LPL Stories: Fall 2014
David Moses, Executive Director of Mt. Hebron Food for Life Pantry in Brownsville, Brooklyn, interviews Nicholas Pandjiris of Hudson Valley-based Whistle Down Farm, which supplies produce for the East New York Local Produce Link hub.
David: Do you plant and grow the same crops on the same area every year?
Nicholas: No. We always grow different crops in different places to prevent diseases and pest build-up. A lot of pests and diseases can live in the soil over the winter and will eat the same crop year after year if planted in the same place. By planting crops far from where they were the year before, that reduces the pest pressure.
David: How do you decide what to grow and when to pick?
Nicholas: We grow stuff that we like. We try to find out how different seeds are produced and we use that information to pick which varieties to grow. We try to find out what people at our Local Produce Link pantries want to eat and try to grow that stuff if possible. And we grow stuff that sells well at the farmers' market and stuff that does well in our climate. Those are all factors that play a role in deciding what to grow.
For certain crops, like tomatoes or peppers, it's obvious when to pick them because they turn red. Other crops, like kale or lettuce, you can pick at anytime, but we usually wait until the leaves are pretty big. Watermelons are kind of hard to tell; there are a few different signs to look for. As a general rule, the fruits are more obvious because they change color when they are ripe. Lots of other things can be picked whenever you feel like it.
David: How do you manage the different needs of the different crops? How do you stay on top of so many differences?
Nicholas: We try to plant crops that have similar needs close together so we can manage sections of the farm in a similar way. It's really hard. It's a lot of work. So we try to develop systems that allow us to do things as efficiently as possible. In general on the farm we are trying to develop ways to work that are as efficient as possible because there is just so much to do and a lot of different plants that need to be taken care of. We just try to work as quickly as we can.
David: Which crops need the least work and the most work?
Nicholas: They all need so much work! I think potatoes probably need the least work because we can do almost everything with machines for potatoes. In terms of the most work, there are lots. Tomatoes need a lot of work. We prune them pretty extensively. Carrots take a lot of work because they want to be really well weeded and the spacing needs to be right, so often after we seed them we have to thin them, so there is a lot of handwork with carrots. Those are probably some of the more labor intensive crops that we grow.
David: How would a person get into the farm business?
Nicholas: Well a good way to start is to just get a job on a farm. You can learn a lot that way. What I did was I got started working on a farm and while I was working on a farm I read as many books as I could about farming and asked the farmer lots of question. It was probably really annoying! But acquiring the knowledge is a huge piece of it. And then figuring out access to land and capital for the business is also really challenging, especially depending on where you want to farm. Luckily, there are lots of programs and organizations that exist to help people do these types of things. But more work definitely needs to be done to help get people into the farm business. For so long it's been something that just passes from generation to generation. But now, as more and more people decide that they don't want to take over their family farm, there needs to be new ways to get people into farming and I don't think there's enough assistance yet to make that happen.
David: What's a farmer's worst nightmare? Floods? Hurricanes?
Nicholas: Well the thing I worry the most about is hail storms because I had a bad experience with that. Three years ago we had a really bad hail storm and within 10 minutes almost all of the crops that we had in the ground were destroyed. It looked like someone just walked through with a weed wacker and killed all of our crops. So that's what I worry about the most when I see a thunderstorm. It's my biggest fear. But flooding can be really bad too. Our farm is right on a creek that can flood, so I have to worry about that too. There are lots of other things to worry about. I could go on...
Nicholas Pandjiris and Eileen Wallding have been farming together for eight years and currently own and operate Whistle Down Farm in Claverack, New York. They grow a wide variety of vegetables on about 6 acres of land using organic and some biodynamic practices.
David Moses is the Executive Director of Mt. Hebron Food for Life Pantry in Brownsville, Brooklyn. In 2010, David had a dream that he wanted to feed people and stop hunger in his neighborhood. He shared his dream with his pastor, Bishop MacDonald Moses, and together they started the Food for Life Pantry out of Mt. Hebron Church. The pantry feeds approximately 300 people (800 meals) per week.