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October 2010

Fledging Crow

How a pair of young farmers are changing the local food landscape

Photograph by Ben Stechschulte

“VEGETABLE FARMERS ARE wiry people,” says Ian Ater as he strides along a stretch of growing produce, three espressos into a sunny morning. This Adirondack organic farm is alive because he and Lucas Christenson have put everything they have, physically and financially, beneath their feet. And now, three years after they started Fledging Crow Vegetables in Keese­ville, these 20-something-year-olds are feeding 60 families through their weekly community-supported agriculture (CSA) program; providing local restaurants, summer camps and natural foods stores with tasty greens; and offering their crops at area farmers’ markets.

Ater and Christenson haven’t gone unnoticed, particularly at the places where they personally peddle their food: handsome, friendly guys in the business of harvesting healthy stuff. But bringing the bounty is not a quaint, laid-back pastime. It’s dig-your-arms-in-the-dirt, sweat-the-weather, hand-pick-the-bugs, labor-your-backside-off, high-stress living. “You can facilitate everything,” says Ater, “but at the end of the day you’re still waiting for the plants to grow.”

Fortunately they do: spinach, broccoli rabe, arugula, baby Asian greens, romaine lettuce, head lettuce, beets, radishes, carrots, scallions, garlic, pea shoots, fingerling potatoes, cabbage, cilantro, basil, parsley, heirloom tomatoes, parsnips, onions, leeks, and the list goes on.
ATER HAS FARMED the Adirondacks for six years, since he left the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, figuring his environmental studies would be best completed in the field, hands in soil. That led to stints at various Champlain Valley farms, learning from folks like Kristen and Mark Kimball, of Essex Farm (see “Horse Drawn,” August 2010), and Sam Hendren, of Clover Mead Farm, in Keese­ville. When the snow fell he hooked up with places in Ecuador through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an organization that arranges for people to volunteer in exchange for room and board.

One South American operation, a farm in the Andes called Never Never Land, was also among the acreage where Christenson lent a hand through WWOOF. He was raised helping his mother with her flower gardens and had experience landscaping and working with ornamentals back home in Minnesota, but growing food as a profession wasn’t his plan when he majored in English at Helena’s University of Montana. That changed, he says, when he realized that farming, like language, has “a grace, rhythm and repetition” that he appreciates.

While in Ecuador Ater recalls joking with Christenson about someday calling him to help build and run his future farm—a “pipe dream” back then. A year later, when Ater’s Essex friends Marco and Portia Turco offered him a lease on their Manzini Farm on Robare Road, in Keese­ville, he phoned Christenson, who finished school and showed up, as promised.

The name Fledging Crow captures the guys’ reality: We’re grown up, we’re on our own, they say. And Ater, who is part Mohawk, explains that for some Native Americans the crow is considered a shape shifter, a symbol of transformation. In just a few seasons the farmers have whipped this Zone 4, former horse pasture into viable ground for vegetable-growing. They’ve become a dynamic team: Ater as the administrator, the tractor expert, with a gift for remembering the farm’s minutiae—appointments, orders, events and such. Christenson as the ground man, the methodical one who excels in transplanting, cultivating, irrigating, repairing and harvesting. Each day decisions are made jointly, with impromptu conferences among the plant beds. The partnership works, explains Christenson, because “we tolerate each other’s quirks and shortcomings, as well as embrace our strengths and abilities. We say, ‘Thank you,’ all the time, for everything.” Humor is key, he adds. It makes the often 16-hour days fun.

In the beginning their accommodations were a tent pitched in the hedgerow, then hammocks hung beside cornstalks in a canvas greenhouse. Now there’s a cabin where Ater, his girlfriend Jessie Wimett and their nine-month-old daughter, Amaya, live. Last fall a modest multi-use barn for crop and grain storage was added, with living space for Christenson and a custom-made walk-in cooler; beneath its bay are five cast-iron bathtubs for washing and prepping produce. A greenhouse might happen this autumn.

THE CROWS, AS  the men sometimes call them­­selves, spend an awful lot of time alone with plants. Though their job requires face-to-face selling and delivering, and the farm is a hub of activity—CSA members’ weekly pick-ups, a SUNY–Plattsburgh in­tern and other volunteers who help with harvesting—Ater de­scribes himself as “socially awkward.” Most contact is limited to quick ex­changes. The guys don’t get to eat many dinners out or catch live music. That has to wait until deep winter, when the ground freezes, crop plans are finalized, seeds are ordered, CSA checks are gathered and marketing calls have been made. Farmers can burn out if they don’t get a break, which is why “you’ve got to put it down,” says Christenson. He’s heading to Ecuador at the end of December, but working there isn’t a problem, because “it’s not my place.” He flies south to re­group, he says. “I do some serious reflecting and refilling. That place changed me, and I need to go there to both remember and learn.”

In the off-season Ater and his family will travel some, but also kick back here. A farm, Ater says, “is an ideal place to raise a child. There’s a lot of freedom here, a lot of need for responsibility.” Unlike his upbringing in Roch­ester, where punishment meant vacuuming or taking out the garbage, he figures that someday, if his daughter’s out past curfew, she’ll have to weed the cabbage.

Ater ponders the future of little Amaya, who this morning pulls a flake of mud from her dad’s pant leg and eats it when he steps in the house to refuel on caffeine. “I grew up in the suburbs and ended up on a farm,” he says. “If you grow up on a farm is it fun shopping at Crate & Barrel or taking taxi cabs in the city? Where will you end up?”

SOME AGRICULTURE OBSERVERS put the Adirondack organic local food movement where Vermont was about 15 years ago. The public’s interest is increasing, land for growing is accessible, channels for selling are available. Even local chefs want to visit the farm to keep tabs on the produce they’ll plate. In Lake Placid, Caffé Rustica, Mirror Lake Inn, Caribbean Cowboy, Nicola’s, Golden Arrow’s Generations Restaurant, Liquids and Solids at the Handlebar and Lake Placid Lodge are regular customers. And Fledging Crow’s CSA membership has doubled since last year. The folks who pay $625—about the price of new snow tires, emphasizes Ater—for 21 weeks of fresh produce keep the operation afloat. That’s seed money, in more ways than one.

The guys are charged by the idea of integrating the region’s farms—marketing together, CSAing together, they say. Why can’t a nearby network of small farms, each with a specialty, work in tandem to nourish the North Country? Such a cooperative, which is already materializing, could mean Fledging Crow providing its popular field mix—a blend of baby beet greens, baby Asian greens, red frill lettuce and baby mustard greens—Westport-based Juniper Hill Farm pushing peppers and tomatoes, along with Full and By Farm, of Essex, dealing in eggs, et cetera. Christenson says they’ve talked to another farm about pork and are now working on beef. “Dairy is the next step, then honey, then grain, then fruit, then spices.… It’s only a matter of time until we find everything we need for a 365-day, fully comprehensive food production and distribution network. We can make it happen, but it’s going to be piecemeal. There isn’t going to be a grand opening or anything.”

Such a model, like the successful Intervale Center, in Burlington, Vermont, protects small growers when disasters like blight cripple crops or allows them to band together to help with more arduous projects or tricky maintenance. All parties would, of course, have the same standards: food that is all-natural, free of genetically-modified material. “If you can’t pick it up off the ground and put it in your mouth, it’s not organic,” says Ater.

The Adirondack movement is still gaining momentum, which means the guys are often asked by various groups to help educate the public by attending pro-farm functions, lecturing in the community and giving tours of Fledging Crow. They want to do their part, but all that business takes them away from the very vegetables that will change the local food landscape. Christenson says he and Ater are “stoked that people genuinely appreciate what we’re doing and providing,” but “we want our beets to do the talking.”

The Crows’ Crops
Fledging Crow’s Com­munity-Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares run from the beginning of June through the end of October. Greens are included each week, plus bounty that changes throughout the seasons. CSA pick-ups are Thursdays at the Keeseville farm, though alternate locations can be arranged at the Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Keene farmers’ markets as well as North Country Food Co-op, in Plattsburgh. Call (518) 834-5012, email fledgingcrow@gmail.com or visit www.fledgingcrow.com to learn more. For information about other local CSAs, call Adirondack Harvest at (518) 962-4810 or see www.adirondackharvest.com.

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One Response to “Fledging Crow”

  1. Adirondack Life Blog Archive » Getting Fresh Says:

    [...] in Ben Stechschulte‘s Champlain Valley farms documentary Small Farms Rising. Or read “Fledging Crow,” an article about the guys and their Keeseville farm in the October 2010 issue of Adirondack [...]