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Cultivating a New Life: Brooklyn-born Woman Follows Farming Dream

Posted on 12 December 2009 by Cilia Magdalena Kohn

Megan Haney is neither particularly big nor apparently strong. Sitting at her kitchen table, surrounded by books and tchotchkes, drinking a cup of homemade basil tea, Haney looks like a professor. She’s near 40, wears glasses, her brown hair cut in a short, low-maintenance hairdo. Her appearance is pleasing, yet unassuming. But, she asserted, “I [can] haul ass.”

Haney is the proprietor of Marble Valley Farm and part of a growing trend of female farmers in the U.S. Today, one in three of the country’s 2.2 million farms are run by women, a 30% increase since 2002.

Marble Valley is an organic farm that’s run by Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Situated in a quiet enclave of Conn. known as Kent, locals pay for the farm’s upkeep in exchange for a share of its produce. In just three years under Haney’s care, the farm has grown from a modest 14 shares in the first year to an expected 50 this upcoming season, making it one of only 12,000 functioning CSA-farms in the US.

Her career and her life both go against the grain.

Haney grew up in Brooklyn in the seventies, where the air typically smelled of garbage, not cow manure, and fingernails were dirty from city smut, not a day in the fields. Unlike her peers, Haney skipped playing hopscotch on blacktops in favor of a 9×12 ft. plot of green in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Haney and her brother spent weekends at the Children’s Garden, a place that allows inner-city kids the opportunity to explore country life and plant herbs, radishes and corn. “We would throw [the vegetables] in our black plastic bags and tie it on the back of our Stingray bikes and bring it back home down Flatbush Avenue,” she said. There, their mother would make the best of their hard work, cooking stews with produce near-wilted from the sticky, New York heat.

After college on the East Coast, Haney moved West to intern at Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology, a department charged with researching endangered and near-extinct species. She pored over papers that discussed world hunger and how to supply a growing population with food while maintaining a diverse plant life through sustainable agriculture. She studied the World Bank and concluded that academics had spent too much time talking to each other instead of local farmers. Then Haney had an epiphany. “There I was working for these two talking heads at Stanford, and saying… the World Bank failed because it was dealing on a talking-head level, and we are all talking heads,” she said. “So how are we any different from them and what can we do about it?”

Haney wanted to pick her head out of the books and dig her hands in the dirt. The “talking heads” at Stanford agreed and sent her off to work for Full Belly Farm, a pioneer in organic farming based in California’s Bay Area. There, she was encouraged to attend farm school, and in 1990, she enrolled in a six-month farming apprenticeship program at the University of California Santa Cruz.

The program was founded by a British gardener named Alan Chadwick, a man whose own life challenged convention. A former actor with the British Royal Shakespeare Company, Chadwick left life among the British gliterati and moved to India, where he rid himself of most material possessions. He became, somewhat by happenstance, a gardener at UC Santa Cruz in the late sixties. Chadwick carved out plateaus in the hillside for organic produce and flowerbeds with a shovel and bare hands. He did not believe in using mechanical equipment.

Chadwick died a decade before Haney set foot in his garden, but by then it had developed into one of America’s oldest and most prestigious programs for non-mechanized farming. Haney was intrigued by this simplistic form of agriculture and wanted to build an organic farm that would follow the same principals. In 1999, some friends from Santa Cruz had come across a few acres of land in Bethany, Conn., and Haney moved back East to make that dream a reality.

Mad Mares Farm, as they named it, was a CSA farm and a “fork and spade farm.” Haney spent much of her time in the field digging and planting with bare hands. The farm was able to sustain 100 shares, but earning about $5,000 per year wasn’t enough to make a living. After a while it became clear to Haney that if she wanted to succeed as a farmer, she would have to let go of some of her Chadwick-inspired idealism. She would have to forgo a fork and spade and learn how to use a tractor.

Haney started at the bottom rung of mechanized farming, planting vegetables for an orchardist who showed her the ropes. After a year on staff, she felt she’d proved her worth. She asked the orchardist for tractor lessons in exchange for her labor, but the orchardist said he didn’t need a tractor driver and couldn’t afford to waste the hours.

Two weeks later, Haney learned the orchardist taught Brendan, a 14-year-old boy, how to use the tractor. Haney said this was her first real encounter with what she calls “the ole boys network,” farmers with decades of experience and a stubborn sense of how the world should function. She felt the orchardist would never teach her what she needed to know because she was a woman.

Haney called the Extension Agent at the University of Connecticut, hoping to take advantage of his connections with regional farmers. Extension Agents work with agricultural departments at universities to implement their research from laboratories and study halls across local, working fields. Haney hoped the Extension Agent could provide her with a few names of farmers who’d be willing to give her tractor lessons, but the Extension Agent said, “I don’t think any of the guys I work with are going to go for that… They are not going to want to teach a woman to do anything.”

In 2004, she finally caught a break. Laura McKinney, a fellow female farmer and graduate of UC Santa Cruz, hired Haney at their Riverbank Farm in Roxbury, Conn. “Megan came by with a friend and I really liked her; I liked her sincerity, so I just hired her,” said McKinney. Haney proved to be a good worker, doing a bit of everything on the farm while learning to use the tractor.

She stayed on for three years before McKinney spotted an ad for a farmer with organic farming experience placed by the Kent Land Trust in the Natural Farmer. The Trust, an organization committed to keeping Kent, Conn. rural, was looking for someone to lease and run the farm that today is Marble Valley Farm. McKinney encouraged Haney to apply.

From her meager beginnings in a 9×12 ft. plot, Haney now has four tilled acres and a greenhouse to grow organic vegetables, herbs, roots, and whatever else her heart desires. Haney smiled with satisfaction and said, “Not bad for a girl from Brooklyn.”

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