First of its Kind Beginning Farmer Fellowship Launches Fundraising For New Hampshire’s Food Future
By Sarah Brown
Barnstead N.H. — A first of its kind farmer fellowship has kicked off fundraising in what could offer a new paradigm in New Hampshire’s sustainable food security. The Willow Brook Farm Beginner Farmer Fellowship is in motion and the inaugural fellows in place, beginning to work the land. But in order for this intrepid non-profit to flourish, financial support will be needed.
Taylor McGuinness and Austin Coad seem to be the very embodiment of a new cultural trend; the young and ambitious, hungry to return to traditional farming in a way that produces tangible results for their communities. Standing in the doorway to Willow Brook Farm & Art Center’s tidy yet rustic Barnstead farmhouse, you feel the excitement these two have for working the land and producing sustainable food for New Hampshire. But they won’t be able to accomplish this without the support of local farm enthusiasts chipping in to realize this vision. “It has been a long and well thought out path to the launch of Willow Brook’s first fundraising phase,” says non-profit founder Tim Gaudreau. “We are hoping those who believe in our goals will visit www.willowbrookfarmnh.org and give us a monetary push.”
Simply put, the first-ever Willow Brook Farm Fellows can’t wait to get started. Juvenile ducks have arrived and already begun laying; young pigs are rooting, tilling and naturally fertilizing the main garden. Seedlings adorn the windows of the warm, wood-heated farmhouse, their delicate, green heads poking from indoor soil squares. The goats come soon and the new saw mill that will be used to make their enclosure from trees felled on the property stands in a cleared field. A beautiful NH-style weathered wooden barn is ready for receiving hay and supplies and the tractors are in good working order.
McGuinness and Coad are over-the-moon at having been chosen as the pioneer fellows for the Beginning Farmer Fellowship at Willow Brook Farm & Art Center. The novel non-profit farmer incubator had many applicants, so competition was stiff. And why not, for what Willow Brook Farm had to offer two talented and idealistic growers, was nothing short of a golden ticket to farm; ample fertile and cleared land, a farmhouse to live in, a small stipend, all the tractors and farming equipment needed and mentoring to boot.
Willow Brook Farm Fellowship founder Tim Gaudreau says the fellowship application was demanding for a reason. “There’s much on offer here and we’ve worked hard to make this happen. My family and frankly, New Hampshire, has a lot riding on this fellowship doing what it was designed to do; make a real contribution to more sustainable, local, food production. There are so many young people aching to get into farming, but how can they afford the start-up costs? How can they get those important first years of growing, and experimentation vital to keep a farm financially viable? Most importantly, where will they get the capital to buy suitable land to farm with New Hampshire’s astronomical land prices?”
The Beginning Farmer Fellowship at Willow Brook Farm & Art Center hopes to overcome some of the major barriers for novice farmers and act as a training ground and spring board for the region’s finest and most dedicated. Taylor and Austin knew the moment they came across the fellowship, that it would be the experiential, farming boot-camp they so yearned for, and desperately needed. Currently 21 & 22 years old, both fellows graduated from Exeter High School in 2013; knowing even then that theirs would be a different path to success.
“Taylor was hit by a car senior year and nearly died,” explains Austin, “from then on we both knew we were going to do something meaningful. It didn’t take us long to settle on farming; it holds so much promise. To create something tangible and educate ourselves about how to do it best and bring our products to market knowing that people enjoy what we’ve grown and it’s healthy, sustainable and needed. This fellowship will bring us that much closer to having what it takes to launch a successful farm and viable business that contributes to our home state’s food security.”
Their journey to farming is very much a deliberate and self-taught one; something that Willow Brook Farm founder Tim Gaudreau says drew him to their application. Deciding to work their way to knowledge, the two rejected the traditional college route, but employed extensive research, reading and test-and-learn projects along the way. Self-taught growers, they first set off together to work and learn in exchange for room and board in Hawaii where they say their passion for farming really solidified. There they learned how to harvest and roast coffee, farm pineapples, avocados, bananas and grapefruit with mentoring they describe as invaluable. Then the two came back to NH and tried their hand growing vegetables in Stratham on a plot of land loaned at no cost. The couple enjoyed two tireless but successful years selling everything they grew at the Newmarket Farmers Market.
“It was a particular joy selling in our own community but we began to understand the difficulties of the land situation and also realized we still had much to learn before leaping into the gravity and investment of our own farm. Affordable, farmable land located near a consumer population that wants home-grown products – that’s tough to find,” explains Taylor.
While farming veggies in Stratham they experimented with a concept championed by organic gardening guru Paul Gautschi which centers on using manure and wood chips in just the right quantities to fortify the soil for maximum yield. They also studied and built a Jean Pain Mound — a compost water heater which can significantly extend the growing season especially in the frigid northeast. Both of these approaches they hope to tinker with and perfect while in residency at Willow Brook Farm.
Next the two apprenticed with a self-styled survivalist in the rural wilds of Pennsylvania. “We were very far from any civilization which was perfect for honing self-sufficiency skills,” adds Austin. “We learned about fully living off the land. We grew and raised everything we ate, we canned and built and repaired. It was survival skills 101 and beyond and those are skills we bring to our next phase of farming instruction here at Willow Brook.”
Both Taylor and Austin agree the Willow Brook Farm Fellowship will be their final and most influential training phase before purchasing land and officially starting their own agricultural enterprise. “It’s like getting a Masters in farming,” explains non-profit farm founder Gaudreau. “My hope is that by taking many of the most debilitating stressors out of the way, beginner farmers can realize their full potential so that when they launch a business they’ll have the tools and knowledge to contribute to NH’s food stability, and agricultural preservation. Farming has always been an essential part of the New England experience and we are watching it slip through our fingers as the cost of farming becomes more and more out of reach for most. If Willow Brook Farm can see Taylor and Austin off into the world to farm successfully, we will have fulfilled our mission.”
And a robust mission it is. Willow Brook boasts a 75-acre homestead with easy access to both the Seacoast and Concord farmers’ markets and restaurants. As inaugural fellows Taylor and Austin will farm both a market garden which will feature everything from tomatoes to squash to watermelons, leeks and beets, and a homestead garden for their own consumption. The unique fellowship allows the farmers to explore their own farming plan in a low risk setting for two years, keeping all their market income to put toward the purchase of their own farm. Taylor and Austin are particularly excited about raising goats for milk and yoghurt and hope that their diversified offerings will provide insulation from the ups and downs of the market.
The inaugural fellows also have an extensively researched farming plan which includes a substantial number of longer term projects they hope will build on offerings to future fellows. “We look forward to fortifying the soil with the mulch and manure technique and building an animal enclosure, John Pain Mound and greenhouse; all which will add to the value of Willow Brook for those who come after us,” says Taylor. “We’d also like to try our hand at perennial crops such as peaches, apples and berries – products that we can help invest in and strengthen now but which will continue to give back to the Fellowship for decades to come.”
Gaudreau smiles as he listens to the pioneer fellows’ detailed plans for building up Willow Brook. Only a few weeks into their fellowship, they are already anxious to leave their mark on an experience that will most certainly benefit them. “They get it,” he adds. “This is what we wanted to create here — a program that catapults the fellows to the next level of farming readiness and ultimately contributes to a lifetime of successful and sustainable farming in New Hampshire, one farmer at a time. We are hoping that others believe in the importance of small, local, sustainable farms and will contribute in their own way via the fundraising effort.”
Learn more, support or apply for the Willow Brook Beginner Farmer Fellowship at www.willowbrookfarmnh.org