When many urban- and suburban-ites think of farming, the romanticized image that comes to mind probably looks something like Earthbound Garden, owned and operated by Anne Banks. Tucked away along a forested, winding road in Hillsdale, NY, the quaint property is set into a rolling hill dappled with apple trees. A small, shady pond sits modestly in one corner, giving way to one-acre plots where tomatoes, peas, carrots, corn, lettuce and beets flourish. Beyond the front fence, where we were greeted by the quintessential farm dog, Lina, a traditional barn divides the gardens, with perennial plants and peppers taking off on the far side. An adjacent maple tree makes for a shady vegetable-washing and bagging spot. Behind the barn is a hoop house where Anne grows several varieties of tomatoes. Beyond it, a cozy wood-frame farmhouse comes into view. It’s set into a steep hill and a small glass greenhouse sits to one side. A path down from the cabin leads to a lean-to pole barn, which shades two Norwegian Fjord horses from the hot July sun. Although we didn’t see them in action, Anne works with the horses to plow and harrow her fields.
A true homesteader, Anne is committed to living ‘by hand.’ Her values are focused not on engineering the land to her own desires, but rather reading it and then using creatively the basic set of tools she has in order to grow a successful crop while maintaining the biodiversity of the niche ecosystem. In the spring, for example, she does quite a bit of baking, but she’s not making cookies or pies… she’s making flat mix for her seed starts! Rather than purchasing potting mix, she makes a sterilized flat mix from her compost by cooking it in the oven for days at a time. “It works to kill fungus, bacteria, and harmful pathogens in the soil, so I have really nice starter mix…the hard part is not being able to use my oven for meals for a few days!”
Anne is one of the few farmers still implementing horse power to cultivate her fields. She grew up working with horses, and has her two fjords command-trained to pull a farrow cultivator that creates single rows as well as raised beds for planting. “They’re great horses, quiet and willing workers. The old lady’s quite an escape artist, though. Sometimes I feel like I spend more time fixing fence than tending to the crops growing inside it!” She laughs. “They keep me on my toes for sure.”
Like most romantic, pastoral images of farming out there, however, there’s more to the story of Earthbound Gardens than its picturesque orchard, fresh-baked compost, and horse-driven cultivation. Aside from her daughter-in-law, who helps out in the spring, Anne runs the farm entirely on her own. She does all of the planning, bed prep, weeding, planting, [weeding], harvesting, [weeding], and washing of produce herself. She also attends the Copake-Hillsdale Farmers Market every Saturday and the Sheffield Farmers Market on Fridays. On top of farm work, Anne is also a music teacher at the Indian Mountain School. Although being a music teacher allows Anne to focus on farming during the summer months, late spring and early fall can be challenging times of year. During these times, school is in session but farm duties persist and often intensify. This is especially true during April and May, when spring music concerts are in full swing. These months Anne can often be seen out in the fields at night, wearing a head lamp to stay on top of her busy spring planting schedule.
The pastoral picture that most of us have when we think of horse-powered farming features healthy, muscular, efficient horses. But horses age and become sick, which is a hard reality that Anne has had to face recently. One of her fjords came down with laminitis and the other is nearing her retirement, which forced Anne to buy her first tractor this year. Even when the horses are healthy, although they are a huge help in composting and cultivating the fields initially, there’s still a huge amount of handwork left for Anne once they’ve gone through the rows. She says the work is hard and sometimes overwhelming, but she wouldn’t trade her way of life for anything.
By Mekala Bertocci, Berkshire Grown Intern