Feeding the Earth So It Can Feed Us
Liz Taggart and Amba Farms prove that astounding things
happen when you give Mother Nature what she needs.
Story by ML Ball
Photo: Peter T. Michaelis
Most farmers have dirt under their fingernails. In Liz Taggart’s case, it’s also in her bones.
Growing up on a small family farm near Cleveland, Ohio, Taggart literally learned from the ground up the importance of taking care of the land that provides your food. This deep appreciation for what’s below the surface as well as what’s above has stayed with her throughout her life, eventually leading her to found Amba Farms 10 years ago in Bedford Hills, NY.
Describing her family’s approach to the land and its resources, Taggart said recently, “We ate what we grew. My grandfather Frank emigrated from Slovenia with his four brothers around 1918. He grew vegetables and had an orchard. Uncle Ludwig also had orchards and developed seeds for Burpee, and Uncle Joe had chickens, a big garden and an acre of grapes. Each of them had honeybees, and each composted. They knew the old practices and they brought those with them when they came to this country, passing on this knowledge from one growing generation to another growing generation.”
Thanks to Taggart, those old ways of caring for the earth and discerning what it needs to produce its best output are still being practiced here in the Hudson Valley, far from Slovenia but strongly connected.
Yet before spending her days growing organic, ultra-nutritious fruits, vegetables and herbs, Taggart had a very different life. With her then-husband, she taught Transcendental Meditation in the 1970s, and later owned an art gallery, first in Washington, DC, and then in New York. When their son Lincoln turned six, the couple pulled up stakes and moved to Westchester, wanting a life more attuned to the natural world, the seasons and the land. First on the agenda was building a house, but in their case, not just any house.
“Once we were up here, we knew we wanted to build a house with a certain type of architecture: Sthapatya Veda, which is a Sanskrit term,” Taggart said. “It’s also called Vastu, which is the yoga correlate for architecture in terms of providing a structure that supports a person’s health, well-being and spiritual development.” In fact, her house may be the first one of its kind in New York.
Full of windows, light and large open spaces, Taggart’s home is both uplifting and calming. Constructed mostly of sustainable, eco-responsible materials, every window, doorway and room is carefully situated so as to attain harmony and balance, as well as to bring the outside world in. The idea, magnificently realized, is for the natural world beyond the windows, and the living space within, to seamlessly flow together.
After the house was completed, Taggart felt that when the time was right, she would love to have some sort of small growing operation. Her father was a chef and restaurant owner, and her mother was an extraordinary classic-European cook—meaning that Taggart grew up in the kitchen and knew what food preparers needed to do their best work. Little by little, Amba Farms began to take shape.
“I knew I wanted to name the farm Amba,” Taggart explained. “My meditation studies are based primarily in the Veda tradition, whose roots are in India. The Vedas are ancient texts of knowledge about all different aspects of life, and the word Amba is a name for universal mother. As soon as I had the thought of having a farm,” she said, “I knew I wanted it to be called Amba, containing that nourishing aspect.”
So how does one go from Madison Avenue art-gallery owner to organic farmer? With a lot of help. Starting in 2008, Taggart educated herself by taking courses at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, the New York Botanical Garden and the Bionutrient Food Association (which now has a chapter in Bedford Hills).
As well as learning how to replenish the soil organically, she also studied the practices of “very successful farmers and scientists in agriculture from a natural organic perspective, as opposed to the industrialized, adolescent approach to agriculture where you bully the soil into submission,” she said. “This is all about working with Mother Nature and making sure she has all the fertility she needs to grow these very vital, nourishing plants. If we practiced agriculture and applied Hippocrates’s ethics of ‘Do no harm,’ we would not be allowed to grow the way we grow the majority of our food in America, because of the harm it does to our soil, the environment and to everyone who eats the harvests.”
Now, 10 years later, there’s a tremendous demand for Amba Farms’s produce, not merely because of how different it tastes from store-bought goods but also because people feel so much better after eating it. As Taggart learned from her studies, it all starts with the soil.
“It takes a while to build really good soil,” she explained. “The rhizosphere of the soil—the top eight to twelve inches where the roots of our edible plants grow—should be teeming with biolife. But by using so many pesticides and antifungals and antibacterials on our soil, we’ve destroyed so many species of biolife that reside there. If you take out that microbial life, it’s very difficult for the root hairs to absorb the nutrition that allows plants to grow to their full vitality and potential. We see these little seeds and expect them to do so much without giving them what they need. In essence, we’re starving them. Then we end up with these plants whose immune systems haven’t developed properly, neither their respiratory system, their reproductive system nor their root systems. This makes them vulnerable to diseases and insects and causes their yields to be much smaller than they could be.”
Conversely, at Amba Farms, it’s not unusual for Taggart and her staff to harvest 40 to 50 pounds of tomatoes from one plant. Sometimes they even get 80 or 90 pounds, she said. It’s also not unusual for them to harvest deep into October. “If plants are strong and vital, we have no idea what their potential is. Every season, I’m so amazed and so in awe of Mother Nature,” she added.
To prove her point, Taggart cited a study conducted by the USDA spanning 70 years, from 1940 to 2010, focusing on the six major families of vegetables. Shockingly, what the study revealed is that the nutrition of each single vegetable family has decreased 70 percent because those plants can’t find the nutrition they need to grow.
Said Taggart, “The whole agribusiness approach to agriculture right now is to shock and awe soil into submission by bombarding it with all sorts of chemistry and poisons, and then try to grow what you want out of it without giving any thought to what its natural processes are. It’s about making money as opposed to really taking responsibility for the health of our communities. The health of the population is as much the responsibility of a farmer as it is a doctor.”
But even though the depressing—and health-endangering—reality of modern farming techniques seems firmly entrenched in our culture, Taggart remains optimistic. “I look around me and see these 20- and 30-somethings who are so passionate about taking care of Mother Earth and the rest of our environment…our waters and climate change,” she said. “And that gives me a lot of hope.”
In addition, Taggart counts her lucky stars that she decided to establish Amba Farms exactly where, and when, she did. “We’re so lucky to be in the Hudson Valley because consumers literally are hungry for this type of food,” she said. “They’re very open to learning more about what they’re eating and how it’s grown, and they understand that it can cost a little more to eat food that’s very carefully grown and nutrient rich. They seek me out, wanting to know where they can buy our product, but we only sell off the premises to restaurants and a couple of local stores.”
And if you’re not a restaurant? Fear not—everyday citizens can still partake of Amba Farms’s astonishingly awesome produce. Every Monday, Taggart sends out an email blast to whomever buys from her, listing that week’s availability. Her customers email back, specifying the food items they would like and when they would like to pick them up, and Taggart and her staff harvest according to those orders.
By functioning this way, you could say that Amba Farms is a small operation with a large impact. “We used to have a policy that we didn’t drive more than 30 or 40 minutes to make deliveries,” Taggart said. “Now we don’t drive more than 10 minutes, because the demand is there within that radius. It’s inspiring to see what our community supports.”
When asked to what degree has the fact that she is a woman influenced the mission of Amba Farms, Taggart was quick to respond. “There are more women becoming farmers today than men,” she said. “I think that just by virtue of us having that ability to create life within us, there’s a natural resonance with creating life with soil or animals. That connectivity spills into and informs how we grow…that nourishing, mothering, tending aspect. So yes, I think my being a woman has greatly influenced the core principles and growing practices of Amba Farms.”
And lest you think you now know all about Liz Taggart, there’s more. Possessing a master’s degree in writing and teaching literature, she has recently started working on a book of stories about her experiences growing produce, the discoveries she’s made and the quiet reveals that have furthered her understanding of how nature functions. In her earnest yet humble fashion, Taggart’s wish is that “people will find the book interesting and will understand the intrinsic value in growing carefully and cooking wisely and taking care of whatever is within our realm of responsibility.”
While grateful for all the success Amba Farms has had in proving that responsible, organic growing can take place in harmony with the needs and rhythms of nature, Taggart is planning on retiring soon, letting go of the farm and moving south. Her fervent hope is that organic farming will continue to flourish in the Hudson Valley, with the next generation of farmers at the helm.
Come what may, Taggart’s abiding wish is to have created something that will still have an impact after she moves on, a testament to what great things the land can do when we respect it, honor it and lovingly take care of it. By anyone’s measure, she has.
For more information, visit ambafarms.com.