N.Y. grower cultivating a balanced life with ag

AFP Correspondent

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (April 11, 2017) — David Hambleton, a successful organic farm manager from Stanfordville, N.Y., spoke to a small gathering of farmers this winter about his approach to farming, efficiency and the various devices and equipment he custom-built to ease the manual labor burdens at his Sisters Hill Farm.
Hambleton is a slender 6-foot, 7-inches and custom-built his house on the farm to accommodate his unusual height.
He has a background in cabinet making and carpentry, so that helps, but he stressed that seminar attendees must continually search for new ways to spend less time at the farm.
“Our mission at Sisters Hill Farm is to grow healthy food which nurtures bodies, spirits, communities and the Earth,” he said. “So we all feel like our job is more than just to grow vegetables.”
Sisters Hill Farm sits on a 150-acre tract in Stanfordville, was an active farm in 1916 and then laid fallow for decades, Hambleton said. He got involved in 1999 and has 10 acres of ground inside deer fences. Sisters Hill currently has a full roster of 300 CSA shareholders and the farm is economically sustainable. Twenty-three percent of the CSA members that began with Sisters Hill Farm 18 years ago are still members today, he said.
“Member retention is one of the best ways to gauge how you’re doing with the farm,” he said. “We still have 45 percent of our members from nine years ago.”
Answering the question “how did I get here?” during his presentation, Hambleton explained:
“In college I was an Environmental Studies major. After getting out I worked as park ranger, did some construction work, had a chance to row competitively with people in the Syracuse area, and I found a job in a cabinet shop up there, where I also got married.”
One day he said he realized his life was totally out of balance.
“I was getting up at 5 a.m., working out for a few hours, going to work for a 10-hour day in a noisy, dust-filled, chemical-filled shop and then going to work out for another couple of hours and then falling asleep,” he said, recalling his time training for Olympic competition.
“I quit all those things and found this book called ‘The PathFinder—How to Find a Career For a Lifetime of Satisfaction and Success,’ – at the book store. The most essential part of the book in my mind was: ‘What must be a component of my future career?’ For me, being outside was a big part of it, and there were other considerations, working alone or with other people. So, I decided I was going to be a CSA farmer.”
After working for a few seasons on a farm in the Syracuse area where the owners tried to do wholesale, a CSA program and sell to restaurants, he discovered nothing about that farm was efficient.
He recalled the point when he realized he should seek out his own opportunity as a farm manager.
“All these people picked blueberries for a week, and we shipped $18,000 worth of blueberries to Boston,” he said. “They rejected the load because the core temperature was too warm. Everything up at that farm was, like, follow the market, not follow our own mission.”
Addressing the subject of cultivating a work/life balance while farming, Hambleton said he works a 45-hour week during the season and typically works around 40 hours a week or less in winter months.
His wife is a social studies teacher in a nearby school district, so it helps that she is off during summers while he is actively farming. Hambleton and his wife Margaret have two young sons.
“If you want to go into farming, it’s a good idea to marry a school teacher,” he said, “as we both come home and talk about our days and commiserate about our different approaches.”
“I decided I really wanted to plan what I wanted to accomplish and then execute that plan,” he said, “so I started the Sisters Hill Farm CSA, and I know this talk is about balance, but the one thing I want to stress is you can’t expect life to balance right away.
“It wasn’t always this great, it became great because I spent a lot of time developing systems, defining our market, defining ourselves in the marketplace and what we’re all about,” he said.
Initially he was working 80- and 90-hour weeks, he admitted, and he tried to tackle just three or four major bottlenecks each year. He said he sought to make Sisters Hill operations more and more efficient, using his team of apprentices and part-time seasonal helpers.
By investing in a tractor and redesigning the farm’s water system using two, 1,000-gallon water storage tanks, he was able to improve efficiency the first growing season.
“Each year, I would look at three major things, look at bottlenecks, see what’s inefficient and try and address that, not just infrastructure and equipment but also with work systems,” he said.
Hambleton and his crew designed systems to ease his lower back pain by not having to lift produce too high in the air while in crates and also created a produce washing system using big tubs that weren’t against a barn wall, so workers could access all sides of the wash tubs and get produce cleaned much more quickly. He and his crew do not bag or weigh any of their produce as shares are put into identical crates depending on half share or full share, and there are no transport costs involved, as he said customers look forward to visiting the farm on weekends to pick up their shares.
Hambleton has created and posted several Sisters Hill Farm videos on You Tube, including tutorials on how to make produce display racks and storage bins out of wood.
He recommended another book, Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” and cited the book as important with helping him to create an abundance mindset as opposed to a scarcity mentality.
“I’m not afraid to share knowledge I’ve gained with other farmers, even though perhaps I’m going to be losing market share,” Hambleton said. “There are people who are afraid to share anything, and I feel the more we share with each other, and look at each other as partners and friends, the more synergies we create and the more the possibilities in our lives can grow.”
Hambleton also recommended creating both a personal and business mission statement for a farm or farm CSA operation.
“I feel it’s super-important to create a personal and business mission statement for your business,” he said. “I had this mission statement that I created 20 years ago. I make decisions in my life based upon these things.”
His personal and business mission statements are posted prominently on the first page of his weekly planner book so he’s constantly reminding himself of what the goals are.
“Begin with the end in mind and be proactive and plan for your future, realizing that anything worthwhile takes a commitment of time,” he said.
The only constant in the world, he said, “is that things are going to change, so being innovative is important.”