Before the Beginning of Conuco
1996 – 2001
I moved to New York City in 1996. Before starting Conuco Farm, I worked at the farmers market in New York City. I started by learning how to sell produce through my job at the Farmer’s Market from 1997 to 1999. By the end of 1999 I learned about a new farmer development project, an initiative made by the green market and Cornell University, that facilitated immigrant farmers living in New York State and the surrounding states getting started in agriculture in their new home.
Since I did not have a background in agriculture, and already learned the front-end of business by working at the markets, I decided to get some experience working on a farm setting. So, I moved to Watsontown in Pennsylvania. There I worked at Wengerd Farm, an Amish farm that I had previously worked with at the market for a few years. The farm consists of about 60 acres of diversified vegetables crops, approximately 80 cows used for cheese, butter, and yogurt. All of which were used on a small home bakery or sold. Everything the farm produced was sold directly to consumers through several farmer’s market in New York.
I worked at Wengerd for the 2000 and 2001 growing seasons. During this time, I attended several training workshops organized by the new farmer development project, mostly focused on organic production and direct marketing.
The Beginning of Conuco
2001 – 2002
By the end of 2001, I had gained some experience in farming, and was really excited about starting my own farm. By then, I was already interested in heirloom vegetables. Getting to learn about these seeds that had been passed down by generations and taken across countries and continents to preserve them for future generations, made me even more excited to grow my own heirloom vegetables. I have some heirloom tomatoes seeds, and I have made it my mission to grow mostly heirloom varieties of vegetables. I would seek to contribute on the protection of biodiversity, and to acquire and protect endangered vegetables for future generations.
I asked several farmers, and people at the markets, about land for me to lease to farm. I was lucky enough to run into Dewayne Newcomb, a beekeeper who sales honey and bee products at some markets I worked during that time. He offered his property of 5 acres at no cost, since his occupation are the bees, and they would benefit greatly from my farming. However, there was a single condition, that all the products I used in farming, had to be unharmful to the bees, as they were there before us.
Through the growing season of 2001 at Wengerd Farm, I saved about $10,000.00. During winter, I quit my job, purchased a 14” x 96” hop house, and with some assistance from NFDP, put together a crop plan. That crop plan was submitted in a market application, I continued to prepare by acquiring multiple seeds, including garlic. I went back to Dewayne’s farm and planted the garlic around the end of 2001. In the early months of 2002, I purchased an used rototiller, and moved to a town called Dundee, in the finger lakes area, about 5 hours away from New York City.
That season, I farmed almost all 5 acres using cow’s manure donated by a nearby friend, who was a dairy farmer. The machinery I used during this period included the rototiller, a borrowed plastic mulch laying machine from a neighbor, an old tractor that Dewayne used, and a disc plow borrowed from another neighbor. I started seeding in my greenhouse in late February, and I started planting the field in May of 2002. Lastly, during this time, I lacked a vehicle and a license, so I hired a driver with a pickup truck to make it to the markets that year. We attended one on Tuesday called poe park located in the bronx, nyc, and another on Thursday
By the end of the 2002 growing season, I developed a much better understanding of the complexity and challenges that small-scale organic farming can represent. The experience I earned during my first year as an independent farmer was the biggest addition to my development as a farmer.
If someone asked me, what some of the biggest challenges were? without much difficulty, I could make a list naming a few, but to keep it brief, here are a few examples.
The distance to the markets was a big one, being alone, not owning my own vehicle, and being 5 hours away from my potential customers made it so going to the market was a 24 hours cycle. We left the farm around midnight to be at the market by 5:30 am, and left the market around 5:30 pm to be back home around midnight
Another challenge were the pests. Bugs don't need an invitation to the garden, they just show up, and they are usually hungry. Not knowing enough about organic pest control, I dealt with the different situations as they appeared, and in between, consulted with my local extermination local extension agent. Reading products catalogs, and application instruction literature, I was figuring out the how’s and when’s of my new occupation.
At the end of the season, the lack of capital and not having a concrete plan for the following winter became the biggest obstacles to continue my farming adventure. After a few conversations with my previous employer we made an agreement that secured me a winter job doing markets for him. They operate the dairy farm and bakery year-round, they also attended markets all 12 months of the year. Additionally, under this agreement, we would collaborate for the next growing season, I was going to use some of his land and equipment, exchange market labor for farm labor, and be able to use his drivers and trucks to go to market.