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Update and perspective by Lorraine
As we prepare to leave, memories from the past two decades color our search for successors. We recall our early bewilderment as well as our sense of many possibilities. Slowly we learned to know the place and people and saw some of our hopes realized. We’re grateful for all who helped us along the way, for all we learned from our mistakes. Each year brought changes to ways the mission was carried forward. Soon we will be leaving and others will live and work here with new vision and energy. We try to describe to them and to supporters what we remember and what we hope comes next.
Our first year or two felt chaotic. In answer to the frequent question of what St. Francis Farm was I would say, ‘a charitable disorganization.’ The deed to the farm was held by Time of Jubilee, but they didn’t know they held it and we didn’t know anything about them. After the first meeting with them, they wanted to be rid of that ownership and could only transfer the property to a non-profit corporation. We tried to find a land trust to hold the title, but any we approached would only hold land for specific purposes (sustainable agriculture, education, conservation, etc.) and we were told that we were doing too many different things. So by the end of 2003 we had formed St. Francis Farm Community.
However land trusts felt about how many things we were doing, we often were distressed because unable to do things asked of us. Sr. Louise, helpful in many ways in that time, told us not to try to do everything that had been done before or that anyone asked. She said the people around us had so many needs and we had our own gifts and should use those as we were led. For a while we continued hosting groups of students, Spanish Apostolate retreats, and injured migrant workers. We cut hay and mended fences for Unity Acres’ beef cattle and we did what we could to maintain the aging trailers, the farmhouse and barn. As some of this work ended for various reasons, we found other work that fit our mission of living an alternative to the consumer culture.
We developed the farming elements and welcomed other people to visit and learn. The permanent beds and low-till methods were productive and easier on Joanna’s back. Goats provided milk and manure to compost. Whey from cheese-making went to pigs who provided meat. The sawmill provided lumber to build various farm outbuildings, clapboards for UA, and income from selling hardwood. We started making maple syrup, growing shiitake mushrooms on oak bolts, and raising rabbits for meat. So many different things done on a small scale attracted WWOOFers who helped with the work and learned new skills and an appreciation of the cycles of life. For a few years the Growing Season Summer Program brought children to help in the garden, take home fresh vegetables, and explore nature. We sent farm produce to the soup kitchen in Lacona and to the senior housing in Pulaski. We made wooden toys for refugees in Syracuse and with families who also helped in the gardens. Zach built wheelchair ramps with ARISE and some of their workers brought clients to the farm looking for a place to volunteer, get some exercise, and enjoy nature. Over time connections were lost as personnel changed at agencies, and then came the covid pandemic. The soup kitchen closed, visitors were no longer allowed at the senior housing, and it became more difficult to welcome visitors to the farm. At the same time Zach was looking for a home in the Adirondacks where he could concentrate his work time on building musical instruments and be nearer to places he wanted to hike, bike, and paddle. And I was finding it harder each year to carry my part of the work here, physically and emotionally.
So we began to look at a way to transition. Joanna sought new community members for more than a year. When she found none, she looked for another community she could join and we began work on a transition for the farm. This legally required a dissolution of the corporation formed in 2003 with all assets being transferred to another 501c3 organization. We had our hopes of finding someone who would make good use of what we’ve built, but we’ve come to realize that what worked under ‘the farm economy’ depending on the land and on volunteer labor looks different in a money economy. In early July seventeen people from the Onondaga Nation, who came to meet us and see the farm, were enthusiastic about what they saw and understood what we valued. But when we tried to follow up with them, we learned they had too many more pressing issues to take on this farm. We approached the Northeast Farmers of Color land trust, which initially seemed interested but again didn’t have the resources to take on the farm. The American Farmland Trust expressed willingness to take the title to the land and said that they would place a conservation easement on it and sell or lease it to someone to farm. Brady Faith Center had its hands full with a farm to store project nearer to Syracuse. We kept waiting to write this newsletter, hoping to have something clear about the future of the farm.
On August 31 Victoria, the VP of the Board of the Oswego chapter of Habitat for Humanity, came to meet us and see the farm, the first step of fact-finding to determine whether Habitat could take the farm intending to develop a cluster of houses for seniors with a community center, gardens, and nature trails. She said they would make a decision in 60 days and advised us to contact other agencies, suggesting Cornell Cooperative Extension and Oswego County Opportunities as possibly interested parties. We reached out to both groups, and both expressed interest in the possibility of doing work here in partnership with other organizations. We’re also working on putting together additional information about the farm that Victoria thought would be useful to whoever considered taking the property. This is not our favorite work, but we are doing our best with it. We appreciate the patience and prayers of all who have supported us and followed our work through the years.
The Holy Spirit is at work not only in durable institutions which last through the centuries. He is at work also in ventures that have no future, which have always to be begun again. –Jacques Maritain
We’re grateful to all who have supported the farm with labor, donations, encouragement, and prayers. Since we are closing in 2022 and have more than enough money to get us through that time, please don’t send us any more financial donations. Day visitors willing to help with fall cleanup of gardens and trails would be more than welcome. (We are not taking overnight volunteers now.) We’d be delighted if you took time to write to us about your memories of the farm–let us know whether or not it’s OK for us to include any of these in our next newsletter. And we would appreciate prayers for wisdom and steadfastness as we go through this time of transition.
This summer has been a pretty quiet one for me, with no large maintenance jobs needing to be done. About the middle of June I built another wheelchair ramp for ARISE, south of Pulaski. In mid-July I began having some back problems which have come and gone, but have kept me from doing some of the work I had intended.
We got the hay in during the only three consecutive days in June with no rain. It was a dry month overall, but with very frequent light rains, and then July and August were very wet. Luckily we only made 169 bales, so it was easy to do in one session. The baler didn’t miss any knots, so it was a good finish to my hay-making career. Joanna helped me load the bales and put them into the loft. Late in July I began mowing the rest of the fields and finished in early August after several breakdowns of the haybine delayed progress. On the second day of mowing I had gotten down under the tongue to replace a sheared bolt and noticed a nest with three baby robins in it. Their parents must have built the nest soon after the haybine was parked in June, and it was about a month later that I found them. I finished mowing the field I was in and parked the haybine where it had been on the hilltop, and the parents resumed feeding the baby birds, who fledged successfully about a week later. My mother said the baby robins had been to day camp.
Our pig had some issues this year, but it worked out well in the end. It was much bigger than a typical piglet, and we were told it had been sick but had recovered. When it arrived it ran like most new pigs do and crashed into the wire walls of the pen, but since it was so big it pushed the whole pen a foot or two each time. I think it may have hurt its jaw doing this, because it would not bite tough things like most pigs do. It also seemed to have strained one of its back legs. It wouldn’t eat for a while, and Joanna helpfully figured out how to treat it, giving it penicillin injections and hand feeding it for several days. Bear brought us leftover bread to feed it since it wouldn’t eat grain at all at first. After about a month it got better and began to act pretty normally. Because it was so big we asked the butcher shop if they could move it up from October and they found a slot for it in late July. We only had the pig about half the usual amount of time, but it was as big as usual when it left. Without Joanna’s and Bear’s help I don’t think it would have lived.
The lawn mower we have been using for the last 8 years finally got too worn out in July, and I bought another old one to mow the garden paths and the lawns by the pond. On the smoother ground around the buildings I have been using a ground driven push reel lawn mower. I had meant to buy one to use when I have moved away, and I am just getting some practice with it ahead of time. It is not much slower than a power push mower, and I don’t have to worry about getting it to start. Also it’s quieter and cleaner, so I’ve been enjoying it.
Agriculture Update by Joanna
This has been a strange growing season. May and June were dry; I ran the drip irrigation day and night, and in the early morning and the evening I hand-watered the things the drip system didn’t reach. We had twelve inches of rain in July and seven in August. This caused some trouble with fungal diseases and split tomatoes, and I’ve learned not to run down the sloping path from the garden because the ground slides away underfoot. But thanks to our sandy soil and our hilltop site we’ve gotten a good harvest and had plenty to share. Some days the sky has been overcast and the air thick with smoke from fires to the north and west. That and the recently released climate report remind us that growing food will get harder as the world warms. But growing food locally and organically is also going to become more important as we try to find ways of living that do less harm. And in a time of much uncertainty, there’s satisfaction in doing straightforward and necessary manual work and producing something tangible to enjoy and share.
The apple trees bloomed scantily, but we’ll still get all we need. The shiitake mushrooms seem to enjoy the wet weather; we’ve had all we want to eat, dry, and share.
Our younger goat, Robin, got pneumonia in August when the air was bad, but bounced back well after getting antibiotics, so now we have enough milk to make cheese to share again. Our rabbits continued to have smaller-than-usual litters. If we were staying on at the farm we’d be getting in a new buck and trying to improve our breeding stock, but since we are leaving this hasn’t seemed worthwhile, and we still have all we need. It’s been easy to feed the rabbits in this wet year when the fields and roadsides have stayed green.
The chipmunks aren’t as voracious as they were last year, so we got all the peas we wanted before the heat killed the plants. We finished canning green beans in July and they’re still bearing. We have 98 quarts of tomatoes canned and 20 quarts dried, and now we have plenty to give away. Soon we’ll have finished freezing peppers and we’ll be able to send more out. The garlic throve. The onions grew large, though many split their outer layers in the heavy rain and I’m not sure what proportion will be fit for long-term storage when they’ve finished curing. Lettuce, kale and chard are doing well in the wet weather. Not so the broccoli, which flowered late and irregularly. We’ve enjoyed plenty of large new potatoes and I am expecting a good harvest once the vines finish dying.
Some of the places where we used to send produce have closed or have been overwhelmed with donations because of COVID. But at Pulaski Community Services Task Force meetings I heard about a mobile home park for seniors where most tenants were low-income and could use more fresh food. (We’ve noticed that elders and kids are more often interested in eating fresh vegetables than the generations in between.) Someone from the tenant’s association comes every Monday to pick up vegetables. Toward the end of the week a neighbor who’s in remission from cancer and eating lots of fresh organic food comes and picks up produce to eat, share with family, and preserve for winter. Bear has made more time to visit us this last growing season when we’ll be at the farm, and he sometimes takes vegetables back to share with folks at Unity Acres where he works, or on the reservation. We’re grateful for the goodness of the land and for the connections that grow from that.
Joanna’s next steps
In 2001, when I was nineteen, I came to St. Francis Farm looking for a way of life consistent with my faith. I wanted to do more subsistence work instead of getting everything I needed through a market system that hurt workers and the land. I wanted to give, instead of selling, the results of my work to my neighbors. I wanted a life in which work, worship, activism, outreach, and community were integrated, not separate pieces competing with each other. I wanted, though I didn’t have the words for it then, what I found described in Mark and Louise Zwick’s biography of Dorothy Day—a way of living “as if the Truth was true.” Often people who heard me describing what I wanted said, “That sounds nice, but you know people can’t live that way in the real world.” I decided to try and find out whether or not such a life was actually possible.
Here at St. Francis Farm I found what I needed, if not altogether what I had expected. I hadn’t expected that all the established community members would leave as we arrived. I hadn’t expected to have to set up a nonprofit corporation to hold the land. I hadn’t expected to have to say No as often as we did—most of all in the first year, but also repeatedly thereafter. I hadn’t expected to fail quite as often as I did, either in the garden or in my attempts to connect constructively across divides and be present and helpful when people were struggling. But on the other hand, there was meaningful work to do with hands and heart and brain. There was this beautiful place to work and rest in, with its wide dark night skies that let me learn the constellations, with its woodcocks and green herons and snapping turtles. There were neighbors and guests from a wide range of backgrounds to work, pray, argue, walk, cry, laugh, and sing with. Over these twenty years I’ve grown more tired but also more competent, more grounded in reality, more capable of listening before speaking, more aware of how to work well on this soil and with these neighbors. And I picked up another unrealistic expectation: that I could keep living and working here for the rest of my life.
I thought I might stay here indefinitely with my family, but after twenty years they were called in other directions. Then I thought I could get other people to join me in this life, but it didn’t seem to be what people were looking for. That surprised me at first. But over the last twenty years while I have been growing into this life the rest of the country has been moving in a rather different direction. People are living at a faster pace, working less with their hands, and having ever more of their needs and wants provided by the market instead of by gift and by direct labor. Many people had doubts about living in what they saw as a remote rural area, doing physical work, and not have personal ownership and financial security. Others who were also looking for an alternative way of life had different security concerns—some mistrusted vaccinated people, believing they were tainted or possibly subject to mind control; others wanted to join a community that would build a bunker and prepare to ward everyone else off when civilization collapsed. After about eighteen months of vigorously searching for new community members I realized that I wasn’t going to find them and that the work we’ve done here is drawing to a close. I regret that, but I also look forward to the new kinds of work and help that may take place here after us, and to my own next steps.
Next February, God willing, I will go for an internship, which may grow into a longer stay, at Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia. Koinonia was founded 1942 by Clarence and Mabel Jordan and Martin and Mabel England as a “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” This demonstration involved sharing of life, resources, and prayer; sustainable farming; hospitality; and interracial fellowship—which was not universally popular in that place and time and led to a certain amount of threats and harassment from the neighbors. As that calmed down, Koinonia spread into other ministries. The partnership housing project that became Habitat for Humanity began at Koinonia in the 1960s. A refugee ministry called Jubilee Partners also began at and spun off from Koinonia. Koinonia itself is still doing sustainable farming, giving away as well as selling food, offering hospitality, bringing elders in for community gatherings and children for peacemaker camps, visiting people in immigration detention, and doing other kinds of Kingdom work that appeal strongly to me. I’ll finally get to do what I expected to do on arrival here—join a larger community of people drawn together from different families and backgrounds by a shared calling. I am looking forward to what I may learn and become there, and I am grateful for all that I have learned and become in the years here.
We’ve found much to enjoy this summer, despite the uncertainties. Father Tom McNamara came from Our Lady of Sorrows in NYC and spent three days working, singing, remembering, and thinking with us. He’s helped us find our way through complicated situations all through our time here. Sr. Mary Lou Seitz–who brought groups to the farm early in our time here, visited alone in 2011, and has been encouraging us with letters ever since–visited again for a few days in July. She worked, swapped stories, walked, and sang with us. Andy and Mary Anne have come for several day visits–our neighbor Bear, and Andy’s daughter Deborah, joined us for one of these. Marge has come each week when the weather is good. She helps us snap beans and clean garlic, looks at whatever is blooming and growing, and sometimes listens to Zach’s fiddle music. We’ve had produce to send home with all and sundry.
We’ve also enjoyed some non-human visitors. This year we’ve seen does and fawns close up in the hayfields as well as out in the woods. (They’re welcome to those places, and now that the garden is securely fenced against them I quite enjoy seeing them.) It’s been a good year for dragonflies, and we’ve been grateful for their beauty and also for their consumption of mosquitoes. Hummingbirds and butterflies have been all over the butterfly bush. And while I don’t usually pick snapping turtles up without a shovel, this palm-sized fellow was too small to bite me and was rather fun to watch.