The owners of Grass + Grit Farm in New Paltz, New York, never imagined they’d pursue careers in farming. Instead, they pursued art, culinary arts, and architecture.
Today, Maddie Morley, Ben Roberts, and James Walton (pictured above) operate a small, sustainable farm that focuses on providing pasture-raised meat and eggs.
“It’s really hard work that’s never felt so good to do,” James says. “It’s extremely gratifying knowing what I’m doing is beneficial to society by providing nutritious and delicious food.”
Maddie, Ben, and James are able to get their farm off the ground as participants in the Hudson Valley Farm Business Incubator program. Partially funded by Wells Fargo, the agricultural nonprofit Glynwood offers the program for newcomers who want to focus their work on food and sustainable farming. Through the program, they farm the land that Glynwood leases from Mohonk Preserve, use its equipment, and receive training on farm management.
The three didn’t grow up in farming families, but as adults they were all drawn to food and nutrition.
- James, who previously worked in art galleries, started focusing on his own health and nutrition when his grandfather was diagnosed with cancer six years ago. He then started working at community gardens.
- Maddie was a vegetarian for 14 years and didn’t consider a career in agriculture until taking a college course in sustainability. After college, she participated in an apprenticeship focused on organic vegetable production.
- Ben grew up with a large family garden and an appreciation for hard work. He initially pursued architecture and then culinary school before deciding he wanted to learn more about where food comes from and how it’s produced.
But James, Maddie, and Ben — all in their 30s — had a desire to work with animals, so they applied to Glynwood’s Apprentice Program, where they met. The 10-month program allows new farmers to get paid for their work (through an hourly wage and affordable housing) and learn about farming in the field and classroom. During their time there, they learned about managing a variety of livestock, pasture management, and operating farm equipment.
Farming with less risk
After finishing the apprenticeship, the three joined Glynwood’s incubator program and started Grass + Grit Farm in December 2015. In the program, they attend workshops on topics such as building fences, maintaining tractors, building a business, and budgeting. Once they complete the incubator program, Glynwood will help them secure land through a network of landowners who lease their property to farmers looking for land.
“It provides a way to launch your business with less of a financial investment and risk,” Ben says.
The farmers at Grass + Grit raise chickens, ducks, pigs, sheep, and goats, and sell most of their products directly to the public. The three of them split their time on the farm and supplement their income with part-time jobs. Maddie works at a food packing company; Ben works on a goat dairy farm; and James works in catering and at a vegetable farm.
They can remain on the Glynwood property for up to three years. The 323-acre property hosts one other farm and a compost company.
Support for programs
Wells Fargo Foundation has supported Glynwood’s farmer training programs with a $150,000 Clean Technology and Innovation grant in 2014 and a $50,000 grant in 2016.
“We love their programs and share mutual goals of sustainability and job creation with Glynwood,” says Stephanie Rico of Wells Fargo’s Environmental Affairs team. “Glynwood’s Hudson Valley Farm Business Incubator program is a great model. It’s important to preserve land in the Hudson Valley and maintain its farming value.”
The nonprofit used some of the Wells Fargo funds to provide financial training for participants, says Liz Corio, Glynwood’s vice president of development. The group hired a consulting firm to provide business-related workshops and help with strategic planning.
“There’s a movement among young people to become food entrepreneurs because it’s a profession that combines their environmental ethics with a strong desire to return to the land,” Liz says. “These emerging farmers may not necessarily want to develop business skills, but it’s crucial to their long-term success.”
The farmers' future
Grass + Grit Farm’s first animals arrived in January 2016, and the farmers began selling their meats and eggs in summer 2016.
“It’s a huge stress reliever that we didn’t have to shell out capital to start this,” James says. “We have minimal cash flow because many of the animals won’t be processed until the fall or winter. Without the incubator’s support, we’d be struggling and have to work longer hours at our other jobs. That sense of security allows us to make better and smarter decisions.”
Maddie says, “For people like us who grew up in a city or the suburbs, it’s extremely important to have groups like Glynwood. Also, a lot of farmers are aging out, and their kids won’t necessarily take their place.”
Ben concludes, “It’s been a challenging year but an exciting one. I feel like I’m exactly where I’m meant to be, doing what I’m meant to be doing.”