Willow Brook Farm & Art Center founder, Tim Gaudreau, shares a little insight into how the seed for the center began...
The old Garland Farm homestead, decrepit, seemed to stand aloof on top of the hill as I approached it daily. It was alone and silent, without any activity. There were never warm lights emanating from the windows, footprints in the winter snow or evidence of tending summer gardens. The apple trees grew wild, forest overtook fields, and the house slowly grew inward. At the time, I was unaware of any of its history or that the owner had passed after a rich, long life there. To me, it was just abandoned.
I passed by this farm often enough to wonder. What had happened? Why would someone just let it go? What did it look like 100 years ago? What did the landscape look like when it was actively farmed?
During my many hours riding tractors, I would often let my mind run over the farm. I daydreamed about what the farm once was, but also what it could be. I would hope for someone to come into the farmhouse to return it to glory, to retake the fields, to grow food, to husband animals, to care for the forest. Then, I would pass by again and see nothing but the abandoned flowerbeds struggling to remind us that there was once a caring family here.
Farming is hard business. I know this intimately. Land is expensive. Weather and pests can break profit in the blink of an eye. Industrial food production pressures fair prices ever downward. The hours are long and the labor is tough. These costs make it difficult for people to get into farming – especially young people just starting out – an otherwise rewarding vocation. But, it doesn’t have to be this way, does it? If we educate people about the benefits of organic growing, of the costs to air, water and health of chemical use, of the importance of sustainability, of the necessity of supporting locally produced food, couldn’t life be better for our communities?
I’ve always been community minded and much of my work has been around advancing some cause. I’ve worked and volunteered for many non-profit community organizations. I’ve always been particularly passionate about environmental issues and finding ways to support young people starting out. To me, I’ve always felt quite fortunate to have had many important opportunities, from education to mentors’ guidance, that have changed my life.
Anyone who knows about my work as an artist, would also know that I firmly believe in an art practice that is articulture – work that employs all the tools the arts have to offer as a means to empower individuals (both amateur and professional) to create positive social change in our communities. I focus on sustainability and environmental issues, with a goal of exploring tangible, practical ways to shift relationship to land and natural resources. This is really the culture part of permaculture and it meshes powerfully with our gardening practice. Moreover, I’ve extremely fortunate to have benefited from several, immersed-in-nature, artist residencies — in particular, a two-month stay in a cabin in the woods at the MacDowell Colony — that have had a profound impact. Between all of the land available here, the house and the barn, I could instantly envision this place as an art center.
And, so, I had enough time in my tractor seat to mull this over. And over. What if someone took over the farm and gave it over to young farmers as a chance to get into farming without the risks or weight of the overhead? How would that take shape? And, from there a non-profit community agency started to take shape. If only someone would buy that farm and do all that – it would be awesome – I would support that.
Then one day I drove by and there was a “for sale” sign and my heart literally skipped a beat. Now it’s time for someone do just that! Then a bleak thought: there was a better chance someone would want to buy the land for its development potential and I pictured a 24 home cul-de-sac. I think it was in that moment that I realized that I was the one who should step up… and Willow Brook Farm & Art Center was born.
Once we had the farm and house, the first phase was to begin rehabilitating the property and make the house habitable again. Since it had been vacant for years, it was in need of a lot of repair. The historic working farm had had fields, but so much of it had grown into forest over the last few decades. I was able to clear 3 acres by mowing and another new growth forest of 4-5 acres have been patch cut to return them to working fields. We’ve done a timber stand improvement harvest in the remaining woodlot to bring that forest into a better management practice. There are lots of cool things in there from a couple of stands of old growth forest, to abandoned trucks, a wetland and a grave. We’ve got a head start in turning the place into a permaculture homestead with established raspberries, apple trees, currants, grapes, gooseberry and a mammoth pear tree.
We’re now in Phase II, with the initiation of our first Beginning Farmer Fellowships and we’ve got a great deal more to do.