Food Bank’s farm gets ready to grow crops for the hungry

With the arrival of spring, the fields are being tilled at the Patroon Land Farm, and students and o

With the arrival of spring, the fields are being tilled at the Patroon Land Farm, and students and other volunteers will soon start planting seeds for this year’s crop.

This is no ordinary farm.

Most of the produce grown here is donated to feed the hungry.

Last year, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, which operates the farm, harvested 96,000 pounds of fresh vegetables, tripling the amount harvested in 2006. It included broccoli, cauliflower, corn, herbs, summer and winter squash and other produce.

“Our mission is to alleviate hunger and to grow food for the hungry and preserve this as agricultural land where we grow produce and teach agriculture education. Our mission is to alleviate hunger,” said Linda Comstock, director of major gifts and special projects for the Regional Food Bank in Latham.

This year, the Regional Food Bank has started a new partnership between the Patroon Land Farm and a community of supporters — known as a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA — and the hope is that eventually the farm will be self-sufficient.

Members contribute $400 each to the farm’s yearly operating budget by purchasing a share of the season’s harvest.

In turn, they get enough fresh produce each week, from July to October, to feed a family of three or four. The funds will help keep the farm operating and allow the Regional Food Bank to keep growing produce that can be donated to the hungry.

This year, only 50 CSA members are being accepted. They will be able to pick up their weekly produce at the Regional Food Bank or at the Patroon Land Farm on Ketcham Road.

“We want to continue to grow more food for the hungry,” said Comstock. “CSA members who are buying temporary shares into the farm are financing the operation of the farm.”

Similar partnerships between families and farms are taking place all over the state and country as people want organic and/or locally grown foods.

This CSA is a little different from most because in the end the members are helping the less fortunate.

Some are even coming from other CSAs because they like the mission.

At the Patroon Land Farm, Mark Weinheimer, farm manager for the Regional Food Bank, is busy these days with planting season fast approaching.

He oversees the seasonal workers who are hired in May and work through October. About 400 volunteers from all over the Capital Region, including student groups and Girl Scouts, also work at the farm through the season.

“My dream is to have the children learn where the food comes from and have them plant seeds, see the seedlings grow and see where the food comes from,” said Comstock.

The Patroon Land Foundation was started in June 1997 by Pauline Williman, who was born on the 162-acre property.

The foundation was started to preserve the property as farmland, cultivate the land to grow food to feed the poor and hungry, and educate students about agriculture, farming and planting.

Williman went to the Food Bank in 2001 and asked the executive director: “How would you like me to grow food for you?”

Absolutely, he said.

From 2001 to 2005, Pauline and her brother William Salisbury operated the farm, planting corn, squash and pumpkins, and harvested more than 200,000 pounds of food for those in need.

Eventually, Williman asked if the Regional Food Bank could manage the farm for her and in 2006 the Regional Food Bank assumed the farm’s management. “We took it from there and today grow 25 to 30 vegetables,” said Comstock.

Of the 162 acres, about 11 acres will be planted this year. The Patroon Land Foundation and Regional Food Bank are preparing other plots of land for organic crops and expect to farm 40 acres in the future.

By 2013, the goal is to have 600 CSA members, which would make the farm self-sustaining and end the need for the Food Bank to provide funds. Sixteen people have signed up so far for the CSA.

“The Patroon Farm Land has become a real community endeavor,” said Mark Quandt, Food Bank executive director. “We are very excited about the growth in two short years and especially the CSA we are implementing. The CSA will be a great resource for the community and help make the farm self-sufficient and a source of produce for hungry people for many years to come.”

In the end, Williman deserves a lot of credit for her generous gift for the future, say those who have worked on this partnership. “She has blessed the Food Bank and many people by putting the land in a foundation and connecting with the Food Bank to do it,” said Comstock.

Williman, who is 82, still lives across the street from her family’s farm and plants, picks and packs the food. She loves to ride the tractor, too.

“Promoting the opportunity, through community supported agriculture, for more people to live healthier lives enhances the core purpose of the Patroon Farm,” she said.

This spring, the tilling will be a little simpler. A tractor was delivered Wednesday to the Patroon Land Farm and it’s an important part of the expansion plan. With the additional acres to cultivate and plant, the Food Bank could no longer depend on the borrowed tractors dating back to the 1950s that it had been using the past two years.

With donations it received, the Food Bank purchased the tractor from Capital Tractor and New Holland North America, which provided a $7,000 discount off the $35,000 price tag.

Comstock remembers when she first saw the farm in May 2006. Much of the land was filled with rubble.

Hard work paid off.

By July 2006, coming over the hill on Ketcham Road you could see the farm blossom, said Comstock.

“It was an awesome site to see that this land was turned over to something profitable for those in need.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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