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Grower Profile : Full Circus Farm

Join us for a discussion with Mark Stonehill and Miriam Goler!

Each fall, people from all over flock to Upstate New York to "leaf peep" and pick apples at our many wonderful orchards. Like magic, the crisp air seems to flip a switch and suddenly everyone is apple-crazed and sipping artisanal cider. But it's really no wonder: fruit picking on a sunny day is one of the best ways to slow down and enjoy the present moment with friends and loved ones. The only thing better is to eat fruit from a tree you've grown yourself!

To taste a homegrown apple or pear is to savor both time and place: the time it takes for roots to draw up earth's minerals and moisture, the angle of the sun on leaves, the climate–all alchemized into a sublime and fragrant sweetness. To bring this taste of the transcendent a little closer to home, this year we've partnered with fruit tree growers Mark Stonehill and Miriam Goler of Full Circus Farm. We now offer an amazing variety of farm-grown heirloom and certified organic bare root Apples and Pears for pick-up at our Retail Store in Accord, NY.

With tree-planting time nearing (find planting tips here), we wanted to catch up with Mark and Miriam and hear more about their horse-powered, certified organic farm.

So, Michael and Miriam, tell us a little more about Full Circus Farm.

We started the farm in 2015 after searching for land through the Columbia Land Conservancy. When we saw the land and met the landowners here, the two of us looked at each other and both had that feeling that it was going to work out. It's been a great fit for us. The farm is on about 10 acres of Mohican land between Pine Plains and Millerton, NY.

After plowing in the spring of our second season, Miriam picked up an arrowhead lying on top of the soil-- a reminder for us to stop and think about the people who used this land before us.  

We're going into our seventh season producing vegetables and fruit trees. We use a team of draft horses for tillage and cultivation in both of our one acre veggie fields. Our team of Haflinger ponies are so sweet. Their names are Sandy and Sunshine–they're small and stocky, with light blond manes and forelocks. We also have a small tractor which we use mostly for mowing and moving giant bales of hay.

There are a lot of great reasons to use draft animals in a farming or logging setting–less damage to your soil structure, fewer fossil fuel inputs, etc. But the main reason we use draft power is because Miriam loves the relationship she has with the horses. Working with them requires being fully present--aware of the horses, attuned to the surroundings, attentive to the work–and letting go of everything else (like the endless to-do list). And it's just really fun and rewarding to create the kind of bond that comes from working so closely with your animals. Our farm is really scaled to fit the amount of work we can do with our team of horses.

What are the growing conditions like?

Our soil is very rich in clay, which is an asset in that it holds moisture very well. We haven't built up an extensive irrigation system, and we've gotten through minor droughts over the last seven years without major losses. We're located in a valley with a seasonal stream running in between our two growing fields, which has made flash flooding a real stress and struggle. We are hoping that a new bridge over the stream helps a lot. It's so easy to underestimate the power of water, especially when you look into a stream bed in summertime and it's bone dry. The original "hundred-year flood" estimates for that stream were way off the mark, with climate change probably playing a significant role.

We've learned so much over the last seven years. Some crops love it here–tomatoes and melons and all the fruit trees. We really can't grow kohlrabi for some reason, but our CSA members have never complained about that.  

What made you interested in growing fruit trees?

We love fruit! So we've always been interested in growing fruit. When we learned how to graft and grow young fruit trees at North Branch Farm in Maine, we got excited about helping everyone grow some of their own fruitand that was the start of our nursery.

We've planted a small orchard on the land, partly for fun, partly in the hopes of having a boatload of fruit one day, but also to have our own source of scionwood. Scions–young twigs from the tips of a bigger, established tree–are required for grafting apple trees, pear trees, and most other commercial fruit trees in our climate. Let's say you wanted to create a "Liberty" apple tree. Because of how apple tree genetics work, if you planted a seed from a Liberty apple, you'd get a totally new apple variety. However, if you take a twig from a friend's Liberty apple tree and splice or "graft" that twig onto a young tree, the two will heal together and form a single tree over time. If you look closely at young trees, you can often see a small scar where this graft union is. 

There's several kinds of grafting–we mostly bench graft using the whip and tongue grafting method, but any grafts that don't "take" the first time around in spring will get bud grafted later on in the season. It's nice to have a second chance to get it right. Miriam has been grafting for about eight years and has gotten really good at it–in some years upwards of 95% of the grafts are successful.  

Tell us more about your relationship to the animals who work on the farm.

When we started the farm, even before we found our team of draft horses, we tracked down an amazing family cow. Her name was June, and she was SUCH a character. She was a little famous, for a cow–she let me jump onto her back one day and a neighbor farmer caught a photo of that, which made it onto the front page of the newspaper. We even ran into another farmer who happened to know June–they wanted to hear all about how she was doing.

June was actually from Accord, and she had such a loving family there. She was more like a very charismatic, oversized dog–always ready to lick everyone, that was her favorite thing to do, besides eating. She gave the most amazing milk, which we mostly turned into yogurt or cheese or butter. We miss her very much! Now we get to support our local raw milk dairy farm, Chaseholm Farm, which is awesome.

What is your long term vision for Full Circus Farm?

When we started our farm we chose the name Full Circus Farm as a silly pun on "full circle" but also to remind us not to take the work too seriously–farming is inherently physical, and demanding. It takes significant discipline to keep all the balls in the air. But it also takes some clowning around to keep everything in perspective. We joke that our long term vision is to become a real circus and ditch all the farm work. Miriam was taking aerials/trapeze classes before we had kids. She'd love to get back to that. Mark loves to juggle. So we're on our way. We stumbled upon a real circus group in the U.S. called Full Circus Farm–they do all sorts of crazy tricks with fire. So we're hoping to meet them and learn some things. I don't think they're farmers, so maybe we can help them start a farm!

What is the best way for people to connect with your farm?

Plant a fruit tree! We are so excited that our trees will be available to a much wider audience through the Hudson Valley Seed Company. It's a really thrilling partnership. We even get some of our scions from the fruit trees growing at HVSC in Accord, which is a fun reason to visit.

CSA is also really a wonderful model for us. We have about 30 members, and they are all so fabulous–it's like having a party every Saturday with them. We're out there talking with them at pickup every week, picking flowers or weeds or playing corn hole with kids. We really cherish the time we get with our CSA members, and we've had a really great rate of customers returning every season, which has allowed us to make more lasting friendships through the farm.

Check out our website and facebook page to learn more about the farm and what we're up to!

Sounds great. Thank you, Mark and Miriam! We look forward to growing with you.

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