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The Stony Creek Story

Stony Creek Farm is located in the western foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains, rocky terrain which has long been described as “two stones for every dirt.” Farming has never been easy here. Today, small to mid-size dairy farms dominate the agricultural economy, although specialized farms that cater to the restaurants and greenmarkets of New York City are gaining a foothold.

We first met Kate, her two children, Lucia and Isaac, and her father Nick one summer Sunday as they manned the Stony Creek Farm booth at the weekly Franklin Farmer’s Market. An attractive array of produce, baked goods, local cheese, and eggs was displayed on checkered tablecloths. Underneath, coolers held pork, lamb, chicken, beef, bacon, and sausages. Our curiosity was further piqued as we talked with Kate and her father. We were intrigued by their story and realized that others might find it compelling as well.

At first glance, Stony Creek Farm appears to be an exemplar of the new ecologically-driven organic farming movement, a microcosm of the challenges inherent in taking the “green” path toward sustainable agriculture. But Stony Creek Farm is not a political statement or a demonstration project. And the Stony Creek story covers a lot more territory than agriculture, ecology, and sustainability.

We may think of life on a farm as pastoral and simple, with visions of verdant hillsides, sunlit fields, chirping birds, and pristine expanses of snow-covered fields in the winter. Not exactly true. Running a farm, especially a sustainable organic farm, is an endless year-round challenge – hauling hay and feed to livestock through two feet of snow in winter, or coping with unusually heavy rains that threaten to flood out the fields in the spring. There isn’t much time to lay back and enjoy the view at Stony Creek Farm, beautiful as that view might be.

There are financial stressors as well; a farm may provide a bountiful harvest, but it is neither a steady nor reliable provider of a bountiful income. In the past year, foxes and coyotes have decimated the turkeys and make ongoing attempts to pick off the chickens. The farm is located in the Catskill watershed; strict environmental regulations dictate how the family works the land and raises livestock. Now, add in the desire to run your farm sustainably, in an ecologically sensitive way, without chemical fertilizers or insecticides, and there can be some real drama in them thar hills.

Our program centers on Kate and Dan Marsiglio, a couple in their early 30s, and their two young children, Lucia and Isaac. Now, Kate and Dan are not adventurers moving back to the land to live off the grid while they figure out how to invest their inheritance, nor are they burned-out investment bankers trying to buy their way into the world of celebrity foodies.

Dan was brought up in suburban New Jersey. Kate was an Army brat; born in Korea, she lived in Norway, Japan and North Carolina before ending up in Maryland. The couple met while they were both in ROTC at Syracuse University, and married during Dan’s active duty in Germany. While living in Europe, they became aware of the high quality of food available there, drastically different from what you’d find in a typical American supermarket. Then, Kate and Dan returned home to teach public school in the New Jersey town where Dan grew up. That’s when they began to change course, moving in a new direction that ultimately brought them to this rocky piece of the Catskills. We will join them on a very personal journey as they undertake the task of re-making their lives according to the dictates of a strongly individual vision, attempting to build a community of like-minded people that borrows from the way things used to be done, while looking forward to how things can, or should, be done.

Fortunately, they are not alone in this difficult undertaking. Stony Creek is also the story of three generations of two very different families, none of whom had ever been involved in anything like this before. Supporting Dan and Kate – emotionally and, occasionally, financially – are Dan’s parents, who live in the old farmhouse down the hill. Pete, Dan’s father, a retired police officer from Mahwah, NJ, bought the property, which was still a working dairy farm, back in 1985. Kate’s parents, who live in nearby Franklin, NY, are almost always on hand to help out, especially with the children. Rounding out the cast is an ever-changing parade of interns, part of the “WWOOFER” movement (willing workers on organic farms), a sub-culture of young idealistic agricultural volunteers, and paying guests from Featherdown, a Dutch purveyor of farm-stay vacations.

Our television series chronicles the intersection of these players as Kate and Dan strive to turn 200 year old Stony Creek Farm back into a working, workable, economically and ecologically sustainable enterprise. It is a story that flows with the rhythms of the seasons, from the bone-chilling cold and deep snows of January to the shimmering heat of August. Kate and Dan labor according to the biblical rhythms of reaping and sowing, of birth, death and renewal.

They began their transformation at the Meeting School, a Quaker boarding school and working organic farm in Rindge, New Hampshire. First as interns, then as members of the faculty, they learned the basics of organic farming, had their first child, and decided to change the direction of their lives. Coming “home” to Stony Creek, Kate and Dan began to expand what had been a weekend gardening project into a full-fledged farm. Learning from other farmers, the internet, books, and hard experience, they expanded from a vegetable garden to include sheep, chickens, turkeys, pigs and, just this year, belted Galloway cattle, a heritage breed.

Like many new farmers, they quickly realized that they weren’t going to make it financially on the sale of their products alone, at least not initially. The Franklin Farmers’ Market is small and they have not yet decided whether to venture into the highly competitive New York City market. There are few local restaurants or other customers for the kind of high quality (and costly) products that Kate and Dan produce. But, as they pondered the possibilities, despairing of how to make a go of it, a phone call changed everything.

“A friend of mine called and said that her sister-in-law’s friend just started working for a Dutch farm-vacation promoter and they’re looking for farms in the Northeast,“ said Kate, “And then, before I knew it, the owner of this company from Holland was here with the US manager. We were walking them around our farm in December.” Although they had initial doubts about the prospect of hosting guests on the farm, Kate and Dan signed on with that company, Featherdown. A crew was sent over from Holland to erect several elaborately equipped tents to house the visitors. Featherdown handles all the arrangements, paying them a percentage of the fees they collect.

“People want to come to our farm to stay in tents because they live in an urban area, because they have no back yard, because they have no chickens. They are interested in where food comes from and how animals are raised. People will come because they want their kids to see a farm.” According to Kate, “The draw is to relax with your family for a weekend and experience slow food, collecting eggs and cooking together, and walking through the fields at sunset.”

So what happens at Stony Creek Farm?

Dan works on construction of a solar greenhouse. Interns milk cows, and smoke rabbit hides. The children collect fresh eggs, and splash in the creek on a sweltering summer day. A fox attacks the chicken coop. The water-heater fails in the dead of winter. They argue. The sheep need to be moved to another pasture. Groundhogs wreak havoc in the garden. The turkeys escape from their pen. A birthday is celebrated. The tractor breaks down. A beloved pet goes missing. Kate and Dan cope with financial pressure, family stress and frustration at a market day ruined by rain. The DEP comes by to inspect the septic system and orders thousands of dollars in upgrades. And then the farm-stay guests arrive…

It is by turns dramatic, epic, intimate, scary and comic. It is, in short, farm-life – unvarnished, unrehearsed, unpredictable, and impossible to ignore.

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