Walking up onto an historic 30-acre farm property one crisp but sunny March morning, the early light seems to cut through the chill, bringing with it a sense of promise. Much the way one can feel the warming of the day coming or the arrival of spring just beneath the cold surface of the earth, you can also sense the future of this very old place.
We tend to think of farms as being dormant in winter. We think of freshness, fruit, vegetables, markets, and even the consumption of healthy food as being seasonal. Many of us barely think about farming at all – much less on cold March mornings, but this is exactly when Eric and Amita Starosielski want us to. For customers, this is when we need to sign up for crop shares. For the farmers, winter is not a time off. It is a time to plan, prepare, and promote.
The owners and operators of Old Village Farm, the Starosielskis, are sowing and growing more than organic fruits and vegetables. They’re rooting, raising, and sharing an entire lifestyle. Located just north of Milford proper in New Jersey, Old Village Farm sits a literal stone’s throw from the banks of the Delaware River in a small historic district. The land has a conservation easement. The house is on the national, historic register.
Thoughtfully expanded and beautifully maintained, their 263-year-old home greets you from the front of the property. Nearby, two fully electric vans stand at the ready, waiting for markets and home deliveries of online orders and crop shares, that will begin in a few short months and run through mid-December. A short distance from the house, also along the road, is their farmstand, where visitors can select from the day’s harvest or pick up their crop shares. The quaint red building with its rustic signage alludes to the quintessence of what lies just out of view.
The farmstand is open at Old Village Farm, in Milford, NJ, throughout harvest season. Vans bring food to area markets, as well as directly to customers’ homes for crop share and online ordering. Photos by Kristina Gibb Photography.
Strolling under a stunning tree line leading toward the back acreage, we pass some raised garden beds, a swing set, a couple small outbuildings, and a large barn. A bit farther, and we find ourselves at a large gate leading into a field. At first glance, it is hard to see what most picture when we think of farms, but look closer and you will see what may be the most important time of year for local growers. Inside the cold frame tunnel, seedings are springing up from trays all around and the start of the earliest harvests are already identifiably developed. Outside of the tunnel, there are rows of blueberry and bramble bushes, fruit trees, items overwintering, and spaces dedicated to more. Much more. Old Village produces in excess of 60 different fruits and vegetables.
“What are we going to do with 23 acres?” Eric questioned when they saw the listing, but he and wife Amita had no trouble figuring that out. Old Village Farm is now almost 30 acres and yields organic produce for crop shares, home delivery, online ordering, and market locations.
Complete with an irrigation system, a packing area, and their own line of spices, Old Village is exactly what a small farm should be, and what we often forget they are. Here, on the banks of the river, surrounded by the steep hills of Hunterdon County’s edge, and trimmed in the tall trees of precolonial forest, Eric and Amita are providing for their family and yours the old fashioned way. What you would never know, however, is that they didn’t dream of or even choose this life. They stumbled upon it. Literally.
Eric was born in western Massachusetts, a first generation American. His parents hail from Belarus. His father was an electrical engineer, and his mother was a homemaker. Though connected to family origins, Eric’s youth was deeply American – from skateboarding to canned foods. He lived in a dense suburb but found himself inspired by the sprawling farmland that existed just outside of his community. With a passion for painting and sculpture, Eric attended Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and was living and working there when he met Amita.
Amita, also a first generation American but with roots in India, had moved to Boston to work as a producer for print and video advertising campaigns. Born in Wyoming, raised in Texas, and having lived in many places, including South Korea and California, Amita had a more farm focused upbringing. Her family was vegetarian and shopped primarily at farmstands, even making their own breads and cheese. She laughs about just wanting “normal food, like every other kid” when growing up but has now a deep appreciation for the lengths her parents went through to provide them with clean, healthy foods. Despite her experiences eating from small farms, owning one was never on her Someday List.
After nine months of dating, Amita left Boston for a job opportunity in New York City. The couple dated across the distance and eventually got engaged, then Eric made the move southward. The two settled into a small apartment and got underway on their big city life together. Eric was working at a gallery in SoHo, designing the window displays at Barney’s, and making a splash in the art scene, while Amita continued her career in production.
By 2013, the couple was looking for a weekend house. Their search was focused more on the New Hope area, until the listing for the Old Village Farm property appeared on Amita’s radar. In love with the house, they contacted their agent who put off the showing in favor of others. After seeing a handful of lovely homes that were nothing like what they were looking for, they departed from their agent and – with time to kill – decided to take a drive past what Eric describes as “this magical place.”
‘It didn’t say farm on the listing,” he clarifies. “I was like ‘What are we going to do with 23 acres?!’” Clueless but excited, they drove back and forth, rolling past the house several times in Eric’s “white creeper van” before the then-owner finally came out and flagged them to pull over. After some chatting, he invited them to walk the grounds. They were introduced to the man’s wife, who invited them in. The two were sold, but the house was not. The couple assembled an offer that was delivered the very next day. Shortly after, a second offer came in – well over asking price. Eric and Amita knew they couldn’t compete and went back to the listings, but a few days later, their agent called.
Gorgeous glimpses of life at the Starosielski’s 263-year-old home (clockwise from top left): the living room decorated for the birthday of Amita’s beloved, late mother; a bicycle between spins; a green thumb presence in the sunny kitchen; a book Amita wrote for her children (coming soon to OVF’s online store); and the couple in a passage outside the house’s original kitchen. Photos by Kristina Gibb Photography.
“The former owners told us when we were closing, they said, ‘we picked you because you remind us of us when we were young,’” Amita beams. “They even gave us a housewarming present.”
Upon receiving the keys, the pair entered their house and found, hanging on the wall, a copy of the original use and occupancy license. Signed in 1760 over the course of two days, the license showed the signing dates as August 4th and 5th, exactly 253 years to the day that the Starosielskis’ visited and put their offer in on the home.
Not long after, Eric was walking the grounds with Amita’s mother when they happened upon a daikon radish. Amita’s mother knew immediately what it was, brought it in, chopped it up, and tasted it. She demanded that the couple go back outside and harvest every radish in the yard. Having no idea what the former owners’ tenant farmer was doing with the land, they went back out thinking they’d find a few more. Three months and ten tons of daikon later, the pair had been thrust into the wholesale radish business. They spent all weekend harvesting, cleaning, and packing radishes, then they drove them into Manhattan on Sunday night and dropped 50-pound boxes off to distributors after midnight. Monday morning, they were up bright and early to return to their daily grind.
“It’s really all your mom’s fault,” Eric laughs.
“It is!” Amita replies with the sincerest chortle. “She made us harvest the daikon, and she started encouraging us. When we decided to live here full time, he said ‘Why don’t I just do this full time?’”
It was three years later by then. Three years of dual-handedly planting, growing, harvesting, and selling radishes on the weekends before they decided to give up their city home. The choice was obvious, but the transition to operating a small farm was a bit less so.
There is something hopeful about seedlings. Claim your crop share here. Beautiful images of things to come – the starters in the tunnel at Old Village Farm by Kristina Gibb Photography.
“When we left New York City, we were sort of in this country jungle,” Eric explains. “I didn’t realize how long the learning curve was and how long before it becomes profitable. If you plant something too late – say, you plant Brussel sprouts, well, now you’re not getting sprouts. You’re learning curve is a year! Whelp, we didn’t get any Brussel sprouts this year! Every customer you see for months wants it, and you screwed up. So, there you go!”
While Eric was learning, Amita was at work being what he calls “the brains. She helps push a lot of the bigger ideas.” Eric credits her with conceptualizing the spices and cooking utensils made from wood harvested on the farm, among other things. In addition to their shared parenting duties, Amita also balances her roles in marketing, harvesting, and hiring on the farm with her own career. Meanwhile, Eric is moving ahead of the curve with the farm entering its ninth season and still doing commissioned pieces for clients seeking his stunning artwork.
On top of his farming talents, Eric Starosielski is an accomplished artist whose work had been collected by fashion designer Philip Lim, Oneworld Corp., and many others. His existing pieces are available for purchase, and he works by commission. Photos by Kristina Gibb Photography.
In addition to gaining agricultural knowledge, Eric is taking advantage of programs available to small farms through the USDA. Researching and implementing these programs has helped Eric not only heighten his understanding of the land and its yield, but it has helped him find smart and savvy ways in which to improve his production and his business. “The margins in farming are so tight,” he says. “They make a really hard business a little easier.”
Though the growing tunnels (which are like greenhouses without heat) and the irrigation system were components Eric learned about because of the USDA programs, the rest has been through the old fashioned channels of reading and community. Eric has immersed himself in this venture completely. He speaks to other farmers, has found mentors, and visits the pages of all kinds of reference materials. He turns to that wisdom whenever he needs and to handle problems with grace. He cuts the losses, learns, laughs, and returns to his resources to try again.
Utilizing one of many programs available to small farms, Eric and an assistant erect the second of four tunnels being added to the farm. These tunnels will make some produce available year-round to customers in coming years. Photos by Kristina Gibb Photography.
“Farming is really all science and process, and as an artist I really like process,” he says. Like any good artist, Eric is mastering that process. The farm is young, and the goals are clear. Already delivering organic produce, Eric is focused on getting the formal USDA certification, which is a lengthy and expensive process. The couple shares ideas about additional product lines they want to introduce, including “shrubs” (a fruit and vinegar based health drink) and a variety of popsicles. They recently acquired a small, neighboring plot of land and are deciding which use option will best suit their family, their farm, and their future. Meanwhile, Eric is toiling away, preparing for the season ahead and getting locals signed up for this year’s crop share. They have 50-60 shares still available.
This morning, though, he is talking to us, standing in his field, arms folded and gazing out over the space. “If this was a farm without a beautiful house and a river,” he says, “I probably wouldn’t be doing this. I’m a visual person. I’m an artist. It’s so visual and beautiful that I could absolutely spend every day here, no problem… It’s just incredibly peaceful and serene. You see the birds eat the fish. You see the bees. You see the cycle of life. The plants grow; the plants die. It’s real… It’s a wonderful life, and I love it.”
From the warmth of their welcome, the contagiousness of their laughter, and the real feel of their authentic lives emanating from every space and acre, it is truly apparent that they have found themselves in this field. They’re living a dream they didn’t know they had. It is a wonderful life. It is a wonderful farm with a wonderful future. And, it’s all because Mom tripped over a radish. One very serendipitous radish.
0 comments on “Serendipity’s Field”