Obsessed: The Organic Farmer With the Dirt on Soil

Purple and green lettuce leaves

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Editor’s Note: Welcome back to Obsessed, the interview series in which we talk to uniquely driven amateurs and professionals from all across the food world. We hope to shed light on the passions that inspire enthusiastic food nerds, from home cooks to chefs on the line to veteran butchers, fishmongers, and farmers. Hopefully we’ll also pick up some of their favorite tips, tricks, and food wisdom along the way. Know somebody who you think would be perfect for this interview series? Email us!

I’ve been going to the Saturday farmers market at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn for over a decade. Initially, I made the weekly trip solely to buy fish and shellfish from Blue Moon Fish, which, to this day, sells some of the freshest seafood you can get in the city. But over the years my priorities shifted, and, though I still picked up fish every weekend, the vegetables and produce came to be as much of a draw as the oysters and clams.

In the last several years, the balance has shifted more decisively, and my wife and I now go to the farmers market specifically to buy vegetables—the fruit and the fish are almost an afterthought. And not even just vegetables: We make the trip, which takes 40 minutes each way, for salad. We make it for oakleaf lettuce, for red leaf and green, for the Bibb, for the Little Gem, for the bitter chicories like endive, radicchio, and frisée.

This isn’t because we suddenly got on a salad kick—we’ve eaten salad forever, doing our best with the tired greens at the grocery store, avoiding clamshell packages, mixing and matching. What changed was that Willow Wisp Organic Farm set up a stand at the market, and we discovered how truly great a lettuce can be.

Crates of various loose lettuce greens and heads of lettuce at the Willow Wisp Organic Farm farmers market stand

It’s a little hard to convey how good this lettuce is. It isn’t just that the oakleaf has taste, or the green leaf actually tastes “green.” There’s a bitterness in every bite, even in each central rib, by the base of the head, where the plant is at its wateriest and the flavor should be diluted. There’s a sweetness in every leaf, too, to balance that bitterness. The texture of the leaves is consistently surprising: never smooth, always a little rough, the sun-facing side differently textured from the other. These greens are as interesting in the mouth as they are beautiful in these pictures.

We’d always planned to profile a farmer for our Obsessed series, and in light of how much I rave about the lettuce, we reached out to Greg Swartz, the farmer who has ruined all other salad greens for my family, to ask about why he thinks his produce is so good and the challenges and intricacies of being an organic farmer.

Name: Greg Swartz

Age: 42

Day job: Farmer

Website: willowwisporganic.com

Instagram: @willowwisporganicfarm

Organic farmer Greg Swartz at the Willow Wisp farmers market stand, pictured with a crate of cucumbers

How did you get started farming? Did you grow up on a farm, or did you visit farms frequently as a child?

Greg Swartz: I grew up in a Massachusetts suburb that was in transition—one mile to the east was a shopping center, and one mile to the west were a couple farms barely hanging on. I spent a lot of my childhood playing in the woods around our house. In high school I worked on a Christmas tree farm, but never really thought about farming as a vocation. I went to college, where I studied post–World War II French literature, and then did many other things for five years after graduating. At a transition point between jobs, I decided to apprentice on an organic farm in Sullivan County, New York. I was not thinking that I wanted to farm; I just wanted to learn more. It was just curiosity. It had become really clear to me that the chemical usage associated with farming since the mid-20th century had had serious implications. The most well-known description of that, of course, is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. That, to me, was why I thought it was really important to learn about organic farming. So I sought out that apprenticeship, and that first season I fell in love with farming, the Catskills, and the Delaware River Valley. I had found my place.

Was there a single moment when you realized you wanted to be a farmer?

GS: In my third year of working on a farm, it became clear that I wanted to keep farming. I didn’t necessarily want to own my own farm at that point, but I knew for sure I wanted to be a part of growing food. I worked on other farms for seven years; attended workshops, field days, and conferences; and read as much as I could. Around the time I decided to strike out on my own and started looking for a farm, I ended up becoming the interim director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY). It’s an organization that works to expand the production and consumption of local organic food, and I’d served on its board of directors for many years. While I was director I bought our first farm, in 2007.

Bunches of leafy greens on a display table at the Willow Wisp farmers market stand

What does it mean to run an organic farm? Why is it important to you to run an organic farm?

GS: Organic farming is all about managing soil. Soil is the base of all life cycles on a farm, no matter what you are growing. Soil is not merely a place for plants to grow; it is a diverse and complex ecosystem. When you pick up a handful of healthy soil, there are as many as one billion living organisms in that single handful, everything from earthworms to bacteria to fungi to nematodes and beyond. The relationship of all of those organisms, combined with the mineral components of soil, fuel a cycle that, when it is balanced, provides nutrients and energy for plants to grow. Healthy soil grows healthy plants, which provide healthy crops to humans.

The way to foster that soil health is by growing diverse crops, using crop rotation, and cover crops. Cover crops, like oats, peas, rye, clover, and hairy vetch, which we plant and then plow into the soil—what we use depends on what our goals are, and the time of year, and all of that stuff—provide energy, in the form of organic matter, and nutrients to the soil. Furthermore, we don’t use any pesticides or herbicides to harm soil life.

How do you manage pests and invasive plants without pesticides or herbicides?

GS: Okay, so let’s take the plants and the insects a little separately, but first, let me say that crop rotation is important for both. By moving the crops around every year, you break those pest, disease, and weed cycles. If you plant the same thing in the same place all the time, you’re doing the exact same timing of all the different operations of planting, cultivating, harvesting, which will create favorable conditions for certain weeds. Similarly, if you’re planting the same family of crops in the same place all the time, then insect pressure and disease pressure can build up, because the crops are basically hosts to those diseases and pests. So the first thing is, you wanna move them around.

For insects, part of what we do is maintain a diversity of crops, both crops that we’re going to harvest as well as other crops to increase the number of host plants. For example, we always want to have something flowering on the farm to attract the maximum number of insects, because more insects means there’s a higher likelihood that the predator of the insect that’s going after our crop is going to be there.

Flower bouquets for sale at the Willow Wisp Organic Farm farmers market stand

So, one of the distinctions between an organic farm and a nonorganic farm is that there will be a lot of insects on a successful organic farm, whereas a nonorganic farm will probably have very few insects.

GS: Exactly, because when you spray an insecticide, it’s not just killing the pests. It’s killing all insects. And what happens is, the more you do that, the more problems you have further down the line because you’re always killing all insects, which means you don’t have the ability to restart the cycle and end up having that balance of predator and prey.

The other thing is, every time that you spray a chemical, you’re selecting for insects or plants that are resistant to it. Insects develop resistance to insecticides. Plants develop resistance to herbicides.

We also do a lot of cultivation, which means actually killing the weeds with tractor tools or with hoes and hand weeding.

Organic farming protects the soil resource for future generations, while growing healthy food now. We do not contribute to nutrient and chemical runoff, which is a very damaging factor in our watersheds. Organically managed soils also sequester much more carbon than chemically managed soils.

Finally, having healthy soil that grows healthy plants also gives us produce that tastes better. Nutrient density and flavor are closely related.

Can you talk a little bit about where your farm is located and why it’s good farmland?

GS: Our farm is 120 miles northwest of New York City in northeast Pennsylvania, along the banks of the Delaware River. This is where the Catskill Mountains (on the New York side of the river) and the Delaware Highlands fall down into the Delaware River Valley. In general, this area is very hilly, full of lakes and streams. We grow more grass in this area than anything (for pasturing animals and making hay), but there are small pockets of Class I soil for vegetables. Our farm is an alluvial floodplain, so the soil has developed over millennia of flood deposits. It is very rare in this area to have such a large, flat field with excellent soil. The soil is called Fine Linden Sand Loam. There is a good 18 inches of topsoil, underlain by another six to eight feet of the second soil horizon. It is very deep, a beautiful texture, with no rocks.

Heads of red and green variegated lettuce at Willow Wisp Organic Farm farmers market stand

I don’t know anything about soil. “Texture,” “soil horizon,” “Fine Linden Sand”: What do those terms mean? Would you mind explaining what Class I soil is?

GS: Texture is how the soil holds itself together. There are basic types of soil—like, you would have either clay or loam or sand, or a combination of all of them. Clay can be really tight and heavy. Sand is very fine and doesn’t hold together all that well. Loam is a combination of the two. The texture matters when you’re putting seeds into the ground because it determines how well the seeds have contact with the soil.

The amount of rocks present just makes things…. More rocks make it harder to work with equipment and affect the way plants and seeds make contact with the soil. So it’s not the most important thing, but for vegetables, it’s kind of more important.

The USDA classifies soil types—Class I, II, III, et cetera. It’s just a classification system that says what the best use of a specific soil type is. Class I means that it’s a very high-quality soil, so you would want to do more intensive growing because you’ll get more return out of it—for example, vegetables. Something that’s a lower class, say II or III or something like that, you maybe would just want to do grain or corn, or for the lower-down classes, you would just do something like trees.

The entire country has been mapped for soil types, and it’s kind of amazing that our government did it. Soil scientists have classified, named, and described all the soil types, and then the government literally mapped the entire country. I think it was in the ‘40s and ‘50s; they flew over the entire country taking aerial photographs and then went back on the ground and mapped everything out. It’s kind of remarkable.

Is that information available to everybody?

GS: Yeah. You could go to any extension office and get a hard-copy book of county maps, or you can see maps online. In fact, there’s a cool plug-in for Google Earth, where you can put the soil survey in and see it as a kind of overlay on any place in the country.

Close-up of green lettuce leaves at Willow Wisp Organic Farm farmers market stand

So what is the importance of having a large amount of topsoil and six to eight feet of second soil horizon? I don’t know what that means.

GS: I mean, it’s maybe not worth writing or talking about the second soil horizon. That was me maybe geeking out a little bit. But when you look at soil types…. If you dig a hole, there’s the topsoil, that’s the first soil horizon or layer. Then you can usually see a difference as you dig into the second and then the third and the fourth layers. “Horizon” just means soil layers. Those layers formed over time, millennia and millennia, so whether it was from floods or glacial changes or deposits or mudslides or whatever the heck it was, those layers formed over eons.

In terms of farming, what’s most important is what that top layer is, what we call topsoil, because that’s the most biologically active part of it; that’s where you have the most bacteria and fungi and insects. You’ve got the most oxygen present there. You’ve got the most warming from the sun. In our case, having that top layer be relatively deep means that we just have a lot of really great soil to be growing stuff in.

Then how is having a particularly deep second soil horizon beneficial?

GS: It allows roots to go even deeper easily. A lot of times, when you hit that second soil horizon, it might be a tighter soil or a heavier soil, and it’s harder for roots to penetrate, but when it’s so deep and kinda loose, like our soil is here, it just allows roots to go that much deeper.

You say that having healthy soil grows healthy plants, which also get produce to taste better. “Nutrient density and flavor are closely related.” Is that proven?

GS: You mean, is there scientific data on that?

Yeah.

GS: You know, flavor is a little tricky to quantify, but my understanding of it is that there are certain chemical compounds that scientists relate to flavor. But it’s kind of like, what do they mean by flavor, and what do I mean by flavor? I don’t know if they’re the same thing, but there is science out there that says that the higher the nutrient density of the crop, the more likely that those flavor compounds as they define them are present.

Red and white turnips in wooden crates on display at Willow Wisp Organic Farm farmers market stand

I don’t know if this is relevant, but are hydroponically grown greens, which seem to taste watery to me, a relevant comparison here?

GS: Hydroponic growing is growing crops in water, and a nutrient solution is injected into that water. Hydroponic growing is reductionist in the same way that conventional farming is reductionist, meaning they are just looking at a certain small group of nutrients to make the plant grow. The major ones, what we call NPK—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—and then maybe they’re playing with a couple of smaller, minor minerals. It’s not the full breadth and scope of what soil provides.

We don’t even understand what the hell’s going on in soil. The past 10 years have been really interesting for me, because if you look at what soil scientists are talking about, they’re finally catching up with organic farmers in recognizing the value of life in soil. You listen to soil scientists now, and they are saying, “You know, we don’t really understand what’s going on here.” I bring that up because it is such a complex system, and all of those relationships are what confer nutrition and flavor, so to think that you can take a hydroponic system and inject stuff into water, or take a conventional farm and apply petrochemical-based fertilizers to end up with something that has flavor and nutrient density, it’s kind of short-sighted and foolhardy.

What are some of the challenges of managing an organic farm?

GS: Managing any farm is challenging because we are dealing with living systems and weather. Things don’t always go as planned, and that means we need to be adaptable. Our most important strategy is diversity of crops. Every year a crop will fail, but the conditions that cause one crop to fail may cause a different crop to thrive. Other challenges are the challenges faced by all small businesses—having enough qualified staff, efficiently marketing our products, and trying to carve out enough time to do other things besides work.

Cardboard containers of strawberries at Willow Wisp Organic Farm farmers market stand

Can you describe a typical day on the farm?

GS: On market days, two days per week, I hit the road by 2 a.m. I have a two-and-a-half-hour drive to New York City, and I do some wholesale deliveries before arriving at market at 6 a.m. Most market days, I am home by 9 p.m. Non-market days, I am up by 3:30 a.m. to do a couple hours of office work before my team arrives at 6 a.m. Field work starts at 6 a.m. and goes until 5 p.m. every day. We have a coffee break at 9:30 a.m. and then we break for lunch, which we eat as a team, at 12:45 p.m. The hours are long, and the work is physically demanding, but it is also really engaging. As a farmer you need to be a mechanic, electrician, plumber, equipment operator, truck driver, grunt laborer, horticulturalist, salesperson, staff manager, bookkeeper, and strategic planner. It is never dull.

How many people work on your farm now?

GS: We have three full-time year-round staff this year, plus six full-time seasonal, from April to December, plus a couple part-time staff.

What do you produce on the farm? Do you raise livestock? Do you keep animals on the farm?

GS: We grow 45 different kinds of vegetables, two dozen culinary herbs, and two dozen varieties of cut flowers. We will be adding more fruit to our mix over time. We don’t keep animals on the farm.

How do you sell what you produce? Is it challenging to find customers for your produce? Do you ever get any complaints about the price you set? How do you explain the cost to people?

GS: We do four farmers markets per week: Union Square in Manhattan on Wednesdays; Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn on Saturdays; Barryville, New York, on Saturdays; and Callicoon, New York, on Sundays. We also sell directly to restaurants, caterers, and retail stores. We have a local distribution route on Thursdays, and then we sell a lot in New York City. We have built up very loyal customer bases, both retail and wholesale, but I am always cultivating new customers, especially as we are expanding production.

We somewhat frequently get pushback on price from new customers. Once people taste the difference and learn about our farming methods, they worry less about price. Our prices are higher than grocery stores’ and other farmers’ for three main reasons. First, diversified organic farming is more labor-intensive, and the long-term strategies of cover crops and other soil management take land out of production. Second, we try our best to pay our staff a living wage. My team are all local residents, and they see farmwork as a career. Finally, the price that you pay for a lot of food at the grocery store is artificially low due to federal subsidies. We all support industrial-scale, chemically dependent agriculture through our tax dollars, which are paid out through the subsidy system. I don’t take any subsidies.

Green and purple lettuces spilling out of wooden crates at Willow Wisp Organic Farm farmers market stand

I know you just recently moved to a new farm, and you’re selling your old one. Can you talk about why you needed to expand, and what your goals are? Can you talk about the challenges of putting up a farm for sale even as you’re working the new one?

GS: We bought our first farm in 2007, and we kept growing to a point that we couldn’t expand anymore on that farm. It was a difficult decision to leave, because it was beautiful and we worked so hard to establish it—it was just bare land when we bought it. But business has been good, and I wanted to grow more food and employ more people, so we decided to buy a larger farm, which will allow us to triple production over the next few years. The new farm is only five miles away from the first, so we are still in the same community. In fact, my son is still on the same school bus route as the old farm.

We started marketing our old farm in early 2017, and we decided to do it ourselves rather than through a realtor. It took a lot of work and time to get the word out and to show the farm to so many people, all during a busy farming season. But the gamble paid off, because we sold the farm in October 2017. The best news is that we have another organic farmer in the neighborhood!

I was wondering about that, in terms of competition. The farm that you’ve taken care of for a decade, one on which you’ve developed the soil, you’ve sold to someone else, and they’re going to start producing stuff. Don’t they immediately come into competition with you?

GS: In a very limited way, yes. There may be small places where we bump up against each other in our very local market, but I don’t think of it that way, because we need more farmers, and, even more than that, we need more organic farmers. To develop more production of good food is good in the larger, societal sense. Also, the more organic groweries in an area, the more opportunities there are for working together, too. If there were 75 organic vegetable farms in this area, we could start a distribution company, and we could collaboratively distribute all of our products instead of…well, right now, I run around doing all of it.

There’s so much demand in the world, and specifically here, with us being so close to New York City, and Philly is not all that far off. Boston is not all that far off. We’re on the Eastern Seaboard. There’s huge demand for organic products. I don’t really see it as competition. I see it as, we’re moving in the right direction.

Cucumbers for sale at Willow Wisp Organic Farm farmers market stand

You said before that your team is all local residents, and they see farmwork as a career. Is that important to you, that farmwork is seen as a viable career?

GS: Yeah. People don’t work on farms as much as they used to two generations ago. The number of farmers in the United States became statistically insignificant in…you’ll have to check me on this, but I think it was in 2000, meaning that the number of farmers dropped below 1% of the American population.* That’s weird to me.

*In the 2000 census, farmers and farm managers made up 0.6% of the population.

It’s related to several things. It’s related to the scale at which we now grow food in this country; the vast majority of it is mechanized. It’s related to how much food we import. It’s also related to the number of migrant workers that we rely on to grow our food.

It’s very unusual to have an American citizen want to work on a farm. I have nothing against people coming here from other countries to work on our farms. It’s great. In many cases, they’re skilled farmers. I don’t object to that migratory labor, but why not make it be a career that local people can make a good living at and be a part of a thriving local business that’s responsible for feeding people in your region?

In line with farming as a career, you said one of the challenges faced by all small businesses is trying to carve out enough time to do other things besides work. When you describe your workday, it seems like there’s no time for anything other than work.

GS: For about seven months or eight months of the year, yes. That’s pretty much how it is right now.

On market days, is no work happening on the farm?

GS: There is. When I’m at market, I still have a team here that’s working.

So work is basically constant during growing seasons?

GS: Yeah. For me. The rest of my team has proper days off. Starting in about late December, I’ll take a few weeks off. My wife’s family is from Canada, so every other year we go to Canada for a couple of weeks. We’ll go on some other kind of trip to get out and get away and have a good break. When I come back from that trip in January, I start working, but it’s a lot of thinking and planning and strategizing. There’s a little bit of greenhouse work to do, but there’s actually a pretty massive amount of office work from January through April to get everything together. Everything from bookkeeping, accounting, to taxes, to marketing. I spend a lot of time meeting with wholesale customers, to kind of line things up for the year; it’s hiring staff, it’s crop plans, seed orders, equipment repairs, ordering supplies.

What is a crop plan?

GS: A crop plan is basically our road map for what we’re gonna grow and have for the whole year. If you picture our whole farm right now, on paper I have described exactly what’s going to happen for the year. For example, how much lettuce am I gonna plant, what varieties, when am I going to plant it? That crop plan lays everything out by date—so for example, say on March 1, in the greenhouse, I’m going to seed 25 trays of lettuce transplants. Those are going to be ready four weeks later, and they’re gonna be transplanted to a very specific part of the field. Everything is really highly orchestrated.

Heads of radicchio and other lettuces for sale at Willow Wisp Organic Farm farmers market stand

Of the things you grow, what’s your favorite to eat?

GS: Tough to choose—I like it all! But if I have to choose a few: radicchio, fennel, and potatoes. One of my favorite salads on the planet is a radicchio and fennel salad. You slice both the radicchio and the fennel very thinly and then make a mild dressing to go along with it, which for me would be really nice olive oil, some vinegar, and coarse salt, and that’s basically all that it needs. I cook more complicated things, too, but more often than not, I just let the vegetables do their thing and don’t mess with them. When the things have flavor, you don’t have to go crazy.

Do you get particular pleasure out of growing specific things? Are some vegetables just a pain to grow?

GS: Some plants are definitely more finicky to grow and/or pick. I love growing radicchio, lettuce, garlic, and potatoes the most. But a lot of what I like about farming is the varied challenges in growing such a big mix.

So what is it about growing those specific things? What is it about garlic that is fun to grow?

GS: I don’t know, man. It’s all fun. It’s kind of a hard question to answer.

A bouquet of flowers at Willow Wisp Organic Farm farmers market stand

Any tips for someone who’s interested in working on an organic farm? Ideas about where to start?

GS: Working on a farm is good hard work, and it is really rewarding to literally see the fruits of your labor and be so connected to the season and plant cycles. If you want to work on an organic farm, look at job listings through NOFA-NY, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, and Good Food Jobs.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.




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