For Dominic Palumbo at Moon In The Pond Farm in Sheffield, MA, farming and teaching are one in the same. By staffing his farm with volunteers and interns throughout the year, Dominic has turned his diversified meat and produce farm into fertile ground for educating and inspiring new farmers. His work and philosophy on farming, educating and changing our food system from the ground up are precisely what we need to sustain future generations of local food leaders and farmers.
Having interviewed Dominic back in 2015, we thought we'd check in with him a few years later. Read on to find out what Dominic and Moon In The Pond Farm are up to, what are the ongoing challenges he is facing and what advice he has for new farmers.
What do you grow/raise on your farm?
The 'crop' we're most proud of here is new farmers! At Moon In The Pond our mission is to educate about the primary connection to the planet that humanity has through food and food production; the important universal implications that agriculture represents to every part of our lives and culture. We do this as an operating, productive educational farm. Our 'classrooms' are the pastures, fields, barns and kitchen of the farm. We conduct about ten different educational programs from our "Full-Year New Farmer Apprenticeship" to grade school class tours. We're developing a foreign exchange program, and even our "Open Gate" visitors program reflects our broad commitment to education.
But you were probably asking about plants and animals! The farm is unique in its exceptional diversity, so it'd be tough (impossible?) to name everything we grow. We're a permaculture and an eco-agricultural farm which means raising a wide assortment of both plants and animals. Our heritage breed animals (raised for meat) are "Scottish Highland" cattle, "Horned Dorset" sheep, "Large Black" pigs, "Narraganssett" turkeys, "Pilgrim" geese and "New Hampshire" chickens. We have one "Jersey x Canadienne" dairy cow that we milk by hand and we also keep honey bees.
Our market garden has an assortment of over 150 vegetable varieties. With our solar-passive, unheated greenhouse, we're working at ecologically extending our growing season towards 12 months! In keeping with our commitment to re-localize the food system, increase food sovereignty and conserve vegetable varieties developed to thrive before chemically-intensive agriculture, we only grow heirlooms - 100 percent - for the last nine years. We select varieties like "Vermont True Red Cranberry" bean, "New England Pie" pumpkin, "Deer Tongue" lettuce, "Red Wethersfield" onion and "Beedy's Camden" kale (to name a few) that were developed for our New England climate and without the chemical reliance bred into modern industrial varieties. We also grow a few fruit trees and bushes, hazelnuts and mushrooms along with some rhubarb and asparagus, all of which enhance the permacultural balance we've worked on at the farm for the past 25-plus years.
How many acres do you farm?
The home base of our farm is the 35 acres at 816 Barnum Street. But our farm system extends into our neighborhood. We graze about 50 acres across the road on our neighbors' farm and we hay an additional five to ten acres of fields owned by The Nature Conservancy.
What's a typical day in the life on your farm?
No such thing!! While there are always chores (feeding and watering animals, milking the cow, collecting eggs, watering the greenhouse), every day on our diverse farm reflects its complexity. We usually begin every day reprioritizing our ever-changing projects list! On a given May day (after morning chores) we might make soil blocks and seed them with heirloom "Drunken Woman Fringed Headed" lettuce, pick up a borrowed breading boar, trellis tomato plants, deliver peonies, rhubarb and fresh herbs to a local farm-to-table restaurant, transplant hot peppers and eggplant purchased from neighbor's organic farm, have "class time" discussion and research plant varieties. Then evening chores. We eat fresh farm prepared meals too, so in there, three times, are meal breaks!
Describe your local food community in four words.
Diverse, Local, Organic, Sustainable!
What is your favorite aspect of farming?
Sharing. The overwhelming sensation of feeling hundreds of years of history--living the accomplishments of generations of past farmers--and being the steward that passes these experiences to future generations. Being able to receive and pass on a profound connection to the planet.
How did you decide to get into growing food/raising animals? What did you do before you got into farming?
My fascination for growing things started when I was a kid and developed into a first career in gardening, landscaping and horticulture. Then in my early 30's, I escaped my urban and suburban career and moved to the country. The transition from horticulture to agriculture was an organic one (literally and figuratively). I started raising food because I love to eat and I knew I could easily grow lots of things that are not readily available. Soon I started to raise animals, sheep came first because I had grass that needed mowing--and I enjoy eating lamb!
How did you get access to your land?
Moon In The Pond operates on 35 acres that is mostly acreage that was purchased with a deeded conservation restriction from The Nature Conservancy. Additional acreage on which we graze our cattle is leased land that is under a Massachusetts Agricultural Preservation Restriction program.
Are you certified organic?
My philosophy on growing food comes from my dedication to organic agriculture that began when I started Moon In The Pond and was selling at farmers' markets in New York City. At the time, organic certification through the NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) Mass Chapter inspired and compelled me deeply into the stewardship role of an organic farmer. The concept of organic farming as an imitation of nature's cycles continues to inspire my view. I withdrew from organic certification in 2001 (when the USDA took control of certification) because of my belief that the national government is disproportionately influenced by corporate profit versus the principles, philosophy and fundamental tenets of organic.
How do you market your products?
All of our farm production is sold within 15 miles of the farm. We sell at the farm, three farmers' markets a week and through our CSA program. Our unique and innovative CSA uses a flexible system of our own Moon In The Pond currency called 'MITP Bucks'. Customers can redeem "MITP Bucks' for all our products throughout the year. We also sell to a few local farm-to-table restaurants.
What are some of the ongoing challenges you face as a farmer?
The biggest challenge I face as a farmer is the deeply embedded and constantly reinforced concepts and attitudes on food pushed by the corporate food system: that food is, at worst, a nagging inconvenience, and at best, a cheap amusement. This pervasive influence has convinced the overwhelming majority of Americans of two things: First, that chemically produced, synthetic food-like substances which should never be defined as food are actually edible, tasty, nutritious food. And second, food should be and is cheap. The radical devaluation of good, clean, nutritious food in our society makes it very difficult for a farmer of clean food to earn a reasonable living.
What do you think about the growing new farmer movement? What advice do you have for people who want to become farmers?
I am very inspired by the new farmer movement. I am also a little bit afraid. In my teens and twenties I was at the tail end of the hippie "Back to the Land" movement. Even though it was the time during which "organic" started, over the years, I saw a lot of that enthusiasm fade. In the last couple of years I'm seeing that student loan debt and a slow economy have dramatically dulled the enthusiasm of young people for the new farmer movement.
To people who want to become farmers I'd say, get started right away with the learning process! Go visit farms, research farms, volunteer at farms, then...look for someone who's been doing a great job for a very long time - an 'old' person - and work with them for a couple of years. If you can, find another successful, seasoned farmer and work under them for a few years. Farming is a life, and is a life-long commitment - your life - give it the respect it deserves and take the time to get to know it. Avoid the pitfall, and really attractive temptation, of teaming up with another enthusiastic new farmer and starting a farm.
What could the government do to help establish a more sustainable food system?
The farmers and producers in the nascent sustainable and organic food sector in the US could use all the government help it could get to thrive and grow. Off the top of my head I can think of a few things:
- Substantial redirecting of present massive subsidies to unsustainable, corporate 'farms' (factories) and industrial food monopolies towards programs that support organic, sustainable, regenerative, small, local, family farms.
- Bipartisan politics that focus on needed discussion of critically important farming and food policy issues.
- Free or affordable higher education at public colleges and the states' land grant colleges and universities to provide higher education to aspiring young farmers.
- Holding the line on USDA organic regulations that focus on the objective of organic and sustainable farming.
- Reducing the country's dependence on fossil fuels to discourage petrochemically dependent farming practices.
- Climate change action that includes planning and forward thinking to foster the necessary responsiveness and agility that will keep our food production systems safe. Climate change awareness that mitigates the likely higher impacts on frontline communities, e.g. farms and farmers in California during wildfire season, including the thousands of displaced immigrant farm workers.
- Rhetoric and policies that honor diversity in all aspects - race, religion, gender - that support a social structure of respect and inclusiveness that encourages all individuals' freedom to farm.
...for a start.
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