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Founders leave careers for permaculture farm

Rochester Business Journal
July 25, 2014

Ten years ago, two men decided to change their lives. One traded the shirts and ties of the corporate world for T-shirts and dreadlocks; the other swapped the din of the construction industry for the quiet and breathing space of a field.

Each left his post with the desire to begin a permaculture farm from the ground up.

Their farm—Growing Family Farms—is on 16 acres of land between Spencerport and Hilton where partners Christopher Flagg, 41, and Paul Loomis, 41, grow a variety of crops, including mushrooms, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes—all by hand.

“The transformation has manifested itself through every piece of me,” said Loomis, who left a corporate post in security management. “It was always an easy decision for us because it’s food; it’s near and dear to everyone’s heart, and it’s important. Doing it the right way, it just had such an allure that it just perpetuated on its own.”

“We’re going back to the original roots of farming,” said Flagg, who still occasionally works construction jobs.

An aspect of permaculture is a style of farming that takes into account the natural ecosystem of an area and produces crops to meet human needs without degrading the natural environment. The system requires more time for harvest; however, the crops are hand-grown just as they were tens of thousands of years ago by early farmers such as the Incas.

“We use a lot of natural implements,” Loomis said. “We have local farms that drop off horse manure, and truly that’s what we did a hundred years ago in farming until after World War II, when they decided one thing we needed to do with ammonium nitrate was to grow corn with it.”

The farm sells its wholesale products to Headwater Foods Inc. of Ontario, Wayne County, the organization behind the Good Food Collective, which distributes its products to various restaurants. The collective is modeled after community-supported agriculture projects, which aim to provide members with their area’s best local and sustainable food. 

Growing Family Farms also has a presence at local markets, including the Brighton Farmers Market on Sundays and the South Wedge Farmers Market on Thursdays.

The owners are the only employees, but additions will come in the near future, they say.

In the coming years, the focus will be to continue to add sustainable crops and to add products to the farm store. The store has organic nutrients for home gardeners, worm castings and products of Small World Food—a worker-owned cooperative bakery and fermentery on Canal Street in the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood—including granola and garlic paste.

All food production is not created equal throughout the country, Loomis said.

“It’s a lot of twisting ideologies that have been set in farming,” he said. “It’s all about having half-a-million-dollar tractors and how much you can mow down at one time. You could sweep over an acre (in mechanized farming) in two seconds; for us it’s a week and a half.”

Though their operation is small, the impact of their style of agriculture is significant, they said.

“We’re like a microfarm in the grand scheme of things,” Loomis said. “What we do is so small-scale and a lot of hands-on, but we also have (fallen) into the spot where we understand that we can’t fight mechanical farming. Everything we do has to be hand-harvested or hand-grown or greenhouse-grown, because you can’t mow down a bunch of tomatoes with the tractor.”

He added: “The more the consumer understands the importance of food security and keeping these small local farms in production, (the better). You get people who (say), ‘Oh, that’s awesome,’ but they don’t truly support it. You can’t have us unless you support it.”

A local customer and volunteer worker on the farm is Lisa Lindsay, a psychologist in private practice in the city. She can tell what separates the farm from others.

“I feel that the integrity of what they’re doing reaches beyond just the organic produce that they’re offering,” she said. “It comes from a commitment to a way of living. In some ways they’re spreading a lot of knowledge around how to live well and how to eat healthfully and how to live much smaller.”

Quality of product is the farmers’ main focus, and customers can easily tell by taste, Growing Family Farms owners said. Transparency with the customer has been a focus from the start.

“We have an open farm policy: You can come and see our practices,” Flagg said. “You want to come weed? Come weed.”

The farm has grown from 1.5 acres to 16 acres in 10 years.

“They’ve been able to extend their growing season a great deal, which I feel is pretty impressive,” Lindsay said.

The duo’s personal growth has aligned with the farm’s progress.

“(Food), it’s sacred and that’s part of my love for (farming), is that you’re so connected. You’re standing on the ground all the time,” Loomis said.

In some ways permaculture is a lifestyle, said Patty Love, program director of the Rochester Permaculture Center and Lots of Food, programs of Seeking Common Ground Inc., a non-profit organization that focuses on exploring, modeling and inspiring more conscious and restorative ways of life.

“It’s about a way of living relating to the land, relating to our communities and how we participate as human citizens in terms of what we consume and how much of it we produce for ourselves,” she said.

Love has been a major player in Rochester’s permaculture community, leading meetups and teaching courses on the movement. She is also the owner of Barefoot Edible Landscape and Permaculture, an edible landscaping and regenerative design firm in Rochester.

“Permaculture is not just about food growing. It’s really a divine science that can be applied to any system,” Love said. “The ethics and the principles are the same, regardless of whether you’re designing a food system or a financial system or an education system, and permaculture is a pretty grassroots organic—as in free-flowing through nature—movement.”

7/25/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.



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