In 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.
A 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.
What 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.
It 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.
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.
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?
Horrible 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.