New Beginnings: The Good Life Farm

New Beginnings: The Good Life Farm

No tractors and no insecticides means managing a staff of horses and turkeys. Sometimes innovation means going a little retro.

Photos by Lauren DeCicca.

NEW BEGINNINGS: A collection of profiles published in the Fall 2011 issue of Fresh Dirt Ithaca.
An ethnomusicologist turned breadmaker. A healer who also makes natural beauty products. A woman who returned to her family’s dairy farm to start making artisanal cheeses. And a young couple who decided to create a permaculture farm. What is it about this region that inspires people to find new beginnings?

Melissa Madden is always thinking about how best to make use of her workers’ skill sets. “In some farm settings, if you want to spread poultry manure for fertilizer, you would use a spreader, which uses a lot of fuel. We’re trying to use the natural move- ment of the turkeys through the pasture. My job is to move their fence. Their job is to fertilize the crops and eat the asparagus beetles so I’m not out there spraying pesticides. We’re each doing what we’re good at. That’s the ideal.”

Welcome to the Good Life.

If you passed by these 69 acres of land a few years ago, you would have seen a corn, soy, and wheat farm, split into seven fields and extending down to Route 89. Now, overlooking the lake is a brown barn with a red roof surrounded by movable high tunnels that look like greenhouses. You won’t see John Deere tractors, nor will you see perfectly subdivided crops. Instead, you’ll see chickens dodging around Asian pear trees while garlic peeks through asparagus and horses peacefully mow the fields by grazing. This is the picture of a permaculture farm, one that supports co-owners Melissa Madden and Garrett Miller’s mission: using multiple crops and animals within the same space to create a natural habitat that will produce a variety of food for a very long time.

While conventional farming devotes large sections of land to single, annual crops, permaculture farming is designed to closely imitate a natural ecosystem. It’s more complex to get started because there are more elements in the mix and the return tends to be lower at first. Once it’s up and running, though, it requires less work, because each element provides some kind of service for the others. Before they’re sold for Thanksgiving dinner, the turkeys lay down the fertilizer where winter salad greens will be planted in the high tunnels; the 250-plus apple trees (planted courtesy of the Ithaca Crop Mob) shade the asparagus; the 24 acres of woodland provide firewood, fenceposts, and, eventually, shadeland gardening.

“If you just had an orchard, you would fit more trees into this space and you might be more productive with apples alone,” explains Madden. “But over time, the way it’s designed, this space will be more productive than a pasture by itself or a field of asparagus by itself.”

Madden is fresh-faced and soft-spoken, with strong arms and short blonde hair she wears in two ponytails. She and her partner, Garrett Miller, a Dryden native, bought the farm three years ago, after apprenticing in the Ithaca area and interning at New Forest Farm in Viola, Wisconsin. Mark Shepard, the owner of New Forest, a 100-acre permaculture farm, has become famous for breeding robust, low-maintenance hybrid bush hazelnuts and hybrid chestnuts, perennials that theoretically could take the place of corn and soy. “His philosophy,” says Madden, “was ‘Go build your bunker—it’s going to hit the fan, and we need to create these self-renewing food-producing systems as fast as possible.’ And we thought, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”

So they bought the acreage in Lodi, then brought on two horses, Betsy and Randy, adopted from an Amish farm, to mow and plow. Miller built the barn and high tunnels.

“If Garrett wasn’t here, this farm would not be what it is,” Madden says. “There would be no barn, and I would probably be living in a cardboard box. But if I wasn’t here, there would probably be no animals and no plants. Maybe some apple trees.”

This is what their farm is about—combining everyone’s talents to create a healthy and sustainable environment. But Madden and Miller also have to contend with the personalities of their staff, much of which consists of livestock and can be unruly. “You select them to be well suited for their job,” Madden says. “But that doesn’t mean the turkeys don’t get out of their fences and go out in the road, or that our two mares aren’t fighting all the time.”

Miller and Madden eventually want the Good Life Farm to be self-sustaining, using no gas or oil and instead getting energy from photovoltaics and horse power (literally). In the meantime, they’re finding ways to meet the community’s needs. Last year there was a waitlist to buy their turkeys; this year they’re introducing broiler chickens; next year they hope to do an organic fruit or poultry CSA.

“We’re trying to do something that’s different than any one farm we’ve been on,” says Madden, passing a pen full of chickens, guinea hens, ducks, and the black Australorp rooster she inherited because he was so low on the totem pole at his last home. “He was so miserable,” she says. “He’s missing all of his tailfeathers because of that experience.”

“We’ve been willing to make mistakes and put a lot at risk,” says Madden. “But it’s really a great system. I love it. There’s no way either of us could walk away from this project at this point. We are in it for a very long time.”

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