If you are a market or small-scale farmer, this episode is for you, but there’s plenty of inspiration for you home gardeners too. This week’s guest is Conor Crickmore. About 12 years ago, Conor exchanged a lucrative career in technology for a successful journey to the life of a market farmer. Here’s the real kicker – neither he nor his wife, Kate, had any real gardening or farming experience at the time.
What they had in spades were vision and determination. Today, their 1.3 acre, organic Neversink Farm is one of the most productive farms (per square foot) in the country. They grow and sell produce all year long in zone 5b of the Catskill Mountains in upper New York State.
Conor grew up in Westchester, just outside of New York City. After earning an English poetry degree, he traveled throughout the U.S., Europe and the Czech Republic. Once he settled in New York City, he realized that information technology was where the money was at. So, he taught himself sufficient internet technology skills to build a technology career.
Those healthy paychecks supported an important priority for Conor – great food. That passion runs in the family. When his brother opened one of the first farm-to-table restaurants in the Big Apple, Conor became a small investor. Little did he know at the time how significantly this appreciation for food would play into his future.
Over time, Conor got married and purchased a small cabin as an investment. The cabin was situated along a river, and Conor and Kate devoted weekends to the joys of fishing and building a small vegetable garden. With each trip, they found themselves dreading the return to city life. They began to dream of ways that they could enjoy the cabin experiences full time.
Initially, they thought the answer was homesteading. The Crickmore’s set a goal to scrimp and save for nine months, so they could say goodbye to corporate life and hello to days filled with chicken-keeping and gardening. When that nine months was up, they had $30,000 in the bank and no Plan B. They would live the dream or go bust trying.
It didn’t take long for Conor and Kate to realize that homesteading wouldn’t provide for the long-term needs of their family of four. Since their greatest joy came from growing vegetables, they set their sights on building a market garden instead.
The cabin property wouldn’t sustain the level of production needed for a market garden. It was time to move. They took their real estate agent to a nearby property on the Neversink River to provide the idealized example of what they hoped to find – a beautiful farmhouse, a hand-hewn barn, level growing space, and a river running alongside it all.
They knew the owners of that particular property would never sell, nor could they afford what the spot offered. While the agent showed them the humble properties the couple could afford, fate stepped in and changed everything.
The Crickmores were introduced, through neighbors, to the owners of that very same property along the Neversink River. They made the most of the opportunity, presenting their vision for a picturesque and productive farm. Conor and Kate didn’t have farming experience or equipment, but they had belief in their dream. They asked if the owners would be willing to lease the derelict property and fulfill the vision – in exchange for produce. The answer was yes.
Over the years, the property owners did decide to sell to the Crickmore’s, and the farm transformed from dream into reality.
Since they didn’t have any experience at the time, the Crickmore’s farm vision was more about looks than about production. As they developed the property, it was the aesthetics – correcting what didn’t look good – instead of traditional issues like pest and disease management which shaped their choices.
Even just a decade ago, online resources for learning a new skill were hard to come by, and there weren’t many books to guide newbies through the world of developing a small-scale farm. The Crickmore’s built Neversink Farm bit by bit, learning through experience as they went along.
Conor recognized early on that a small farm would require a lot of infrastructure. There was equipment to procure for tasks like washing vegetables for market and delivery trucks to get them there. There were systems to be put in place to keep this small property producing a lot of food as efficiently as possible. Also, there was the soil. Conor knew the soil would be a critical part of the farm’s infrastructure. The Crickmore’s were committed to building all of that as quickly as possible.
Conor calls himself a mechanical-free kind of guy, but in the first few years, the farm did utilize a walk-behind tractor. Although that type of power is useful on a farm, it also comes with its own set of cons. Keeping the beds straight and tidy was challenging with a tractor. It was also difficult to get the tractor inside the hoop houses which were becoming a bigger aspect of the operation.
So, they began maintaining the hoop house beds by hand. That meant no more tilling up the soil. Crops would be turned over by hand in fall, so beds were ready to plant in spring – without needing to be redefined. The Crickmore’s utilized cover crops and amended over the soil surface, allowing the soil food web to work things in.
The results spoke for themselves. Not only were they saving time overall, but the soil was richer in organic matter and had fewer weeds. So, they got rid of the tractor and began farming the outdoor beds by hand too.
Rain and snow create soil compaction in exposed beds, so Conor uses a broadfork on those areas at the beginning of each growing season. Looser soil promotes longer, healthier carrots, so he uses a broadfork more frequently on carrot beds.
The hoop houses are an important aspect of the farm’s production. Neversink Farm’s market competition is primarily large farms with hundreds of acres of crops. The farm is located in what is referred to as Frost Valley. The growing season is too short to allow a small property to sustain competitive production outdoors.
The protection and added warmth inside the hoop houses mean the team can get a jump start on spring. Intense sun heats those indoor spaces so efficiently that they can accommodate crops like radishes and leafy greens in February. Late season crops can continue to produce deep into chilly fall weather.
In fact, the tomato plants inside the hoop house were as tall as Conor by early May. They were also forming fruit, which I’ll admit made me just a little jealous. I don’t have the luxury of a large indoor growing environment – yet.
Conor says that the difference between growing a garden and running a farm is on par with the difference between cooking a good meal and opening a restaurant. The demands of producing for customers will elevate pressure to a whole different level.
Neversink Farm grows about $350,000 in produce every year. That level of success wouldn’t be possible without a premium on efficiency. Anytime the Crickmore’s would encounter a problem, they were relentless about finding a solution before moving on to the next issue. It was also critical to implement good systems which made each job easier and made the tasks of employees easier.
The most efficient systems are those that are so easy that staff doesn’t even need to think about them. Conor applies that thinking to the tools he uses too. He and I are a lot alike in that respect. If a tool isn’t genuinely effective, we won’t use it. We’re both hand tool geeks – always on the hunt for the new best tool.
When he can’t find a tool to perform a specific task, Conor invents his own. One of his creations is called the Zipper Tool. Conor designed it to quickly open and, then, close a trench in the soil surface. He also collaborated with garden legend Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm on another tool – a weeder with interchangeable heads.
One tool Conor couldn’t live without is a paper pot planter – a chain of connected pots. The chains are easier to transport and can be run through an automatic transplanter to be placed pre-spaced into the soil.
Caring for the Soil
Farming organically can be challenging, but in Conor’s mind, there was no other option. Whether it’s good food, good wine or good gardening; Conor believes that the less something is “messed with” the better it will be. Synthetic products were always in opposition to Conor’s farming vision.
So, Neversink Farm is committed to building soil health. They see it as a true investment in the success of their business. Quality soil and amendments can be expensive, but Conor knows they result in bigger and more abundant crops. That difference in production provides small-scale farms an important competitive edge.
Conor never skimps on amendments or a load of compost, and he puts a decent budget toward soil tests too. For the home garden, a soil test is typically a sampling of various areas all mixed together to get results on the space as a whole. Conor wanted more detailed results. It wasn’t uncommon for him to take around thirty soil tests a year in order to fine tune the health of each hoop house and outdoor growing area.
A stickler for accuracy, Conor follows the results of each soil test to determine, very precisely, what amendments are needed. He won’t add calcium, boron, copper, or any other amendment unless the soil test indicates a specific need for it. Even then, Conor measures with careful calculation to be sure he gets quantity just right.
Lots of us think that if a little of something is good, then more will be better. That philosophy often does more harm than good when it comes to soil health. It’s also all too common for gardeners to amend with something, because they heard or read that someone they admire uses It. Don’t make that mistake. The conditions in your garden are unique, based on factors like the native soil or the plants you grow.
Organic matter like compost or leaves are always a good idea, but when it comes to specific nutrient or mineral additions, test your soil first.
The native soil at Neversink Farm is sandy, so over the years, Conor has added clay, compost and peat to improve tilthe. With beds in constant production, Conor relies on a mixture of organic sources – like fish meal, kelp, blood meal, soybean, alfalfa, etc. – when a soil test indicates a need for nitrogen.
At the beginning and end of each season and every time a crop is turned over; the health and tilthe of Neversink Farm’s soil is scrutinized. Conor believed that all those soil tests would guide him to amend each small area specific to its needs, so he could bring nutrient and mineral levels in all the beds into alignment. He hopes it will then be easier to identify trouble areas – to spot when a bed isn’t producing to standards.
Grafted Tomato Plants
Running a small-scale farm means always looking for potential advantages, and one that Neversink Farm relies on is the grafted tomato plant. These plants aren’t mainstream for the home gardener, but if you caught my final podcast of 2019, you heard me mention the benefits and my plans to incorporate them at the GardenFarm™ next season.
A grafted tomato starts with the scion or upper growth of one tomato variety that you love for its fruit qualities being cut from its root base. That scion is then grafted onto the rootstock of a tomato variety with other desirable qualities – like disease resistance or drought tolerance. The resulting plant has the desirable qualities of the rootstock but the fruiting qualities of the scion.
Initially, Conor was skeptical that grafted tomatoes would perform better, so he grew half his crop from grafted tomato plants with a Sekura scion and half his crop from ungrafted Sekura. The stem of the grafted plants was twice as stocky, the fruiting spurs were twice as long, and the plants produced more and larger fruit. That kind of advantage was undeniable.
The Crickmore’s never looked back and, now, spend a morning or two each spring grafting hundreds of tomato plants to produce their entire crop. Conor has noticed that the level of increased production does vary among different tomato varieties. Typical greenhouse-variety tomatoes will show the most vivid increase in vigor and production. In any case, I’ve heard enough praise from growers I respect to be certain that I’ll be growing some grafted plants this coming season.
A Remarkable Lifestyle
The Crickmore’s have worked hard to bring their naive small farm vision to life. Conor says he wouldn’t have it any other way. Along the way, he has also developed a small-farming online course and produces YouTube videos.
If you are considering making the move into small-scale farming, be sure to check out the Neversink Farm website. It’s sure to provide some inspiration and valuable tips. You can also check out a recent episode of Growing a Greener World, featuring three small-scale farming families. There is nothing like hearing the real-world experiences to prepare you for embarking on a new adventure.
Be sure to listen in to my conversation with Conor too, by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking on the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. I was smiling all the way through our talk, and I think Conor’s stories will bring a smile to your face too. Have you ever sold produce at a local farmer’s market or to local businesses? What lessons has that experience taught you? I hope you’ll share in the Comment section below.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases, and Weeds – Just $47 for lifetime access! Watch for my new course Master Seed Starting coming January 30, 2020!