Collards, Melons, and Mud Puddles: A Farmer’s Perspective in Upstate New York

Originally posted on the Green Fork

It’s rare for an undecided college student to find his or her way into the field of farming, but in the case of Asher Burkhart-Spiegel, experimentation proved agrarian: “In college, you try a bunch of different things. I tried [farming] and felt like it suited me.” Asher is in his seventh season at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, which he manages alongside his wife, Wendy.

The Poughkeepsie Farm Project was founded in 1999 by a group of bucolic-minded volunteers who saved the land, leased by Vassar College, from the threat of a bulldozer. Ten years later, the project boasts a thriving community supported agriculture (CSA) program, farmers’ market, and other programs that promote a local and sustainable food system in the surrounding community.

The farm’s products are Certified Naturally Grown, a non-profit alternative certification to the USDA’s organic seal. Asher said that the USDA certification is not necessary considering the relationship with the community. “We have a one-on-one relationship through our CSA – most members come to the farm to work. We’re ‘customer certified,’ if you will.”

Despite the lack of government recognition, sustainability is the reigning orthodoxy for dealing with weeds, insects and fertility. Asher and his team of interns use cover crops, crop rotation, supplemental organic fertilizer, and compost from Vassar College’s many falling leaves, which he refers to as “opportunistic material gathering.” Beneficial habitat strips are planted to work with and encourage insects at various stages of their life cycle that promote the success of the crops. Crop rotation, mechanical cultivation, and good old hand hoeing neutralize weeds.

Concerning the future of the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, Asher said that the staff is looking forward to a revamped infrastructure, which includes improving CSA distribution and educational opportunities at the farm.

Perhaps one of the educational features will be cooking classes. Asher explained his favorite kale and collard recipe, “Chop them really fine, like shredding – the fine shredding is really key – and sauté with some garlic.” He added that the leftovers are especially great in omelets the next morning.

Late August and early September is Asher’s favorite time on the farm, “Watermelons are really one of my favorite things,” he said. “Especially when summer is cusping into fall, you have the tastiness of fruits and the solidity of squash and melons.” When asked about the hardest aspect of his work, he paused, after a thoughtful moment concluding with some advice that is not exclusive to farming, but also applicable to everyday life, “[The hardest part] used to be the things beyond one’s control, but as time goes by, you see that it’s not the end of the world.”

Asher then realized that he had forgotten to replace the seats in a van for the following day’s farm field trip. As he moved the seats back into the van with the help of an intern, he stepped into an inconveniently placed mud puddle and jokingly exclaimed, “OK, mud puddles, that’s what I hate most!”

The Poughkeepsie Farm Project is a non-profit organization that works toward a just and sustainable food system in New York State’s Mid-Hudson Valley by operating a member-supported farm, providing education about food and farming to local teens through its City Seeds program, and improving access to healthy locally-grown food as a sponsor of the City of Poughkeepsie’s Main Street Farmers’ Market.

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