So You Think You Want To Be An Organic Farmer?
A Day at Branch Creek Farm
“Just one more minute,” says Judy Dornstreich as she scrambles around her kitchen. From my seat at the large wooden table, I watch her balance a cheese plate in one hand and the demands of an overactive tea kettle in the other.
Her luminous gray hair is pulled back at the nape of her neck, and when she flashes a distracted smile I notice her trademark single silver earring hanging from her left ear.
Tea cups filled, she sits down at the table reclining in her chair, knees to her chest like a high school sophomore, and pulls a ball of yarn and two needles from her knitting bag.
“One of my favorite quotes,” she says, glancing over the blue-gray pattern of a long wool scarf, “is from Kurt Vonnegut, which is ‘Changes in plans are dancing lessons from God.’”
I take a sip of my tea and smile – She’s on.
I’ve come to Branch Creek Farm, the organic farm Dornstreich and her husband, Mark, established in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1977 to hear her own story. With her husband, she is a strong and active pioneer (she refers to herself as an elder) in the organic foods movement.
I’m smiling because I’ve found myself in this very position before: Several times over the past year I’ve sat at her kitchen table asking questions about her life and Branch Creek Farm; and I know I can sit back and let her take me where this story needs to go.
Then, she says, “One of my favorite quotes from myself is: ‘If you told me I was going to be a farmer with four kids, I would’ve said, ‘What drug are you on?’”
But she has never been on any drugs that I am aware of. So, ultimately, my question is this: How does an intellectual, professional woman break standards so unconventionally by doing something so traditional?
The mud room door remains propped open. Sunlight skips in over house plants and scattered papers in the glass office nook behind us. However, I know that if I had come later, after the sun goes down, I would likely find the wood burning in stoves in the kitchen and stone-walled living room. I would also likely find a man in earthen overalls and a thick grey beard sitting at the table, stroking his long-haired prince of a house cat and chatting over clippings from the New York Timesthat he and Judy set aside for one another.
Breaking With Convention: From Urban Academics to Organic Farmers
Judy’s story as an organic farmer begins, more or less, with her husband Mark. The couple met in their final year at the University of Pennsylvania. Mark went on to complete his Ph.D. in Anthropology at Columbia University while Judy recieved a Master’s Degree from the Teachers College there.
Settled in New York City, Mark taught at Livingston College of Rutgers University and Judy practiced as a counseling psychologist. Although established in their professional lives, they took a year’s sabbatical to travel and to study in India with Swami Chinmyananda, Master of Vedanta Philosophy, the philosophical, meditative part of yoga.
“Chinmyananda,” Judy explains, pointing to a framed photograph hanging on her wall, “was my teacher. He was intellectually rigorous, and I needed that. In India, he would regularly draw a crowd of 40,000, but he wasn’t that well known here. I listened to him for years and Mark and I developed quite a relationship with him.”
One evening, in their tiny rented room in Bombay, Mark turned to Judy and said, “I don’t think I want to teach anymore. I think I want to grow vegetables.”
“I was,” she says modestly, “(I believe) a very good counseling psychologist. However, my sense of identity was not wrapped up in my profession. So,” she adds with a shrug, “When Mark said I want to plant vegetables, it was very easy for me to say, ‘Okay, let’s do something else.’ It was, yet another adventure.”
This decision was not what anyone, especially their parents, expected from Ivy League educated, urban, Jewish academics.
“Here we were,” says Judy, “with two successful careers and we say to our assembled parents, we think we want to go into farming.
“My mother-in-law was a New York City person. My parents – all of these people – grew up in the Depression. For people who had been through poverty, you didn’t go back to farming, to financial insecurity. But this is the glory of these parents – they helped us. We talked to them later on, and they said, ‘Well partly it was because you were grown-ups. You weren’t twenty-two years old, you were thirty-two years old. You were mature adults and if you had a dream, it seemed good for you to pursue it.”
She pauses, and then adds, “But it also seemed nuts to them.”
Mark’s Seeds: The Cannibal’s Diet in New Guinea
In addition to their time with Chinmayananda, Judy believes their Green Acres-style move to organic farming has much to do with Mark’s Doctoral fieldwork in the Mid-Montagne highlands of New Guinea among the pygmies. “Mark studied, photographed, measured and documented the food intake of one of the region’s indigenous tribes in order to determine if cannibalism in New Guinea was due to a lack of protein in the diet,” she says.
For almost two years, the couple lived in a grass hut next to the one communal hut where all the villagers slept and ate. They had only rare and intermittent contact with the rest of the world through airmail. If they wanted to go to ‘town’ (or what was as close to civilization as was within their reach), they embarked on a one-week trek down the mountain.
“This group was pretty isolated,” Judy explains casually, no suggestion in her voice or expression that studying the native diet in a distant rainforest may be a bit out of the ordinary. “They had only ever seen one or two white patrol officers before, and they had never seen a white woman.”
The tribe may have slept and dined in their communal hut, but the majority of their lives were spent out in the bush.
“So, when a man threw his mesh bag over his shoulder and headed out to fish or hunt, Mark would follow and participate,” she says. “In New Guinea he saw how the native people joined intellectual life with physical life, and this activity was enticing to him.”
She sets her knitting down and leans forward as if to directly address the recorder in front of her, “In some other article we could discuss the amazing stone age technique of extracting sago from a sago tree. How generations of humans figured out how to do it, I will never know. But it’s brilliant.”
For those of us who have never lived in a remote hamlet on a mountaintop in New Guinea, the Sago Palm is a Cycad, of which the sago, a starchy food crop, is extracted. The Sago Palm, like the people that harvest the trees, has changed little over millions of years and are referred to as, ‘Living Fossils’.
“Mark’s dissertation concluded that there wasn’t a lack of protein in the tribe’s diet, they were lacking fat,” continues Judy. “I have memories of people eating big hunks of fat, because, when you killed a pig – hunted or domestic – every part of the animal was eaten.”
I can’t help but ask, “Were they…cannibals?”
“No, they weren’t,” she answers emphatically. “They would say things like- Oh, there are some people way up river, over on that second mountain over there- we’ve heard that they eat people, but we never did. They were actually a very peaceful group of people.”
Judy’s Seeds: Eating the Apple
If exercising the intellectual with the physical led Mark to turn to his wife one day and declare he’d like to grow vegetables, what was it in Judy that led to her life and career as a farmer?
“When I was a kid I was content walking through the fields, lying down in the meadow, and looking at the details of all the little plants growing there. And I can remember being in New Guinea in the pristine (almost uninhabited) rainforest and, again, looking at the details; going close up to a tree and seeing all the mosses on that tree or maybe a little bromeliad coming out of it. I would just appreciate and love the details, as well as the greater, more powerful vistas.”
She takes a breath, and says, “Some clichés are true, and one is: ‘You want to live until you die.’”
Then, what is it to live?
“In a sense, one of the things about being alive, which we are told by every spiritual tradition, is to be present to the present moment, and to pay attention. If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, which I don’t know for sure, I took this birth to be able to do all this, because, from the time I was a little girl I wanted to eat the apple. I wanted to taste what it was to be a human being.” She pauses, looking up and asks, “What is human experience?”
Raising the Roost: Farming as a Couple
And so, with the blessing of their parents, Judy and Mark took an apprenticeship on an organic farm in York, Pennsylvania and ultimately had four children. Judy raises her eyebrows. “Children which, at first, we didn’t think we wanted since we had important things to do.”
“I don’t understand something,” I interrupt. “How did you go from not wanting any children to having four kids?”
“We went gradually,” she answers dryly.
With a thoughtful sigh, she adds, “At a certain point it may have just been the old biological clock.”
“Did you know farming would be so… all encompassing?” I ask.
Judy brings her palm down to the top of the table and looks me square in the eyes. “Not. A. Clue.”
We laugh and she shakes her head, “Total, total cluelessness.” Still shaking her head she says in a slightly higher tone, “We’ve had apprentices who were equally starry-eyed and clueless. Out of the hundreds of people who worked our farm during the early years, there’s just a few couples who have gone into farming.Because,” she notes, “they were working six days a week and would turn around and see Mark working seven – and working even later than they were.”
So How Does She Do It?
“One of the secrets of farming is that it is best done as a couple, traditional or same-sex, it doesn’t matter,” says Judy.
She’s quick to point out, “There’s a very good reason for the traditional division of labor. Actually,” she laughs, momentarily paused in her knitting, “Extended families doing agriculture together.”
She sits back and continues her knitting, head tilted to one side, “Women can do all of it and men can’t do some of it. They can’t produce babies. But what happens with traditional agriculture in western civilization is that one person is out there in the field and the other person’s cooking dinner. It winds up that if you’ve got a little kid and you’re nursing the kid, you’re the one that’s gonna make dinner.”
Farming as a Solution
After Judy and Mark’s apprenticeship in York, Pennsylvania and the birth of their first child, Elijah, the couple moved to England, to study agriculture at Emerson College, a bio-dynamic training center in East Sussex, England.
“I had this little baby,” says Judy. “and was going to lectures and enjoying living in England, but there wasn’t much ‘Judy’ in that. I started to have dreams about Swami Chinmyananda. I wrote to him and he said, “So come to India. I’m going to be in an ashram in Uttarkashi (in the Himalayas) for the summer and we’ll hang out.”
“Now, here I am in England with an under two-year-old, planning to go to India,” she laughs. “And I hear the Jewish mother in my head going, What? You’re taking the baby to India? Are you nuts? Do you remember how sick you were when you were in India last time?
“And Mark said, ‘You know what? This whole trip, this whole thing in England has really been my trip. You pick where you want to go for the summer.’
“So, the way I answered…” She stops, adding a pointed aside, “The Jewish mother in my head was to visualize all of us healthy, walking around India. And so we were.”
Solving a Monochrome Existence
“About every six months, I throw a temper tantrum saying I don’t want to do farming, I’m sick of it, it’s so monochromatic… And Mark always replies, ‘Ok. What would you rather do?'”
“And so I have to ask myself: How does farming enrich my life? And the answer is simple: There has to be intrinsic value in the activity itself.”
She sets her knitting down and puts palm to forehead, closing her eyes in thought, “One wants to do activities that are three-centered: emotional, spiritual, and physical.”
Laughing, she quickly adds, “And let us not forget that this is a business. We’re in it to make money. So when the kid says, ‘I want this pair of sneakers,’ you don’t always answer, ‘Use your Hannukah money because I can’t afford that fancy pair.’ That’s what our children grew up with, but if we have grandchildren, we’ll give them the fancy sneakers.”
She looks up at me, “You know what people think, Dumb Farmer. Not true. Because first of all it takes years to learn… And every year is different, so you’re dancing always with different conditions and the conditions are always changing. Your senses and your intellect are very involved. I’m talking about the kind of farming that we do, which is with many, many different kinds of crops, which all had to be learned.”
As for the crops grown on Branch Creek Farm, another twist to Judy’s story is this: Although she broke conventions and ‘turned back’ to farming, the type of farming she and Mark endeavored to do was an incredibly forward-thinking pursuit.
Acknowledged as pioneers in organic farming, having started before it was even a notion in most people’s minds, Judy and Mark never questioned the concept of organic versus non-organic farming.
“We wanted to farm organically because we had enough consciousness about the environment and the world to see that it is important. Mark’s anthropological degree was in ecological anthropology. The word ecology is used in a different way now. ‘Ecology’ originally meant the relationship of the individual with its environment, or a group with their environment. That sort of ecological orientation with how you relate to your environment was, of course, important to us then, so the idea of doing anything but organic farming didn’t even enter our minds.”
Now, if this were a story told from Mark’s point of view (or even from one of their children’s points of view), it would be told quite differently.
It would be about technique, about how Mark is one of the world’s first farmers to grow micro greens, about sustainability and cultivation. It would be about product, the meaty, almost seedless tomatoes they’ve bred through careful hand selection year after year; and their famous strawberries grown on raised beds. It would be about politics, how they’ve fostered a community of organic farmers. And how, unlike some other local organic farms, they have resisted the idea of factory farming their products.
But this is Judy’s story, and so it’s also about the spiritual connection farming can bring to one’s life. As she continues, her voice becomes somewhat softer.
The Spirituality of Farming
“There is an emotional connection to nature that is spiritually gratifying,” says Judy. When you’re doing any kind of farming activity, you have to pay attention. So you’re paying attention, but there is something else –you’re peaceful, you’re focused, you’re connected with your life, you’re living your life. But the activity is somewhat like meditation as well, and very essential.”
She looks up at me to be sure I’m paying attention, and then smiles, “This gets into the realm of far-outness, but here is my experience. I was in a state of real anger against God because a friend of ours had a brother who was thirty, and he was riding down the road on his motorcycle and was killed in an accident. This arbitrary death… I felt almost as if God was stomping on a bug. One minute this guy’s alive, the next minute he’s dead. Of course, this is part of the condition of being on planet Earth, but it hit me hard. The suddenness, the randomness, pissed me off, big time.”
She gestures to the family’s backyard behind the house, “There are sugar snap peas out there. So, I’m picking peas for about an hour and I was really fuming. And I stopped fuming by the end of it. There was something that…” She pauses, then asks, “Was it the life energy that surrounded me? What was it? I do not have the answer. Do you want to call it healing? I would shy away from that. It didn’t solve anything… It didn’t answer any questions of why planet Earth has disasters where hundreds of thousands of people get killed. There’s no intellectual satisfaction in any of it – in dissolving the anger – but the anger dissolved as a result of picking snap peas. And I think any farmer would agree with me.”
“One of the farmers under whom we apprenticed said an absolutely amazing thing, ‘I feel like I’m healing the Earth by farming this way.'”
Supporting Local Farms
Judy and Mark have developed a reputation for their exceptional produce, and Mark is widely acknowledged for the years of cultivation and innovation he has devoted to his field. They are sought out for the exceptional quality of their hand-raised food.
If you visit the Philadelphia area, there are several restaurants who take a concerned interest in the food they serve and bring Branch Creek Farm’s produce to their tables.
A list of restaurants that serve Branch Creek Farm produce can be viewed below, with links to their websites:
Elizabeth Bako lives between Center City, Philadelphia and New Hope, Pennsylvania. She acts as contributing editor and writer for Wild River Review, published in fiction and non-fiction. She has just finished her first YA novel and is working on her second. She has a background in editing, writing and social media, and works as a private consultant and content editor for writers. Her most recent projects include Anatolian Days and Nights by Wild River Review editor-in-chief, Joy E. Stocke and, The Last Daughter of Prussia by Marina Gottlieb-Sarles.
In partnership with Wild River Review, Elizabeth and colleague, Fran Metzman, will be hosting Writing Beyond the Paradigm; a series of dynamic workshops providing a new approach to creative writing and memoir.