s important when you talk to other young farmers, to see which ones of them think that they are the pioneers in this, because I can tell you honestly, that we’re not even close to the pioneers in this – this small scale, food production system. No way, no way.”
The two friends didn’t exactly set out to be farmers. Christenson grew up in Minnesota and majored in English at the University of Montana. Ater is from suburban Rochester. They’re not in it to get rich. But Christenson says there’s a certain grace to hand cultivating the land, planting seeds, weeding and pitching their produce at farm stands...
“We see so many things every day that are small successes and failures that it just gets in you. It’s like it becomes part of your heart,” says Christenson. “The thought of, like, getting up and shaving and going to work at nine and coming home and four, and stopping for pizzas on Thursdays on the way home. The whole thing is, actually it’s inconceivable. Like, to not be able to use a tractor at work sounds miserable.”
This year Fledging Crow joined a local cooperative — as part of a long term plan for a network of small farms, each with its own specialty crops, sharing distribution and marketing. They say that’s the future for the local food movement in the North Country. Both men pause when I ask what their farm might look like in five years?
Ater responds, “In five years it’d be great to be doing the same thing. I would be the happiest man on earth if I could be standing right here and looking at another patch of beets. ‘Cause that means that our business has been successful. We’d like to grow a little bit more food. And we’d like to spend a little less time on our hands and knees man, you know?”