Playing the long game
by Courtney Llewellyn
As Jason Townsend notes on his farm’s website, humans have been actively involved in agriculture for over 10,000 years. During that span, some things have changed and some things have stayed the same. One thing that needs to remain a constant is excellent soil health, and in that regard, he and his workers are playing the long game.
Kingfisher Farm is located in Sauquoit, NY, more than 1,000 feet above sea level in the foothills of the Adirondacks. Its mission is soil health, good eating and super-local food. But before that food could be grown, work needed to be done. Centuries ago, this land was a mix of woods, creeks, ephemeral pools and Haudenosaunee agricultural fields (Townsend finds stone tools each year, some dating back more than two millennia). In much more recent history, the land was used in a corn/soybean rotation. Rehabilitation was needed.
Townsend grew up in Pennsylvania, with no farming background. He attended the University of Vermont and studied to be a conservation biologist. During and after college, he worked on farms, interning in the Hudson Valley and the Finger Lakes. Later, he went to California and worked for a while on a farm that sold 1,000 CSA shares. He experienced what it was like physically to farm and decided it was something he really wanted to do.
“I looked for an opportunity to come back here,” he said. He found the land through a NOFA-NY advertisement. “It just fit.” And so he signed a 99-year lease for his 12 acres in 2015, showing his long-term commitment to the land.
At Kingfisher Farm, they rely on organic, soil-building farming practices to maintain the hillside plot as a sustainable, balanced farming system. The majority of the acreage is not dedicated to growing crops, but instead is seeded with cover crops or allowed to lay fallow, in a state of rest from the large fertility demands of intensive vegetable farming. In any given year, they grow about two acres of market crops and about six acres of cover crops, with the remainder in perennial crops and tree fruit.
“We get the advantage of wind flow on the hill,” Townsend said. “That leads to less disease pressure. But the soils are heavy soils. The clay content is high. We don’t double crop, we don’t push it. We’ll put in two cover crops before next spring before any cash crop (plus compost and amendments).” He added that these soils tend to be short on potassium; growing buckwheat is good for drawing up those nutrients, and they spread a lot of compost. Before he started growing on the land, he also tiled it for drainage and put up deer fencing. Now, he said, it’s really good ground.
It takes three years to transition land from traditional agriculture to certified organic, which is what was done at Kingfisher Farm. “Dairy farms love these [Upstate New York] soils. It’s the ideal place to grow cereal crops,” he said. “Some spots are good for vegetables. But we have to keep working at it.”
Townsend and his team planted an orchard, with the goal of having up to 500 trees growing plums, pears and apples. They raise and graft their own trees. For fruit, they also grow blueberries and planted mulberries, chokeberries and elderberries this year.
The CSA program is the main profit-driver for Kingfisher. It has 100 members (split between summer and fall/winter programs), as well as a U-pick CSA, which has about 15 members. Produce is also sold at the nearby Clinton and Utica farmers markets and some local restaurants. Goods are sold via an online store too.
“We have seen huge growth in the last two years,” Townsend said. “We were worried people would sign up and drop out, but we’ve had really good retention.”
Jackie Mancuso serves as the farm manager. She’s in her fifth season with Kingfisher Farm. “The weather was weird this year, but every spring has its challenges,” she stated. “There’s increased interest in working here, as more people want to spend more time outside. And the popularity of the farm’s produce is growing too.”
When Country Folks Grower visited in June, the CSA shares included radishes, spring onions, lettuce, spinach, kale, chard and arugula. Strawberries and peas were just coming in, leading to the more summery produce. After that, it’s on to planting the winter goods, like all the cold weather crops. They’ll sell occasionally in person during winter at pop-up events at a nearby shopping center.
“The temptation is to try to new stuff,” Townsend said. “We test out three or four new varieties a year, but I know what works here.”
And true to his biologist background, he added that they encourage wildlife on the farm, especially songbirds. Even some coyotes are welcome, as they handle the small pests. “Having better soil conditions helps with pest and disease pressure,” Townsend said. It’s all about the long game – and the big picture.
To learn more, visit kingfisherorganicfarm.com.