Food Production & Post-carbon Fulfillment
John Tornow, Liseli Haines, Pat Kenschaft
Interviewed by Pamela Boyce Simms
John Tornow, Seneca Castle, NY, Liseli Haines, Clinton NY, and Pat Kenschaft, Montclair, NJ all radiate a deep, content, fulfillment that they each attribute to ongoing collaboration with the natural world and growing food.
“You can grow food on your own that isn’t full of a lot unknown chemicals. You can buck the system. You can pick what you need as you need it and also know that what’s on your plate didn’t abuse someone’s labor.”
Grower-owners of Seneca Castle Organic Farm, John Tornow and his wife Jill McLellan have fed their family and shared fresh produce with their neighbors from their farm since 1981 when they moved to the Finger Lakes region. John is the grower. Jill, AVP veteran of Auburn Prison Preparatory Meeting, is the farm’s back-office organizer of the 4H club, Farm Club, Boys and Girls Club, Hobart and William Smith College volunteers who have helped out on the farm.
Surrounded by mono-cropping conventional farmers who grow for export, ethanol, or cattle feed, John and Jill grow dozens of varieties of vegetables on a portion of their eight acre organic farm. John distributes his produce locally, and has experimented with multiple on-farm ventures. Seneca Castle Organic Farm exemplifies the type of small scale farm innovation that the Quaker UN Office (QUNO) lifts up worldwide.
John has worked with whatever set of circumstances presented themselves and learned invaluable lessons. He’s gone from enriching the soil with horse manure provided by a friend who used to breed race horses nearby, to chicken manure and organic feather meal, bone meal, and blood meal inputs with a slow time release of nutrients. He has experimented with seed varieties and planting schematics. His three dozen-strong chicken brood benefits from lessons learned when he used to incubate chickens.
Seneca Castle Organic Farm once had an apple orchard and produced delicious apple cider. However, while most orchards producing cider for commercial distribution use dwarf apple trees, John’s orchard had tall, standard-sized trees. He realized that, “getting on a ladder with a spray rig was too labor intensive.” He also couldn’t abide the extraordinary level of industry waste, or “the need to spray chemicals at just the right temperature, at just the right time in order to produce the marketable, standard apple.” Increasingly stringent industry regulations which required cider producers to pasteurize their product, an impossibly expensive feat for small producers, was the final straw. Seneca Castle Farm’s cider production ceased. John remarks, “Big Ag will tolerate localized production up to the point where it starts to cut into their money.”
The farmers’ market circuit was also part of Seneca Castle Farm’s evolution. John sold produce at nearby farmers’ markets for years. However, aside from the fact that he found himself picking produce in the dark in order to get to market on time as autumn approached, John was actually more interested in giving away food than selling it. Clarity that emerged from decades of farming is that, the fun is in the giving. So to that end, he and Jill now happily supply and/or donate an abundance of food to:
- The Catholic Charities lunch program,
- The Food Justice gleaning project,
- Their own roadside farm stand and a stand in Geneva,
- Agro Business Child Development, (ABCD) migrant children day care, and,
- The Center for Concern’s Shelter.
“I am such a happy person. Gardening is so much fun and the garden almost takes care of itself. There is such wonder, awe, and joy in watching plants grow, in harvesting and tasting. You get a deep inner satisfaction from the garden and it saves a lot of money.”
Mention high-yield suburban organic gardening to anyone in Essex County, New Jersey and Pat Kenschaft will come up in conversation. Pat, a former professor of Mathematics and member of Montclair Meeting, is a master-gardener who attributes successfully managing a chronic health challenge for decades to her process of gardening and superb quality food.
Pat also holds the archival memory for the Cornucopia Network of New Jersey (CNNJ). CNNJ is a non-profit organization that encourages local food production and distribution and includes suburban gardeners throughout Essex County NJ. CNNJ members teach others how to grow a tremendous amount of pesticide-free food in small spaces and offer garden tours.
Pat minimizes weeding, watering and uses no pesticides by double digging, heavily composting, and mulching her garden which yields 45 varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs year round. Winter finds Pat harvesting Chinese cabbage and kale in the snow and fresh salad greens from her kitchen greenhouse window.
Anyone who looks out at their suburban backyard with superlative quality food production in mind and wonder’s “What’s possible?” is advised to contact Pat Kenschaft.
“I’m always reaching to do more, to find ways in which I can live with integrity. It’s such a fulfilling way to live.”
On any given crisp October morning for the past six years Liseli Haines could be found finishing up the insulation for that particular year’s wall of her 150 year old farm house in Clifton, New York. The farmhouse walls previously had no sheathing, only fiberglass insulation between the clapboard and inside wallboard. The original insulation has been replaced, one wall per year, by dense pack cellulose and ecologically sound foam board. Last year Liseli concluded the six year project which has exponentially increased the energy efficiency of the family homestead walls through which frosty breezes once blew. The walls are now 7.5 inches thick!
In addition to the insulation project, a large garden, a low-to-no trash policy, her son’s chickens, and a solar array in Liseli’s cow pasture also support resilience-building. She has always heated with wood and has not used her back-up fuel supply since 2014.
Liseli’s use of the land and the wildlife thereon is factored into arrangements with a Mennonite dairy farmer who rents her certified organic pasture. A beekeeper maintains an apiary on the land and a game hunter supplies the household with venison. Yet equally important to sustaining and nurturing the integrity of the land, is Liseli’s longstanding practice of regularly visiting special locations, aligning, and simply “being” with the space.
New York Yearly Meeting need look no further than to its own members to get a glimpse of what superb quality, simple, and extraordinarily fulfilling lives might look like in a post carbon future.