By Michael Durante Jr.
￼Photos Courtesy of Conor Crickmore
Coner Crickmore is a farmer in Goshen who practices centuries-old no-till gardening methods and who can show young people they don’t have to purchase 20 acres in order to make a decent living at organic farming.
￼When Conor Crickmore moved his family up from Greenpoint to Sullivan County and told the neighbors he had a plan to develop their land into a profitable farm, he did not really have one. Novice farm plans, anyway, are bound to be dashed. Seeds are not the best listeners, and ultimately it is upon their success that any farm relies. So though Crickmore needed a plan to convince the neighbors to let him start farming, it would be consistent observation and practical problem solving that really built his working farm.
Today, five years later, Neversink Farm is a tidily organized organic vegetable farm on 1.5 acres of that same neighbor’s property. Crickmore estimates that they must work seven days a week, year after year, to make it so. Though Crickmore is clearly proud of his farm’s performance, he has an ungreedy business goal in mind: a five-day work week.
When you start to understand Conor Crickmore as a farmer, it is easy to believe he will achieve that goal. His approach is that of a good factory manager: find the bottleneck, or the point in your business process that is causing the most delay or effort to complete, then find a way to fix it. Crickmore says he tries to “look for permanent solutions” so that he can move his attention to finding and fixing the next bottleneck. This process leads to some interesting practices. At Neversink Farm, they combine centuries-old no-till gardening practices, such as using a broadfork to prepare planting beds, with modern innovations like mobile greenhouses and honeycomb paper pot transplanters. The end result is produce that exceeds the expectations of New York’s best chefs without any of the harm that accompanies most commercial agriculture.
Moving to the country. Conor Crickmore grew up in Westchester County and was a New York City resident for most of his adult life, where he worked as a computer consultant. He met his wife, Kate, in Europe, and they now have a daughter and son. Though he still loves New York City, he realized that the advantages of city life quickly wear away after you start a family. It is wonder- ful to live around the corner from a bar with amazing oysters and rare beers, but what’s the point if you never go there?
Crickmore owned a cabin in Neversink, NY, which he used for recreational fishing weekends with his friends. After he and Kate had kids, they wondered if a life upstate might make more sense. Crickmore was well aware of the farm-to- table restaurant boom—his brother had started several restaurants, in which Conor was also an investor—so he saw high-quality organic vegetable farming as a reliable growth industry.
A farm is not something that you get up one day and just start. Though, listening to Conor Crickmore speak of the early days of Neversink Farm, that is about the image you see. He started with about $30,000 in start-up capital, an agreement with his neighbors, an understanding of his target market, and his wits. That lack of assets was an asset in itself. “Since we didn’t know what it should be like, we made it what we wanted it to be like,” Crickmore remembers.
Finding the sweet spot. In the early days, Crickmore was inspired by the work of Eliot Coleman, a Maine farmer and prominent sustainable-agriculture author. Coleman’s Four Season Farm provided an early example of how intensive organic farms could produce better agricultural results on smaller plots of land than conventional growers could get on large commercial farms. Coleman is many young farmers’ early introduction to small-scale organic vegetable produc- tion. He was an early advocate for farm-generated soil fertility (as opposed to farmers relying on industrially produced chemical fertilizers) and growing methods that help vegetables tolerate pests, weeds and weather, rather than methods that eliminate these ever-present variables.
Neversink Farm is not an imitation of Coleman’s Four Season Farm; instead, Conor Crickmore farms with the spirit of Eliot Coleman, looking to the past and to his peers for solutions, and relying on his ingenuity instead of industrial inputs. Neversink continues to emulate some of the practices espoused in Cole- man’s The New Organic Grower, such as moveable greenhouses, passive solar heating in winter and even hoes invented by the sustainable-farming pioneer.
The last five years have been an exercise in sales strategy for Neversink Farm. They have run a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, opened an on-farm store, traveled to farmers’ markets, and sold wholesale to restaurants—basically all of the sales opportunities possible to a small farm. The first three methods have all proven challenging. CSAs can be difficult to run because each CSA member is like a tiny weekly order. Creating dozens of diversi- fied, family-sized mixes of produce each week is much more time consuming than packing cases of a single product; or, in the case of large wholesale farms, pallets of a single product. Also, Crickmore’s experience is that most CSA cus- tomers value cost over quality. On-farm stores require a bustling location and either a staff or serious trust that all customers are honorable enough for an honor system. Farmers’ markets, though the traditional sales venue for small- market organic farms, are proving to be ever more saturated in the Hudson Valley, and require a farmer to spend the whole day selling vegetables, or to hire someone to do so. Plus, a hot tent is not a happy storage place for most vegetables.
Neversink Farm still attends two weekly farmers’ markets (in Hastings- on-Hudson and Pleasantville, both on Saturdays), but the majority of their sales come from restaurants. Chefs, especially in the competitive gourmet NYC market, are usually willing to pay higher prices for higher quality and will make consistently large orders once they find a farm that meets their quality standards. The farm-to-table market is so mature in NYC that Neversink Farm does not even need to worry about distribution: they pack their produce on another farmer’s truck heading to the Union Square Green- market, then a specialized last-mile logistics company makes deliveries straight to restaurants. That sales setup allows Crickmore and his team to focus more on farming, which leads to better vegetables.
Happy soil, happy plants. Small family-owned farms must choose their capital investments wisely. Big purchases all need to contribute to the owners’ personal goals; otherwise, why make them? For instance, Neversink Farm tried raising pigs for organic pork. Conor Crickmore soon realized that he was spending so much on feed that he did not have any available capital to invest in improving his pig operation. Vegetable production, which does not require the same high-variable expenses as livestock, allows Crickmore to spend on new growing supplies or greenhouse structures that make perma- nent improvements to his growing process. By constantly reinvesting in the business, Crickmore finds that he has fewer problems every year, or at least fewer of the same problems.
One piece of farm equipment that you will not find at Neversink Farm is a tractor. Neversink is a no-till farm. Tilling is a method of breaking up soil, usually mechanically using a rototiller or pulling an implement behind a tractor, in order to loosen up the soil for your plant roots. Tilling is intentionally destructive, but many farmers today are wary of just how destruc- tive it can be. The top layer of soil, usually only a few inches deep, has the highest concentration of organic matter. Organic matter in soil, also called the soil humus, provides a habitat and nutrients to organisms living in that soil; those organisms include a farm- er’s vegetables, earthworms and other decomposers, and hun- dreds of microorganisms that perform beneficial processes, such as nitrogen fixation. Tilling churns the soil dramatically, mixing this top layer of organic matter and burying it, making the organic matter inaccessible to growing plants.
Instead of tilling, Neversink Farm uses a broadfork—a manual tool with long tines that you step into the ground to loosen up the planting bed without breaking the soil structure. Crickmore suggests that no-till practices reduce weed pressure, improve fertility and lead to better-tasting vegetables.
A certified organic farm, Neversink is always finding creative ways to reduce pest and weed problems. Their tomatoes and cucumbers are grown in greenhouses where they can release natural predators of some pests. Seedlings are planted intensively, much closer than you will see recommended on the back of your seed packets, to keep weeds from proliferating and to use the limited farm space more efficiently. Planting beds are kept in production throughout the season—as soon as some- thing is harvested, a new seedling takes its place. Crickmore even thinks about his farm’s impact beyond his own property: he will not use fishmeal as a fertilizer, even though it is allowed under organic certifications, knowing that the production of fishmeal is destructive to ocean ecosystems.
More than any other philosophy, Neversink Farm lives by the idea that smaller is better. They can operate their farm with a few employees working six days per week in the peak of season, and only three days a week in the winter. They use manual tools and intensive methods, literally touching every square foot of their land with their hands. Details really matter when a farm focuses on quality. Neversink’s cucumber plants are trellised, so all of their cucumbers grow off the ground, hanging straight down. Each cucumber grows perfectly straight, never rotten from ground contact, and they are re-planted every couple of weeks so the cucumbers they sell are always at the peak of taste. Forget about translating these practices onto a 100-acre farm.
Hope in progress. Crickmore seems driven to disrupt that age-old farmer stereotype, the one of the sun-wrinkled old man working tirelessly to produce his crop, year in and year out. He is “not interested in getting to the farm at 6:00 and leaving at 7:00.” Through observation and wise improvements, Crickmore has proven that success in agriculture is not all about getting your hands dirty or working long hours. Maybe it is still a little about that. “Everybody thinks they want to farm,” he says, “but most people find out that they don’t.” But if you know a business owner, you know that most entrepreneurs let their businesses take over their lives. It is the success of Neversink Farm that Conor Crickmore sets goals to make his farm less life-consum- ing, and actually meets them.
For more information on Neversink Farm, visit their website at www.neversinkfarm.com. █