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Monday, September 22, 2014

Pulling up Stakes, Putting down Roots

Where’s that Food Coming From? Dept.: This week’s Metroland food piece looks at a family that gave up mainstream life to run a farm.


“JENNY IS A WATCH-DONKEY,” Kirsten Fredericks explains as the large, angry animal approaches. Woolly brown fur makes the donkey look like a plush doll, but her ears are up in a wary V, and she seems intent on chasing me away, just as, moments ago, she convinced the family’s dog to leave the field where the cattle are grazing. “She and the cows see the dog as an enemy,” Kristen explains, leaving no doubt where in that reckoning I now stood.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
At Kirsten’s urging, I join the cows by ducking between two strands of electric-fence wire. “It’s off right now, but Jenny won’t think so.” Safe from the donkey, I turn to look at the cows and note that the one advancing the quickest sports a pair of horns. “Aric!” Kristen calls, alerting her son, standing nearby, to ward off my visitor. “The steer probably wouldn’t try to hurt you,” she continues, “but better to be safe.”

The Fredericks family operates the 88-acre Windrake Farm in the Montgomery County town of Glen, a rural landscape of farms less than an hour west of Albany. Over the past decade, many of the properties that were considered too small for industrial farming have been bought by Amish families, who now have a strong presence in the area, so there’s a renewed sense of the kind of shared land dependency that defines a community.

But it was an ad in a Newtown, Conn., newspaper that brought Kirsten and her husband, Carl, to the area. They grew up in Newtown—they were high-school sweethearts—and were living in nearby Roxbury, where Carl worked in construction full-time, when they saw the listing. “We had been talking about doing something like this for a long time, so we took the chance.”

Their previous experience? “We read a lot of books,” Kirsten says with a laugh. As with others who abandon what might be termed the mainstream in order to live closer to the land, it was about quality of life. Carl and Kirsten had begun homeschooling their three boys, a shift that typically is inspired by—and continues to provoke—a questioning of society’s received “norms.”

“The ad called the property a ‘gentleman’s farm,’ and said that the current owner wanted to stay on the property, which we were happy to do. We got here and realized that we had a lot of work ahead of us. Carl is in construction, so he knew how to handle the buildings. We started our garden right away, but we added one animal at a time so we could get to know them.”

They had help from Ammon Yoder, an Amish neighbor. “He was the first person here to reach out to us, and we started out learning how to milk with him,” Kirsten says. “Which was very funny, because he had his kids helping, and they were amused to see grown-ups who didn’t know how to do it.”

And their own family already has increased. A nephew from Newtown recently fled Connecticut to join them.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Not far from the house is a small trailer repurposed into a chicken coop. “We have 33 hens,” says Kirsten as the free-ranging flock surges around us to get to the feed that Carl is distributing. “With six of us to feed, that’ll be about 15 dinners. So it’s not very much, but with all of the beef and pork we’re eating, that makes chicken a delicacy around here.”

Pork will come from two pigs happily rooting in a pen of their own. They’ll be butchered when they reach six months, and some of the meat is sold to subscribers. “They’re very social creatures and need company. There was a time when we had only one pig, which we ended up spending a lot of time with, and that got us too attached. Having a pair of them is not only good for their dispositions, but also makes them compete for food—so they eat more.”

The 19 head of cattle are a mix of breeds. “We have some Black Angus, a Holstein-Hereford cross, a Hereford-Red Angus cross, and that one’s a Black Angus-Red Angus cross. And way over there is a Jersey.” Much of the meat from them also is sold.

Carl continues to work on houses, with jobs that take him as far afield as Connecticut—but that has proven helpful with the ongoing project of fixing up the family’s house. He’s reconfiguring a back room to allow more light, and it sports a pair of long, many-mullioned transom windows that were being thrown out by a client. He’s been able to outfit the interior doors with the original style of hardware, with colorful ceramic knobs and metal surface-mounted hardware boxes. Often, what’s needed is already there and just needs coaxing: the drab-looking wooden downstairs floors show what it had become; upstairs, where he refinished them, the wood is startlingly handsome.

They bought the property and started working it seven years ago. Although the challenge of mastering the craft of farming continues, “We have a sense of independence we’ve never had before.” Kirsten indicates the barns and pasture. “We have a sense of a different kind of wealth, and a sense of food security. We can feel broke and rich at the same time. And, I think what’s most important, it has reassured us of our ability to learn new things.”

Out in the field, I’m persuaded that the donkey is calm enough to allow me back on the other side of the fence. “Jenny came with the farm,” says Kirsten. “She’s meant to be pastured with sheep and goats, but she’s become very protective of the cows. If there’s a cow in distress out in the field, Jenny comes running to us.” She seems easygoing and friendly now; as with farming, you just have to get comfortable with what’s become an unfamiliar natural world.

But not too comfortable. “Don’t let her nuzzle up against you like,” Kirsten warns. “She’s sneaky. She’ll bite.”

Metroland Magazine, 18 September 2014

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