ITHACA, N.Y. — West Haven Farm, the longest-running Community Supported Agriculture program in Ithaca, is changing hands.
Founders of West Haven John and Jen Bokaer-Smith are retiring this year, after 27 years. The new owners, Carlos Aguilera and Lorena Aguilera-Mendoza, are passionate about continuing the legacy of the farm, and creating a healthy lifestyle for their three young boys: Diego, 11, Benji, 3, and Nico, 2.
The 10-acre West Haven Farm is located two miles from Downtown Ithaca on the land of EcoVillage at Ithaca. The organic farm was started by the Bokaer-Smiths in 1992, but now they are ready to retire and will leave the farm in the capable hands of a new family.
Immigrants from Central Mexico, Carlos and Lorena moved to the United States and started working for farms in Upstate New York when they were teens. After studying to become a licensed spray technician, Carlos became increasingly concerned about pesticides being used in conventional farming.
“We know that it is not only the chemicals that make food taste good or bad, we think that food tastes best when the recipe includes things like equality, diversity, justice, and happiness in the plate,” Aguilera said.
Ithaca Voice Reporter Anna Lamb sat down with the two couples over dinner at EcoVillage to discuss the future of the farm.
Anna Lamb: What’s the history of the farm?
Jen Bokaer-Smith: John and I met as undergraduates at a class at UC Berkeley. The class was called urban garden ecosystems. We were just really compelled to grow food and to feed people.
John Bokaer-Smith: We moved to Ithaca to help out Jen’s mom, who was actually involved in founding EcoVillage. It seemed like a great fit for us to start a farm as part of the EcoVillage project–we have a built in community already that would be an eater of the food that we were growing.
Jen: I grew up in Ithaca and I went away to college and when I came back I was really shocked by how much development there had been in all of the outlying areas. We interned on a farm that was in a very, very rural area and that was great but we felt like the opportunity here to preserve farmland right near a city was really important for future generations and when we started a farm we were in our early 20s and we thought we were the future generation. So it’s only in the past two years we started thinking, “oh we actually need a plan for the next generation because we’re not the future anymore. And so we were really excited when Carlos and Lorena showed up and wanted to be the next farmers at West Haven because they’re the future now.
AL: How has organic farming changed since you guys have been doing it?
John: When we first started, organic was still very much kinda like the hippy fringe and you know we wanted to grow organic fruit and people at Cornell would say, “No you can’t do that! You can’t grow organic fruit!” But we were stubborn and we pushed through and now organic agriculture is very mainstream, everywhere and there’s a lot of folks that are doing it.
Jen: There’s been a great organic farming community in this area that really supports each other and we learn from each other, so that hasn’t changed. But definitely when we started we were, like John said, really outliers.
John: We weren’t the first. I don’t want to make it sound like we were the first farmers in the area, but I think that’s been the change in the organic scene.
AL: What is the business now that you’re handing off to Carlos and Lorena? What’s the output like?
John: We kinda took a step back a couple years ago. We felt like we kinda needed to give the land a chance to rest and do some intensive cover cropping and kinda reset the whole farm. So we put our CSA on hold for two years, which we hear from the CSA members all the time like, “when are you going to restart the CSA?”
Jen: They’re so excited that Carlos and Lorena are coming in! They’re so excited!
John: But I think as part of this stepping back process that gave us a bit of perspective that we were getting a little older and that it was time for us to find the fresh blood, fresh energy.
Jen: With good backs!
AL: What brings you guys to Ithaca? How did this relationship form? What’s the interest in farming?
Carlos Aguilera: Our story is kinda different. Since we grew up in central Mexico, farming has been part of our lives since we were born. And I migrated here into the U.S. and to New York State as a farm worker in 2002. After a while working in several vineyards and farms we came to realize … and when I was taking, and studying for the New York State sprayer license we started to realize that there are a lot of issues with conventional food and all the inputs. By ridding what you’re actually putting into the food you’re basically gonna be eating healthy afterwards. We met some farmers in the area through our job and then we figured that they were doing something different that was kind of similar to what we grew up with in Mexico. It was not super intensive or different. Ithaca really caught our attention.
Lorena Mendoza: Not only the farming. Every time we came to the potlucks, meetings or whatever — we saw something different in the people in Ithaca. People hug us, they appreciate that we’re here and we feel welcome as an immigrant. We feel like, “Oh! We can actually stay here and they’re happy that we’re here! This is great!” We’ve started creating good relationships, friends and with the kids.
AL: Are you guys going to live here, in the EcoVillage?
CA: We are in the process of moving here. We currently live in Interlaken, but we’re looking to move in after taking over the farm. As for our relationship with John and Jen, we owned a farm in Interlaken that we operated organically for five years. It was very small, and there were a lot of challenges with that. We actually had contributed to a local CSA–we grew a few crops for them and they were requesting things that they would like us to grow and we would grow them.
But Lorena and I just said if we move to Ithaca we should move farther north. Being immigrants can be hard to feel welcomed and it seemed the Ithacan people are open minded and welcoming. And sometimes that makes a big difference for minorities. The more we read and the more we look at the land, we realize how important it is to preserve agriculture, organic agriculture. Not only with the word organic but to feed the soil because in the end that’s feeding your body. If you feed it right, the soil will feed you back. When we knew that John and Jen were looking to retire, a friend in Ithaca sent us this link and said maybe you should buy it, and this would be a good fit for you. We were like, I don’t know, but we said well we’ll give it a try, and here we are.
AL: What is the food like in Mexico that made you want to replicate that here?
CA: I mean we’ve been living here for 18 years so maybe what it is now its not what it was when we were growing up. But growing up, the way we were growing up we were so far behind and chemicals were not a thing, fertilizers were not a thing, Mexico was still under development, so it was actually a good thing now that I see it. It was good that we were so far behind and in that matter. And I think that agriculture in Mexico is done in a very community like sense where whole communities grow stuff and they trade within themselves, with their own rules, without having banks and big interest, corporate interest having a stake — which has changed a lot lately. That was what attracted us to Ithaca, the idea that Ithaca has its own currency, that there are always these things that are very unorthodox to the United States. Ithacans are stubborn and I think we make a good fit.
AL: What are you looking to incorporate or change within the farm?
CA: I think that being more inclusive is a must because every culture brings something good that a nation and a society can benefit from. By being more inclusive, that’s the single most important thing we can bring to the community — a different perspective. I think that’s one of the things we see that we can bring. Also to bring new generations from different backgrounds because if you look at it agriculture in the united states is very white and very male. So it’s starting to change.
If we can succeed, I think we’ll be an encouragement to other minorities and say, “You can make it. It is not easy but you can do it.” Hopefully we can be a blueprint, that is our goal, that we can be a blueprint for the northeast to hopefully have other farmers follow the same example thing we’re doing, and John and Jen are doing.
AL: You guys are restarting the CSA, what’s that going to take?
CA: A lot.
Jen: The CSA members are so excited. We had a dinner with them earlier this month, we had 175 people — Lorena and I cooked for 175 people. People are really excited that the CSA is coming back … they’re really excited that Carlos and Lorena and their kids are bringing this new energy into the farm and like Carlos said, this diverse perspective. Leaving farming is really bittersweet for us but knowing that it’s going to be these guys taking over is making it more sweet than bitter.
AL: What are your long term goals in handing off the farm?
John: Just that it lives on. The farm is very much like … it’s kind of like another child and this is it’s graduation, the child is moving out of the house and moving on. It’s just a great feeling. You know you see in the paper farm auctions and everything is getting auctioned off and subdivided and that’s just so depressing and it just fills my heart with joy to know that West Haven is going to continue and it’s in good hands, so I’m really excited about that.
AL: What are you guys excited about?
LM: It’s funny, I think the work, it’s exciting. I can see my husband Carlos, he gets excited about putting in the cover crops, putting the seeds in the soil, planting — I think he gets excited about the work. I think it’s what he’s excited about. I’m excited about producing, and meeting people and working. Because we enjoy going to work — working with the plants and the food.
CA: Every winter we go through these winter depressions where we can’t wait to get our hands into the soil and do something with it — put some seeds in the ground and see plants grow. I think that’s what we’re most excited about, putting cover crops in and seeing the plants grow in a natural way — a truly sustainable way because when seeds give you fertilizer there’s no better way to grow food than that. And to grow food for the community, that’s very exciting.
To know at the end of the day we are able to deliver these nutritious foods to the community, where hopefully we are able to achieve in the long term that our kids and the kids of other people and the elder and everybody is able to enjoy healthy food. And hopefully the kids are able to understand that not only is this the most sustainable way, but it’s the most nutritious, and the best way in mostly every possible way — economical as well.
LM: We’re also excited to be here in the community. This is our new adventure, with the community and the people. We’ve been so welcomed and we’re very excited to be part of the community.
AL: Economically, are more people buying organic? Are more people paying that higher price… has there been any dramatic increase in sales over the years?
Jen: I think small scale farming is always going to face a challenge in this country because large-scale producers have these subsidies whether they’re direct or indirect that small scale farmers just don’t have and we as a society are paying these huge costs for propping up industrial agriculture so looking at the cost of food doesn’t … There’s so many hidden costs in conventionally grown agriculture that we don’t address. Like looking at the cost of an industrial produced tomato versus a tomato from West Haven, you’re not comparing the same thing if you’re just looking at the dollar sign.
So, we really try to do education on the community about what the true costs of production are given that we’re not in Scandinavia where the organic farmers get tax credits for the pollution they don’t create. That support has to come from the community and West Haven has a really long and strong history of trying to enhance food security in the area, of making sure people all across the community get food. We’ve always made sure it’s going to the food pantries and community members who might not have enough money. That’s always been something we’re really aware of.
John: I think in general we’re just very lucky to be in the Ithaca area and it’s really a hub of people that value local agriculture. You just have to go to the Ithaca Farmers Market and you can see that this is a place that really values local agriculture. That desire supports a huge community of local growers.
AL: Is organic food the future?
Jen: If we want to have a future, yes.
Carlos: I think so. If you want to leave the word organic out of the equation, any sort of ecological farming has to be the future, as Jen said, if there’s going to be any future.
There are only so many resources that we have once we’re done mining all those or taking all those resources there will be nothing left. So some sort of sustainable…if that’s organic, or if someone has a different idea, I think they should say. But it has to be something that can feed people while at the same time take care of the soil because there’s only so much.
Jen: We have one of the first certified organic orchards in the area and when we planted the orchard our son was maybe two or three and it was really important to us to grow organically so our kid could run around and play in the trees and so now he’s in his early 20s, he’s graduated college and moved away from home and it’s so exciting to see new kids running around this orchard. Seeing the new kids running around in the orchard really brings home the fact that the farm is having it’s second growth.
Featured image courtesy of Jen Bokaer-Smith.