Growing Bold

 

Rob “Digga” Schacht knows there are easier and more reliable ways to make a living. Ways that don’t require weather vigils. Or such long hours. Or the need, his rifle at the ready, to confront four-legged vegetable thieves.

But the rewards of organic farming compel him. Even as he prepares for his annual February respite—ice fishing in northern Maine—there is a part of him that must remain in his native Waterford.

Digga is looking ahead to the next growing season at Hunts Brook Farm. He is hoping that the large investment he and his wife, Teresa, have just made in the work of their own hands and in an innovative economic model will pay off in a state that has lost so many of its family farms.

Can a few dozen acres yield a reasonable living in a marketplace dominated by huge agribusinesses that rely on cheap labor and pesticides? It’s a daunting question. Yet the couple’s uphill battle seems somehow inevitable—in the Schacht family choosing the hard way is in the genes.

The nickname Digga originated when Rob Schacht was a lad. At 44, he says that “most of the explanations are embarrassing”—but it likely sprang from his penchant for digging in the dirt even then, on the rural property where his grandparents established what became known as the Waterford Country School, still a thriving institution after 83 years.

The Schachts had been exemplars in the matter of taking the difficult but rewarding road. The school at first was Camp Cuhaca, a summer retreat for emotionally disturbed children, an extension of the family’s educational work in Brooklyn, N.Y. Those kids learned firsthand about planting seeds and raising chickens, and young Digga worked along with them.    

As the youngest of seven, he was also formally schooled in the rural sciences, studying resource management at the University of Connecticut and leaning toward work in fisheries. “But I watched my boss, a biologist, write reports and collate budgets simply to justify his job,” he says. This made him rethink his career goals.

Though he found plenty of work later as a carpenter, he knew deep down—just looking out at his 88 Waterford acres—that working the land was his calling. A calling, as it turned out, that would also inform his marriage. Teresa, a Vernon native and a mas­sage therapist, had once planned to move to Alaska, but she became, like her husband, passionate about the land and all things organic.   

“I saved her from Alaska,” Digga tells me, as we sit in the kitchen he built himself, drinking a delicious green libation—made of kale, carrots, apples and lemon—and eating Teresa’s freshly baked pumpkin bread. Their two-and-a-half-year-old son, Sam, “our mi­grant worker” as Digga refers to him, or “Punkerdoodle” as Teresa calls him, seems to wonder why a stranger with a laptop has invaded the house.

I have found my way to Waterford after coming across one of the Schachts’ products at a farmers’ market. It was a head of lettuce unlike any I had ever seen or tasted—butterfly lettuce—red and golden and velvety, and as delicious as it looked.

When Teresa sold it to me, she said she and her husband had just invested nearly $50,000 of their savings in a new greenhouse and in their ability to feed themselves and 55 other families, members of their CSA (community-supported agriculture) business.

The couple hopes to sign up 20 more families this year, bringing to 75 the number of families willing to pay the Schachts $575 for the right to come to the farm on Hunts Brook Road each week during the growing season for a basketful of fresh produce. (There are about 40 farms offering CSAs in the state.)

These customers, like the farmers they support, take on risk. When, for example, Tropical Storm Irene wiped out last season’s summer squash, they had to go without that crop even though they’d paid for it. But they also know that other crops can make up the difference, as winter squash did in this case. They know too that weather is by no means their only concern.

Pests—among them raccoons, voles and coyotes—are a constant problem. Last summer, deer ate all the fennel and parsley, even though the Schachts had put up an electric fence. “They didn’t care if they got zapped,” Digga says of the offenders.  

“They’ve got to go,” Digga declared to Teresa at the time, figuring that if the electric fence didn’t work, perhaps there was another solution.

One night he went out into the field and encountered three well-fed deer—two females and one male—and tried an approach inspired by Ira A. Blue Coat, a native American who speaks to the spirit of deer. (Blue Coat, a member of the Lakota tribe, lives in South Dakota, but his wife is from Connecticut.) Digga wondered if, instead of actually speaking to the spirit (which only Blue Coat could do), he might try to reason with the animals directly.

And so, as they stared at him, he urged the deer to find forage elsewhere. “I admit I didn’t use the best language,” he says.

It would have been nice if this strategy had worked. But it didn’t, so harsher measures had to be taken. “We are constantly dealing with what the environment hands us,” says Digga. “The public has a romanticized idea about farming. People say to me that they’d love to spend every day in the field. Of those who say that, if you actually let them out there, 98 percent would be ready to go home at the end of the week.” Especially after they witnessed the ultimate solution to the deer problem.

Digga had to shoot the male, because that would (and did) persuade the others to stay away. Even then, however, his work wasn’t done. Because the weather was so warm, he needed to immediately skin the buck, quarter him and get him into the freezer. Or else there would never have been “a winter’s worth of meatloaf” for the family.

So much for the benign image of organic farming. But then, it all fits in with our general ignorance of how food—organic or not—gets to our table. It is a hard and often brutal business. Organic farming is also costly, requiring infrastructure, constant vigilance and realistic expectations. As Digga says, “We are never going to be the Rockefellers.”

Still, there remain considerable nonmonetary rewards. He, his wife and son live in the same neighborhood as three of his sisters, and his parents. His father, Herb, a former Waterford Country School director who suffered two heart attacks in his 50s, is in reasonably good health in his 90s, having decided long ago to limit what he eats to what comes from the ground.  

To Digga’s son, that decision seems to have come naturally. Last fall, with his parents watching, little Sam Schacht wandered out into the fields, picking and eating kale and green beans along the way. In that sense, he is far from alone. Customers’ children who vowed never to eat anything as gross-looking as a beet have come back for seconds.

Now, in the dead of winter, the cycle begins again. The greenhouse gets fired up. The onion, leek and tomato seedlings are planted.

Life begins anew in the nourishing soil of home.
 

Growing Bold

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