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Megan and Dan Kent, the barrel washer, and squeaky clean celeriac. Photo: David Sommerstein
Megan and Dan Kent, the barrel washer, and squeaky clean celeriac. Photo: David Sommerstein

Lisbon organic farm looks to grow while staying local

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Agriculture is changing quickly in New York. Greek yogurt is reshaping the dairy industry. Maple syrup is becoming big business. And microbrewers, distillers, and hop-growers are some of the new stars in the "buy local" movement.

But perhaps the biggest change is the attention to diversified, sometimes organic, fruit, vegetable, and meat growers. The number of farmers markets and CSAs has more than doubled in about five years. Food hubs are popping up across the state to help small farms reach larger markets. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised a first-ever summit to link upstate farmers with New York City consumers. There's never been more attention to the "farm-to-table" movement.

This year, David Sommerstein will make several visits to one organic, diversified farm, Kent Family Growers in St. Lawrence County. He'll follow the seasons, the crops, the labor, and the business of making a living being an "eat local" farmer. Dan and Megan Kent started farming on just five acres of land. A dozen years later, they're priming for big-time growth.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

***

My first visit to the Kents’ farm in Lisbon is in the depths of the polar vortex. Ten below during the day. Snow and ice blanket the land. But there’s bounty in the Kents’packing house.

Megan’s in a big old converted sheep barn. She’s standing at the barrel washer, a long cylinder made of cedar slats. It spins round and round like a washing machine, tumbling and spraying. She's washing carrots for CSA distribution and listening to El Ten Eleven, a rock band from LA that Megan loves – Dan says there's music everywhere on the farm.

Dan and Megan are about 40. They have three kids. Dan grew up in Henderson Harbor in Jefferson County, Megan in western New York. They look a little like the couple in that American Gothic painting, except younger and hipper and much much happier. Dan’s tall and thin with round, wire-rimmed glasses. Megan has long brown hair and wears funky clothes.

Every other week throughout the winter, Dan Kent writes up the list of bounty his winter CSA members get in their share. It usually includes more than 20 items, including pickles, jam, and frozen fruits and vegetables. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Every other week throughout the winter, Dan Kent writes up the list of bounty his winter CSA members get in their share. It usually includes more than 20 items, including pickles, jam, and frozen fruits and vegetables. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Today they're sorting and prepping for their winter CSA. Dan writes the master list on a chalkboard: more than 20 items, including the carrots, beets, onions, jam, pickles, and pesto. There are also red peppers and blueberries, fresh frozen and bagged in their USDA-certified kitchen in the main house.

Sixty-four families pay $400 each for this biweekly delivery all winter long. Twice as many families buy the summer share, making the Kents' one of the largest CSAs in the North Country now.

It's all about hard work – and efficiency

"This kind of agriculture, small and diversified, really had very low barriers to entry," Dan says.

When he and Megan started farming 12 years ago in nearby Heuvelton, Dan feared debt. He bought land for $275 an acre. He plowed with horses. Dan and Megan picked and sold everything themselves.

"You could have a half an acre, a pick-up truck that would roll, and take whatever you made to the farmers market and sell it, so you’re able to start without debt, to make mistakes, which you can then recover from because you don’t have a banker screaming at you."

Celeriac and carrots, fresh out of the barrel washer and ready to be sent to the winter CSA drop-off points. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Celeriac and carrots, fresh out of the barrel washer and ready to be sent to the winter CSA drop-off points. Photo: David Sommerstein.
You can hear that Dan’s a sober and cerebral guy. He’s funny and very warm, too, but he's serious about business. He says it's because he's the owner: "The kind of effort that a business owner brings to their business really can’t be matched."

That cold hard self-scrunity has brought the Kents to a fork in the road today. They’re getting bigger. And they’re embracing it.

They found delivering their CSA shares to drop-off points in town was more efficient, rather than embracing the traditional CSA model where members come out to the farm, often working side-by-side with the farmer for sweat equity.

Megan says it was also a lifestyle thing: "We also didn’t want that kind of lifestyle where we’d have 130 people driving out here every week to get a quart of cherry tomatoes or whatever it is. That’s not efficient, either. We’ve decided to do the work for them, and it allows us our own life too, instead of having a parking lot here for people." No offense, CSA members, Megan says: "We still love you."

Dan and Megan are in the middle of a new “local food” distribution system just being born. Their produce is fresher and, in all likelihood, tastier than the stuff in the grocery store flown in from California and Mexico. They have a healthy clientele of people willing to pay for that.

But there’s a limit to how much they can sell locally. The Kents say they love that relationship with the local people who eat their food. And the CSA isn’t going anywhere. But they envision a much bigger business. And that means moving a lot more produce a lot faster.

Limits to local

A cooler just off the packing area tells the story. It's the size of a large living room. Dan built it himself, with two rooms for different kinds of veggies: one for root crops that need to be kept cold and moist, like cabbage and carrots; and another for vegetables like garlic, shallots and onions, that need to be cold and dry.

The draught horse Dan used to use when he started farming 12 years ago is still around, but she's not plowing anymore. Photo: David Sommerstein.
The draught horse Dan used to use when he started farming 12 years ago is still around, but she's not plowing anymore. Photo: David Sommerstein.
After harvest, the cooler was packed floor to ceiling with vegetables. Now it’s about half full. By April 1, it’ll be empty. Most of that produce didn’t go to CSA members in Canton and Potsdam. It went on trucks to restaurants and organic stores and food coops in New York City. That wholesale market, Dan says, is his future: "Where we can have systems in place – machines and procedures, both in the field and post-harvest here in the packing house that make it so each time we stoop, more money comes of it."

The Kents say they have two big goals. They want to make their mark on the wider food distribution system in this country, or at least in this region. And they want to be middle class: to hire employees, send their kids to college, take time off and go on vacations.

"Because the farm can take over," Megan says. "The farm can be everything. It can take all Dan’s energy plus all mine. And then what do you have left for socializing or visiting friends or talking about something besides vegetables or tending to the kids. We do have to reserve something and not give it all to the farm. And I think it’s taken some years to realize that.

Back in the barn, Dan dumps a load of celeriac into the barrel washer. He says he and Megan grow it mostly for wholesale in New York City, where "people find it more delicious" than they do here.

The Kents are looking to occupy what farm experts call the “agriculture of the middle”. Not the huge corporate farms, but not the small farmers market farms, either. It’s a far cry from draught horses and a jalopy pickup.

Many more pictures of the Kents' farm at NCPR's A Year on the Farm Tumblr.

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