2012: An Open Farm Day Odyssey

By Linda J. Haley

(Madison County, NY) Open Farm Day is my favorite annual assignment. It’s fun, rewarding, and I always learn new things to share. This year’s victim, er, co-pilot was my friend Sonia (a/k/a “Sonny”) from Dewitt, another city dweller. New folks bring new perspectives and energy.

Sonny was dressed for battle and ready to roll at 8:30 a.m., having no advance info on the mission. I tossed her the passport saying “it’s the ultimate scavenger hunt-select, stalk, sample, sticker up and tour” without being discovered. Sonny rattles off choices: Mini-donkeys? No. Mini-horses? No. Holsteins? No. Linda, what is WRONG with you? You love critters! I know Sonny but every year I have to pick new farms to cover for the column. I already toured eight farms earlier in the month for columns.

Sorry Sonny. Then she said…Alpacas? YES! I’ve not been there, let’s go! A meandering drive brought me to Kallisto Alpacas to meet Karen Dohrn and her boys, Newt, Potter, Fudge, Boaz and Metallie. In her cozy studio, she explained the differences in the fiber of young Alpacas (Newt, Potter and Fudge) compared to her oldest alpaca Metallie. His fiber was coarser and a bit duller.

Honey, I can relate. Hey, at least he has hair! Karen shared Metallie fiber to us to use in suet feeders as nest building materials for birds. We learned how to process fiber by putting it through a drum carder to line up the fibers for spinning. One- and two-ply yarns are created through spinning, followed by winding the yarn from the spindle onto a “niddy noddy” tool creating a skein of GORGEOUS soft, rich colored yarn.

Karen displayed a vest, hats and some animals made from the yarn. All were soft, dense and cozy. I can’t knit or crochet, but I snatched up two skeins as Christmas presents. Next we visited her tidy barn. The boys have an automatic waterer, fresh hay for snackies and a separate latrine. Latrine? Guess what? Alpacas come potty-trained. Alpacas instinctively do their business in one area every day.

I officially love Alpacas; that is so cool! Talk about easy-keeper. They are inquisitive, fun to watch, smaller and less intimidating than llamas. I’m glad Sonny chose this farm; I learned a lot and Karen is a great teacher – warm and patient. As we leave, Sonny points out a nearby farm: Stone Brothers.

Oh, yeah, I know where that is; I’ve passed it cruising through Fenner but never had time to stop. In the parking lot, we’re greeted by friendly dogs who escort us into the store. There was a family being ushered through, so we blended in. Stone Brothers used to supply produce for big corporations and commercial users. With the loss of these industries, they adapted from wholesale markets to retail. They’ve achieved this mainly through hydroponics.

Now they participate in four farmers markets, operate a Community Supported Agriculture program and a farm store. A friendly tour guide walked us through each greenhouse, explaining the produce grown in each. Some are used like a traditional greenhouse, with plants directly in the ground.

Others are devoted to the hydroponic method of providing plants food through liquid nutrients and concentrated heat. Hydroponics gives Stone Brothers the opportunity to get a jump on just about every growing season, further providing an edge in the market.

Stone Brothers stages growing times and plants by greenhouse. The hydroponics greenhouse supplies an early crop of tomatoes before everyone else, and the traditional greenhouse provides another round of plants for more gorgeous tomatoes when the normal season is over. He said they’ve been tweaking and discovering what works best for the last few years to the point of almost year-round production.

Year-round in Central New York? Plants thriving in Fenner winter? That’s impressive. It’s strange to be walking around a farm and greenhouse amidst PVC pipes, tubing and nutrient broths. Feels like chemistry more than farming. But if hydroponic farming brings local healthy food to people and a steady income to farmers year round, then I’m all for it.

It was a great tour, inspiring me to learn more about hydroponics. For the rest of the day I did some do-over stops for Sonny. I hit Triple J, Empire Buffalo, Grunen Aue and Romagnoli’s Tree Farm, but I have future columns for those. A visit to Joan Livingston at Growing Wild filled my car with plants, and a final stop at Mosher’s provided lots of grazing for the ride home. We hit eight farms total that day, and Sonny is already plotting next year’s course.

I’m looking forward to sharing the rest of the farms with readers, including what it takes for a farm to prepare for Open Farm Day. Stay tuned!

Linda J. Haley is a freelance writer specializing in rural and agricultural topics. She can be reached at linda@m3pmedia.com.

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