By Amy Simpson Swiss
Photographed by Molly M. Peterson
“Life is better on the farm.” These words hang over the doorway of the wooden icehouse standing near the center of D.I.G. Farm in North Salem, and the words ring true. Allison Turcan is the founding farmer of D.I.G. Farm, and she uses this sturdy structure, built in the 1800s, as a base of operations. Looking around the cozy room, with its high ceilings and abundant sunlight, evidence of her work is everywhere. Fresh eggs are stacked on the counter in one corner of the room, straight from the chicken coop. Seedlings sprout under grow lights nearby, and freshly picked flowers are scattered here and there. Just outside the back door are long rows of potted plants, herbs and blueberry bushes waiting to go into the ground, and beyond those are the long wooden fences surrounding the growing fields.
Stepping outside, the views surrounding the icehouse are picturesque. Long rock walls stretch up along the hillside into the distance, leading to open meadows and grazing areas. The barn, with its rough-hewn wood beams and rock-walled foundation, has been standing strong for almost two centuries. A long and winding dirt path stretches around the barn, down toward a lovely pond and off into the woods. As we walk this path, Allison tells me about her own long and winding journey leading to this idyllic place, where she is living her dream of running her own organic farm and educating the community about the food she grows, cooks and shares.
“My earliest memories are of my grandma sending me out into the garden to pick tomatoes, and then we’d cook with the food I picked. My grandma loved to cook.” Here, the seeds of Allison’s lifelong passions were planted as she learned to love getting her hands dirty, growing things from seed and cooking. These activities remained hobbies, largely in the background, as she pursued a career at Starbucks for over a decade—until her life took an interesting turn.
Starbucks offers its employees a unique opportunity after 10 years of work: a year-long sabbatical. Allison decided to use that year to pursue those early passions. Volunteering with an organization called Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, Allison traveled around France, living and working on farms throughout the countryside. In exchange for room and board, she worked several hours a day, immersing herself in the details of organic farming. The fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats and breads eaten in these communities were organic and locally produced. These foods were all sold in the local market, and the farmers there had a close connection with each other and with the community they served. Readily available, organic, high-quality food was the expectation in France, not the exception. Allison fell in love with that way of life.
“That year in France changed my life. I had so many fantastic adventures and learned so much about food and farming. A lightbulb moment for me was when I opened a refrigerator in France and realized there was not one thing in the refrigerator with a supermarket label; it was all produced locally. That was just so different from what we see in the United States. I came home with a new goal: try to recreate that way of life on a small scale right here.” D.I.G. Farm was born, with a mission to reconnect people with our natural source of food: the farm.
The original work was mainly educational: sharing the benefits of eating organically and showing people how to grow their own food. Allison wanted to teach these things in an experiential way, so people could actually get their hands dirty and see the fruits of their labor. She was fortunate to establish a relationship with a working farm, Scott O’Rourke’s Deep Roots Farm. For two seasons, Allison ran hands-on programs with Deep Roots Farm while continuing her part-time job; but just as a newly planted vine will sometimes grow in wildly unexpected ways, D.I.G. Farm was about to start expanding in a new direction.
After two seasons of collaborating with Deep Roots, Scott’s farm was thriving and ready to move onto a larger piece of property. The land needed a new farmer, and Allison didn’t hesitate. D.I.G. Farm suddenly grew from an educational organization to a full-blown working farm, and she jumped at the chance to tackle this new challenge.
The 48 acres surrounding and encompassing her farm are owned by two-time Olympic Gold medalist Dick Button. Dick worked with the Westchester Land Trust a few years back to allow part of his property, which is called Ice Pond Farm, to be dedicated to agricultural use and matched with local farmers in need of land. Since 2011, over an acre of his land has been actively farmed this way, first by Tiny Hearts Farm, a flower grower, and then by Deep Roots Farm. This is now the third season that Allison is running D.I.G. Farm on the land.
Currently, 35 chickens occupy the coop next to the icehouse, producing fresh eggs in abundance. Louis, the resident pig, occupies a stall in the barn, and several ducks waddle nearby. The fields are planted, and an impressively wide variety of fruits and vegetables are being cultivated. From broccoli, beans and blueberries to cauliflower, carrots and kale—the list is extensive, with unique varieties added each year. Always up for a new adventure, Allison is adding another dimension to the farm this year: beekeeping. Establishing a bee colony on the farm will expand the North Salem Pollinator Pathway, which is a safe, pesticide-free wildlife corridor intended to help pollinators thrive. Eventually, the honey from the hives will be added to the long list of foods grown and distributed from the farm.
Many hands make light work, and the countless tasks required to keep a farm running are handled by a wide range of volunteers. D.I.G. Farm is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and volunteers are very welcome. Allison manages a rotating group of around 25 people of all ages, including corporate groups, local students and everyday people who want to learn a little bit about organic farming. Volunteers are rewarded for their hard work with a portion of the bounty: the harvest is shared with all who help.
D.I.G. Farm also has a lot going on to engage the community. There are special events planned each Sunday, ranging from farm-to-table brunches and barbecues to wildlife walks and hands-on workshops. A farm stand is open most weeks on Sunday morning, where you can pick up freshly laid eggs or a sampling of the current week’s harvest. As a newly established 4-H farm, the land also serves as an outdoor classroom, where 4-H students help care for the animals and learn farming techniques. Allison also takes her harvest on the road, traveling to the Bronx to distribute her food at a farmers’ market in Throggs Neck, where she has made new connections and helped that community connect with fresh food from the farm.
“I love seeing that moment when the light bulb goes on for other people. Like when a child pulls a tomato off the vine for the very first time and takes a bite. Or when an adult is amazed to see a purple carrot, something they never knew existed. I love the impact of connecting people with new experiences, like petting a pig for the first time, or feeding a baby chick.” D.I.G. actually stands for Dealing in Good, and those words encompass what Allison is accomplishing on the farm: good choices, good food and good connections.
Can’t make it out to the farm? No problem. Allison produces a weekly podcast covering a wide range of topics related to farming, gardening and environmental issues. It is cohosted by Ivana Pilarska, one of D.I.G.’s most devoted volunteers, and the duo are both funny and wise. The show is called Getting Dirty, and you can listen live each Monday on Hudson River Radio, or check out past podcasts at the D.I.G. Farm website.
Another sign above the door in the icehouse says simply, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” Allison believes in tomorrow, and she would love to prove it to you by showing you around the farm. Sign up for a farm-to-table meal, take a class or simply spend an hour or two visiting. Please check out her website at DigFarm.org to find out more and see all the ways you can get involved. █