|Paul and Sandy Arnold delivering the keynote speech at MOFGA’s 2018 Farmer to Farmer Conference. English photo|
By Jean English
Paul and Sandy Arnold of Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle, New York, call farming “the best job on earth,” and that was the theme of their keynote speech at MOFGA’s 2018 Farmer to Farmer Conference.
Pleasant Valley Farm, said Paul, is just over the Vermont border, an hour north of Albany, in a town of about 4,000 people in an all-agricultural county with no cities, no Walmarts – just farms and homes. So the Arnolds sell their Certified Naturally Grown produce at farmers’ markets half an hour away, in Saratoga and Glens Falls – three markets in summer and two in winter. In addition to vegetables they have fruit plantings of apples, strawberries and blueberries.
Paul grew up in an upstate New York suburb. He and his family traveled each summer to help hay on an uncle’s farm in the Adirondacks. That got Paul thinking about farming, “but in the ‘70s the last thing you wanted to think about was farming,” he said. He started mowing lawns at age 12, which got him working outside and doing what he liked to do.
The Early Years: Gaining Skills
After high school Paul worked for a nursery and greenhouse operation. “Within a couple of years, I was running their 13-acre nursery, managing five greenhouses, keeping 15 trucks and seven tractors on the road – gaining an enormous amount of skills and knowing that this was what I wanted to do – but not in the city. The whole time I was there in my 20s, I saved money.”
Paul loved working at the nursery but eventually was ready for a change. His boss suggested that he travel, so at age 27 he drove west to see the national parks. Stops at a farm in Iowa and a farmers’ market in Michigan made him realize, “This is what I’m going to do – raise vegetables and sell them at farmers’ markets.”
When he returned to New York, he worked for a vegetable farmer for a season. In 1987 he started growing on an acre of land in his father’s backyard while he looked for land to start his own farm. He was seeking a lifestyle like “what we had with our uncle: Come in for dinner and the table would be spread with everything that the farm grew and made, and everyone” – workers and family – “would be sitting at the table together.”
Paul wanted to be a full-time farmer, but also was determined to have a small and profitable farm. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s offered few such examples, and he got a lot of pushback from “experts” who said it’s not going to work. Paul’s feelings were, “Get out of my way – this is where I’m going!”
In 1988 he closed on about 40 acres of land (later purchasing 20 more acres and renting 120 additional acres from a neighbor – most in woods and hay). The land had good agricultural soils, a big stream, electricity available, a nice southeast slope and a beautiful view. Since there were no buildings, it gave the opportunity to create the farm he envisioned.
Sandy also grew up in suburbia in different parts of the country, including Maine and New York. She earned a bachelor’s degree in botany with a minor in math. She said she has always loved to travel – has been in all 50 states – and be outside, has worked many and varied jobs, and has enjoyed saving and investing money since she was very young. She managed a garden center in the Glens Falls area for 10 years after college and was a project coordinator for a development company at the same time. Her father was an engineer, and with his guidance, her whole family started building its family camp in the Adirondacks in the 1960s.
In 1989, when Sandy was 30, she met Paul and realized that farming would get her outdoors and enable both of them to be self-employed. Both had gained a host of skills by then. They liked people and marketing, and they had family support.
At first they lived in a camper on the farm during the summer months and in a nearby apartment in the winters. They married in the fall of 1991 and started building their house on the farm in Argyle, overlooking the valley. In May 1992 they moved into the farmhouse (still under construction); in November 1992 their son, Robert, was born, followed by their daughter, Kim, in December 1995. Both children were homeschooled and were an integral part of the family farm starting at a very early age.
Building the Farm
The land had been in conventional corn for about 30 years, the organic matter content was about 1.2 percent, and they worked to get the soil in balance. They used hay, chopped with a flail chopper and spread by hand, to help build the soil. They also put in tile drainage and irrigation in the early years, both critical to production.
They took down two historic free barns nearby and reconstructed them in a central location on their land. (Paul learned about the efficiency of centrally located barns while working for nurseries where that was not the case.) They put the slate roofs back on the barns (to match the local architecture) and added a 20-by-30-foot root cellar under the larger barn. The smaller barn was designed to include a small heated area (potting shed plus) and a greenhouse was attached to it.
In 1992 they started with season extension – “one of the major keys to our success, which eventually turned into growing year-round,” said Paul. They also built a $200 washing station off one of the barns as their first wash/pack area.
Every year they planned to reinvest at least $10,000 into the farm. In 1995 they spent $7,000 expanding the washing station, making it as efficient as possible, with a barrel washer and more storage space. The heated, more efficient washing station was critical because so much of their labor was spent there, said Sandy. “It also made everyone happier to be warm!” They bought a used cooler, critical to a farm and fresh produce.
They paid for new buildings as they went along, eventually getting rid of a 17-by-24 hoophouse-style greenhouse and putting in a larger 30-by-48 Rimol polycarbonate, gutter connect greenhouse. “We didn’t take out loans except for short-term ones and 0 percent credit cards, and we made sure all were paid off quickly,” said Sandy. They built their first equipment shed in 2004 to house Sandy and Kim’s horses and the farm tractors. The horses were just for fun, and one of the most important things was to have fun as a family and enjoy farming as a career.
Shifting to Winter Harvests
Eventually they were growing 7 or 8 acres of vegetables, mostly during very busy summers. Then the farmers’ market started going into the fall and winter because some vendors had eggs, meat and cheese. In the early ‘90s the Arnolds had learned to grow spinach in a small 14-by-100 “fieldhouse” they designed. Customers asked the Arnolds to be at the winter market also, so they increased winter growing by building a 30-by-144-foot high tunnel in 2006, adding another in 2008 and a third in 2012. The tunnels have made a huge difference. The Arnolds still grow diverse summer vegetables but have become specialized in winter production. They went from cultivating 7 or 8 acres and selling all their produce between May and November to growing 4 acres – about 2 to 2-1/2 in winter storage crops and 1-1/2 to 2 in summer production. Cash flow is much easier now, said Sandy. The diversity of crops they grow – 30 to 40 vegetable varieties as well as blueberries and strawberries (using an annual bed system) – has provided a stable annual income.
Each tunnel cost about $30,000 to build and grosses well over that each year. “It’s a fast payback,” said Sandy. The tunnels also provide a lot of product even into May and June, when nobody else has produce from their farm fields yet.
They added a shop, which turned into a heated area for storing sweet potatoes and squash; an equipment shed; and they further improved the washing station – putting in cement floors in 2010 and making major improvements in 2016.
In 1997 they started doubling the size of their house to accommodate their growing family and interns, and added a garage. They worked on the additions as money and time allowed. After working on the slate roof for 14 years, they were able to finish it when interns Nate Drummond and Gabrielle Gosselin (now of MOFGA-certified organic Six River Farm in Bowdoinham, Maine) “were basically running the whole farm.” They’ve had many other interns since 1992; many are still farming.
For equipment they worked up to 4 acres with a BCS rototiller until 1997, when they got a compact tractor with a rototiller. They originally used an Earthway seeder and now use a Jang. “We didn’t spend a lot of money on tractors in the early years, and as we upgraded to new ones, we still incorporated some of the original systems, like wheelbarrows and hoes,” said Paul.
They feed their community primarily through farmers’ markets, but also through a few local restaurants and a health store. “It’s great to see customers and learn their names and make good friends,” said Sandy. They quickly improved their stand with tablecloths, skirts, shelves and crates instead of banana boxes. “We’re one of the smaller growers in our farmers’ markets, but we have the largest and most colorful displays,” she added.
A Family Operation
Paul acknowledged the importance of his family’s help on the farm. His father had always wanted to farm and retired early so that he could work six days per week at Pleasant Valley Farm. “When you’re the farmer, you’re putting out fires every day,” said Paul. His father had time to construct things to make farming easier. “He set up a greenhouse irrigation system and it would save us an hour a day.” His father, who died in 1999, was also one of their best marketers and their best harvester, and, said Paul, “my best friend.” Anne, Paul’s stepmother (now 87), was another amazing person on their farm, who babysat and did housework three days per week, and went to the market every Saturday.
“My father gave me only three words of advice for raising children,” Paul added: “Don’t ask. Tell.” So he and Sandy would say, “We’re going out to work today. Do you want to work in the washing station or harvest?” “We always said if kids can walk, they can work – setting the table, helping seed things … any construction, they were involved with it all,” said Paul. Instead of watching TV at night, they put up food and played games.
Robert would do anything that involved using the golf cart (for which he paid half). Some of the kids in their homeschool network also helped with the fall harvests. Both Kim and Robert gained a lot of confidence and self-esteem, said Paul. Kim now manages the day-to-day operations on the farm and runs the Glens Falls market year round. Robert helps at market, does tech support, and is one of their best tractor operators.
“We work hard on our farm and we have fun,” said Sandy. “Paul gets up at 4:30 to 5 every morning and is lucky to get to bed by 9:30. We have a family camp, a farm pond for skating, we cross-country ski and toboggan. We travel every year. Before we started winter growing, we could get away for about two weeks. Once we expanded into winter growing, our average became four to six weeks of vacation time per year” – thanks to positive cash flow and a year-round crew that knows what to do.
Hearing how exciting and rewarding life has been for the Arnolds on Pleasant Valley Farm over the past 30 years was inspirational. Being around family every day, eating healthy meals together all week with family and friends, experiencing nature, enjoying hundreds of visitors from around the world, plus traveling to many states and countries, have made it a truly exceptional lifestyle that they have cherished. “Happiness comes from doing what you love to do every day,” they said.
The Next Generation
Robert graduated in 2017 from Rochester Institute of Technology in computer networking and now runs his own business, Smart Farm Innovations, which offers consulting, installation services and support for new or existing farms, including technology and monitoring systems. He also teaches IT classes full-time at a local community college. Pleasant Valley Farm has benefited from his expertise with cameras and monitors installed to ensure that covers are on greenhouses and that water pressure, radiant heat, temperature, coolers and other items are operating properly. Robert recently bought his grandfather’s house and continues to be involved with the farm.
Kim married Peyton Atkins in September 2018. Peyton, a Pleasant Valley Farm intern, had been on the farm for two years and continues to have a love of agriculture. Paul and Sandy are looking into transitioning the farm to them over the next 10 years, stating, “It’s exciting to think Pleasant Valley Farm will possibly continue from generation to generation, feeding the local communities, raising children on the perfect place on God’s great earth, and providing a good living. It’s easy to see why farming is truly ‘the best job on earth.’”