Entrepreneur Farmer Offers Road Toward Food Security
By Sarah Brown
It’s no secret that small farms bring great value to our communities. But today, farming in New Hampshire is not a job for the faint of heart. Novice farmers face many challenges, with expensive land the most insurmountable. Residents have watched as farm after farm gets sold for development, each sale making our state’s food security more tenuous. In fact, Maine and New Hampshire import more food than most other states in the continental US, relying on factory farms and a vulnerable national agricultural system instead of local food producers in our own communities.
But artist and farmer Tim Gaudreau is doing something to change that with the launch of his new non-profit the Beginning Farmer Fellowship at Willow Brook Farm, an innovative farming incubator in Barnstead N.H. “I grew up fortunate,” says Gaudreau. “And with opportunity comes a responsibility to take my tools and knowledge – as an artist, environmental educator and farmer – and put them to use in a way that will benefit the community”. Indeed a quick glance at Gaudreau’s CV, which is 16 pages long, illustrates a wealth of experience. But it has been his most recent work around sustainable farming and land use that has sparked this project for something more tangible in the local food arena. “Environmental issues are at the crux of so many problems. We have to come together as communities to solve them, otherwise we might as well be nothing more than a band of pirates operating in a free for all. A laser-beam focus on the issue of local sustainable food production can result in real and lasting impacts.”
Willow Brook Farm’s Beginning Farmer Fellowship comes alive on Gaudreau’s 100 acre homestead which he founded in 2014. Nestled among the beautiful landscape of forest and farmland is an 1840’s renovated farmhouse. Entrepreneur farmer Gaudreau has done most of the work on the adjoining Christmas tree farm and surrounding lands with his own hands, aided by his wife Atlanta and their six-year old daughter Willow. The call for fellows is out and when the application process is over, two lucky novices will be the beneficiaries of a farmer’s dream with a farmhouse to live in; one to two acres of arable land to work, access to farming equipment, a small stipend and the mentoring and support needed to get planting. Fellows can live and farm for up to two years at Willow Brook – a golden ticket of sorts that lowers the sometimes crushing risks of farming. “Housing and equipment are tough for new farmers,” explains Gaudreau. “We’ll provide our fellows with a free place to live and the equipment and support they need; farmers starting out simply can’t afford these things. A tractor alone – even a used one – can set you back over 20 grand.”
Lou Clark has known Gaudreau since childhood and has worked on countless projects with him. “Tim is a ‘no obstacles’ kind of guy. From a 250 mile charity bike ride to building a house to interactive and challenging art installations – I’ve seen Tim get things done and do so in a way that is amazingly effective.” Indeed in addition to being an accomplished photographer, luthier, farmer, visual artist and sculptor, Gaudreau has spear-headed community projects from outdoor recycling stations in downtown Portsmouth to a giant boot made from recycled materials that toured the world. Tim was also the author and visionary behind a cutting edge art project where he chronicled every piece of trash he generated over a one year period and turned it into a national photography exhibit.
So, when Gaudreau turned his sights on how to best boost sustainable agriculture in the state, those who know him were certain it would be a visionary and ‘first of its kind’ project. “There are internships that offer some support but they are more piecemeal,” says New Harmony farm founder Erin Stack. “Willow Brook is the first I’ve seen that offers holistic, full-fledged support for beginner farmers.”
Stack says that Willow Brook will help with a little known challenge that many new NH farmers face – a 360⁰ life change. Many new farmers are in the midst of a career change, attempting to keep their day jobs for income during the first few years of farming, a tight-rope act that often ends in failure. Stack explains, “I’ve been at it for five years now and really went out on a limb at 52 with an abrupt life change. I made a ton of mistakes in my first few years and am still paying off debts for equipment and land. What Willow Brook offers is fantastic. Farming is an absolute asset to any community and I know personally of Gaudreau’s capabilities. He’s an adept businessman; now-a-days you MUST think business to be a successful farmer. Many have a romanticized vision of farming but not Tim. I certainly wish this had been available when I was starting out!”
“Many new farmers in NH are considering agricultural projects for which they are not technically prepared,” says the intro on the Beginning Farmers of NH website, a non-profit that offers a farmer-to-farmer network supported by three area organizations. Indeed, Stack and many other new farmers like her say they could not have done it without strong and knowledgeable mentors. “Support is crucial. I was an academic before farming and as I enter my fifth year of farming, I’m still using more of my brain than I did in academia.” Willow Brook not only offers fellows 30 and 45 horsepower tractors with loaders plus attachments including a backhoe, a post hole auger, a tiller and a plow, hand tools, chain saws and a wood splitter but perhaps more importantly, the hands-on support and farming knowledge from 5 years of a successful CSA, a working tree farm, and a maple syrup and honey business.
Willow Brook Farm includes Gaudreau’s neighboring Third Stone Christmas Tree Farm where he also grows hops, taps maple syrup, produces honey and grows apples, currants, grapes, gooseberries, pears and raspberries. Gaudreau himself knows the challenges of small organic farming. In 2008 he started the first and only CSA within city-limits at his home in Portsmouth. “Five years of CSA farming was a crash-course in the beauties and complications of farming in NH. I made many mistakes but also realized many triumphs. It was during the CSA years that I recognized the sheer importance of being connected to our food and what that can contribute to the community. I was lucky enough to own my land and have mentors. I’d like to share a similar set-up with Willow Brook.”
Fellows get much out of the project but they are expected to give back as well. In addition to free land, housing, equipment and support, the 2 selected fellows will receive a small stipend allowing them the luxury of not having to work a second job. Fellows are required to follow organic practices, a guideline that is at the crux of Gaudreau’s mission; he believes large scale monoculture farming is what the U.S. needs to move away from, replacing that instead with sustainably grown crops that add value to the local economy and the health of their residents. The Barnstead location will give fellows easy access to both the Seacoast and Concord markets.
It’s estimated that over 70% of NH farmland will change hands in the next 20 years. And, while the region is experiencing a renaissance of would-be farmers and a new appreciation for local and sustainable food, the new generation of farmers still faces enormous challenges in accessing land, capital and knowledge. Willow Brook aims to get more farmers on the land because it’s essential for food security and good land stewardship as well as preserving our farming heritage and adding diversity to our communities. “Growing food for my own family and for others had a profound impact on my values which began as environmental awareness and educational artworks but then morphed into something more practical with hands on farming. I asked myself, ‘what is the most important thing I can do?’ There is nothing more real than teaching people how to grow their own food.”
For many climate change is a dark cloud with no silver lining. But Gaudreau has taken the Earth’s shifting weather patterns as a wake-up call. “We are already seeing changing weather affecting the US bread baskets’ ability to grow food. What happens 50 years down the road when we might not be able to get all we need from the supermarket? Aren’t we a more resilient state if we produce more of our own food?” These are the questions Gaudreau has asked himself with Willow Brook providing some promising solutions. “If we can help in the creation of the next generation of NH farmers we will have been part of the solution.”
Recently Gaudreau walked the property with his daughter Willow to share with her the excitement of the upcoming fellowship. An additional five acres had just been cleared, (personally by Gaudreau), to create more planting area for the incoming fellows. As the two weaved in and out of the freshly cleared land, Gaudreau put it all in perspective. “Willow, in a way, is what this is all about – us exploring as a family, ways we can do right by the next generation. I want to leave the world in a better place and she’s the motivation. It’s also a way for me to teach her about being a community contributor and a good steward of land and nature. As we walk this land and talk about the recent timber harvest, it helps her to understand that she will also, one day, be the caretaker of this amazing land and all is has to offer.”
Learn more or apply for the Willow Brook Beginner Farmer Fellowship at www.willowbrookfarmnh.org