hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




From the woods to the fields

Forester finds new mission growing organic greens



Contributing writer

For Chris Lincoln and Tammara Van Ryn, a return to New York after several years living in New Hampshire meant not only returning to their roots, it meant the realization of a longtime dream. 

For a dozen years, Lincoln was doing consulting work in forestry while Van Ryn worked at a land conservation group in the Granite State. When she had an opportunity to work for a similar organization in the Saratoga Springs area, they made the move.

For Lincoln, the move included leaving forestry for farming. 

“I’d always been interested in growing vegetables and in organic farming,” he recalled. “So I decided that’s what I wanted to do. ... It was sort of an early mid-life crisis.”

And so began a screening process for a suitable piece of land that had all the desirable elements: driving distance to Saratoga Springs for Van Ryn’s job; cultivated land suitable for growing vegetables; and a healthy amount of Class Two soil.

“The Soil Conservation Service has mapped out the soil quality of farmland throughout the entire country: Five is the poorest, and one is the best,” Lincoln explained. “Each county in every state is categorized and there's detailed mapping involved. It really helped us in choosing a location.”

What the couple found was 38 acres in Washington County, 10 of which had already been cultivated as a cornfield.

“We ended up using a little more than two acres for growing our vegetables,” Lincoln said. “We’re a micro-scale farm, so it’s enough for what we do. We took the flattest, most productive part of our property and have used that for growing.” 

The piece de resistance was a brook that runs through the property, providing year-round irrigation. 

The couple named the farm New Minglewood because they liked the sound of it and it was a favorite Grateful Dead tune. 

But before Lincoln could officially get started, he realized a bit of apprenticing was in order. He was well versed in the forestry and understood biology, soils, insects and so on, but growing produce in bulk was beyond his expertise.

So in 1997-98, he worked for Paul and Sandy Arnold at Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle.

“I knew how to garden, but doing it on a larger scale was different to me,” Lincoln said. “So I learned the art of large-scale farming from them.”

These days, New Minglewood Farm and Pleasant Valley Farm have stands across each other at the Saratoga Springs farmers market, but neither the Arnolds nor Lincoln see each other as competition.

“Paul and Sandy have always been very supportive and encouraging of me,” Lincoln said. “Their belief is that the more good and locally grown food there is, the better it is for everyone. What it does ultimately is attract more customers. … Just look at the Saratoga Springs market, it grows more every year.” 

Finding a focus

After the apprenticeship, Lincoln felt ready to strike out on his own, but he was expecting to ease into the business slowly, thanks to a waiting list for vendor space at the Saratoga farmers market.

“That year, everyone on the waiting list was accepted, because the market moved to a bigger location at High Rock Park,” he said. “It was a bit of a shock for me, because I’d only planted a quarter of an acre of lettuce.” 

Lincoln and Van Ryn supplemented their field produce with alfalfa sprouts they were growing in their home at the time. The scramble to have more to sell inadvertently uncovered a niche market.

“Not many vendors at the market sell sprouts, so I became known as the sprout guy,” Lincoln recalled.

There were some rough patches those first few years as he learned what worked and didn’t, but the enterprise grew rapidly.

“Our gross income doubled every year for the first six years,” Lincoln said.

New Minglewood Farm has made a name for itself by being certified organic and by specializing in lettuce and greens. The farm currently grows more than a dozen types of greens, including endive, radicchio, Broccolini, escarole and spinach. 

“Our stand is set up like a salad bar,” Lincoln said. “Rather than having one standard mesclun mix, we thought, ‘Why not have all of the different varieties, so people can take the tongs and custom-blend the lettuces, sprouts, and mustard greens?’”

For customers who like the convenience of a pre-mixed bag of greens, Lincoln offers a lettuce mix, a Caesar mix of romaine lettuces and a mesclun mix.

“Lettuce is probably one of the most profitable crops,” he said. “It’s the one thing customers buy consistently every week, and we sell it from the first week of May through October. Eighty percent of our business is repeat customers; they really seem to like the freshness of the lettuces and are surprised that it keeps for up to a week if refrigerated properly.”

New Minglewood Farm also grows heirloom tomatoes and a small amount of fingerling potatoes.


A scale that suits
For Lincoln, the switch from forestry to farming has been accompanied by a sense of immediate gratification.

“Managing forests has a much longer time frame in which to work, compared to farming,” he explained. “The results of forestry practices may not be realized for many years -- and may not even pay off during your lifetime. Farming allows you to see the results of your efforts within a few weeks or months.”

At New Minglewood, he has acquired two part-time employees in the 14 years since he got started. But he said he’s made a conscious decision to keep his operation from growing too big.

“We’re modestly mechanized,” Lincoln said. “Our potatoes are harvested by hand, so we only grow a modest amount. We do the Saratoga Springs Farmers Market on Saturday only, instead of Wednesday and Saturday.

“We’re staying at a size we’re comfortable working with. It makes life much more sane versus trying to spread ourselves too thin and do too much.”

Lincoln said he decided early on that if he was going to make a career change to farming, quality of life would have to be a significant part of the picture.

“I farm two acres plus two greenhouses all summer, but I never intended to do winter growing,” he said. “I have the luxury of taking downtime in the winter because my wife has a job off the farm. This kind of farming is really exhausting. It’s very intensely cultivated and labor intensive. By the end of the fall, I really need a break.”

But with all the behind-the-scenes work that continues even in the off-season, Lincoln said the downtime ends up being a maximum of about eight weeks out of the year.

“After the market ends for me in October, I’ve got a month or two of cleaning, putting things to bed,” he said. “After the holidays, I order seeds, go to conferences, fix everything that’s broken, then start on the greenhouses in early March.

“If you overdo it, it’s just misery,” he added. “No one’s getting rich doing this. I decided when I went into farming that I was going to enjoy it.”

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