“When I’m on the farm, I’m on vacation.”
What better way to catch someone’s attention at a Farmers’ Market than to have stuffed animals positioned at your booth?
I met Walter, of Shannon Brook Farm, at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market on a rainy Saturday. Our conversation was the first meaningful one that I had that day, and it gave me momentum for the conversations to follow that day.
Walter lived in New York City for thirty years, and has only recently moved upstate to Watkins Glen. When he told me that farming was his retirement plan, I was surprised. You must really love farming if you’re willing to do all that work during your retirement! “Well, nobody really retires anymore these days”, he said with a smile.
And he really does love farming, and it’s had profound impacts on his health. “When I moved upstate, I was taking all these medications, and now, I’m not taking anything.” That was all within a 4.5-year time span, because Walter has only been farming for that long.
“I enjoy it; it’s good for my health. When I’m on the farm, I’m on vacation. When I’m in the market, that’s work.”
Walter took his phone out and flipped through photos of his farm. Shannon Brook Farm spans 125 acres: “65 acres of pasture and 60 acres of forest”. Unfortunately, “the land wasn’t in good shape” when he got there. It was evident to me that the previous owners did not take care of the place; he showed me photos of what looked like a pile of old, unused wood panels in the middle of a cluster of trees.
But a lot has changed, and I can only imagine the amount of work it took to build up the farm to where it is now.
Walter explained a few of the other challenges of being a farmer. For one, margins are a lot lower. There’s a lot of investment in producing the products, but prices can’t be exorbitant, or else nobody would buy them.
And sometimes, customers don’t understand why the costs are so high; they don’t’ understand what goes into the products. “Say someone finds out they have cancer and then starts to eat healthier…but you actually want to eat healthier earlier to prevent” the health issues to begin with. On the other hand, “I don’t lose a customer once I get one”. Walter has had customers tell him, “that’s the best chicken I’ve ever tasted”, and one of his loyal customers is also a well-known chef. “Some of my customers bring their kids to the farm to show them where their food comes from. It changes everything”.
Having heard of the notorious winters in Ithaca, I asked him if his animals live outdoors during the winter. Though some people might not understand, Walter knows his animals, and “they want to be outside”.
He actually used to drive up from Manhattan to take classes at Cornell’s Vet School, including one taught by Dr. Mary Smith. During one class, Dr. Smith showed a few photos of different types of living situations for animals. She asked which one was the best.
There was one of a broken barn (imagine broken windows, walls falling apart), “and that was the best. It’s better to have the broken barn so the animals can roam”.
Walter even showed me a video of his cows. They were trotting around an open field, chasing each other as if they were playing a game of tag. “They’re like kids”, he said laughing.
Fun fact: These stuffed animals were gifted to Shannon Brook Farm from happy customers.