Featured HVFN Partners: Cornell Cooperative Extension Ulster County
“The wider net you cast, the better.” Farmer Erik Schellenberg isn’t giving fishing tips, he’s talking about farmland – specifically the struggle that farmers face in finding the right farm to catch their hook on.
Erik grew up in Westchester County, not on a farm. His family had a cabin across the Hudson River in Ulster County, where they went hiking, played in the woods, and enjoyed fresh veggies and berries out of the garden. His father grew up in Switzerland at a time when mostly everyone was still directly involved in food. He told stories from his youth about gathering up apples to save money, cutting grain with a scythe, and falling in a manure pit. Erik’s mother was also a European immigrant, who came to America when she was young and grew up on a homestead in Maryland. Erik went on to study ecology and natural systems at the University of Vermont. After graduating from UVM, he stayed with an indigenous family in Oaxaca, Mexico and learned how ecology and agriculture could be two sides of the same coin. Erik found he had a new perspective.
“We’d be walking around in the woods, but we weren’t just in a forest. The whole thing was a managed system.”
Convinced that this type of agriculture and livelihood was the best way for humans to subsist, he then went to grad school at the University of Manitoba to study Environmental Management. Erik worked on the University of Manitoba’s student farm, where he began to see the connections between biology, ecology and agriculture, and came to the realization that farming could be the answer to instead of the cause of many of the world’s problems. After grad school, Erik moved back to Vermont and worked with Ben Falk at Whole Systems Design, and managed the farm.
This winding path took Erik to a farm in France where he learned about growing chestnuts and hazelnuts as a strategy to lower farm input costs by providing an inexpensive supplemental source of feed for pigs. But it wasn’t about cost-savings alone – it came back to ecology. Chestnuts are the only perennial tree crop that’s a carbohydrate. “No fat, more starchy, like corn,” Erik explains. “If planted the right way, chestnuts actually net more total energy total than corn. You don’t have to till the ground ever, really, and they’ll be there for the next 80 years.” Erik saw an opportunity.
At one time, a quarter of all of the trees growing from Georgia to Maine were chestnuts – but, in the early 1900s they were wiped out by the Chinese Blight and never fully recovered. Today most chestnuts sold in New York State are imported from Italy, with a high demand in NYC. But, there’s no reason that Chinese chestnuts and other blight-resistant hybrid varieties couldn’t thrive here in New York, Erik says.
“I’ve seen scores of healthy, very productive chestnuts in the Hudson Valley. Most drop a heavy crop every year.”
This idea, along with thoughts of family, lured him back to the region to grow vegetables and chestnuts.
But his family’s land wasn’t ideal for chestnut farming. Chestnut trees like light, sandy soils that are well-drained. Erik did some research and discovered the Hudson Valley Farmlink Network (HVFN) and the farmland finder website. He created a profile and searched for a year and a half, checking out a handful of leads until Liz Higgins, a HVFN partner at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Ulster County came across his profile looking for suitable matches for a farm in Orange County. She had known Erik through extension, but didn’t realize he was searching for land. Without the network, this opportunity could’ve swum right past Erik.
Liz connected him with the landowner who had 34 acres of arable land, most of which was blanketed with muck soil. “It’s opposite of any soil you’ve ever heard of,” Erik explains. “It’s 40 to 80 percent organic matter. No rocks. It’s basically a bowl of compost.” It wasn’t exactly what he was looking for. It was actually better that what he hoped to find! He still intends on planting chestnut trees, but more of the land will be making way for vegetables since the soil is of such high quality and is not known to be suited to nuts.
Erik advises other young or beginning farmers to keep an open mind when it comes to finding farmland. “Be flexible in your plans. It can be beneficial to have a wider range of acceptability.” While Erik was searching for land that was good for growing chestnuts, being open to different soil types allowed him to find a vegetable-growing goldmine. Word of mouth goes a long way, too. Referencing the ‘seven degrees of human separation,’ he suggests talking about your search openly, even with those who you might think have no connection to farmland. By casting a wide net you never know what you might catch.
The Hudson Valley Farmlink Network (HVFN) is a partnership of 15 organizations working to ensure the availability of farmland in the Hudson Valley for the farmers of today and tomorrow. Coordinated by American Farmland Trust, the network offers a Hudson Valley Farmland Finder website, training and networking events, and one-on-one assistance for farmers and landowners. The Hudson Valley Farmlink Network has received primary funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Additional funding has also been provided by the Environmental Protection Fund and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as well as the members of American Farmland Trust.