Category Archives: Environment

Letter to the Greater Schoharie Valley

The woman in the photograph is my great, great grandmother, Rose Render. She lived onphoto 3 (1) a farm in middle Michigan, raising her boys and her livestock on her own, without the help of modern conveniences like electricity and running water. My mother remembers going to Grandma Rose’s for dinner, enjoying chicken raised on the farm and processed by our grandmother’s own hands. My mother described her visits to the farm as travelling back through time. The tiny, sturdy farmhouse walled off to the approach of a fast-paced modern era.

I assume the desire to farm runs deep. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, save for that year I wanted to run for president in the seventh grade. Some of my earliest memories involve planting radishes and pumpkins in a garden beside my mother’s house, beside the neat rows of cherry trees that stretched out for miles in three directions.

We’ve faced hardships as farmers. We’ve lost animals to predators and had to learn to harvest our own birds for meat. We’ve had animals get out of the paddock to explore the lake or visit town. Last year, we lost nearly 200 apple trees planted with love, by hand, to a brutal spell of unprecedented cold winter that followed an equally brutal drought. I’ve wept in the soil for these losses and questioned many, many times why we do this thing called farming.


The answer always comes back to the successes. Grafting apple varieties on the brink of extinction in order to preserve this unique living cultural landscape. The raising of sheep, of alpacas, of learning to shear by hand, of washing these fleeces with great care and following this education down to carding each, and learning to spin so that the farm could support raising these beautiful animals. The reward in each of these feats far outweighs any set-backs.

Farming has also taught me to follow my instincts, to see failures as opportunities for growth, to find strength in vulnerability, and to be bold, despite the risks.  And this next bold move has taken us down some narrow roads – exploring the limits of our own fears and anxiety as we venture forth from Michigan to New York. Last fall we sold our house imageand have been staying with family as we make trips out east to locate a farm where we can finally put down permanent roots.

It has taken several trips out, but we finally feel comfortable in saying we would like to land in the region of the Schoharie valley, somewhere between Canajoharie to the undulating, aged mountains that rise up from Roxbury. And we’re seeking help. We’ve met with farmers, and are currently putting out feelers for any farmer or land owner who may be considering selling their farm. We are hoping to locate a farm with a house (we love older homes and are not afraid of renovations) with as few as four acres (more will be put to good use). A barn is not necessary, but a barn or outbuildings are a plus.

IF you know of anyone who may be able to help us, please feel free to share our email address We appreciate any help and look forward to becoming NY farmers this year! Thank you._o4xWwwKByO91WVxwu-cQcT7gkqweBxIjtCdCjO2G2U,NuqeJjwABcK9WcVXgvNf4Tkear9KK_FbgJqF45848_s


Hobbits, Unicorns, and a Cow Goddess

I just returned from another trip out to New York, this time to explore the Schoharie valley and Delaware County. This trip, thanks to the farmers who housed me, really invigorated me.  I think I’ve been feeling a bit disconnected from farming, despite the daily regimen because we’re currently partially uprooted. Being on a farm started by a woman and witnessing the incredible foundation she has built, along with the connectivity she fosters with neighboring farms, has really inspired me not to “begin again,” but to continue with this mission forward to build a farm and fiber business.

photo 2 (3)
Isadora, the Adorable

The farm where I stayed (had to make this trip out alone so Chris could tend to the alpacas), is technically East Branch Farm, but most of the locals know it as Straight Out of the Ground, a beautiful property with a goddess of a guernsey cow, who is the apple of Farmer Madalyn’s eye, for sure. And it’s easy to see why. Look at that adorable face!

In addition to farming, Madalyn also co-produces a radio show called the Farm Hour Radio.

The mountains are nothing short of magical. The roadways and farmland trace their contours, and in the mornings, mist hovers over the valleys, leading me to look for hobbits and unicorns as much as farmland.

Madalyn connected us with some good folks and resources for farmers and reinforced the awareness that New York is a good state for agriculture. Beneath every county sign I passed, the words “Right to Farm” appeared prominently. The soil in the valleys appears good and the prospect of a fiber mill feels welcomed.

photo 1 (2)Moreover, the locals are fiercely loyal to their agricultural roots and at one stop, in a village where we had been told we could not house our alpacas, a local business owner stormed down to the local village office and demanded to see the ordinance. When the village couldn’t provide any specific wording ruling against alpacas, she called me and said, “You can have your livestock here.” Can’t help but love these folks.

I would like to say we have figured this whole thing out, but after an inspection revealed some significant issues on the house we were under contract to buy, we are once again looking for the farm. However, despite this setback, I feel more confident than ever that we’ll find the right place, because more significant than where we will land is that feeling of where we belong. And it’s there, among the mountains and the hard-working farmers of the Schoharie, where we feel most at home. Looking forward to calling this place home.

Last trip out, we traversed Sharon Springs, where an inspiring couple revitalized a farm into an enterprising business. Madalyn told us it’s not only a thriving business, but they even had a television show. Check it out below. Also, living in the region, a woman I look forward to meeting at some point in the near future, Shannon Hayes, the Radical Homemaker. And so much more I would like to share, save for the time to write it all down…

If you don’t know them already, the Beekman Boys are fabulous.

Begin again with the Beekman Boys:

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

slowsteadyPeople utilize permaculture principles selectively. It’s in our nature and there are 12. And honestly, it took me a few years before I really, fully, truly understood all 12. That’s part of what makes permaculture a great compliment to nature; it’s natural pace.

Often permaculturalists are asked to rush designs to accommodate what people would like to see, which means bulldozing past quite a few key elements that will make a design thrive. Yes, those plantings may yield after some time of their fight against opportunistic plants better suited for poorer soils, but the time and energy needed is crudely invested.

That said, there are often may outside, human influences rushing the process. We like to see results and for humans these days, that’s something akin to the immediate gratification of seeing plants in the ground. But more and more, I find myself questioning these methods as they fail to reiterate that key principle, Slow and Steady Solutions.

What makes this principle so critical? For one, it allows room for the first principle of Observation, which if practiced alone would save the average gardener years worth of toil. Secondly, working closely with the land at a slower pace allows for a gradual accumulation of new microbes well-suited your soil, it affords valuable time for soil-building and cover cropping in which carbon and nitrogen cycles have time to sufficiently stabilize, and as those changes unfold, creates smaller feedback loops permitting more time to observe changes and adapt.

Where we fail to apply this principle, we find thriving opportunistic plants, decreased yields of desired plants, and if plants suffer, an increase in pests and disease, resulting in a poor demonstration of permaculture and a weary grower. That’s not to say that every permaculturalist who fails to yield to this principle is going to suffer. If done correctly, it is possible to establish a fairly productive system mimicking the longer-duration process, with the right elements in place and with, at the very least, time allotted for observation.

That said, please slow down. Take time to get to know the land. Have a picnic in your future garden space and see experience the wind and sun, the insects, birds, and neighboring plants. As with any relationship, don’t rush it; savor it. Grow with it.


Celebrating Seven Years of Healing Tree

IMG_0239Eat your veggies and wash it down with hard cider…. Healing Tree celebrates seven official years today! Want to be part of our future? Email for volunteer opportunities or visit our Course Offerings page for a list of upcoming events.

Thank you kindly!
Samantha & Christopher

Ghosts of Old Orchards

tophersamtree I carry the trees, slung over my shoulder in bundles, and walk the trail to the open meadowland of the north field. There, the golden rye has fallen and given way to an undulating current inherent in soil. As I dig, the sweet smell of earth fills the air. I find myself talking to each tree as I bury its roots; little tidbits of encouragement; the promise of the caretaker.

The work is hard, but only so much that you feel your muscles by the end of the day and are assured a solid night’s rest. I am glad we didn’t hire the digging by machine. I am grateful to plant each tree by hand. This arrangement between the trees and me has become something of a practice in gratitude. I am here. I am able to smell the earth and carry each tree to its place in the orchard. And perhaps this is how it should be: An act of co-creation between the land, the trees, and me.

I used to tell people I’m living on borrowed time. Cancer makes you rethink the obvious. We’re all going to die, but getting sick at 28 inspired me to forgo the usual worries of aging for the savory act of living. Here I am, near the anniversary of the founding of Healing Tree, in the orchard that I hope will showcase a new way of growing fruit trees, celebrating not only all this farm represents, but also elating in the fortunate circumstances that allow me to witness and participate in this project.

gugtophertreeThe shovel is used for digging, but when I bury the roots of each tree, I do it by hand. Carefully, with intention. And with gratitude. Occasionally, I find cherry wood beneath the soil; ghosts of the old orchard. A reminder of the changes between then and now. My daughter traverses the orchard, tree to tree, talking excitedly about what the apples will taste like and how it will be to harvest them when she’s older. For her, the future is boundless. And the remnants of the cherry trees bares no relevance. For me, they whisper of what was and what will be. They give warning, the give blessing. They are giving in to the earth and will feed the roots of new trees. For them, the future is boundless.

I used to tell people I’m living on borrowed time, but I’ve stopped that after this week of planting. The trees assure me it is irrelevant whether I live to 100 or die at 28. What matters is the quiet moments of fulfillment, of rest between simple tasks, when I am able to look up and see this dream realized. And know the future is boundless.

Healing the Tree: the Science Behind Plant Distress Signals

Apple trees do not suffer in silence. The other day, my husband called from the farm to tell me one of our apples had been badly damaged by rodents. Before asking, I was certain I knew which tree. Last summer, when selling our house, I had transplanted three healthy apples out of dormancy (a horticultural and pomological no-no).

Two of the trees went into healthy soil, and suffered very waxhealingtreelittle. The third tree, my personal favorite, I planted at a point that represents the entrance to the future orchard. The soil in that spot had been tilled and was badly depleted, but I nursed the tree along with high hopes. I pinned this hope on the fact that the tree was a highly disease-resistant Liberty on standard root-stock.

“The Liberty?”

It was. The sweet disease-resistant apple had taken yet another hit from an impressive rodent population living at the farm. Having already suffered through intense winter cold and heavy snowfall, it was no surprise that the tree had attracted the attention of some common orchard grazers. I knew this, not because I understood the science, but because it’s a pattern repeated in nature. Even predatory animals hunt the weaker of the herd.

The Science Behind the Pattern

It turns out, the scientific community has long been interested in the phenomenon of trees and plants putting out distress signals. A more recent study conducted by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology concluded plants and trees emit an odor that attracts predatory insects and birds to help ward off infestation or future attacks long enough for the tree to heal.

According to the journal article published in Ecology Letters, scientists examined apple trees specifically, and found that damaged or insect-ravaged trees attracted more birds than their healthy neighbors.

The journal article abstract concludes:

Birds were attracted to infested trees, even when they could not see the larvae or their feeding damage. We furthermore show that infested and uninfested trees differ in volatile emissions and visual characteristics. Finally, we show, for the first time, that birds smell which tree is infested with their prey based on differences in volatile profiles emitted by infested and uninfested trees. Volatiles emitted by plants in response to herbivory by lepidopteran larvae thus not only attract predatory insects but also vertebrate predators.

Scientists hope to apply their research to developing better (and natural) pest management strategies in commercial orchards.

In the meantime, I’ve treated the tree with a small amount of honey, some cinnamon (a natural insect and deer deterrent), and wax tape, affording the Liberty a little time to heal and a good bit of hope.

Using Gravity in Place of Electricity [You can’t do that without… Pt 2]

20130526_IMG_8184When you’re farming 12 acres without the use of electricity or running water, it’s essential your water systems are as operating efficiently. At the farm, we have limited access to water. Regulations prevent us from harvesting water from the two streams running through the property, but allow for access at a point along a half-mile long diversion stream created approximately hundred years earlier.

Historically, this diversion stream was used to drive a large water wheel that powered everything from saws and drills, to an electric bulb in the kitchen of the farmhouse. From there, the stream moves beneath the road to the lower barn, where a milk-house was constructed. The cool water from the stream flowed through concrete storage tanks, chilling the stored milk. From there, it traversed the slab to a retention pond, where the dairy herd could drink.

Today, the diversion stream represents our only source of “running” water, generating a unique set of challenges for which permaculture offers solutions.

Fortunately, the market garden resides at a lower elevation than the stream, so watering the garden is a simple, gravity fed system involving salvaged pip discovered in the barn, buckets, and the bucket brigade (children and friends). The orchard, however, presents a greater opportunity for invention. And adding more water isn’t the obvious solution.

Healthy soil equates to good moisture retention. Planting the orchard on contour, building swales and hugelkultur beds to capture run-off in the more arid areas of the orchard, and building soil/guilds around the trees is a long-term solution to limited access to water at the site. In the beginning, as this process unfolds, water will need to be hauled in buckets via wagon transport to the guilds, but this is a small sacrifice compared with the long-term benefits supplied by our efforts.

No running water? No problem. And with all that hauling, no gym membership necessary either.