Our Path

by Victoria Ladd-de Graff (Wife of Dick de Graff, farmer who runs Grindstone Farm in upstate NY. We get onions, shallots, asparagus, blueberries and other crops from them during the year. -Janit)

It’s the fall in the 20th growing season that I’ve watched the geese flock over our farm to head for the warm comfort of the south. As I feel the cool nip of the morning air while heading out to work, I know that the days of work left in the field for my husband to work grow short. Our harvest is in, and the farm buttons up for winter. This year, unlike any other, we are at a crossroad.

It was 1981 and we were finished with college and in our mid-20’s when we bought our 150 acre farm and planted crops. The plan was to grow low spray produce for the u-pick market. As the years passed, markets changed and we refined growing practices, we became certified organic in 1988, a certification maintained until today. Growing in excess of 60 different types of fruits and vegetables (over 125 varieties) on 30 acres made us the largest certified organic grower in Central New York. Growing on this scale requires that we hire employees to help with both field and office work. Connecting directly with the consumer has been fundamental in our marketing with the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) concept since 1991 and launch of year-round internet sales in 2000. Each year our sales have increased, but so have expenses.

Each year has brought both victories and challenges. The challenges have seemed to be more common than the victories in recent years. Our commitment to paying our staff a living wage, struggles with viable markets, maintaining equipment that has outlived its usefulness, keeping up with utilities, taxes and insurance have all become formidable tasks. Fortunately my off-farm, full-time job covers the mortgage and household expenses and has on many occasions assisted with farm debt.
In addition to working with numerous farm agencies, there has been tremendous support from our family who have loaned or gifted money and loyal friends who have hosted fundraisers. They’ve watched our struggles and agree that we are performing good work but many wonder why, in spite of the hardships and financial losses for majority of our 20 years, we keep forging ahead year after year.

Through the years we’ve run full spectrum on the emotional scale. We’ve felt the humiliation of not having the money to make a payroll and with wrenched guts had to as our staff to bear with us. We’ve lived the
exasperation of the inequity of paying a car mechanic $50 an hour and a lawyer $150 an hour while the work of our own hands reaps but a pittance on the same standard. We’ve ached with dread at meeting with the IRS agent who threatened our stability. We’ve experienced the frustration of lives spent doing good work but yet gaining little return on investment. We’ve watched our son adjust to living a different caliber lifestyle than most of his friends and wished some aspects could be different. Conversely we’ve beamed with delight when dozens of customers have shared how much their health and lives improved with a healing diet of our organic food. We’ve been humbled by faithful supporters’ gifts of cash when they knew we faced an overwhelming payment. We’ve been pumped with pride when sharing our woods, fields and small lake with guests who stood awed at this beautiful place we own.

The pain of reality sears our hearts. Our mission to grow sustainable, high quality organic produce has always had great merit to both us and our customers. Unfortunately everything has a cost, and the cost has
been very high. It’s hard for my husband to set aside his passion, look at the dollar and cents and assess business viability. As the wife, there was bitterness for many years that I had to be breadwinner, household manager, and help peripherally with the farm in order for my husband to dedicate himself 12 to 14 hours a day to farming. I have struggled with a love/hate relationship with the farm over the years. While I love our land and our homesteader life of living off the land, I hate both the vast amounts of time my husband must work and the relentless pressure he’s under. I have resented the physical, emotional and financial demands made on me to shore up what my husband cannot. My
source of strength through the darker days on the farm has come through my walk in faith and with the grace given me by God. Many, many farm-related issues have tested our marriage, and miraculously, with God’s intervention, our relationship has overcome them and is now the best ever in its 26 years.

Have we failed? No. We’ve provided income to hundreds of people and their families, produced the finest organic fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers available anywhere and fed thousands. We’ve shared bounty with the needy and pumped large sums of money back into our local
economy. Even though farming has not been financially rewarding, we’ve lived a life of indulgence that few can embrace·the life on a farm. No price can be placed on living the miracle of the soil, walking fields each week and witnessing the effect of warm rains and steaming sun brining life and growth of luscious, healthy produce grown naturally in concert with nature.

Also on this farm we’ve watched our son play in the soil, fly kites in the fields, build tree forts, swim and fish in the ponds with pals, learn to drive and discover our land in new ways each year. Both his father and I agree that we don’t want him to hate the farm by forcing him to work. Now twelve years old, I helped him launch his first business growing flowers and selling cut bouquets. Our son agreed to this project, and it was a good experience for him to see the potential of working the land to earn an income - and he enjoyed counting the money at day’s end. Whether or not he decides to grow next summer will be his decision. He’s expressed that he doesn’t want to farm when he grows up - and it’s ok if he doesn’t. My husband said the same thing too of his dad’s farm. Obviously there can be a change of heart.

Taking stock of our efforts unveils the hard, cold reality that somehow, through our diligence and hard work, we can now be counted among America’s working poor. Now, still standing tall at the crossroad, we must make the decision about the future. The crossroad has two paths. The first involves a radical restructuring of the way we do business and possible future risk of meager financial return. The second is abandoning our life’s vocation and turning to outside employment.

Farming is not a job. It’s a lifestyle. Built into this farming lifestyle is both hard work, emotional and financial investment as well as great value·and the value has many faces. One face gleams contentedly with the peace of living on and being steward of a wonderful piece of God’s earth. A different face is filled with the pride of knowing who we are and that our work has worth. Another face is frustrated with the lack of status and respect placed on our work by most of society. And there is yet one more face that wears the mask of hope but also is lined by weighty concern for the future.

All of these faces have become our face that now stands at the crossroad. It is not a particularly comfortable place to be, and scrutinizing the paths is laden with complexity.

Victoria Ladd-de Graff, husband Richard de Graff and son, Lucas, own Grindstone Farm in Pulaski, NY.

Postscript: Spring 2002. The Grindstone Farmers plan on growing for the 2002 season. Right now the greenhouses are full in anticipation of the warm weather for planting. Changes are taking place on the farm this year to improve operations and efficiency, but significantly increased customer support is necessary for the farm to become viable.

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