Dina Brewster’s Ridgefield, Connecticut farm, the Hickories, has been in her family since her grandparents purchased it in 1936. Brewster spent summers at the farm as a kid, but about five years ago when the person managing it unexpectedly passed away, she took at over at age 28 with a friend. Since taking charge of the farm, Brewster has made the transition to organic and built a CSA program from 20 to 200 subscribers. There are 15 acres in use on the farm, sustaining over 115 varieties of vegetables, fruit, pigs, laying hens, and meat chickens. She has also started working with other local farmers and food producers to include cheese shares, bread shares, and beef options. Here is what she has to say. I kept gravitating towards agricultural work. I was stationed in the Peace Corps for poetry, but kept working with local farmers. I’d find in my teaching that I spent so much time on people like Thoreau…I thought, “What am I trying to tell myself here?” I had pulled some weeds, harvested tomatoes, done some field work, but sitting down with a crop plan is a humbling experience. The first year I did a tremendous amount of farm trespassing. I would drive over and study what the farmer was doing, with or without the farmer. You kinda play to your strengths. I may not be the best tractor repairman, but I am a very good reader. I took [farming] on as a course. We spent all day farming and all night studying the first few years. We thought, we can either pay $30,000 a year for an agricultural school on conventional farming which we don’t want to do anyways, or we create our own agricultural school of the stuff we want to learn. When I think about how my bedside reading has changed in the last five years it cracks me up. One book that I still keep by my bed because I feel it’s so important is called The Soul of Soil. There is so much about suburbia which makes farming so wonderful. There are people around, markets right here, there are utilities and water. We have already created so much infrastructure. The harder part [is] it doesn’t have much agricultural infrastructure left. Things like trying to buy a two bottom plow became impossible, or trying to find someone to put a fence up that wasn’t a white picket fence. We kept it very small at first because the CSA model is often being misused by young farmers who use it as a training ground. They say “let my community float me for a few years while I figure out what to do.” It’s dangerous for the model. People are taking a tremendous risk by signing on to a CSA share. My job as a farmer is to show my gratitude by minimizing the risk. I used to joke that people were so supportive in the beginning that I could have put a dirty sweat sock in the box. They were unconditionally loving and supportive which we were very fortunate about. But later on, you have 200 families, not everybody gets what they want, and you think this is a real business. People really look forward to the first week of Swiss chard or the last week of beet greens. I can’t believe I’ve got kids running up and asking when Swiss chard is coming. I think that my life is a lot simpler. I say [that], yet i am running a small business and working 18 hours a day and coordinating volunteers and making crop plans. I probably work too hard. I don’t see an end in sight to that, which is kind of scary. We are endeavoring to be financially solvent. We are a for-profit farm, and when you have that at your back it’s hard to relax. In that sense, I probably don’t have the same ability as I did five years ago to shut off my work. My work is more of a lifestyle decision at this point. I’d like to think that working outdoors, working in closer connection to nature has made me a more observant person than I was. It’s what I aspire to at least. I remember when I was a kid, on the 40th pass [the farm caretaker would] stop the tractor and pick up some arrowhead or something he’d see in the soil. He’d see the same dirt, and dirt, and dirt, but he’d be able to spot something different. I always thought that was a skill. In some ways, this is the best time to do it because people are really starting to sit up and care in a way that as a society we haven’t for a long time. All I can really offer is that [prospective young farmers] should embrace the enthusiasm of this moment because it may not be around forever. When people are excited about these new ideas, it’s a really good time to make little shifts in culture. The Wisdom of Young Farmers is an ongoing series where we talk with the new generation of farmers in America about raising food and figuring out how to make farming a viable profession in 2010. Images courtesy of thehickories.org
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