You know that cool professor you had in college? The one who made you feel like everything you learned had a purpose and made you want to go try it out? Joe Orefice is the quintessential badass professor. He taught us how to speed climb, bake bread over a campfire, and bail out of a flooding canoe. In his spare time, he just happens to run his own farm in Saranac Lake, where you'd be hard pressed to stump him about anything that grows from the land. Recently named Director of the Uihlein Forest and Northern New York Maple Specialist(!) for Cornell University's Department of Natural Resources, he's had a busy 2017 already, but we managed to catch him in a quiet moment to pick his brain about what it takes to be a modern farmer.
Project Woodchips: How did you end up owning a farm in the middle of the Adirondacks at 24?
Joe Orefice: I was teaching at Paul Smith's college and I wanted to own land because I wanted to do forest management on my own forest. I had an old camper trailer I found in the woods when I was forester, and I sold that to buy my first tractor for like $900. I found an old dairy farm, but it hadn't been farmed in 30-40 years. The barn needed repair and the whole place needed a good clean-up. I always wanted a farm. And then I just got to it; I ended up trying a couple of different things in the farm—trying to see what would work, what made money. And now, seven years later, I've narrowed in on a few things.
PW: So what's working?
JO: In the summer I harvest about 400lbs of tomatoes per week. I also do potatoes, swiss chard, beets, carrots, kale, spinach, and figs (more on that later). I have 500 apple trees, but I just save them for cider for me. And depending on the time of year, I also have 15-20 beef cattle—Hereford, Scottish Highland, and Belted Galloway—that I sell to market.
The Scottish Highland are really cool and pretty personable. They're also very intelligent and obedient. I can just stand on my porch and call my cows over and they’ll come running.
PW: Wait, really?
JO: Here. I’ll show you. Let me go on the porch. Hey cows. Cows. (Loud mooing) Can you hear them? They’re pretty responsive.
PW: Do you have anyone helping you on the farm?
JO: It's just me. I like doing it alone. I like being able to wake up and saying, "Today is a good day to do this" as opposed to saying, “I need to find something for this person to do.”
I teach sustainable agriculture and forestry; primarily forestry. Having the farm is a good balance to the theoretical. It goes both ways; on the academic side, having a PhD in silvopasture, agroforestry, agro ecology type stuff is super helpful in understanding what’s going on in my land systems. Like last year, when there was a drought, my grass was still green because I had enough nitrogen. Having academic knowledge isn’t useful if you don’t know how it’s applied. The farm provides me with a real practical view on the academic.
I would get really frustrated if I were just doing academia and couldn’t use my hands and try this stuff out. There's something really satisfying after a day of teaching and research to look at the next day and know that you're going to work all day in the woods. It's so satisfying. In academia, if you ask yourself, "What did I do today?," it's "I thought about some stuff. I came up with some stats. And then I thought about it some more."
PW: How have you seen farming change in the Adirondacks since you've been up there?
JO: What's happened to a lot of the land up here is that it no longer makes financial sense for people to farm, so it gets abandoned in terms of production. That's what had happened to my land when I bought it. When I first started, there were maybe three other farms that had been going in my whole three-county area. Since then, there's been a spurt of young farms, in terms of young farmers.
I started a farmer’s market in my town at the request of the town council three years ago. I was struggling to find farmers for it; now we have seven farms all from my little town of Saranac. In the last four years, there’s been a boom of new farms. It’s a little bit of a self-sufficiency thing, but some are also doing the full-on farm thing.
What’s cool about Saranac is that there were still some long-term farmers around; folks in their 70s and 80s who were still cranking, and it's awesome to have them around giving advice.
PW: What does a typical day on the farm look like? (Is there even such a thing?)
JO: It's different every day, which is one of the nice things about farming. For example, I move my cows every two to four days to a new pasture, so I’m always setting up a temporary fence to get them to their new spot. That takes a couple of hours. In the summertime, I’m usually harvesting a couple of days a week and getting ready for the farmer’s market or other stores.
In the winter it’s different because the vegetables aren’t going, so I don’t have to harvest or weed anything. It’s a lot calmer. That’s when I do some of my academic work. I’ll try to cut some wood or clear some land if it’s above 10 degrees.
Spring is comes early for me because of my greenhouse. It’s fun when it’s March and you’re working in bare soil and there’s still 2 feet of snow outside. It reminds you of what non-frozen temps are like.
No matter the season, there’s usually at least a day a week of fixing something.
PW: Let's talk about your figs. What made you decide to start growing figs in the Adirondacks?
JO: I grew up with these figs that my father had. My great-grandfather imported them from his family in Italy in 1938. He raised them in Bristol, CT. Every year, he’d bury them in the hillside. He did that his whole life and when he died, my father dug them up and took them to his land. We always just ate figs. When I moved up here I brought a little tree—two years into that I had a few that I cultivated from that one. People went nuts. I couldn’t believe the amount of interest. I wasn’t even selling the fruit. But now, it's one of the main things my farm is known for. It's crazy.
PW: What advice do you have for someone who's thinking about getting into farming?
JO: Do the work. A lot of people romanticize farming, but you have to do stuff when it needs to be done. You can't put things off. Focus on the few things that make you productive for the day and do that, because you can't do everything. If you try to do everything, you won't be successful.