Small Farmer, New Office

Join author Keith Stewart as he adds a new office to his 125 year-old farmhouse.
By Keith Stewart
September 2013
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The second edition of “It’s a Long Road to a Tomato,” by Keith Stewart, has been updated with five new essays about life on the farm.
Cover Courtesy The Experiment
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Keith Stewart, already in his early forties and discontent with New York’s corporate grind, moved upstate and started a one-man organic farm in 1986. Today, having surmounted the seemingly endless challenges to succeeding as an organic farmer, Keith employs seven to eight seasonal interns and provides 100 varieties of fresh produce to the shoppers and chefs who flock twice weekly, May to December, to his stand at Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan — he only place where his produce is sold. It’s a Long Road to a Tomato (The Experiment, 2010), opens a window into the world of Keith’s Farm, with essays on Keith’s development as a farmer, the nuts and bolts of organic farming for an urban market, farm animals domestic and wild, and the political, social, and environmental issues relevant to agriculture today — and their impact on all of us. The excerpt below comes from the section, “Inner Sanctum — An Office with a View.”

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: It’s a Long Road to a Tomato.

I have just moved into my new office, an ample and sparkling 275 square feet of finely crafted space. With windows on three sides, a handsome oak floor, a high cedar-wood ceiling, two large closets, a built-in work station, and a window seat complete with bookshelves, here is an office fit for a prince, or at least a gentleman farmer, though I have yet to attain either status.

“Why does a farmer need such an office?” some might ask. Are not the open fields his place of work? Is not the sky overhead his rightful canopy? Surely a corner of the tractor shed or barn would suffice for the few seed catalogs and papers needed?

To such naïveté, I would answer that a small farmer who wishes to survive as such must wear many hats — and some of these hats can only be worn indoors. A farmer cannot afford to hire a cast of professional bookkeepers, accountants, secretaries, retailers. He or she must perform these functions him- or herself. There are myriad records to be kept, forms to be filed, applications to be filled out, and bills to be paid.

Federal and state governments do not discriminate on the basis of size. Most of the rules and requirements that pertain to large corporations are equally applicable to the small entrepreneur who employs workers beyond his immediate family. For these reasons, I feel entirely justified in having a substantial and well-endowed office. The eight-by-nine-foot room in which I have struggled to maintain order for these past eighteen years is no longer adequate.

The new office took four months to build. This period was preceded by a few months of planning, in which several options were considered, sketches made, friends consulted, architect and contractor engaged, blueprints drawn, and, finally, a building permit obtained. In many ways the planning process was more taxing than the construction itself.

Our house, which originally served as tenant quarters on a larger farm, was built at least 125 years ago. Back then it had just three rooms on two floors, providing a total living space of about 800 square feet. Over time, subsequent occupants added a separate kitchen, a small bedroom and bathroom, and, most recently, a sunny front room built on a concrete pad, all of which brought the total living area up to around 1,400 square feet. The new office sits atop the front room on the concrete pad but is cantilevered out two feet beyond its base.

One Sunday afternoon ten years ago, an older couple drove down our driveway, introduced themselves as Al and Myrtle, and said they had lived on the farm from the late 1940s through to the mid-1960s. They spoke fondly of their time here. It was their first house and their first farm. They had just got married and were in the spring of their youth. Al milked cows and Myrtle raised their children. It was a time of relative prosperity for farmers. And it was a time of transition, as horse traction gave way to tractors and new chemicals seemed to increase productivity and make farming easier.

When they came to the farm, Al and Myrtle used a shallow well and a two-seater outhouse. They lived without hot running water for the first three years and it was eleven years before they enjoyed a flush toilet. Myrtle recalled, with a smile, that for Christmas one year, Al bought her a portable bathtub from Sears, which they set up in the kitchen. The current bathroom was built around 1960 and is part of a simple lean-to addition to the house.

Since Al and Myrtle’s time, other families have lived and worked here, each leaving behind memories and a part of its own history. When the mood is right, I like to think, one can sense these past lives in the fields and groves of the land, along the old stone walls, and in the aging rooms of the house. Sometimes, clues to the past are quite overt. On the vertical molding inside the pantry door, we found a progression of growth lines of one family’s children — neat marks on the molding with notations indicating date, height in inches, and the name of each child.

During our years on the farm, my wife, Flavia, and I have embarked upon several home-improvement projects, some in the category of much-needed maintenance, others with more aesthetic goals in mind. We’ve insulated where there was no insulation, replaced crumbling asphalt siding, built a sturdier roof, installed new windows, raised ceilings, and performed renovations to kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom.

Each of these improvements was preceded by some fretting and indecision but, upon completion, was deemed well worth the effort and expense. None, however, increased our living area.

The new office, I am pleased to say, represents the first addition of space to occur during our tenure. It is our contribution to the evolving mosaic of the house. For this reason (and because it is such a well-constructed room), it brings pleasure and delight of a whole new order. While it has certainly caused some disruption (for example, the roof over the front room had to be removed entirely and the room wrapped in plastic, like a Christo sculpture, to keep the rain out), it has been an exciting process to witness and participate in. Along the way, many choices and sometimes difficult decisions had to be made, but at the end of each day there was always visible progress to enjoy.

It would not be untrue, nor would it reflect unfairly on the remainder of the house, to say that the new office is, without doubt, the finest room under this one roof. It receives natural but mostly filtered light from three sides. It has pleasant views. It is a well-proportioned rectangle with an alcove for a window seat and a sloping ceiling in the front that reflects the pitch of the new roof. Because it is upstairs and in one corner of the house, it has the quality of a retreat, a place of quiet and contemplation.

Of overriding significance is the fact that this new room was designed and built by a true artisan, a man by the name of Tom Berg who enjoys his work and takes pride in it. His creative stamp rests lightly on every feature of the room. All who enjoy it over time will remain, in no small way, indebted to him for his care, his attention to detail, and his love of form. A good part of the room’s special character arises from the selection of materials from which it is fashioned, especially the several different kinds of wood.

In one corner is a broad, hand-hewn post of the original house; rough adze marks are clearly visible, as are the dowels or pins that tie a sturdy horizontal beam and wind brace to the corner post. Nails that were used in this corner are square-headed and appear to be hand-forged. Growth rings on one of the boards of original lumber — probably hemlock — suggest a tree that may have begun its life before European settlers arrived in North America. You can tell from the spaces between the rings when the tree had a good year of growth and when there wasn’t enough rain.

Under the window seat there are three large drawers, partly fashioned from old-growth oak salvaged from stanchions once used to confine cows in the barn. We dismantled the stanchions fifteen years ago to open up more space; I put aside some of the wood, steeped in the history of cows, hoping that one day I would find a good use for it. This beautiful wood is dense, heavy, and finely grained. It is so hard that nails, unless given predrilled holes, will not penetrate it.

The ceiling of the new room was the subject of extended debate. Should we simply paint the Sheetrock that Tom had already put up, or cover it with some kind of wood? For a while, shiplap pine was at the top of the list. Then, in the upper barn, I uncovered some tongue-and-groove cedar, left over from an earlier project. It was exterior-grade lumber, full of knots, but attractive nonetheless. This well-cured wood has found a new home on the office ceiling. Stained a pickled white, it reflects a soft light.

The office floor is made of two-and-a-quarter-inch-wide strips of red and white oak of varying lengths and hues. The wood was salvaged from Tom Berg’s scrap pile and passed on to us in exchange for a month’s supply of fresh vegetables. Around the perimeter of the floor, about a foot from the edge, is a narrow band of black walnut sandwiched between two strips of cedar. This border functions like a frame, setting off the variegated pattern of oak within. Both walnut and cedar were taken from old boards found in the barn. Near the center of the room is an ancient walnut desk with very deep drawers and a surface that appears to be one large slab of wood. It is a desk that has seen much use but has maintained itself well. It is big and weighs 225 pounds when empty, which is perhaps why others passed it by. My wife bought it at a neighbor’s yard sale for $10, then sent me over to pick it up. As winter approaches, I look forward to spending more time in my new office. I look forward to enjoying this fine room and becoming more intimately acquainted with its many aspects. The various parts, so well assembled into a whole, seem to hold memories of other lives and other times. This quality, this ethereal door into the past, will, I believe, be a source of sustenance as I grow older, and perhaps will help me to knit my own small life into a larger fabric.

Read more: The Magic of Farmers’ Markets.

Excerpt from It’s a Long Road to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life, copyright © Keith Stewart, 2010. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Buy this book from our store: It’s a Long Road to a Tomato.


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