To the Letter

Next gen farming from Letterbox Farm Collective

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Photography by Christine Ashburn

Close your eyes and picture a farm. Is it a bucolic spread, with a big red barn, chickens pecking in the yard and a row of tall yellow sunflowers waving in the background? Or you might be imagining endless fields of wheat with an enormous automated combine barreling through and a legion of hunched laborers sorting through the industrialized debris? The further away we get from the sources of our food, the harder it is to imagine where it originates. But knowing its provenance has become increasingly important for the sake of flavor, nutrition and health—our own and that of the planet. Buying supermarket vegetables labeled “farm-fresh produce” seems like a poor substitute for placing our hard-earned cash directly into the hand of the farmer who actually grew that cauliflower and knows the character of their greens intimately. Such an interaction, however, raises another question: Would that money spent even have more than a negligible impact on the farmer in question? The dirty fingernails and calluses on that same hand, the worn overalls and rusty pickup truck that complete the profile, make small-scale farming appear much more like a labor of love than a viable career choice.

The often-quoted Wendell Berry, the much-lauded poet, farmer and environmental activist, says that, indeed, “farmers farm for the love of farming.” Despite its many hardships, frustrations and economic challenges, small-scale farming offers an independence from the corporate world and a connection to nature and community that is hugely rewarding. This life appeals to a new generation of young people who are approaching it with the creative entrepreneurship necessary to transform the existing paradigms. One thriving example is Letterbox Farm Collective, situated just outside the town of Hudson.

On a warm afternoon last fall, Faith Gilbert, Nichki Carangelo and Laszlo Lazar were enjoying a rare moment of relaxation at their farm, recovering from the previous night’s “Folk Food Feast.” At this dinner, created in collaboration with the back of the house staff of the celebrated New York City restaurant Momofuku Ko, the chefs worked their magic with pristine ingredients freshly harvested from Letterbox’s fields. Diners sat under the stars at long wooden tables, the herbal sweetness of fennel pollen perfuming the night air, and ate rabbit terrine with burnt onion mustard and 20-greens salad with flowers. The next day, strings of fairy lights were still draped about the property and the three farmers seemed tired but enormously satisfied. The event marked the culmination of their first harvest season and the beginning of a long-held dream come true.

Gilbert and Carangelo met in high school in Waterbury, Connecticut, and grew up sharing the same goals: a life well lived, with good food, good company and a sense of joy in the everyday. Gilbert went on to attend the University of San Francisco, where she got caught up in the Bay Area’s enthusiasm for local eating and learned about pickling and fermenting. Carangelo enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College and studied zookeeping at the Bronx Zoo. Both women subsequently found work on farms, as did Lazar, who went to an agricultural high school and then joined the Army Corps of Engineers, where he spent six years as a park ranger before returning to farming. It was only a matter of time before the three friends pooled their complementary skills and burning desires to build a farm of their own.

ROOTS DOWN

Gilbert looked all over the country for a place to farm right outside a small town and ended up finding the perfect spot back in the Hudson Valley. Letterbox Farm sits on rich silt loam with good drainage, land that had previously been farmed by three generations of the same family. Once situated on the property, the trio set about devising a business model based on collective ownership that would allow them to create a fully operational, financially viable and sustainable working farm.

At Letterbox Farm Collective, this means a farm that produces an income and quality of life for its workers as well as high-quality food for people in the region, whether they be restaurant diners, CSA members or farmers market denizens.

“We’re comfortable seeing farmers at the bottom of society,” says Carangelo, “but we have other expectations: a living wage, diversity in our work and a day off.” Collaboration is essential, as is effective communication. Though members of the collective have defined roles, it’s important they share knowledge so they are able to cover for one another. Gilbert handles the herbs, greens, flowers and greenhouses and works with the farm’s chef clients (sample their custom mixes of fresh greens at Bonfiglio & Bread in Hudson, or ice cream made with their nasturtium flowers at Momofuku Ko). Carangelo tends the livestock (chickens, rabbits and pigs) and gardens and is in charge of the market stands. Lazar is primarily focused on land management, including building and doing repairs. And Letterbox recently welcomed a fourth member, Audrey Berman, a graduate of Cooper Union with an architecture degree, who will be the new CSA (community-supported agriculture) manager. She immediately set to work making every workspace ergonomically correct and entering new building plans into AutoCAD. As Faith says, with evident delight, “I think we’re now officially the dream team!”

The concept of a “full-plate CSA” is central to Letterbox Farm, whose tagline is “Eat like a farmer.” Inspired by operations like Essex Farm—the 600-acre draft-horse-powered farm located near New York’s Lake Champlain that produces a full diet for more than 200 CSA members—a primary goal is to deliver everything their community needs to eat delicious balanced meals throughout the year.

Customers pay a set fee ahead of the season and then each week pick up a delivery including chicken, pork, rabbit, eggs, vegetables (from beets and squash to tomatoes and greens, as well as some of the more rarefied crops like fava beans and shishito peppers), cornmeal and some specialty items like ginger, herbs and spices. “Our CSA shares don’t have bar codes, money is removed from the equation, and customers feel the intimacy with their food that we get from growing it,” explains Gilbert. “It’s the difference between getting milk in a ball jar and buying a quart at the grocery store.”

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“Our CSA shares don’t have bar codes,
money is removed from the equation,
and customers feel the intimacy with
their food that we get from growing it.”

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BUYING THE FARM

After less than two years in operation, and with a lot of work and a little luck, the Letterbox collective managed to buy the land they are farming. Along with a new mortgage, this has brought greater security and deeper commitment, plus access to more outbuildings, which translates to an increase in their livestock. A loan obtained through the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Microloan program provided new fencing, irrigation, greenhouses and a couple of much-needed tractors. The farm is growing by leaps and bounds. All of the members of the collective are under 30, and their energy and optimism are palpable.

When not in the midst of planning, planting or plowing, time is often dedicated to research and writing. Faith recently authored Cooperative Farming, a handbook on forming collaborative farm ventures that she compiled from 42 interviews with farmers and professionals. It was funded by a NESARE (Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) Sustainable Community Innovations grant.

Carangelo also received a NESARE grant to develop a comprehensive enterprise guide on raising rabbits humanely on pasture and is working toward a fall publication date. The members of Letterbox tap into a number of organizations—the Greenhorns, National Young Farmers Coalition, Agrarian Trust—for support, guidance and to help fund their ongoing education, which ultimately benefits farmers everywhere who are seeking the latest information on these subjects.

Other Letterbox ventures that serve both the community and the farm include a series of food skills workshops targeted at locals who want to learn traditional preparations like canning, fermenting and butchering. The farm also produces its own line of sodas flavored with farm-grown ingredients, like rhubarb and sumac, that is part of the collective’s offering at market stands in Rhinebeck, Chappaqua and Hastings-on-Hudson. And, inspired by the success of last fall’s Folk Farm Feast, Letterbox’s land partners, who occupy a house on the property, have launched Rivertown Events to host “authentic, placebased celebrations” right on the farm. Proceeds from these events will go toward land renewal and restoration projects around the farm, like the pond installation funded by the Momofuku Ko dinner, and the planting of new trees.

A great deal of the industry and idealism that drives Letterbox Farm Collective is rooted in a basic desire to, as Lazar puts it, “eat good.” All the members are fiercely committed to the idea that the modern food movement should not belong just to an elite consumer and that real, special and delicious food must be affordable to everyone, for every occasion. To this end, they partner with a range of restaurants, from food trucks and pizzerias to fine dining establishments. And they work hard to be accessible to all local residents, as a resource for food as well as for education and fellowship.

The name they chose reflects this inclusive philosophy. “We like the image of a letterbox,” explains Gilbert, “because we consider our collective one long dialogue: on eating as health, on living in a place and on being ourselves while working within all these stacked layers of community.”

The farmers at Letterbox may have dirty hands but their intentions are pure. Like Wendell Berry, what they stand for is what they stand on. In a world where the ground beneath us is continually shifting, the strength of their conviction is inspiring. Not least because, with the sweat of their brows and a vision of a better future, they are making it work.

Letterbox Farm Collective
4161 U.S. 9, Hudson
letterboxfarm.com

RECIPE

The Northern Lights

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