Al Dente Q&A #4: Brian Luton, Stones Throw Farm

As I’ve mentioned previously, I want to use this space not to simply share a recipe, but to take a closer look at food…where it comes from, who makes it, ways to make it, etc. You sit down at a meal but know nothing about how that food got to you. And I think that’s just as important as the food itself.

To quote Rob Lowe’s character Sam Seaborn in The West Wing, “Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.” Since I’m merely a good writer, I’m borrowing an idea and narrowing it into my field of interest. This Q&A series is inspired by The Quaz, a weekly interview that author Jeff Pearlman posts at his website.

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Brian Luton and I, for all intents and purposes, grew up together in the same corner of Liverpool, N.Y., a large suburb north of Syracuse. Brian was a Merrill Farms kid, having grown up in the housing tract behind Wegmans on West Taft Road. I am a Kennedy Park kid, which is the subdivision behind Merrill Farms. He is a year younger than me and we really didn’t know each other well in school.

A few years ago, I found his wife Megan — we shared the same homeroom in high schools thanks to alphabetical proximity — on Facebook and friended her. Through that, I learned that they own Stones Throw Farm south of Syracuse. I’ve watched the farm grow with interest from a food perspective, particularly as I’ve learned more about our absolute mess of a food chain.

So, Brian Luton, it’s up to you. Restore my faith in the food:

Jared Paventi: In the interest of full disclosure, we went to elementary, middle and high school together. I think we rode the same school bus for a while and had some mutual friends, but we probably only knew each other by name. So, what happened between graduating from the hallowed halls of Liverpool high school and opening Stones Throw?

Brian Luton: Oh yes those hallowed halls! In many ways I started to cultivate my interest in farming while growing up in the suburbs. Hafner’s Red Barn and Hafner’s Farm Market were both nearby and I remember visiting both and cutting through functioning and abandoned farm fields to friends houses, the ice cream stand, etc. I was always drawn to those types of places and I think on some level seeing them evolve from working farms to a totally developed and “built” landscape of office buildings, medical parks, homes and apartments during my adolescence surely had an influence on my perspectives on the importance of local food, farms and farmland protection. It’s the nature of development and it’s been this way for a long, long time but sadly some of the best vegetable farmland in upstate New York is under all those homes, businesses and pavement in the northern suburbs today.

While living in Liverpool I somehow managed to convince my folks to allow me to take over their backyard with a giant vegetable garden that produced way more than we could possibly eat. I did a lot of learning and exploration in that garden and I remember daydreaming about starting a roadside stand and growing even more vegetables in the power line easement behind our house. Just goofy ideas but it was a lot of fun and very formative; growing, cooking, and eating…

I graduated in ‘96 so it’s been 20 years. My wife and I bought our first piece of property in South Onondaga in 2003, and I left my job in youth development and the non-profit sector in early 2004 to build our house. Megan works in the Syracuse City Schools, she always has and probably always will. The farm’s first official season was 2005 and we’ve grown very slowly and incrementally since then. The standard joke, which is funny and true is that the farm started with a rototiller, a couple of hand tools and a few bad ideas. We’ve built a fair amount of production capacity and infrastructure over the years and have acquired some additional property so we now own about 27 acres, have two awesome kids, a dog and a cat and not nearly enough hours in the day.

Brian and his daughter Willa out on the tractor.

Brian and his daughter Willa out on the tractor.

JP: Did college drive your interest in farming or vice versa?

BL: After a semester at Lyndon State College in Northeastern Vermont I returned home and went to Syracuse University, where I studied geology and environmental geography while playing in the garden and reading farm journals. Northeastern Vermont was beautiful but I quickly realized that my heart was in CNY. My father worked in the physical plant at Syracuse University, and I was able to live at home while working and attend college for free. So, indirectly speaking, those decisions really influenced my ability to start into farming some years later. As with anything there were some sacrifices, but ultimately it was a true blessing to be able to graduate college without debt.

Megan and I began dating when I came back to CNY midway through my freshman year and she did her undergrad at Cornell University in the College of Human Ecology. We obviously spent a lot of time together in Ithaca over the next couple of years as well as a fair amount of time exploring the Cornell Plantations, and student-run Dilmun Hill Farm. So those experiences certainly played into my developing interest in farming. Saturday mornings at the Ithaca Farmers Market were always interesting immersions in what a small regional farming and food community can look like and we loved eating our way through that place!

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JP: How did Stone’s Throw come about?

BL: When Megan and I were first married, we lived in the City of Syracuse. She and I both worked in inner-city neighborhoods; she’s in the schools and I coordinated a youth development program called “Urban Delights: Youth Farmstand Project.” It was a youth development program that tied together job skills preparations, entrepreneurship, community development, and food and nutrition. It was a great experience in many ways, but I was aware that I ultimately wanted to pursue self-employment, and, personally, I have always appreciated being outdoors and working with my hands. Gardening and farming was something that I’d been interested in for years but there wasn’t any “obvious” road map for how any of this would work and, on some level, there still isn’t. Megan and I knew that we wanted to live close to the city, but in a semi-rural environment and with enough land to begin trying to develop a small farm. We ultimately landed in South Onondaga, which has been amazing. This is a great community and we are literally a “Stones Throw” from just about anyplace in CNY. Its great to have a farm and land but still be in and around good neighbors and just minutes from Downtown Syracuse.

The farm got started in 2005 and, as mentioned previously, we started really small, and without many resources. We’ve grown incrementally over the years. The first few years we sold our products through a couple of local restaurants and at the CNY Regional Market. I was still working an assortment of off-farm jobs seasonally up until the end of 2008 when our son was born and we were farming “nights and weekends.” In the beginning and particularly before we had kids, Megan helped a great deal both in the field and at market. Because of our off-farm employment, we were initially able to take what little we were earning from farming and literally “plow it” right back in. I’m very conservative when it comes to risk-taking and finances, and we’ve slowly built a very modest farm infrastructure that allows us to grow a wide range of vegetables in a fairly efficient fashion while maintaining really good quality. Farming is undoubtedly very resource intensive and we continually have to reinvest in maintenance and upkeep as well as making calculated investments in appropriate equipment and infrastructure. Relatively speaking we still operate in a very frugal fashion and I’m continually amazed at the array of equipment and infrastructure that I see on a lot of other farms of our type and scale.

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JP: You had a stall at the regional market for a while but have since become exclusively CSA. Why the change?

BL: One of the things we learned almost immediately was that we truly valued the connection between farm and consumer that we were forging at the market. We quickly developed a loyal following of market regulars and these folks were committed to us and committed to supporting a small organic producer. At that time we were one of the few organic growers at the Regional Market and that sector of the market population was just beginning to grow. Some weeks, it felt like we were doing as much education as sales, and we were continually talking to folks about how we farm and why, and the importance of looking at not just the cost of their food but the value of it. At that time, the CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) movement began to generate a bit more interest locally and we started having a fair amount of folks inquiring as to whether we offered a CSA program.

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Brian with his son Reed.

After getting our feet under us and feeling confident with our ability as growers, we decided to start a small CSA program with on farm pickups on Tuesday night. That started with about 25 shares and has grown from there. Interest in the CSA continued to grow and after our son was born in the fall of 2008, we sat down and talked about the logistics of farm and family. Megan had always come to market on Saturdays and we realized that doing so could get a lot more difficult with children. We decided to create a second CSA pick-up on farm on Saturday mornings and, in doing so, were hoping to offset the loss of market income while simultaneously making it easier for our growing family to spend some time together on Saturdays. A lot of folks do it, but neither of us could imagine hauling young kids to market for eight hours. The on-farm CSA pick-ups themselves are family friendly not just for us but also for our members. It’s really neat seeing our kids and our members kids grow up together, and they all have a lot of fun exploring the farm, playing in the sandbox, and picking flowers, herbs, cherry tomatoes, raspberries and all sorts of things in our you-pick fields. The CSA experience in general can be great for kids and though it doesn’t suddenly mean every kid loves all their veggies it certainly helps them to connect with their food and encourages them to try new foods. We get a lot of positive feedback from adults and children alike that the CSA helps them to appreciate a broader variety of vegetables and increase their consumption of fresh produce.

So, the shift to CSA from market and restaurants was driven by our desire to further develop and sustain a connection with our customers that is mutually beneficial. It was a decision that was based on our desire to remain family friendly. And it’s been a decision to try to cultivate a stronger local food community. We are fortunate to be located close to a lot of CNY neighborhoods and many of our customers live nearby which is awesome.

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Brian and Willa in the greenhouse.

JP: What does wintertime look like for you in terms of farm-related tasks?

BL: The nature of this changes a lot from day to day and year to year. Prior to our kids being born, I worked off farm seasonally and have done everything from building electric fence and selling locally produced compost to acting as a consultant on a number of projects ranging from collaborations with Cornell Cooperative Extension on indoor air quality programming to developing multi-farm composting and waste management programs with business and industry. The past eight years, I’ve been home with our kids — our son who is now school age and in first grade, and our daughter who will be entering kindergarten in the fall of 2017. Megan and I have juggled our professional lives and parenting such that with the exception of some help from family, and a couple of days per week preschool experience.

This has definitely presented some serious challenges, but it has obviously been a really valuable personal experience and simultaneously over the past eight years it has been the most valuable usage of my “off-season” time from a practical standpoint as well. It’s an intrinsic thing but it’s also a logistical thing. There has been a LOT of “unearned income” derived from not having to pay for childcare, and I guess in some way that’s ultimately been a part of farm sustainability even if it does create some challenges with respect to work load, etc. This has worked for us in spite of the fact that sometimes it seems like Megan and I are constantly going different directions, this is particularly true during the spring and fall when work often starts and ends in the wee hours.

That all said the farm work itself definitely ebbs a great deal in the winter months but it never quite stops and I’m still shuffling in an assortment of tasks. Our CSA distribution season runs into early December and I’ll then spend some time “winterizing” before trying to lay low around the holidays. Once we hit January we’re marketing and selling CSA shares, doing professional development, following up with customers, and with vendors that we’ll be purchasing supplies from in the upcoming season. Doing general administrative stuff associated with running any business. Developing our planting plan for the upcoming season and ordering seeds and supplies. There becomes a point in the “off season” where I go heavily into maintenance mode and spend most of my time in oil and grease soaked Carharts getting equipment ready for the upcoming season.

We heat our greenhouse with wood so I’ll fell and split trees for firewood, and simultaneously to help maintain and clean up some of our field edges. Any infrastructure projects or equipment development that we’re going to do usually has to happen in the “off-season” or during the fringes of the farm year. Snow removal can be fairly time consuming in some seasons as we need to get out and pull snow off of our greenhouse and high tunnels and shovel snow back from the sides so they don’t sustain winter damage. So there’s really a whole range of things that can happen at any given time during the winter months.

JP: What does a typical in-season day look like for you?

BL: Can I say busy and long and leave it at that?

There is a huge range to this depending on the time of year and day of the week, etc. Part of the reason that I love doing this is the diversity of tasks daily and seasonally. It’s really kind of interesting to have a daily workflow that both necessitates managing a bunch of different tasks at once and simultaneously contains tasks therein that are long and repetitive and require a great deal of patience. When things are “clicking” it’s exciting and almost meditative, when they’re a little off kilter or you’re distracted it can be incredibly challenging and really stressful. I guess that it’s not that much different than life in general.

During the early season I spend a great deal of time in the greenhouse preparing potting soil, filling flats and seeding a range of vegetables. Our greenhouse is wood heated so I’m hauling wood and loading the stove about every 3 to 4 hours. It’s kind of like having a newborn baby every spring that gets you out of bed a couple times of night. As soon as the ground is workable, which ideally for us is in the first week of April on our best-drained fields, I’m out on the tractor a lot of hours doing ground prep. This means everything from spreading minerals to plowing, planting and seedbed preparations. We start direct seeding and transplanting our early vegetables in April as soon as field conditions allow and almost immediately thereafter start weeding, cultivating, controlling pest and diseases, mowing field edges, setting up irrigation, and on and on. Things get particularly busy as tasks all begin to overlap very quickly.

For instance, by mid-April we’re seeding and managing the beginning of our warm weather crops in the greenhouse, while seeding or transplanting out the crops that we started back in March. Plowing and prep work and cultivation and such become ongoing. As we begin to approach the CSA season, we have a ton of balls in the air both in the field and greenhouse and start to incorporate prepping our washing and packing space and CSA distribution area. Once the CSA distribution season starts we begin to dedicate a significant amount of time to harvest, wash/prep and distributions themselves. Between fresh picked items and storage crops that we need to harvest and prep for storage we’re usually picking seven days a week with a bump in intensity on the two days prior to our two CSA pick-ups. June, July and August continue to be a total frenzy of harvest, planting, cultivation and tending vegetables. Things begin to wane a bit as we get later into the fall. Harvest ramps up with many storage crops coming in but the intensity of new planting, cultivation and crop tending declines a bit. So it’s really a great diversity of things over a really long stretch.

One of the things that brings that into perspective is lettuce. In order to plan to have lettuce every week of the CSA season we’re seeding lettuce in the greenhouse every week from March until early September, planting lettuce in the field every week from mid-April to the end of September, cultivating and tending lettuce from mid-April until the end of October and harvesting and prepping lettuce every week from Mid-June through the end of October. That’s just one crop of the many that we grow and each crop and task must be integrated with all of the others. So its fun, but nerve racking.

Onions! Beets!

I feel a salad coming on.

JP: How big is your farm? Are you looking to expand?

BL: We own about 27 acres, cultivate vegetables on about 12 of them and lease another two acres from my folks who moved from Liverpool a few years back and live two miles up the road. (I guess I feel a need to continue to fill their “backyard” with vegetables) From a crop rotation standpoint, even at our current production scale, I’d love to have another couple of acres of good vegetable ground available.

We shoot for a 100 to 120 regular season CSA shares and 40 to 50 or so extended season CSA shares. We’ve always grown very conservatively and have relied mainly on word of mouth to develop our CSA membership. There were a number of years where we didn’t have the capacity to serve everyone that was interested in the CSA program and usually filled shares from an annual waiting list. As our capacity has increased and as the number of other CSA farms in the area has grown that has changed and we’re actively recruiting new members to hit our annual target.

In terms of “expansion” we’ve sort of been in a bit of a holding pattern for the past few years. In an attempt to balance some semblance of sustainability with respect to family and farm we had to make a conscious decision to intentionally “plateau”. This period would allow for the farm to continue to expand capacity in an incremental way without facing a sort of crossroads wherein we needed to borrow money to build capacity more quickly in order to expand markets and support additional help, etc. This aligned pretty well with our fiscally conservative approach to business development and it simultaneously preserved my ability to balance farm and family to the extent that I could continue to “stay home” with our kids while they were and are young. I don’t regret the choice one bit but it is a really scary one. I struggle to imagine a situation in which we can simply just “exist” as a farm business and not need to keep growing and expanding in order to stay relevant.

It runs contrary to a lot of typical business trajectories. We grew every year for 10 years before having to kind of “pump the brakes” and pull back a bit. We’ve since leveled off and even declined a bit. In some ways this has been a HUGE leap of faith that the committed core of our CSA membership that has always indicated to us that they’re here to stay actually will. We went as far as actually beginning to cut back on some farm enterprises and ultimately quit raising pastured pork as it just required more time, capacity and resources than we had available. The focus of the past few years has been on sustainability. We need to create a business enterprise that works financially but also works personally. We’ve continued to make modest investments in equipment with the primary focus being on our ability to improve efficiency and uphold our standards of quality and service to our CSA membership.

Ideally we’d dial in a CSA program that serves 100-120 members and 40-50 Late Season CSA members and just run with it. We’ve been doing essentially that for the past few years but ultimately I think that we will have to evolve and grow. Our daughter will be school age in the fall of 2017 and that will free up a good chunk of my time during winter and spring and fall, which will create some new opportunities, and hopefully ease some of the spring and fall “frenzy” that makes this particularly challenging for our family during those time-periods. I’m very cognizant that as our kids get older and both become school age that their commitments and activities, or simply our ability to be together as a family becomes increasingly night and weekend based and being able to engage and be involved is fundamentally important to me. So I think the next couple of years will be really interesting. The evolution of “what is” sustainable will play out in a different way than it has in the past decade. This is true from a family and business standpoint. It will be interesting to try to pick up and see if we can shift back to a more actively evolving, enterprising, and strategically growing farm business in a couple of years.

We’ve got this notion of how we’d like things to be and this has always been based on what our core CSA membership has seemed to suggest they want and will support over the long term. We’d love to just run with that but I see the world of food and farming systems as constantly evolving and it’s hard to stay the “same” and remain fairly small while simultaneously staying relevant, progressive and interesting to an evolving population. I don’t think our ultimate focus will change. Our priority has and always will be our CSA members and cultivating the very best experience for them. But I think we’ll need to begin to figure out new and different ways to accommodate and access CSA members in the future and I think we’ll need to begin to diversify some of our sales and enterprises to remain more resilient in a changing world.

Brian with his wife Megan and their children.

Brian with his wife Megan and their children.

JP: How did you meet Megan and what role does your family play in the farm?

BL: Megan and I met somewhere in those “hallowed halls” of Liverpool High School. She got me a job at the now defunct Liverpool Sportcenter and we worked together for a number of years and were always friendly with one another. We overlapped a bit in our social groups and hung out some.

We reconnected during the summer after her freshman year when we worked together again and I think I asked her to hang out like twenty times but she was always too cool or busy or something. We stayed in touch a bit that fall as I headed to school in Vermont and apparently I ultimately wore her down, so she relented and we started dating in early 1997 when I was back in CNY and going to Syracuse and she was going to Cornell. The rest is history. I couldn’t be happier and I consider myself fortunate everyday. Megan is an amazing wife and mother and she has been a steadfast supporter of the farm since it was just a germ of an idea that we had many years ago. I wish it overlapped with the era of cell phone cameras because we’d have some great pictures of a very pregnant Megan picking beans and helping out at market in the early years. As is obviously indicated by some of my previous responses, family plays an incredibly important role in my life and the farm decision-making process really reflects that. Our folks have all been extremely supportive as well. My father has often helped with projects around the farm and last season I started getting him on the tractor to help out with some tasks. Megan’s father, who sadly passed away last fall from a rare blood disease, was an incredibly energetic and caring man. He and my mother and later Megan’s mom, after she retired, have spent a lot of days particularly during spring and fall watching the grandkids so Megan can work and I can keep plugging on the farm.

Our CSA is inherently family friendly and that has always been one of our goals. We’ve met so many great folks through the CSA program and they all become part of an extended CSA family of sorts.

JP: Have you thought about the legacy of the farm? Do you hope that one of your kids will want to take it over?

BL: Honestly it’s hard enough sometimes to think constructively about the next five, ten or twenty years on the farm let alone the legacy of it. That will all come in time but for now the focus is on the present and the immediate tasks that lie ahead. We are investing in the future of the farm by building our soils, investing in equipment and infrastructure and working to create a strong business with a good reputation. Hopefully that will lead to something that is sustainable in the long term, and if that creates an opportunity that either of our kids are interested in taking over then by all means that’s a great.

I often joke with them that they ultimately need to take over the farm so I can retire someday but we’re not going to necessarily steer either of them into “the family business”. Both kids really appreciate aspects of the farm and have weathered being toted along in kid carriers, pulled in wagons or plopped on the tractor seat when we’ve needed their help to get work done. Both the wash area and the greenhouse had pack and plays in them when the kids were young and I’ve appreciated their willingness to bop along and/or help out when they can. That all said we’ve always tried to maintain a balance between allowing the kids to engage in the farm that they live on but not be burdened by it.

Sunset over Stones Throw Farm.

Sunset over Stones Throw Farm.

JP: What are five things most people don’t know about life on the farm?

BL: Oh jeez?! I have no idea what people know and don’t know. I do think that generally speaking a lot of folks have an idealized view of what farm work and farm life entails. It’s a business like any other, a frenetic seasonal business at that, and one with high overhead and relatively low margins. It’s challenging. It’s rewarding. It’s work. It’s life. How’s that?

JP: Five years from now, where do you see Stones Throw?

BL: I’d like to think that we’d be right here doing a lot of the same things we’re doing now for a lot of the same people we’re currently doing them for. We have a great reputation for quality and value and have an incredible group of CSA folks who have been with us for many years. I hope we can continue to keep that groups interest and maintain their loyalty while cultivating enough new interest to round out our numbers and expand alongside our efficiency improvements. I’d like to think our capacity and infrastructure improvements alongside our experience will continue to make this “easier” and more sustainable. We’re working to extend our season and will hopefully begin to serve our core clientele over an even longer period of the year and I hope we’ll be able to add a bit of enterprise diversity in order to create resiliency and improve profitability.

JP: Where do you come in on GMOs and Monsanto? Good, bad or indifferent?

BL: I don’t want to sound harsh on this one, because there has been a lot of interest recently in GMOs, but the time to care about these things was twenty years ago when they were just beginning to work on approval and integration of GMO soy and corn. That ship has sailed. GMO corn and soy are almost ubiquitous to the industry now and represent a majority of all conventionally-grown acreage. GMOs are certainly beginning to expand into other types of crops with GMO sweet corn being one of the first really prevalent areas in the vegetable sector. Now that they’re all there, it would be nearly impossible to remove them from the food system. And with the prevalence of corn and soy products in just about every processed food the GMO labeling debate is kind of moot. Just assume there’s GMOs in it. I think the depth of penetration of GMOs into the food system will only grow.

If folks are really concerned about GMOs they need to purchase organically grown products, or know and trust their farm and farmer. Personally I’m not overly scared of the science behind GMOs and, with fair scientific ethics, they could be functionally important in the future. Frankly they’re pervasive in all types of other industries and our genomic understanding is doing nothing short of revolutionizing medicine. It all comes down to ethics, intent and functionality. To that end I don’t think that GMO’s necessarily benefit the “average Joe or Jane” in the way the agricultural industry promises. The advent of herbicide resistant corn and soy was originally touted as being a tool to reduce herbicide usage on farms and that’s proven to be totally and completely false.

The consolidation of agribusiness and the farming and food system in general is not proving to be a good thing. The growth of agribusiness has not led to healthier farms, it hasn’t led to healthier farm communities or healthier consumers. That trend is disturbing. And that’s where the problem with companies like Monsanto and the ag lobby in general lies. The power and clout that a company like Monsanto has influences our government and subsequently everything from the way our food is grown, to research priorities and farm and food funding at the federal and state levels. Our current food and farming system isn’t helping support healthy farm economies, healthy farm ecology and a healthy population and that is ultimately the real problem that we face.

1 Comment

  • I appreciate his frank and thoughtful comments on GMO. I totally agree, the time to debate that was in 1998… 3rd party verification for organic exists and provides the validation consumers seek. A transparent community based farms like Stone Throw gives me all the confidence I need to know the owner is making sound decisions for both the economic viability of the farm business and the integrity of the product it sells.

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