Creek Iversen, Seed Song Farm and a local agricultural renaissance

Creek Iversen and some sprouts. (photos by Nicole Terpening)

It was the fertile floodplain along the Esopus Creek that attracted the first Dutch settlers to this area — and before them, the Lenape, who planted the fields with maize. But centuries later, with the building of the massive IBM manufacturing complex, the remaining land was forgotten.

The nearby Route 9W corridor sprouted gas stations, strip malls and other commercial and light industrial development, in what became Ulster County’s densest concentration of car-centric sprawl. But now the mostly abandoned green fields straddling the Kingston-Town of Ulster border along the creek have gotten a new lease on life. Last July, the Northeast Farm Access, LLC (NEFA) closed on the land that was farmed in the 1600s by Kingston founder Thomas Chambers, after receiving funding from 12 local investors. The land comprises the anchor for what’s being called the Esopus Agricultural Center, which NEFA plans to expand with several more farms. The acreage has been partitioned among four tenant farmers, each of whom has signed a 30-year renewable lease.

Driving down Esopus Avenue, one passes through a neighborhood of modest, early 20th-century homes before descending to the floodplain. The Green Acres Golf Course is on the left; ahead, bordering the west end of the land just beyond the winding Esopus Creek, roars the Thruway. Cell towers rise from the surrounding hills, blinking with red lights at dusk. The green fields stretching off to your right form a mirage-like oasis, bounded by woods and punctuated by an under-renovation farmhouse situated under a massive tree. Just before you get to the farmhouse, which is just off the road, there’s a large greenhouse covered in plastic sheets — evidence of the new activity. It belongs to Seed Song Farm & Center, one of the leasees; farmer Creek Iversen envisions an agricultural renaissance that brings folks back to the land.

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“I’d like a wide array of people coming to the farm,” he said. “Food is the allure for a great therapeutic lifestyle. The other formative piece of my farm model is the Native American way of having monthly food-based celebrations, which are multi-artistic and all inclusive.” At Native American farms, the whole community contributes, and “people tell stories and laugh while the kids keep the birds off the crops by throwing stones,” Iversen said. “It’s growing food together and the culture that evolved there.”

Stepping outside the greenhouse, Iversen, who has been farming in the Hudson Valley since 2011, points across the huge expanse of green fields to the various components of his 30-acre farm, which consists of several parcels. Off to the right is the metal frame of what will be another greenhouse — he calls them “high tunnels.”  He is planting an acre with traditional “U Pick” crops and perennials. In an area of upland forest, he’s planting June berries, elderberries, goose berries and Jerusalem artichokes, which resemble small potatoes dug from the ground. He’ll be harvesting the staghorn sumac berries already growing on the property for tea. In another piece of forest and fields along Esopus Creek, he’s planting the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) and other indigenous crops; he envisions the forest as a place for camping or an interpretative area. A public fishing access dock is located nearby on the creek, where people can launch a kayak or canoe. “It all works together as a recreational and indigenous cultural area,” said Iversen.

“It’s an agro-ecological farm, where we try to harmonize cultivated plantings with natural plantings,” he explains. “Along the margins we’ll have other things. I’m asking beekeepers to bring their hives here. Anyone from Kingston can forage for wild blackberries and maybe make a quick jam here. We’re trying to facilitate a positive food experience that will lead people to good land stewardship.”

Radical access

Indeed, community is an inextricable part of his vision for Seed Song Farm. “Making it available to everyone is our mission,” Iverson said.

Starting in June, he will sell produce through shares in his CSA through the first week of November (cost is currently $17 a week, with the price possibly going up in May; Iversen is also thinking about offering half shares). CSA share members are required to do eight hours’ of work, such as weeding or harvesting, per season. (To become a member, email info@seedsongfarm.org or call 845-902-8154). Seed Song Farm is growing herbs for Birdsong and Blossom, a new herbal tea business. He’s also growing grains for Jon’s Bread, a baker who participated in the Kingston Winter Farmers’ Market. “I’m used to putting in oats and buckwheat as cover crops as opposed to processing and eating them, so this I’m doing as a trial.” Jon’s Bread is also building an oven on the property so that when people pick up their CSA shares, “they can stick around for pizza and live music.” Iverson, who plays guitar, banjo and trumpet, is a member of Tin Horn Calico, which has monthly music jams at the farm the second Sunday of the month. (The band was named after the anti-rent farmer protestors of the 19th century, who used tin horns as a call to action and wore calico, a print fabric beloved by Native Americans, whom the protestors were seeking to imitate when brandishing their pitch forks.)

The other farms in the complex are Alewife Farm, which previously grew its certified organic produce on the site and sells to farmers’ markets in New York City; Rosette Salad Company, which specializes in spring-mix salad greens, herbs and vegetables sold at markets and supermarket chains; and Stone Ridge Orchard, run by Elizabeth Ryan, who will grow vegetables and perennials. Iversen said even though much of the land is certified organic, like many small farmers he doesn’t have the time, money and energy to get the certification, given the priority of putting in crops. He has taken the Farmer’s Pledge, which, he said, “proves a deeper measure of sustainable. It’s also about how you treat your labor and support other farming in the community, how you incorporate natural systems into farming. It involved no paperwork and is dependent on the trust of the farmer. You are accountable to show visitors what you’ve done.”

 

Long-term commitment

Iversen said the 30-year renewable lease is a godsend, given that his previous farm tenancies were short-lived due to factors outside his control, such as the sale of the land by the owner. Another benefit is the ownership by local investors, most of whom he knows personally. “It’s a better model than relying on hedge fund money where people are disconnected from farming,” he said. “Most of the investors know me well and they’re not going to craft rules that would put me out of business or otherwise give me a hard time.”

Iversen, who grew up in Cooperstown — his father was an electrician and his mother a biology teacher — was a pre-med student at Cornell University before quitting his junior year and following a radically different path. He spent two years traveling in Europe, the Mideast and Asia, including a stint working on a farm in Norway for two seasons and teaching English in Egypt. For six months in Sri Lanka, he helped out a Buddhist community that modeled itself on Gandhi’s teaching of non-violence do activist work in rural communities.

In 1989, he came to the Hudson Valley for a tour of farm communities and instead joined Clearwater when a position opened up last minute. He stayed on the sloop for many years, helping out on the pumpkin sails, learning and playing music (Iversen was in the jazz band at Cornell), serving as the winter maintenance coordinator and bosun. “Clearwater was very formative for me,” he said. “That idea of a public project where people are getting their hands involved in natural resources in order to become a better steward has stayed with me. Everything I’ve done has evolved around Pete Seeger’s vision to save the river.”

He and his wife, Lisa Mitten, who works as sustainability coordinator for SUNY New Paltz — they live in Kingston’s Rondout neighborhood — still volunteer for the Clearwater Revival and coordinated the artisanal food and farm market for the past six years.

Iversen also got to know the local forest when he worked as an environmental educator at the John Burroughs Sanctuary for three years, living on the property and serving as resident interpreter. He then became a natural sciences and music teacher at the Randolph School in Poughkeepsie, where his daughter from his first marriage was a student. He got involved in a local CSA first as a barter share member, then as an intern, assistant grower, manager and finally full-fledged farmer. “The lifestyle appealed to me,” he said. “It was a big switch to be outdoors working outside every day.”

He next worked as a farm manager at Sylvester Manor, “the best preserved northern plantation” — it served as a provisioning place linked to the trade with the Caribbean and had a slave community living in the attic — which had become a nonprofit education farm. Iversen grew vegetables and perennial berries along with peanuts, expanding the farm, before transferring to Brook Farm Project, at the foot of the Shawangunks in New Paltz. The seven-acre farm eventually was absorbed by the Open Space Institute into the Mohonk Preserve, and Iversen then went to Whirligig, where he once again increased the productivity, hosted food-based and cultural events, and created a community.

At Seed Song, he can finally create a farm knowing it is long term. He also has helped Bernstein with the initial fund raising and plans to launch his own fund raising effort in the fall. He founded the non-profit Seed Song Center — the farm itself is an LLC — for the community activities and events. (The nonprofit enables him to “get community support for things that are not profitable, such as sponsoring meals for the underprivileged.”) He is hoping to sponsor a May Day festival as well as a traditional Pinkster festival, in which the Dutch gave their African-American workers a week off and the workers elected their own king, in July. (Iversen said he envisions broadening the event to a multicultural festival focused on flowers.)

Locally sourced help

He’s already tapped into the community to get started: the Ulster Youth Corps built the greenhouse and multi-purpose tables, which can be turned into stages — the group will also construct the second greenhouse — and Odell Winfield, the founder of the African Roots Library, a new organization located in a storefront in Ponckhockie, is on his board of directors. At the opening of the Roots Library a month or so ago, Iversen “did a seeding activity at the tail end of the day. It’s a nice promise of things to come, jointly promoting each other’s mission.” The Neetopk Keetopk (Algonquin meaning “my friend your friend”), a Native American group, has hosted events and meetings at the farm and will be involved in the Native American garden; the Tin Horn Uprising Band, a feature of recent local protest marches around here, practices at the farm.

“We have hardcore activists and community movers and shakers on our board,” Iversen said. “A founding inspiration has been Martin Luther King’s Beloved Communities, which King envisioned as the aftermath of nonviolent civil disobedience and action, when we’d evolve into communities and people caring for one another. The farm is here for all people in the community, so that all have access to good food and good experiences.”