Notes from a new farmer: Q&A with Michael Gallagher, Square Roots Farm

square-roots-farm-1In every school, there is a legendary former student -- the one whose academic prowess knew no bounds. "Brilliant," people marvel about this student, even decades later. "That kid was brilliant." (Or, here in New England, you might hear: "Wicked smaaaaaht.")

At my daughter's school, that individual is Michael Gallagher. A dozen years after he left campus, the rumors about him -- that his math advanced four grade-levels in a matter of weeks, that he was earning As in calculus by fifth grade -- still linger. Some of these rumors are flat-out myths (he didn't take calculus until high school, sorry), but even the most level-headed agree that he was, in the words of one teacher, "an incredibly smart kid, a very deep thinker," and -- in the words of another -- "one of the brightest math students to go through our doors in decades." Later, Gallagher would graduate from the #1 ranked liberal arts college in the nation, just two courses shy of a triple major in math, Russian, and biology. (Alas, he took what he calls "the easy way," settling simply for the Russian-biology double-major.)

Plenty of people figured that a guy with all options open might go to work for McKinsey & Company, or Wall Street, or maybe some start-up company destined to make billions. After all, isn't that what the Smartest Guys in the Room always do?

Not necessarily. You won't find Gallagher in Brooks Brothers suits, or zipping through airports on his way from one meeting to the next, or motivating crowds of conference-goers in a hotel ballroom before their rubber-chicken lunch. Nah, this smart kid chose a different path -- one that involves soil-stained T-shirts and mud-encrusted boots. He became a farmer.

square-roots-farm-2A few years ago, Gallagher turned to "the only path that really made sense" to him: growing food in a sustainable way. He started Square Roots Farm, a vegetable and meat farm with a Community Supported Agriculture program that sets aside 20% of shares specifically for low-income residents. You can read a little bit more about Gallagher's experience on his blog. (Note, he hasn't gotten a chance to update it much recently. He's been a little busy.)

Last week, I visited his farm during one of his CSA distributions. I enjoyed the conversation, I enjoyed his unbelievably sweet Sun Gold cherry tomatoes. But I also relished in something else: the fact that my daughter, and her classmates have this living, breathing example of a simple fact: that sometimes, the smartest path is the one that takes you far, far away from fluorescent lights and a cubicle.

Gallagher was nice enough to answer a few questions for me:

Why did you choose farming?

It was really the only thing that made sense to me. I wanted to make something, create something of value. Farming allows me to produce something that's useful, that matters, but that isn't extractive, or exploitative. How many things can you really say that about?  It's satisfying for that reason. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

square-roots-farm-3What got you thinking about it in the first place?

In high school, I did a little work on a farm, baling hay. But the guy I was working for had a full-time job other than farming, so it's not like I had this idea that farming as a career was really possible. Then at Williams College, I took class with Professor Hank Art -- it was called Human Ecology or something like that. We took a bunch of trips, one of them to a working tree farm in Charlemont, Massachusetts. They were working on sustainable forestry issues, and had set up a cooperative lumber mill for different sustainable tree farms and logging projects. The guy who ran it was fascinating. I remember him saying that while it's great to set aside land for conservation and not touch it, you'll never be able to do that on a lot of land. So it's also really important to have land that’s productive, and that’s also having a really positive impact on the ecosystem. It was a new idea for me, and it's always stuck with me.

You didn't go into farming right away, though.

No, I taught math with the Mississippi Teaching Corps, a two-year program where you teach in a critical needs school and get a master's degree at the same time.

square-roots-farm-garlicIt was just incredibly hard. The kids were so far behind in math that we couldn't even use the textbooks; I ended up writing the curriculum as I went. Between that, and teaching, and grading, my work days were about 18 hours long. A bunch of us lived in a big house with a wrap-around porch. And sometimes -- when I had all that stuff to grade that I didn’t want to grade, all that planning to do that I didn’t want to do -- we’d all sit around on the porch and talk what we were going to do when we were done teaching. It was there that I said, for the first time, “I’m gonna farm.”

How did you get started?

First I started reading, doing a lot of research into whether I could really make it work. And I was surprised to find that there were alternative ideas in agriculture that were actually sustainable in a financial sense…where you could actually make enough money to do it again after the first year. I had been to Caretaker Farm, a small CSA in Massachusetts, and so had a model of a small, successful farm in my head. A lot of the reading I was doing was about livestock and intensive management, intensive grazing, raising beef and poultry and pigs out on pasture. I read a ton of writers, including Joel Salatin. He is very optimistic, really gives you the idea that you can do it, which is refreshing.

And then?

Then I thought, I should work on a couple of farms, figure out how this works. ATTRA puts together a great database of  farm apprenticeships. I started looking for something in the Northeast that has a similar climate to where I wanted to end up. I ended up on Homestead Farms, outside of Troy, New York. They raise chickens and turkeys and pigs on pasture, they have a small grass-fed beef herd. They have a 100-member CSA, so I was like “OK, I can cover everything in one stop.” I finished teaching and started up there the next week.

I was like, “Well, this is different from what I've been used to." But it was great. I worked there for one season, then I apprenticed a second season at Maple Wind Farm in Vermont. They do similar stuff, but more meat, fewer vegetables. I learned a lot about meat.

Then you felt ready?

[Laughing] No way. But I didn’t see many ways that I would get much more ready, either. I felt like, "OK, I’m not ready, I’m never going to be ready until I’ve already done it and screwed up a bunch of things." I just had to go ahead and do it.

You partner with a group called Hoosac Harvest, which is a partner of Target: Hunger, a program of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Tell me about that.

Note: an earlier version of this post inadvertently neglected to mention Hoosac Harvest.  Michael is the first farmer Hoosac Harvest is helping and they to help more CSAs with low-income support start once Square Roots Farm is further along.

I first came across them when I was looking around for a farm, because we were looking at some of the same farms. They had been actively seeking a partnership with farmer who wanted to start a CSA. They had a core group that was really active, and really enthusiastic. I was planning to start a farm regardless of that partnership. But it’s been really fantastic to have all of that support, especially at the beginning.

They are helping us subsidize shares for people who are low income and otherwise couldn’t afford farm membership. Their goal was to subsidize at least 20% of the shares. We did 30 shares this year, and six are partly or fully subsidized through money that they’ve raised. They arranged for these members to pay for their share with EBT. And they really helped us sell out our shares to the general population; they created a "Know Your Farmer" expo, with lots of tastings from area farms, and that really kicked us off right. Thanks to them, our shares were sold out within two weeks.

So in your experience, there's really a market for new CSAs?

We're already putting people on the waiting list for next year. We want to go up to 50 shares, still keeping at least 20% low income.  I think we might still have a waiting list. It's not like we're the only CSAs in the region, either. So, yes. There's definitely a market.

And we have all the coolest people as our CSA members. It's just a great community.

What have you harvested?

You name it. By the end of this season, we will have processed 520 chickens, 75 turkeys, 7 pigs, and a lot of vegetables. A lot of vegetables. 1,200 heads of lettuce, not including the stuff we take to farmers market. Proportional amounts of everything else: cucumbers, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli cantaloupes, watermelon, a ton of tomatoes, root crops, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, onions, garlic, scallions, tomatillos, eggplants, snow peas, snap peas, green beans, herbs, beets, summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins...all of it.

What mistakes did you make along the way?
square-roots-farm-tomatoesHorrible things. I mean, some of them weren't huge mistakes -- I didn't plant enough eggplants, but that's no big deal. Others were awful. For example, the first day we were killing chickens: we were so focused on the chickens and so worried about how we would screw that up. And that actually went really well. But then at about 2 that afternoon, we realized that we hadn’t vented the greenhouse at all that day. We fried everything in there; it was probably 200 degrees when we went in. We had probably 30 flats of starts that were just totally crisp. We had 50 tomato plants that we had just put in there that were totally brown and dead.

Another time, we lost about 80 chicks one day. We had them in an outdoor brooder that we had set up, and we had propped open the top for ventilation. But the wind blew, and knocked it closed while we were out in the fields. It was brutally hot that day; we checked on them about an hour later, but it was already too late. Maybe three out of eighty survived -- it was pretty miserable. It sucks to bury chickens when they’re so little. It just sucks.

So, yeah, we've had some screw-ups. I'm sure we'll have more, but I can tell you this: those mistakes, at least, aren't ones we'll be making again.

Wow. How do you prepare for moments like that?

You don't. You just figure it out as you go. But I've always really like learning that way — just to be given a problem and to tackle it. I remember when I was teaching in Mississippi, there were times that I would print out 4 or 5 pages of geometry proofs for the kids. If I didn't feel like I had their attention, I'd just hand them the proofs and say, "Do them. I don't care if you look in the book, I don't care if you talk to one another. I'll answer any questions you have. But here are ten proofs: pick five and do them." (Laughs). And the kids hated it. Oh, man, they just hated it. But that's much more what life is like -- you're given a situation, and you just kind of have to figure it out.

What advice would you give someone interested in farming?
Well, probably not any advice about how you go about doing things. I guess I'd just say, "Find somebody who does what you want to do, where you want to do it, and work for them for a a while. A year, at least. Then go work somewhere else."

I think it’s important to work at least two different places. Otherwise you get this idea that the one place you worked is the only way to do anything. Then after that, you’re never going to be ready anyway, so you might as well just start. You’re never going to know what you want to know, or what you think you need to know. You’re never going to have the infrastructure or equipment that you want to have, you’re never going to feel like you’re ready, so you might as well just jump in.

10 Responsesto “Notes from a new farmer: Q&A with Michael Gallagher, Square Roots Farm”

  1. Teri Conroy says:

    Wonderful story!  Hope you don't mind I've shared it on my blog.
    Thank you.

  2. Very inspirational.

  3. Becky Leach says:

    A very inspirational  story.  I was about to send it to both my daughters,  as encouragement to follow their different drummers, but I see one glaring omission: where did he get the MONEY to buy the farm and follow his dream?  So many young people today are graduating into dire financial circumstances.  Farm land costs thousands of dollars an acre, in many parts of the country.  While teaching disadvantaged youth, and apprenticing on other farms, are noble endeavors, I don't see how they provided the seed money necessary to launch this wonderful life. I wonder if the author or Mr. Gallagher would address this.   I'd like to give my daughters more than just a pipe dream.  Thank you!

  4. I don't know where he got his money so I can't comment on that but I had the same dream since I was a child. What I did was:

    1) Create other businesses that let me earn the money to buy land.

    2) Buy land in less expensive areas between my intended markets.

    The latter kept the price of land and the real estate taxes down while placing me in a good place to sell from. The only disadvantage is we are off the beaten path so a farm stand is rather out of the question. We deliver weekly to 30 stores and restaurants as well as individual customers within about a one hour radius of our farm.

    Check out this article I wrote recently about this very issue:
    http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20100822/LIVING09/100820021/I-believe-Small-farms-are-the-Vermont-way---

    Secondary link incase the first stops working:
    http://flashweb.com/blog/2010/08/i-believe.html
    http://flashweb.com/news/i-believe-burlington-freepress-article

    Another big piece of advice is to grow slowly. This holds for what ever you do.

  5. Ali says:

    Becky, what a great point - it is a glaring omission, and I apologize for leaving that out.  He did not buy the farm. He leases a parcel of land for a very small amount of money (forget the amount, but as I recall, it's very small). This allowed him to start up with very little $.  Because he is doing a CSA model, he was able to get the $ he needed up front...and for those who use EBT, the group mentioned in the post, Target Hunger, arranged to give him their share $ up front, and then they get reimbursed over the course of the season.

    The situation is probably similar to Walter's (thanks for that, Walter) - the farm is a little off the beaten path, and it's in a community that still has a "modest" cost of land, relative to nearby areas (like Columbia County, NY, or Southern Berkshire County, which have higher real estate values).

    Basically, for it to work,  I think it's important to have some allies in your corner - Target Hunger was one in this case, as were the landowners. And that kind of model is not impossible - I know of a few situations where people allow farmers to use their land. There's a group nearby that has been working on connecting people with land with would-be farmers. It does get complicated legally, but it works in many cases.

    Walter, thanks for that article, and for your experience. Altough some of the comments made me shudder! (since when is self-sufficiency a value of the USSR vs. the US? Ugh).

    Becky, I hope this answered your question.  Makes me think we need to provide some more concrete examples of how it actually CAN work, and how it DOES work. Because sometimes it really does.

  6. Interesting that you mention the land sharing by non-farming landowners. I just saw someone who is doing a bit of research on that topic. The mention was in a discussion group. Here's the link to the survey incase anyone is interested in participating: https://survey.uvm.edu/index.php?sid=54442

  7. Jeremy says:

    It really is very doable. Where there is a will there is a way! There's something to be said about positive thought and manifestation. When your doing something good and worth while people are drawn to your cause. Being a farmer definitely has it's ups and downs but if the passion is there it will work. Determination is the key. For years I thought negatively about my dream of farming. It's too volatile a market, I don't want too put in the time and energy to land that isn't mine, our growing season is too short, etc. But the moment I thought positively about it; if I don't own the land then I won't loose it if my crops fail, the community needs me to do this, I want it to happen and I'll do whatever it takes to make it work, etc.; things really started to fall in to place. A year later I'm a regular fixture at the local farmers market with loyal customers and a growing business.   Food is such an important part of everyone's life. It's crucial that we feed the passion for farming. It's hard work but at the end of the day you can rest knowing that you are doing what is right.

  8. Sandi Wiese says:

    Please both tell your daughters that it CAN be done and encourage them to think outside the "box" and get going on living their dream.  I thought I couldn't ever make it (single, had a good job but few opportunities to move on or up) farming, but then I read some books about finances, which first and foremost taught me some money mistakes I'd been making for far too long.  Then, when I crunched the numbers I was actually able to take a rare opportunity to change jobs for a lower salary and STILL afford my small farm (35 acres, but it is dryland).  I searched for my place for almost two years to find the right fit.  I've then since started a couple of side businesses that really took off.  Learned some horrible lessons, most importantly about trying to grow too fast and burning myself out.  But I'm doing great, still single, still in a job that won't ever change (tho I love it, too) but I see now how to build my farm in a way that I will be able to pay it off and eventually quit the "day job"--all well before I'm too old to enjoy it.  Remember: every single time, the tortoise beats the hare.  The very best to your daughters and anyone else who may be considering farming even on a small scale.  It has been by far one of the best decisions of my life.

  9. David says:

    Hi Ali, Thanks for this great interveiw, I just wanted to correct one thing that I noticed.  The main organization helping Michael is called Hoosac Harvest (www.hoosacharvest.com) which is a partner of Target Hunger.  Hoosac Harvest is a group of local people who work to promote local agriculture primarily through helping create CSAs.  Michael is the first farmer we are helping and we plan to help more CSAs with low-income support start once Square Roots Farm is further along.  Hoosac Harvest has been helped financially and otherwise by other local people interested in our mission and some local organizations, including Target Hunger and Berkshire Grown, and we even recieved grants from the Congregational Chruch Makepeace Fund in Williamstown, and the local Cultural Council.  Thanks for the great work, David Lachman, Chair, Hoosac Harvest

  10. For almost two years to find the right person who can be trusted in the field of farming. then why go to school in a few classes to start. Scholar's terrible, especially trying to grow up too quickly and burn. Determination is the key. For years I have negative thoughts about my dream of farming.

    Regards,
    Mathew