Katherine Miller, November 14, 2019


Katherine Miller, November 14, 2019
Katherine Miller
Emily Leger
Plant based
Small business
Small farm
Katherine Miller, who goes by Kate, is a small organic farmer and resident of Sharon Springs, New York. Kate is the proprietor of Weathertop Farm, a small organic herb and produce farm located in Sharon Springs. Using what she grows on her farm, Kate makes and sells shelf stable goods such as herbal drink mixes and teas to drink, as well as all-natural massage oils, salves, and deodorant.

Born in Staten Island, Kate and her family moved upstate to Sharon Springs during her adolescent years. Before becoming a farmer, Kate enjoyed her career in human services and activism, during which she spent about seven years living and working in Ireland. Upon her return to the United States, she began farming, which led to her eventual purchase of her current farm and property. She has now been farming for nine years.

I interviewed Kate at her homestead in Sharon Springs, where she lives with her dog Jasper. The property includes her home, farmland, and a small pond. In her interview, Kate discusses topics such as organic farming and what it means to her, the sense of responsibility and community associated with organic farming, what kinds of goods she produces and sells, and her goals for the future of her farm. Kate also has just recently harvested her first crop of CBD hemp. Considering the laws and legislation around growing and processing hemp that are still changing, Kate discusses some of the obstacles she and other farmers are facing while growing this controversial plant. She does so with a good sense of humor and an optimism for the future. This transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
KM = Kate Miller
EL = Emily Leger

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

This is the November 14th, 2019 interview of Katherine Miller by Emily Leger for the Cooperstown Graduate Program's community stories oral history project recorded at Weathertop Farm in Sharon Springs, New York. Would you like to begin by telling us your name, hometown, and current address?

It's Katherine Miller. I go by Kate. My hometown is Sharon Springs, New York, which is where I am living now. We moved here when I was a preteen and I left for a long time but have come back and I guess I would say that's my home now. And my current address is 5907 State Route 145, Sharon Springs.

How did you first become involved with farming?

As a teenager moving here, most of my peers were the children of farmers, so I grew up around farming. I babysat for farmers. It was just sort of part of everyday life. My parents had a small farm. They were raising sheep for a while, and then lots of hay for a lot of years, and then stopped that while I was gone. After grad school, I had been doing work with farmers' rights and advocating for farmers in India and I came back and started farming just part time to get a little bit of money. I was growing vegetables and herbs and I was hoping to farm a little bit and make some money while I was writing my thesis for grad school. That was kind of the start, and then [I] realized that I really loved what I was doing, and I never stopped. I stayed farming. This is the ninth season now.

Can you tell me about the process of how you came to own your farm?

Oh, yeah. [laughs] That was kind of a long convoluted process. I actually was one of the very lucky people in that when I wanted to start farming, I had ready access to land. I know for most people that's not a reality. My parents had land and they had been farming years prior and had rented a lot of it, but then when I first came back to the area, they weren't doing too much with it. They were renting a few fields to local people to do hay or other field crops, but primarily it was fallow, and they have about 350 acres.

It was a great spot for me to be able to just start farming. I had tractors and other equipment and a lot of things that were available to me. I definitely had an easier start than a lot of people who are starting from scratch. That being said, I didn't have a huge amount of experience in what I was doing, so the first few years were a very steep learning curve. Then after farming for numerous years, I had been looking for a while for my own place. As I mentioned, my parents' land is really big. 350 acres is a lot to try and manage and particularly given what I like to do and the style of farming that I enjoy, it's very different. I wanted something that was much more manageable, much more affordable in terms of taxes than what they did. I had been looking for a while and this place had been foreclosed on by the bank and had been empty for quite a few years, and eventually got down into a price range that seemed reasonable, or somewhat reasonable.

I got this place two years ago in August. It's been a great experience since then, and lots of work, this farm. Because it's what fit in my price range, it had no septic and no heat and no water, and a lot of things that all had to be fixed in the last two years to make it livable. It's still a long ongoing process.

[TRACK 1, 04:43]

What does organic farming mean to you?

Lots of things. I think the term "organic" has changed so much just even in the last 10 years that I've been farming. To me, organic farming sort of surrounds a lot of basic ideals and some sort of underpinning philosophies around soil health and regenerative farming that helps the land, improves it through not using any kind of chemicals or pesticides, following practices that actively contribute to the soil health and crop health. There has been a real change in that over the last 10 years, but primarily the last five years really, as organic becomes more of a buzzword as Big Ag [Big Agriculture] has realized that there's money to be made in organic. What's happened is what happens a lot when big corporations become involved in things. The USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] standards have been watered down. I think they are going to continue to be watered down. Recently, within the last couple of years, they allowed hydroponics to become organic certified. Hydroponics don't even have soil, it's just water. Water with nutrients. It's sort of the antithesis of organic farming. That's just a good example of how the standard has changed. There's a lot of really old school organic farmers that were part of the original movement who have just completely turned away from organic certification because they don't see it as being valid or viable anymore. For me, organic certification and organic farming are at many times two very different things.

That's not to say that certification is no good. We have certification on some of our crops that are still at the old farm. This year, since we've been here it'll be three years in the spring, that we can certify this land here too. Which really is more for a marketing and sales perspective than anything else. There is something called certified naturally grown, which I think is a really wonderful, amazing program and more in the spirit of originally what organic was about. But people unfortunately don't understand what that certification is, and natural is such a difficult word these days, anything can be called natural. It was something that I thought about doing for a long time, but really people understand the symbol and the word organic and they understand that certification to an extent. For now, it's something I think we'll continue to do while we continue to educate people and try and lobby for better regulations.

Can you speak a little bit more to the spirit of organic farming?

Sure, absolutely. For me, really it is like I said about this idea of building the soil, about adding back and working in conjunction with the earth rather than in opposition with the earth. When I lived in India, I studied with a woman, Vandana Shiva, who's written extensively about different topics around agriculture and is one of the early eco-feminists. She wrote a lot about how our Western philosophy of farming is very much about power and control and manipulating the earth and forcing the earth to do what we want, rather than trying to work with natural systems and really understand how to work together with the earth and in more of a symbiotic relationship.

That's what I think of a lot of times when I think about organic. It's finding ways to do things that aren't, for example, super petroleum based. We try and avoid tractor work as much as possible, which means a lot more hands on, a lot more sore backs [laughs] and being exhausted at the end of the day. Not that conventional farming working on tractors isn't exhausting, because it is. It's just a different methodology that we do if we can ever. Sometimes when things need to be done, we'd look at it and evaluate it. What's the easiest thing to do? What's the best thing to do? And how does our ethos fit into that? For me, all those things factor into the idea of organic farming. For example, this year we grew hemp, and so we did things like we made compost tea from nettles and comfrey, and we sprayed that. We amended using things like worm castings instead of nitrogen pellets, things like that. It's just things that are natural that we have locally. We try and get as much as we can from nearby and supporting other small businesses and small farms. I think all of those for me, factor into my idea about what it is to have a small local organic farm.

Who is your primary market for the goods you produce?

Right now, I would say it is wholesale sales to retail stores. I have changed as the years have progressed. How I've been farming and what I've been producing has changed. My market has changed alongside that. Initially when I was growing a lot of vegetables and raising animals for meat products, it would be a direct face–to–face, farmer's market situation. That was very seasonal, and as time has passed now, I make primarily all value-added products. There are just not enough days in the year for me to try and find a place to sit up and do that face–to–face with people. Really in order to get my stuff out to a reasonable level that I can survive financially, I need to sell to stores. I wholesale to a bunch of stores in several states and then I do retail typically more at festivals, things like harvest festivals.

Now in the run up to Christmas, we actually start next weekend and we are booked at several festivals each weekend through Christmas. Then it'll kind of quiet down a little bit, but now it's a super busy time for us, unlike for a lot of farms where this is just starting to be the downtime. Harvest is over and you're easing into the quiet time. This is like harvest is mostly over and we are ramping up again. So my downtime is pretty limited. It's more January, February. Even though I still do a lot of wholesale sales during that time, but it's not as active leaving the farm as right now. That's primarily the way, it's trying to do as much face-to-face as we can, but those tend to be shorter, weekend festivals in different locations where I can be at a bunch of different places within a few months.

Can you please explain what a value-added product is?

When we first were – I first was farming – I have a tendency to say "we" all the time. My sister's always like, "That's so confusing for people!" There are lots of WWOOFers and volunteers and friends and all kinds of people that are always here coming and going and helping and doing things and learning, so I always think of us as a we rather than an I. But the question was value-added products. Initially when I first was farming and growing things like vegetables, there's such a short shelf life on that you have to grow it and you have to pick it and sell it right away. If you don't, it tends to go bad pretty quickly. You can have pigs or chickens that you can feed things out to. Otherwise, you still end up having a lot of waste. Again, part of the underpinnings of what I like to do is to keep things with minimal waste and reduce, reuse, recycle, that whole thing. So I started making what we call value–added products. Things that are made using the raw goods and turn it into something else that can be shelf stable typically, but also add value and income to something that might've been previously a waste product or would have had a lower price point.

By creating something else, it means that I can make value from something that might have been wasted before. I have a background in cooking, an associate's degree in culinary arts, in professional baking and cooking. It was just natural for me to start making some pickles and relishes and jams and things like that. Whenever I had a really extra big crop of something or things were left over from market each week, rather than throw that out, I would make something. That's when I started to have a shift after a certain point of several years, I realized that really evaluating the income stream and what worked best for me in terms of my capacity and hours and skills and availability in terms of paid help or non-paid help, was all that the value-added products were probably the best income stream in terms of what I did and what I could produce. That's when I started moving more in that direction and now my business primarily revolves around things that are made with fruit and herbs and now a little bit the hemp. Things like drink mixers, herbal teas, skin salves, all kinds of things like that.

[TRACK 1, 17:19]

Do you have hired help on the farm that help you with all of those things?

I haven't yet at this point. I tend to take a lot of interns, everywhere from your people who are just starting out and want to learn about farming to this summer, someone was finishing their master's in sustainable agriculture and needed a number of hours on farms, so they would come pretty regularly and spend some time here. I mentioned the WWOOF program, that is [World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms].ï·ŸHYPERLINK "https://wwoof.net/" It's a program that was set up as an educational based program so people can learn about farming. Sometimes people just want a way to travel and not have to pay for it. You come and you basically work on a farm and you get housing. It's very loose and very flexible depending on what the farm can offer and what they provide. Each farm stay is different. Some places might offer you just a place to put a tent. Other places give you full room and board. Other places might want you to pay for food. It depends on what people are willing to do. We tend to have a lot of people come who want food and housing and who want to learn about farming. Sometimes people come for just a few days, or for months, it depends. That's been one of the things we've done for six years, maybe more. At least six years.

Are you involved with any farming organizations?

We are certified by NOFA. That's Northeast Organic Farming Association. There's WWOOF, which is actually an organization that runs the WWOOF program. They have people that sign up and then you sign up as a farmer and they act as like a forum for people to meet up and to make these arrangements. I dabble sometimes with other things like Organic Farming Association or different things. In the last two years, I sometimes feel a little overwhelmed [laughs]. There is a young farmers coalition that's trying to get started locally. There's a lot of things that I'm on the mailing list and I follow what's going on but may or may not engage that much these days because I've just been really busy. But there's lots of organizations and things around activism. Now I've been paying more attention to things that are going on around hemp legislation that's just recently been enacted. I have a feeling that we will be doing some more activism around that, but those would be kind of it.

[TRACK 1, 21:08]

Can you tell me about the reasons why you chose to start growing hemp this year?

For lots of reasons. I think it is incredibly foolish and nonsensical that it has been banned for so many years. It's one of those sort of knee jerk reactions that happened a long time ago for who really even knows the rationale behind it at this point. It's a viable crop that is lovely to grow. I thought it was one of the nicest, most beautiful things we grew ever before. It's just a great, beautiful plant that's so cool to see it go through all the stages of growth. I think there was a lot of miscommunication on a lot of levels about economic viability and things like that. For a lot of farmers it may have been a difficult season. For me it was a really neat thing to try and get into. I wanted to try and grow it like two years ago, but I had missed the deadline for the license at that point. I think it's something that is a viable financial opportunity. I think it's an amazing crop. As an herbalist it's something that I really want to be able to work with more and to have easier access to. It is something that medically, we've barely begun to understand all of the different constituents of this plant and all the different ways it can be used, from cancer treatments and pain management.

One of the only things that it's legally approved for right now, aside from cancer treatment and pain management, is also seizures. It is very good at helping to control some previously medicine resistant seizure disorders. I think there's a lot of things that it can be used for. Unfortunately, because of the regulations that were around it, the processing requirements that are out there in terms of what the costs are, it makes it a really expensive thing. For me, growing it is a way to be able to access it and use it at a reasonable price point. There were a lot of things that went into learning what I wanted to do and how, and I would love to go further with this and see where regulations go. If cannabis was legalized, I would absolutely love to grow that too. It's all the same plant. In one staff it's a great gateway to learning more about how to grow this plant on a larger scale.

What kind of technology do you use in hemp farming?

Almost none for me. Because we grow CBD hemp, it is less tractor based. When we initially plowed this year, we had an Amish neighbor come plow for us with his horses. That was beautiful and really cool, and [as] non-petroleum as it gets. That was nice. We did use a tractor to make beds, and we did use plastic this year. Raised beds wrapped in plastic for irrigation methods. But that's about as high tech as it gets.

We use a pump that drops into the pond here and pumps out and we use drip irrigation and that's about it. Everything else is hand planted, hand trimmed, hand harvested, hand weeded and then all bucked down by hand. We didn't use any really mechanized equipment. We dried using a hops dryer that our neighbor has, a hops farmer up the road. We used his dryer for about half of our stuff, and then we used someone else, another hemp grower had rigged up his own version of a dryer that was very similar to the hops dryer, but just bigger, and had more racks that we could use. We were driving stuff out to him as well, several hundred pounds of wet biomass each time and then going back the next day and picking up dried stuff and switching it out. That was pretty much it, we haven't done any high tech anything.

Would you mind explaining a little bit what drip irrigation is?

It's just is a thin, flat plastic tube that has some holes cut in it that is made to allow water to drip out, literally one drop at a time. The water is more targeted instead of a sprinkler, how much water goes everywhere, versus the exact plant that you want it to go on. This way, it pumps from the pond, it goes up through this blue line, which is kind of like a fireman's hose, runs up to the top of the field and goes through a pressure regulator, and then it just drips out slowly at the roots underneath the plastic. The plastic on top helps to keep down weeds, but it also helps to keep the water in and keep it from readily evaporating. It just means it tends to lessen water evaporation. It also helps with any runoff, things like that. It helps with keeping the soil where we want it to go so it's not eroding since we grow on a bit of an incline here. It's easy to have a lot of runoff and a lot of erosion. Even though it uses plastic, which is my least favorite thing, it does have some really good benefits in terms of targeting water where it needs to be, not overusing water and also helping to keep the plants less stressed, things like that.

It's a pretty easy, simple system. It's pretty simple, pretty inexpensive in the grand scheme of things. We set up everything with our bed layer, which is an attachment that goes on the back of the tractor, and a pump and all the things were all pretty reasonably priced. That is not all reusable, but obviously the tractor equipment and the pump and all of the stuff can be reused year to year. So I'm trying to do as much as we can with that.

Where do you get your seeds for your hemp plants?

I get them from a place called Oregon CBD. Which is a company in Oregon, obviously, and they are one of the first companies–obviously hemp has only been legal for four or five years, six years maybe in a lot of states, so saying it's the oldest doesn't maybe mean much, but it does in the sense that they're one of the proven

[START OF TRACK 2, 00:00]

companies that have really good feminized seed. With CBD hemp–I should just make the distinction that when I'm talking about hemp, it's primarily CBD hemp. There is fiber hemp, which is a whole other animal. It grows very differently, and their requirements are very different.

That would be much more of a field crop, much more tractor based. Lots of different issues with that. For the hemp that we grow, CBD hemp, you want feminized seeds, which means seeds that are all female with no males. Guaranteed feminized seeds because males will pollinate your crop and that will change your CBD levels. It will make them drop drastically and make your crop a lot less valuable, if [it has] any value at all depending on how much it gets pollinated. We buy guaranteed feminized seed, which is pretty expensive compared to seeds that you're used to buying in the farming world. I remember growing vegetables and buying pounds of seeds for dollars, for hundreds of thousands of seeds. These hemp seeds that we purchased is a dollar per seed with a minimum order of 5,000 seeds. You have to at least pony up five grand to even get in the door. It's a little daunting, definitely, very different than other kinds of things.

We used Oregon CBD seed because I had been talking quite a bit with Larry Smart at Cornell, attending some of the presentations he was doing, but then also asking through email and things. He said that the only seed company they had worked with was Oregon CBD, so it was the only one he felt comfortable recommending as a seed source. I was concerned because there have been quite a few issues around seed companies saying they had feminized seed and then it actually wasn't. So I was looking for a recommendation for someone that was really reputable, that if I was going to spend this amount of money, I wasn't going to get into something that turned out to be not accurate in the end. I'm really pleased with their seed. We had a great season. We had one of the best CBD counts around. The lab that tested our stuff came back and said, "Wow, your stuff was great and really high and really good quality." I felt like we did a pretty amazing thing this year so I'm glad. I will definitely use their seeds again. At this point they are actually not releasing CBD seed next year until they see how this new legislation pans out because it is overly restrictive. Hemp was legalized and now it's pulling back all these restrictions that are going to make it even more difficult to grow. At this point, they haven't released presales yet of CBD seeds because they are not sure. They were saying ethically, they're not sure their seed would even be able to meet the legislation requirements. We'll see about next year.

You mentioned that this hemp and cannabis are the same plant. Can you explain what is special about CBD?

It's a cannabis sativa, it's just a different variety. There is sort of this cannabis plant and then there are different types of plants under that, so different strains. We work with CBD hemp, which is plants that are high in CBD cannabinoids and low in THC, and THC would be the constituent that people would say it makes you high in marijuana. Legally the Delta-9 THC needs to be under 0.3%. That's really the main difference, is the THC content versus CBD content.

There are all kinds of new things on the horizon. There's a lot of talk about CBG, which is another constituent that I am still learning about and doing some research into. Also, lots of other things. There are hundreds of constituents or more within hemp plants. I think it's going to continue to be a thing that as time passes and people isolate more parts of the plant and study them, that they'll see different things that they're useful for. Right now, there are CBG seeds available to buy and they are not legislated the same way. However, it's not clear if my license in New York state addresses CBG. That's one of the things we're still trying to navigate and figure out. It's so new in New York state, and I think there are a lot of bumps in the road this year in terms of opening up licenses and wanting to support farmers who wanted to grow it, but then not having the infrastructure to support that. I know many, many, many people who grew hemp and I've driven past hundreds or thousands of acres of hemp around New York state when I've been doing deliveries, I get to drive around a lot, and I see hemp everywhere way past the time of viability.

I've heard a lot of things from a lot of people about planting hemp and then not being able to process it, not having a way to dry it down. I think people planted with the assumption that all of these processors had been granted licenses and that someone would be there to help with that process and then it turned out that there wasn't. I think it'll be, for some people, a difficult season and for others that may have squeaked out, breaking even, hopefully, may decide it's not worth it again. I don't know. It's kind of one of those things that I think is in flux a little bit between regulations and some of the lack of infrastructure for growing it this year. It'll be neat to see what comes out next year and how things continue to roll out for the next few years.

[TRACK 2, 07:32]

Can you describe some of the legal or legislative restrictions that farmers face with hemp?

The main one is around that THC level, because growing over a certain threshold means that you are, you now have, if you're THC positive [distracted by dogs playing]. Once you get over that certain threshold, it becomes no longer hemp, it's considered marijuana. That is really the main difference between the two. That's one of the things that farmers have to face and that the longer it grows in the fields the higher those levels go. It can be one of those things that you have to regularly test. If you're asking about high tech, maybe that would be one of the things that we did is that we had to – well, we didn't have to – but we chose to send our crop off as it grew through the season. Every two weeks we took samples out to a lab so we could monitor the THC levels and see how it was increasing and evaluate how the crop was. For me as a new farmer, growing hemp, that was the best thing that I could do because I knew that I could get a really clear picture of what the starting point was, as it was increasing, how much it was going up, what that meant. That was really useful.

[START OF TRACK 3, 00:00]

This is the November 14th, 2019 interview of Kate Miller by Emily Leger for the Cooperstown Graduate Program's Community Stories oral history project recorded at Weathertop Farm in Sharon Springs, New York. Okay Kate, we were just talking about CBD farming and hemp farming. What kind of products are you going to sell from your hemp harvest this season?

We primarily broke down a lot of our hemp. We did two things. We sold a vast majority of the plants as whole plants. There was someone who was looking to buy whole plants that he was taking to some warehouses and then is going to be processing I'm assuming into CBD crude. It was two people that are investors that had a lot of money to spend to try and develop a CBD business. For us, it was actually one of the easiest and best and was kind of a lifesaver for those same reasons that I mentioned earlier about lack of drying facilities, lack of infrastructure available. Right when we were reaching the point and realizing that if we continued to dry at the same level that we were doing, it was going to take two months or something to get it done. Just at that moment, we actually were contacted by this person who was offering to buy whole plants. He sent two tractor trailers here and had a crew of friends and family and neighbors who wanted to come out and help out and be involved in the hemp harvest, which was really fun. We lopped plants right above the soil and loaded them out onto trucks on the main road.

Sort of a prime example of the lack of information about hemp: it was on a Sunday afternoon around noon time, and because they were tractor trailers, they wouldn't come in this driveway over the bridge, so we had to run two pickup trucks back and forth to the road with loads of plants. Someone called the Sheriff that we were moving a marijuana harvest [laughs]. So a Sheriff's deputy showed up and I looked at her and she just started laughing and she said, "You had to know someone was going to call." I was like, I guess, I mean a Sunday afternoon harvest while people are going to church in the middle of the day, I wouldn't have thought that people would think it was a highly illicit thing, but it was kind of funny. She hung out for almost two hours and she helped with flagging traffic and she was really helpful. They were wonderful. I keep saying I want to write a letter to the Sheriff's office and just say how really nice she was. It could've been really awkward and uncomfortable, and she was great. It was really nice.

That's how we sold the primary part of our crop. Then the second is biomass. We took the stuff that we dried, and originally the idea was to sell the biomass to a processor and do what's called split processing, so have them process our biomass into CBD and then they would take some of it and we would get some of it, rather than having to pay up front. We were quoted an upfront cost for three acres of somewhere upwards of $80,000. $78 to $87,000, somewhere in that range. We got a few different quotes. Obviously for a farmer of my size, that's not even remotely reasonable to pay that after you've paid all your other costs of growing and then try and recoup the money. That wasn't going to work out, but some places do offer split processing. Depending on what you want and what you want to get back, they will keep a percentage anywhere from 30% to like 60% depending on how much processed you want it, whether it's crude or isolate or deisolate. We sort of evaluated all of those things and then started sitting back and looking at the amount of time and energy and effort and money that had been put into growing this crop and drying it. Then to turn around and sell the biomass for almost a break even just didn't seem to make sense to me. As I mentioned earlier, one of the things that's really important to me as an herbalist, I think that this is an amazing plant and it's something that people should have access to. We actually have just created a do–it–yourself CBD kit that we are starting to sell in the next week actually. We've already got preorders in from stores. You get a jar of biomass that we have already lab tested and guaranteed what the CBD percentage is in there, and then directions that explain different ways that you could process it. You could do an oil infusion or a tincture, so that you could make salves and things like that and you could basically make your own homemade CBD. It's not going to be the same as a highly processed isolate, but it still works, and it's the way people have been making herbal medicine for a million years. I can't say that it's medicine because that hasn't been evaluated by the FDA [laughs]. It's remedies, herbal treatments so people can at least access it. It's something that nobody else is doing and we'll see if it works out. I think that it's something that there will be a demand for, and I'd love to at least try it out and share some of what we grew with people at a reasonable cost.

What I've found – and I've sold CBD for about a year now from another company because I wanted to sell some and test the waters and see what the market would be like – a lot of the people who are buying it are people who are really in need. People who are elderly, people who are on fixed incomes, people who are in a lot of pain and will try just about anything, or people who have different neuropathies, different sleep issues, all kinds of things. It's something that people really, really are interested in because they know it can help them, but for a lot of people they are unable to access it. Something like this that brings it down to a lower cost that people could do at home, that you can control yourself, that you know is organically grown, that the only chemicals that are going into it are whatever you're adding to it yourself. That enables it to be more of a thing where people can have a greater range of access. I like that too. I liked that we were able to do something that I think is an amazing crop that's great for the earth, that is so powerful and wonderful, but also be able to share that with people in a way that makes it more available to them.

[TRACK 3, 08:31]

Can you tell me about the workshops that you offer here?

When I bought this farm, that was one of the things that had been kind of percolating in my mind for a long time. I started doing a little bit of classes at the old farm, at my parents' place, which were primarily in the form of plant walks. People would come and we would spend a couple of hours walking around the farm and pointing out different plants, and then how you could use them in different ways, things that were either edible or medicinal, all kinds of different things. I had been doing that for a while, and the response was really good, and we still actually do that here.

One of the things that I wanted to do is this idea about knowledge for the people, medicine for the people, sharing information, making things more accessible. The first thing I did when I was looking for a place was always with this idea at the back of my mind that there had to be living space for me, but there also needed to be a commercial kitchen and a classroom, and hopefully not that the commercial kitchen is the classroom, but sometimes that ends up being that way too. This house being as large as it is and kind of this big ramshackle palace, there's lots of space. It has enabled me to set aside two rooms that are for apothecary space, which eventually the goal is to be a space where practitioners could come and use it. If people did massage or Reiki or any of the other lots of different types of modalities or therapists or anybody who didn't have an actual space and didn't want to work from their own home and wanted a space where they could do that or have a community space where people could gather. That's the goal for that one room. The other room is a classroom. It's actually the first thing that got finished in this house [laughs]. I shouldn't say that, [it was] the second. There's the commercial kitchen, which was necessary to keep money coming in the door. And then there was the classroom and we started immediately that first year. I bought the place in like July, August and then spent a lot of time just basically getting running water and septic, and then at the last minute, a little bit of heat, just on the first floor, because that's all I could afford. That was enough to enable us to move in in November and we started doing classes that Spring. Initially part of the idea is that it's a learning space, but it's not just my voice that's being heard. It goes back to that idea of community and creating space for other people to also be heard and to share information.

That first year we had a bunch of people who were part of my class at herb school, including AC that you've met a few times. I put it out there to all of my friends and said, "Does anyone have any classes that you're burning to talk about?" We had a great first season, and last year was even better. We were busier. We had several classes that sold out. The goal is to continue to keep offering to be a space where people can be heard on a variety of topics. I like to get feedback from people about what it is that they're interested in. What do they want to know about? Typically, a lot of times it's herbs and plant based, but not necessarily. Also, in offshoots of ways. Some of our really popular classes have been the hands-on classes, things like making soap. Lotions and Potions was a big one this year. We did making chemical free, natural skincare, lotions and balms and salves, and also in the potions part, things like elderberry syrup, and some other herbal cough syrups and things. Some of those more hands-on things seem to be doing really well. We did a mushroom walk with a local mycologist, John who owns Catskill Fungi, and he drove up. I think he's down in the Hudson, Big Indian area, or Kingston I should say. He's out there and he drove up and did the walk at my parents' land down the road since they have more woods than I have, which is better for mushrooms. It was cool to still have that space right five miles down the road, easily accessible when I need it.

There's a lot of sort of underpinnings to the whole idea of the classroom. It is far from a moneymaker. It's tends to be more of a money loser for me [laughs] because we do include an organic lunch as part of the class. Some classes are full day, which means like 10:00 to 2:30 or 3:00 and we do a lunch break in between. We include the lunch in that. This past year we started doing the morning and afternoon as two separate sessions. It would cost less if you did both, but you can do only one or the other if you didn't have that amount of time, which we found for a lot of people was easier. They couldn't commit to a full day on a Sunday because of children or family or whatever, but they could come for a two hour, a little short class. That was another thing to learn. That was really interesting. We offer a sliding scale. No one is turned away for lack of funds. Again, it's about bringing that back to people who need it the most, people who want to access the most. I often find a lot of time people who want to access herbal medicine and folk medicine are the people who have the least money and the least access to conventional, traditional, westernized medicine and are looking for other things to help supplement that.

Again, it's just all part of this idea of helping people to create community and access some of the things they need. This year the classes aren't set yet. I keep saying every year I'm going to have it up well before Christmas so that people could buy gift certificates or something if they wanted to do that for friends or family. We are going to do some classes about the endocannabinoids system and CBD and what does that mean and what are the different ways that it acts in the body? Because there was a lot of confusion and a lot of misunderstanding about what it is. Even when I do festivals all summer long, I brought a potted hemp plant with me and every single time, every person that came by, thought it was marijuana and were like, "What? Is that legal?" [laughs] It's a lot of conversation building, a lot of information sharing. I think we're going to do a lot of classes about that this year, just because it's particularly really big on my radar, right after the winter or after the season. And a few other things. We want to do some classes about dying, using natural dyes, plants like indigo and onion skins and avocado pits and all the cool things to dye natural fabrics. [I'm] looking for some more of those hands-on kinds of stuff since those went really well last year, and then we'll reevaluate. Every year is it's each and own thing. And it only goes from sort of February to May. After that, it gets too busy here on the farm and I can't commit to stopping what's going on to have people come. Unfortunately, my schedule doesn't always work with everyone else's, but it's a nice thing to do on a weekend day in the winter also.

What are your plans for the future of your farm?

Oh, not going bankrupt is number one [laughing]. Becoming at some point – I shouldn't say solvent, I think everything is a work in progress, and it's all part of this eventual process of finding the spot and being open to what transpires. I think the reason that I have been able to still be going after nine seasons, which for a lot of farmers that I've met who are starting out haven't been able to make it that long, is because I've been absolutely open to anything that comes and understanding that maybe my initial vision isn't the thing that works for me as I age. I am nine years older than I was when I started and my back tells me that every day and my knees and my hands, my joints, [laughs] everything. This time of year is a sore time when everything's just finishing up and you're exhausted.

Looking at different models, I think everyone's got to evolve and continue to change and be open to that. I don't know what the future's going to hold. I think that's one of the most exciting things about this farm is continuing to see where it takes me. As long as I can continue to be a space where people can come and learn, I love having people come through and be able to spend time. Every person that comes has taught me something in one way or another, either about my own inner capacity to take deep breaths or to learn from them. Some of the people that were here this year really taught me a lot about growing hemp and how to do it and different things about the plant that I had never known, and I was able to share with them some things about growing on larger scale and what that means and how things are different, the different ways you need to think ahead. I don't know, we'll see what the future holds. Check back in nine more years, who knows!

Okay, Kate. Well, thank you so much for your time. This has been great, thank you.

Okay, good!
Upstate New York
Sharon Springs, New York
Emily Leger
Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta
Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY
Track 1 - 04:43 - Meaning of Organic Farming
Track 1 - 17:19 - Who Works on the Farm
Track 1 - 21:08 - Growing CBD Hemp
Track 2 - 07:32 - Legal Restrictions on CBD Hemp
Track 3 - 08:31 - Workshops