Finding our Farm
September 16, 2013 | Missy Smith
Moved to answer a calling to help turn around our broken food system and reverse environmental damages, Missy Smith, Brett Ziegler and their children are embarking on a sustainable farming mission in Central Pennsylvania. Follow them as they start Barefoot Hill Farm, a journey that will begin with renovating an old farmhouse and revitalizing previously vacant farmland and will continue with growing and raising organic food, reaching out to their local communities to spread the healthy eating gospel and acting as good stewards to beautiful farmland. Missy will document the ups, the downs, the triumphs and the setbacks that come with starting a modern organic sustainable farm.
Funny enough, when we first realized our strong desire to get back to the land, the first thing we did was connect with technology. Our farm journey began with a lot of internet researching: What it takes to run a farm. What we needed to get started. How we can secure farming land.
Much of our research kept coming up with the same two answers: land and money—two resources that we had in quite a limited supply. At that point, we were living in Bucks County, Pa., an area that is historically rich in agriculture, but had been developed in lightening speed over the almost thirty years we lived there. Each time I entered my hometown of Quakertown on visits home from Millersville University, I noticed that more and more land was being gobbled up in the name of housing developments, retail stores and restaurants.
Luckily, when you veer off the developed path onto back roads, you will still find a good amount of farmland. What worked against us as we started looking for farms were the steep price tags and property taxes, as well as our almost nonexistent savings. Frustrated by our search and lack of realistic possibilities, we had to figure out a different route.
As we continued to brainstorm and dig around on the internet, Brett, a free spirit who would dream up ways to save the world all day if he could, came up with a radical idea. “We’re going to find a free farm,” he said confidently. Being the slightly more realistic, and yes, cynical one in our relationship, I laughed and said, “You have fun with that.” But, with somewhat of a spiritual Zen lens through which he views life, he schooled me with quotes like, “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” Having first fallen in love with Brett over a Ralph Waldo Emerson book, I guess it’s only fitting that I accepted this quote and the positive intent within its message. Brett asked the universe for a free farm, and we continued to plug away.
In the process of scouring the Web for first-time farming information, we got well acquainted with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). It was within their classifieds section that the universe conspired in setting us up with our farming arrangement. We must have blinked the disbelief out of our eyes several times to make sure we were reading this accurately:
Farming opportunity for the right individuals; We own a small 13-acre farmette in Central Pennsylvania, which has not been farmed or cultivated for over 25 years. Rustic farmhouse which could be fixed up and lived in while farming this property. No barn, just the stone foundation, but small chicken coop and small stream on property. This acreage would be perfect for a beginning farmer to farm organic produce, goats, chickens, etc. with motivated farmer/homesteader skills. Very quiet, country setting located off of a township road but close enough (30-45 minute drive) to area farmers markets. We do not have any intention of selling this property as it is a family homestead but are looking for a long-term farmer/homesteader. We know how hard it is to farm, let alone get started farming without land, so we would like to give the right person the opportunity to farm. This would be a very cheap way to get started in farming as we would only ask for rent in the form of environmentally friendly land stewardship and the annual taxes paid in full, which are relatively cheap land taxes. Our family currently farms 160 acres twenty miles away from this property and our hands are full.
There wouldn’t be rent paid exactly, except in the form of yearly property taxes, land revitalization, farmhouse renovation, and of course, any utilities we needed. Practically free, considering our previous expensive options, and incredibly doable for us. I was stunned.
Did we read this right? There has to be a catch. This can’t be right. Seriously? Enamored by the sound of this arrangement and the adrenaline it stirred within us, we immediately got to work crafting an e-mail in response to the ad. We eagerly explained our love of healthy food, our ever-increasing desire to change the way in which we interact with our planet and our desire to help people suffering from processed food-related illnesses. We gushed about how we wanted to farm in order to help motivate real positive change within our kids’ and fellow human beings’ futures. We wrote of a higher purpose that we wanted to incorporate in our own lives that we believe we can experience through something as fundamental as growing food.
This established family of farmers enjoyed our e-mail—the very first response they received—and we arranged to meet them in person, at a diner in Perry County, where our start-up farm is located. We discussed the particulars—what we hoped to do as farmers and what they wanted to happen on their family farm, a property that had been vacant for many years. We left that diner with new friends, as well as a farm to get started on, if we so chose.
After our meeting, we followed the elder farmers by car to the 13-acre farm property in Elliottsburg, Pa. As we pulled into the long, overgrown dirt driveway, we knew that our adventure was beginning. At first glimpse of the dilapidated farmhouse that looked like it was shedding its shingles like dry skin, I wasn’t quite sure how it was still standing. Pulling up closer to the front door, we were speechless. This was going to be a lot of work.
We went inside and checked out the house, which looked like it would buckle under the slightest of awkward footsteps. As I watched my footing, I wondered how many different critters might greet us on our tour. The compilation of snake skins, wasp hives and animal bedding we discovered were ominous. With the exception of nature setting up camp, this place looked totally abandoned and neglected by time.
Brett’s father, Gary, was along with us. The two have worked together for years on construction jobs through their family-owned contracting business. Gary looked concerned and maybe a little stressed out about the work we were hoping to rope him into. We had to be a bit crazy to take on this project, but Brett and I were mostly starry eyed about all of the possibilities this place had in store for us. Exchanging beaming smiles and locking eyes in agreement, we made the equivalent of a couple’s handshake. We were emotionally invested in this old place. This was it.
We were in love with our new work-in-progress home and pulled out of the driveway later for our trip back to Bucks County, with the ideas and dreams of the farm’s future percolating in our heads and pouring from our mouths. We had found our farm. And, though it isn’t exactly free like Brett had so boldly intended, this farming arrangement represents the extremely feasible opportunity for us to leave our mark.
But, first, to make this place livable…
Read the first post in Missy’s series here: http://seedstock.com/2013/07/24/from-the-ground-up/