Diverse Cross Island Farms enters 11th year, moves toward profitibility
After a career as a psychologist, Dani R. Baker never thought she would own the only diversified certified organic farm in Jefferson County, but since establishing Cross Island Farms on Wellesley Island in 2006 she and her partner, David Belding, have turned a small vegetable garden into a diversified farm with about 100 different vegetables, livestock, and her newest endeavor, an edible forest garden. This month we sit down with Ms. Baker to discuss the place of small, niche farms in the north country’s agriculture industry.
NNYB: How did this endeavor begin?
BAKER: I was anticipating retiring from corrections and I don’t do very well with idle time, so I thought, ‘gee, if I bought some land I could do some landscaping, maybe get a couple of horses.’ I bought the land and my partner, Dave, needed a place to store his machine shop stuff, so the detached garage was perfect for that. We weren’t really planning to be farmers, but we planted a garden the second year and put the stuff out at the stand. The former farmer had had a vegetable stand after the dairy farm went out of existence. We sold vegetables and I thought ‘this is too easy,’ so we expanded the garden and we started gradually getting animals. I think we got chickens and we got pigs and we got some cows and we got goats. So, now we have all of the above plus a couple of turkeys.
NNYB: Why did you make the decision to be
an organic farm?
BAKER: I started to say that I was worried about my idle time after I retired, so we bought the land and the idea of becoming farmers came from a class we took at Cornell Cooperative Extension called Starting Your Small Farm Dream or Building Your Small Farm Dream. We were both inspired by that. It was my answer to idle time problems that I anticipated during my retirement. Oh, I’ll be a farmer; I won’t have any idle time, which is truer than you would think at the moment. So my partner had had a dream of becoming an organic farmer from his childhood. Every project for school had to do with that, so this was a way of putting his dream into practice and I always loved to work in the dirt. It just evolved. We started with an eighth of an acre garden and the next year we expanded it to a half acre. Cornell Cooperative Extension, a couple years into it, was also encouraging agri-tourism as a way to bring in additional income, so we started doing tours, at first for nothing, then we did them for donations, which nobody gave us, and then we started to charge. We really haven’t had any complaints because there is a lot of value to the tours. They are very educational. We explain all our practices and my partner is like a Ph.D. He can even site references when he gives a tour.
NNYB: You’re pretty diversified. How many different variety of crops do you grow?
BAKER: I don’t even know at this point. We used to say 250, but I cut back to try to become a little more efficient on the number of varieties. At one point it was more than 250. At this point, I don’t know, maybe 100. For example, I grow 12 kinds of potatos. I grow maybe five or six different types of carrots. I grow about 20 different kinds of tomatoes.
NNYB: Being as diversified as you are and organic and also adding the agri-tourism component, do you think this is a good model others could duplicate?
BAKER: First of all people need to realize how much work it is. I get up at 4 a.m. and I start working. There are no days off. I took a day off once. I didn’t pick corn on a Sunday because I thought it could wait until the next day. Between that day and the next day the birds found it because it was perfectly ripe and they completely decimated the whole crop. Can anybody do it? Farming is a very challenging enterprise. You have to understand how to grow things for starters and that’s a challenge in itself because there are so many factors you have to pay attention to, things that are outside of your control like the weather, markets to some degree, but then there is the business side of farming, the marketing side and the choosing of your enterprises. It’s very intellectually challenging. There’s no such thing as a successful dumb farmer. There are no dumb farmers who are successful. They are very bright and creative and you have to change with times. You have to be nimble and flexible.
NNYB: How many different varieties of animals do you raise?
BAKER: We specialize in heritage and rare breed animals. We have our beef cows, our belted Galloway and Red Devan and crosses of the above. Our goats are a mixture of meat goats, Kiko and Boer, with dairy. We probably have all the different kinds of dairy goats mixed in. We find the dairy goats are better moms and they have more instinct as far as taking care of babies than the meat goat breeds, but we like the meat goats for the meat because we just sell our goats for meat. We are now focusing on large black pigs. They were developed in England in the 1700s to be very friendly, docile, to be able to convert pasture and forage into energy, and they should be delicious, which they are. We actually have pedigreed pigs now and we sell them for breeding stock as well as for feeders, and we also sell the meat. We have bourbon red turkeys just for show. We just have one male and one female left because of predators, but they’re for tours. We used to have silver Appleyard ducks, but the last of them were eaten by a predator. We hope to get more. The chickens are Americana.
NNYB: On average during the peak growing season you have a handful of volunteers. What do they do?
BAKER: They do everything. We try to tailor their experience to their areas of interest. For example, we had an environmental engineering student from Clarkson for three weeks in June and he was particularly interested in designing railings for the bridge, gates and a trellis, and also working on the pond problem. Those were his foci, but he did help with some other chores around the farm. Some people are just really interested in vegetables. Some people are particularly interested in the animals. Whatever they’re interested in we try to gear it toward that, but most people help with just about everything.
NNYB: What do we need in terms of leadership to inspire young people to take up careers in farming and agriculture?
BAKER: What we’re doing, giving educational tours, making the farm available for volunteers or interns, who may be thinking about farming, to have a foot on the ground experience to determine if it’s for them or not. We had a young man who’s an engineer who came here for an extended vacation, about four weeks. He wasn’t happy and he came here and had a good experience and went on to apprentice himself on another farm for six months. To my knowledge, he’s now a farmer. I think any kind of classes that can be offered to the general public to give them an idea of some of the diversity of the business.
NNYB: What are the challenges that come with being an organic farmer?
BAKER: First you don’t use chemicals; you don’t use pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or artificial fertilizers. You have to devise ways to discourage pests and encourage growth of your plants without using anything artificial. There are different kinds of organic farming. There are a lot of products that are approved for organic. We use very few if any of them. We try to do it naturally. This garden is an example. In this garden I’ve built in nitrogen-fixing plants, I probably have 20 different kinds of nitrogen-fixing plants planted with the fruits and nuts and berries in this garden. I’ll never have to put any fertilizer on. I have plants called dynamic accumulators that pull up micronutrients from the subsoil and when their leaves fall or when they die off in the fall, they lay those nutrients on the ground to then decay and be available to the more shallow rooted plants. I have many beneficial attractors. Those are plants that attract beneficial insects and birds and other beneficial animals to take care of pests. I have something that’s called an aromatic pest diffuser. That’s like all these herbs. The idea is that a pest that’s maybe looking for a plum tree and encounters an oregano plant; all of a sudden it’s overwhelmed with this smell of oregano that it can’t find the plum.
NNYB: What do you see as the future of farming in Northern New York?
BAKER: It’s a growth industry. The millennials, the young people with children, they’re very concerned about what they’re putting in their children’s mouths. Older people with health issues are very concerned and they have the discretionary income to pay for the little extra you have to pay for organic. Anybody with allergies or health problems, they want to clean up what they’re eating because they know that’s contributing. The sales on organic products keep growing. I think there’s a huge potential. The more we learn about what the chemicals are doing to us, the more people are going to be demanding organic products. Another group that is very concerned about the quality of food they put in their bodies are military personnel and their families. Those in service need to keep their bodies in top shape to do their jobs, and their families need to stay as healthy as possible to support their military member. If you observe the organic isle in a supermarket, you will often see men in khaki clothing filling their baskets with organic produce, and not looking at the prices. Not only is organic food chemical-free, it has significantly higher nutritional value than conventionally grown food. Since we are continuously adding a multitude of micronutrients to the soil in the form of leaves and woodchip mulches, the complexity of the flavors and the nutrient value of our meats and vegetables are maximized.
NNYB: How do you scale this up this type of operation for larger yields?
BAKER: How do you scale this up? My plan to scale it up is to increase the agri-tourism component. We have three golf carts that we’re operating off our power and I’m looking for a 10-seater, so we can run bigger tours. The idea is the more people who go on an hour and a half tour, the more money we make. So we want to increase the numbers coming to any given tour and increase the number of tours if possible. The edible forest garden, I plan on this being an international destination. I went to England two Octobers ago to see an edible forest garden. Martin Crawford, who has written many books on the subject, has an institute there and he has a 2-acre garden that he started 20 years ago. I went to England to see his garden. I don’t see why the English, who are really into gardens, wouldn’t come here to see my garden. It’s just a matter of working at it now. I have a student from Clarkson coming in August. She’s Chinese and a business major, and she’s going to work on that problem for me, figuring out how to attract an international audience of tourists to come to our farm. I have another student who’s an engineering management major coming. She’s going to do her honors thesis developing a marketing plan for the edible forest garden.
NNYB: Explain your edible forest garden.
BAKER: It means that everything in this garden is either something you can eat or something that supports the edibles, or both. I explained about the nitrogen fixers, the dynamic accumulators, the beneficial attractors and the aromatic pest diffusers. Those are all plants that are built into the garden to make the fruits bug-free, disease-free and bountiful. It’s in its fourth year, so it’s not full-grown yet. It’s a total of just under an acre. I designed the landscaping. Most people find it a place they don’t want to leave and the word that is mostly used to describe it is magical. I haven’t named it yet. It might just be called Dani’s Magical Garden, I don’t know.
NNYB: How have you learned farm practices?
BAKER: Cornell Cooperative Extension has been fabulous with the different classes they’ve offered over the years. That’s how I got inspired to do this garden. They had a professor come down from Cornell. He did a two-hour class on permaculture. Before that was over, I decided that I was going to plant an edible forest garden and I came home and I said to Dave: ‘I need you to fence off some part of the property so I can have an edible forest.’ He fenced it in for me and this turned out to be a fabulous site because of all of the variation I’ve got. I have a north-facing slope, a southeast-facing slope, a southwest-facing slope and a south-facing slope. I’ve got wetlands and high and dry. I’ve got so many different microclimates in here. It’s just such a joy to develop.
NNYB: What do you see as the future of the
family farm in Northern New York?
BAKER: I think that the small dairies really need to think outside the box and do something else with their operations because they are like mice sitting in a cage where they can’t control when they get shocked. They can’t control their inputs. They can’t control the price of the product. They could become bed and breakfasts. They could become agri-tourism destinations. People from cities love to sleep in a farmhouse and go out with the farmer when they milk in the morning. They have no experience of this, but you have to have some marketing. That’s the key. I really think some of the small farms could really make a living if they think outside the box or become a niche. Niche farming practices that fit with the land they own is the way to go.
NNYB: You’ve learned a lot in 10 years. What has been the No. 1 lesson learned in this experience for you?
BAKER: There are no shortcuts in farming. There are efficiencies, but there are no shortcuts. If you try to cut a corner, there will be a consequence sooner than later. That one day I didn’t pick the corn, I just took a day off. Sometimes it’s hard to explain this to interns and volunteers the reason why it needs to be done this way. I’ll give you an example. I taught this young woman from Barcelona. She came here for a month eight years ago. I taught her how to plant lettuce. When I teach someone, I show them how, I watch them do it, I correct them and I watch them do it again until I feel like they know exactly how to do it and then I leave. Well, I came back and the row of lettuce looked beautiful. Everything looked perky. It was great. The next day, every single set was dead. I said, ‘Irina, what did you do?’ She said, ‘Well, I took each lettuce and I laid it on the ground and when I had a dozen, then I planted them.’ That was a shortcut. It killed the lettuce because air and ultraviolet rays killed the roots. It looked good right after she planted it because the leaves hadn’t wilted yet. So, that’s an example of there’s no shortcuts in farming.
NNYB: Are there weather issues that are unique to organic farming?
BAKER: I think all farmers have to deal with weather and the unpredictability of weather. When you talk about sustainability, annual plants are not sustainable in the long run. Let’s say we have a long-term drought here. Look what’s happening in California. They stopped producing a lot of things. They’re saving their almond trees, but they’re not planting anymore vegetables because they only have so much water and they figure that’s the most valuable crop and if they don’t feed that, they’ve lost so many years, whereas vegetables you can plant again. So, sustainability, this garden is an example of sustainable agriculture. It is a perennial planting. Perennials, first of all, they sequester more carbon. Second of all, you’re not disturbing the soil whatsoever, so the soil life is staying in tact and there is no erosion because everything’s covered always. The perennial plants have deeper roots, so they can withstand drought. They can withstand changes in weather way better than annuals. Annuals either dry out or they drown when there is unpredictable weather as far as moisture goes, but perennial plants are sustainable. So, in many ways this particular garden is looking forward and will hopefully weather whatever changes are in store for the climate.
NNYB: What advice would you give someone considering an agricultural start-up?
BAKER: I would say start small. Don’t take on any debt. Don’t quit your day job. Plan to keep your day job for at least five years. Choose something that you enjoy that there’s also a market for. You have to enjoy it.
NNYB: At the end of all of this, what becomes of it? What do you hope to leave for someone behind you?
BAKER: We hope to leave this as a profitable operating farm, either to a private party who wants to continue it or make it some kind of institution that will carry on after we’re gone. In my will it goes to the National Farmland Trust. In other words, they’ll make sure it stays an organic farm. That’s just a shortcut until we can come up with a more sustainable plan of our own. I’d like to see this continue. I have been toying with the idea of formalizing our educational mission by making the farm an educational institute. Researching that could be my next winter project.
NNYB: Speak for a minute about the technology in ag today. For one, it’s expensive. What’s been the single most significant innovation in ag that you’ve seen?
BAKER: We have one of the four Mesonet installations on our farm. It is a statewide program to install state-of-the-art weather stations. Throughout the state they’re putting in 125 of them. We have one. The Cape Winery has one. Belleville school has one and I believe Otter Creek is going to have one. It has a meter that takes the direction and speed of the wind. It gauges snowfall and rainfall. It measures soil temperature two inches, 10 inches and 20 inches down. It has its own solar array, so it’s totally independent as far as power goes and it beams all of its data instantaneously to a central computer. You can go to their website and punch in Wellesley Island and you can find to the minute all the data from the weather station or any other place in the state where they’ve completed the installation. That’s pretty phenomenal.
NNYB: What should our priorities be for the agriculture industry in Northern New York?
BAKER: The more diverse your industry is the healthier it is. So, like this garden demonstrates, there is great potential to grow fruits up here. I’m not sure if people are taking advantage of that. Customers love fruits. They love you pick. There are only a handful of you-pick operations in the county. We’re the only diversified organic farm in the county. Thinking diversity I think would help attract more customers to buy the products. It would attract more tourists to the area.
NNYB: The wine industry, especially in Northern New York and the Thousand Islands region, has really taken off. How do you think we can capitalize on the growth of other niche markets?
BAKER: The reason the wine industry is so successful, I think, is because they organized themselves. From the very beginning, they’ve had an active organization that works together to promote their industry. They’ve gotten grants that way. They’ve gotten publicity. They’ve gotten the wine trail that way because they work together and advocated with the political powers that be to recognize what they were doing. I think that’s the secret for niche businesses. Now, I tried to start something a few years ago. I tried to organize a farm tour day around the county and we had one. It just kind of piddled. Other counties do this. They have days where not just one farm is open, but the entire county is open. Madison County is a great example and they bring in tourists from all over the place. And once those people see the farms, they’re going to come back. But I don’t know how to make that happen. Maybe if a bunch of the niche growers or producers wanted to get together. We’re all trying to do it independently.
The Dani R. Baker file
Job: Co-owner and operator, Cross Island Farms, a certified organic farm on Wellesley Island
Family: Sister, Boston; brother, Washington, D.C.; partner, David Belding
Hometown: Westchester County, N.Y.
Education: Bachelor’s in sociology, Brown University; master’s in clinical psychology, Columbia University
Professional: Psychologist for New York State Department of Corrections in Gouverneur, Watertown and Cape Vincent
Last Book Read: “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow
— Interview by Ken Eysaman. Edited for length and clarity to fit this space.