How One Farm Saved Essex, New York

By: Rowan Jacobsen  |  September/October 2015

On the day in September 2003 when Mark and Kristin Kimball pulled their bicycles off an Amtrak train and wheeled their way into the town of Essex, New York, no one would have guessed that one of the most important experiments in contemporary American agriculture was about to begin. Young and idealistic, the Kimballs had big dreams about coming to this town on the shores of Lake Champlain and starting a farm unlike any in America. The vision had all started with an apple pie. “I got this nutty idea to make an apple pie that I had completely grown myself,” Mark says. “Everything. Apples, wheat, lard, maple syrup, everything.”

A lanky bundle of muscle with springy blond hair and Border collie energy, Mark had started a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm in Pennsylvania after college. The typical CSA charged members an upfront fee in exchange for veggies throughout the growing season. But Mark envisioned a farm that would, like the farms of old, provide members with nearly all their food 52 weeks a year—veggies, dairy, eggs, meat, even grains. People would take as much as they needed each Friday afternoon. It would be the first whole-diet CSA.

That alone would have made Essex Farm one of the most revolutionary farms in the country, but the Kimballs wanted to be more radical still. Instead of tractors, they wanted to farm with draft horses. The goal was to make sunlight and hard work their only input—no herbicides, no pesticides, no chemical fertilizer, no oil.

As they pedaled through Essex, they questioned their plan. The town seemed lifeless—“more boarded up than opened up,” as one local put it. Essex’s heyday as a port and shipbuilding center had come to a screeching halt in 1849 when the railroad arrived. Like so many other rural communities, the town’s youth had fled for the city, leaving an aging population to make do in what became a food desert. The nearest supermarket was more than 30 minutes away. Local and organic were not even on the radar.

But it turned out that the hunger for healthy food—and for the social environment that food creates—was strong in Essex. Not only did the Kimballs find their members, but Essex Farm became the spark that brought life back to the community. Today the farm feeds 230 people year-round. Members drawn to the region by Essex Farm have started a yoga studio and a wellness center and have renovated the old Grange hall, which hosts a lively series of concerts, lectures and community dinners.

The farm has also served as an incubator for ventures that have taken root in the area. The Kimballs arrived just as something was shifting in America. For decades, young people had left the countryside for urban living. No future in farming, they were told. Then the “brain drain” reversed: a generation came out of college with a passion for the land, and some found their way to Essex Farm. Many of them fell in love—with farming, each other, with Essex County.

On any early autumn Friday, you’ll find the farm filled with members picking up their food for the week and exchanging news. It’s impossible to stand there as members load flats of heirloom tomatoes and jars of cream into their cars, and not entertain the radical notion that the solution to America’s rural malaise won’t be found in the Cloud, but in the ground. As farm member and Grange program manager Mary-Nell Bockman puts it, “These people are making things. Tangible things. Food. This isn’t the virtual economy. This is as real as it gets.”
Here’s a look at some of the people and food ventures that are transforming Essex.

The Founders: Mark & Kristin Kimball
It had all the makings of a fairy-tale romance: she was a freelance journalist in Manhattan doing research for a book proposal about the new farming movement. He was a Pennsylvania farmer with some radical notions. (The apple pie!) She had a Harvard degree, an East Village apartment and a proclivity for tight jeans and marathon pinball sessions. He’d never owned a car or a TV. She was 5'2". He was 6'6". When Kristin met Mark, she thought he’d make a good subject for a book. After a few months, she scrapped the book project and decided to marry him instead. They hatched their idea for the full-diet CSA, but found that land prices had soared well beyond their means.

Which is what brought them to Essex. A family friend had acquired a run-down 500-acre farm there, and he was intrigued enough by the Kimballs’ ideas to offer it to them rent-free for the first year—a year they knew they’d need to convince people of the merits of the whole-diet CSA, which this year costs $3,700 per year for the first adult in a household, $3,300 for the second, and $120 per year of age for kids. Making the numbers work for a family means saying goodbye to convenience foods and hello to a lot more cooking, canning and freezing.

But somehow when they had their first weekly distribution in March 2004—meat, eggs, milk, maple syrup and lots of lard—Mark and Kristin had found seven souls willing to take a chance. And that was all it took. Word of mouth spread quickly. Tom Duca was one of their first members. “I was a vegetarian!” the builder laughs. “I just came by looking for some yogurt.” Mark explained that the farm didn’t sell retail; it was all or nothing. So Tom opted for all. “My feeling was, we want these guys to stay here, so we’d better support them. I actually became a carnivore.” Now he’s hooked. “It’s been amazing. How lucky am I? I don’t go to the store. My food comes from here.”

As Essex Farm grew, it became a mecca for industrious 20-somethings. With less machinery in use, the farm requires 10 full-time farmers, and the ones eager for the job tend to be young, fit, educated and passionate. Why would an Ivy League school graduate go to work for Essex Farm instead of Google? Because, as Kristin put it, “Most people who are coming into farming are doing it because it answers something really deep inside of them. It’s not so different from being a writer or a painter or a dancer.” There’s little money in it, but healthy living, spiritual satisfaction and camaraderie are attractive benefits.


Aubrey Schatz pours milk at the Essex Farm's dairy barn
For a kid wanting to learn everything possible about organic agriculture, Essex Farm is Harvard. Most farms specialize in just vegetables, but on Essex Farm you can grow everything from barley to Brussels sprouts plus learn to milk a cow, pluck a chicken, fix a combine and, best of all, work a team of draft horses. “Horses are a great way to get people thinking about the energy that goes into their food,” says Kristin. “It’s such a direct lesson when you’re watching a horse sweat and work. And it makes you a better farmer.”

Essex County can now count two spinoff, horse-powered farms as well as a creamery and a butcher shop, founded by Essex Farm alums. In 2012, in recognition that the farmers they were cultivating were as important as the veggies, the Kimballs founded the Essex Farm Institute, which offers week-long “Introduction to Farming” courses, summer internships and programs taught by other leaders in the sustainable-agriculture movement.


The Grange

Founded after the Civil War, the Grange was long the preeminent agricultural society in the United States and its halls were the social hubs of many rural communities, but most have been shuttered for decades. Essex’s closed in the 1990s. But starting in 2008, a group of volunteers spent hundreds of hours resurrecting it. One of them was Essex Farm member Mary-Nell Bockman, who had just moved to the area from New Jersey. “We thought we’d be living like hermits, but it’s been just the opposite. We found this lively, welcoming community. Seeing the commitment that Mark and Kristin made motivated me to put more back into the community,” she says. Today, the Grange boasts a full docket of dances, concerts, theater, classes, lectures, a film series and occasionally a sing-along supper. Bockman is the program manager. “The place really hums,” she says, and that’s the goal. “You can’t solve people’s economic problems, but you can give them a reason to stay.”

You can also help the farms thrive, which was always part of the Grange’s purpose. The basement of the reborn Grange includes a licensed commercial kitchen and canning center that can be rented by the hour. It gives CSA members the tools to deal with the inevitable glut of summer veggies, and allows commercial farms to make value-added products.


Racey Bingham picks calendula flowers to turn into medicinal tinctures and salves as well as soaps that are sold at the Reber Rock Farm Store
Reber Rock Farm
In 2009, during a six-week sabbatical from her rural development work in Africa, Racey Bingham went to work on Essex Farm. “After two weeks, I knew I didn’t want to do anything else. I couldn’t believe I was 30 years old and had never before experienced that kind of physical, emotional and intellectual fulfillment.” The dream got even better when Nathan Henderson arrived at the farm two years later. He and Bingham partnered up and, with another couple they met at Essex Farm, started Reber Rock Farm. To avoid competition with Essex Farm, they opted to sell pastured meat, vegetables and maple syrup a la carte.

The next step in Reber Rock’s evolution began with two acres of hardneck garlic, which produces scapes (flower stalks) that must be picked off so they won’t divert energy from the bulbs. “Suddenly we had 8,000 scapes,” Bingham remembers. “We wanted to do something with them, so I looked around and found a recipe for pickled scapes.” But pickles sold at retail must be made in a licensed, inspected facility and building one of those isn’t cheap. The addition of a commercial kitchen at the local Grange solved the problem.


The Greenhorns' Severine von Tscharner Fleming
The Greenhorns
In 2012 Severine von Tscharner Fleming got a taste of the Essex phenomenon when her organization the Greenhorns, a nonprofit that supports young farmers, hosted a mixer at the Grange. Over 300 people showed up. “We packed the Grange! We had a pig roast, seminars, a puppet show and a punk band with trombones. It was really fun.”

Fleming was so taken with the Essex farming scene that when soaring rents pushed the Greenhorns out of their office in Hudson, New York, she said to herself, “I’m going north where the kids are!” She moved to Essex and turned a drafty old house into Greenhorns Central. Fleming and her constantly morphing crew of volunteers make films, disseminate information and even host “weed dating” events (weed a field next to a different person every few minutes).

In 2013, a promotional enterprise organized by the Greenhorns gave the commercial kitchen at the Grange its most triumphant moment. Pickles, sauces, syrup and other goodies made at the facility were loaded onto a wind-powered barge, sailed down Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, and sold to New York City restaurants, retailers and food co-ops for the first zero-emissions cargo delivery since the 1980s.

North Country Creamery
Ashlee Kleinhammer had been working on small cheesemaking farms in Vermont for several years when she heard about Essex Farm. She visited and was hooked. “I thought the full-diet CSA model was really inspiring,” She soon took charge of their dairy operation. “After a year, I realized that I wanted autonomy and responsibility.”

So when an opportunity arose to take over a shuttered dairy half an hour from Essex Farm, Kleinhammer and her boyfriend, Steven Googin, jumped on it.

In 2013, they launched North Country Creamery, which sells farmstead cheeses, yogurt and milk at co-ops and farmers’ markets and through its own CSA and farm store. The following year they opened the Clover Mead Café. Now the “neighborhood,” about 20 miles from Essex Farm, has become a showpiece for the Essex County food revival. You can grab a grilled cheese sandwich at the café, pick up some bacon, eggs and steaks from the Essex Farm alumni at Mace Chasm Farm and finish off with a beer at the recently opened Ausable Brewing Company.

It’s a lifestyle that many people are drawn to. “The community is healthy, thriving, growing,” says Kleinhammer. “There are just more and more young farmers moving to the area. Our first apprentice came from Cleveland. Her mom dropped her off so she could make sure we weren’t sketchballs, and the mom ended up buying a house and moving here permanently. That’s how communities snowball.”

The Former Governor
When visitors approach Essex by ferry from Vermont, their eyes are invariably drawn from the town to the exquisite 300-acre farm just south of it: a sweep of green fields, munching cows, an 1880s farmhouse and a barn so red it makes your heart quake. New York governor George Pataki and his wife, Libby, were so drawn to the place that they bought it in 2002. Now the Patakis spend as much time as possible there. “What drew us to Essex was the location within the Adirondack Park,” says Libby. “We love the influx of young people wanting to move into the area to lead lives on a farm. What could be more positive than upbeat young people who work very hard, and want to live healthy and productive lives, even if there are no guarantees of future wealth? The dynamics of our region have changed and a lot of lights have been turned back on. Essex Farm’s young graduates have emerged and begun their own small farming operations, and in that sense they are a model for agricultural revival nationwide.”

The Patakis have played no small part in this revival, teaming up with the Essex Farm Institute on fundraisers and walking the walk on their own farm. “We’re raising pasture-fed cattle,” Libby says. “We have chickens and a large vegetable patch. We grow our own berries and make jams; we have nut trees and fruit orchards. With the exception of our cattle, we are an in-house operation and consume most everything we raise. And we love it all!”

Rowan Jacobsen, a James Beard Award-winning writer, is the author of Apples of Uncommon Character and several other books.