by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Karen and Aaron Bouchard in northeastern New York weren’t always farming full-time. Just a couple of short years ago they both held down full-time jobs. Karen was a teacher and Aaron was in farm machinery sales.
“Now we’re working 14-hour days!” Karen attests, and they are loving it.
Aaron was raised on a dairy farm but left the farm to go to college, where he and Karen met.
“We started farming part-time on Aaron’s parents’ farm while still attending classes and working at our off-farm jobs,” Karen recalls.
When a friend presented them with “a couple hundred bulbs of garlic to plant” and grow, their interest in growing garlic grew, too.
“Each year, we replanted the garlic and soon our couple hundred garlic bulbs grew into 5,000 garlic bulbs!”
At the time marketing consisted of two local farmers markets.
After several years of growing in their backyard, the young couple — with a growing family — knew they needed to expand and were able to purchase a farm of their own which they named Bouchard Farm II.
The over 120-acre farm was just what Karen and Aaron needed to expand their ever-growing business, which soon developed into not just garlic, but producing organically grown heirloom vegetables, grass-fed beef and pastured pork.
“There have been a few obstacles that we have had to overcome,” admits Karen. “The first was to decide whether or not to become certified organic. We had always used organic practices in our farming, so we did a cost-to-benefit analysis to determine whether becoming certified organic was a worthwhile endeavor for our small farm and for our customers.”
Karen says that their customer base consisted of farmers markets, which had by then grown to four markets and a few restaurants. They had developed “very close and personal relationships” with their clients.
“Since we sell directly to our consumers, it all boils down to the customer knowing and trusting in our farming methods. We decided it would be more beneficial to educate our customers regarding our organic farming methods than to become certified organic. That divergent approach has worked very well for us.”
Another obstacle that took the Bouchards many years to overcome was being able to actually farm full-time.
“We both worked off the farm and it took us over 15 years to be financially stable enough to be able to leave the security of our off-farm occupations and finally farm full-time.”
Once time was freed up, the couple worked together building an aquaponics system, combining the best of both aquaculture and hydroponics within a high tunnel.
Most construction of the system was done by the couple, who emphasize they always work together.
The high tunnel, enforced with double-plied heavy plastic, provides a warm environment, even withstanding the March 2017 blizzard. However, Bouchards soon discovered the northeastern cold penetrated the tunnel enough to kill the climate-sensitive tilapia.
Karen is now considering another type of fish that might be better suited for the Upstate New York environment, but for now an organic fertilizer is used with the hydroponics system which has been modified to by-pass the fish tank.
“We’re experimenting with the high tunnel,” Bouchard says. “We were using fish to produce fertilized water for the hydroponic flood and drain (aka ebb and flow) bed system.”
Bouchard says the aquaponics fertilizer is the best.
“The resulting lettuce plants are amazing. They grow beautifully.”
Lettuce plants are started in dirt and transplanted into clay pots then inserted into the floating raft. “It’s all tied into the aquaponics.”
Two varieties of lettuce are produced in the floating raft — Butter Crunch and Butter King.
“They establish huge roots in the hydroponic system. When we harvest the lettuce we bring it to the farmers market with the roots intact. This allows the heads of lettuce to stay crisp and beautiful at the market without any wilting.”
The lettuce is a shoulder season crop, and when grown in the high tunnel, is available for market May through December.
“We sell it in the spring and fall,” explains Karen. “This helps us to extend our season when our main crops are either not producing yet or have been expended.”
With about two acres of produce, including 20,000 garlic bulbs, “all [are] planted and harvested by hand,”
Karen says her most popular garlic breeds are Canadian Music and Italian Purple stripe.
Most of the produce grown is heirlooms, including white, golden and red heirloom beets, carrots and all summer and winter squashes.
Sweet potatoes are well recognized as a southern crop, but the Bouchards grow them.
“It’s a challenge to grow them in New York State, but we figured out how to grow them. The key is to warm the soil at least two weeks before planting.”
The Bouchards usually have their soil worked and ready to go by the end of March.
“We till it and then use a bed shaper to mound the soil up. The bed shaper also lays a drip line and plastic over the rows. The black plastic warms the soil so that we’re able to plant the sweet potatoes by May 20.”
Harvesting the sweet potatoes proves to be another challenge.
“Sweet potatoes can grow two feet down in the soil, so we use our skid steer bucket to dig them out and then harvest them by hand.”
Beauregard and Georgia Jets are the two varieties of sweet potatoes grown by the farm.
Smaller sweet potatoes are packaged and sold to use for fries or to caramelized with onions and garlic.
“A lot of young customers and even some older ones really don’t know how to cook these things,” acknowledges Aaron. “You have to spend a lot of time talking to your customers. Tell them how to cook these vegetables.”
Advice for young or beginning farmers is to “keep it small” — Don’t spend a lot of money. “We just started out with garlic and expanded.”
The Bouchards, who have three children, recommend taking advantage of any educational programs offered.
“And don’t get into it if you don’t like it,” advises Aaron. “Even if you make a lot of money at it, you have to enjoy doing it.”
The Bouchards say keeping the farm small and promoting personal relationships with customers is extremely valuable to them.
“If we can’t do it ourselves, then we don’t pursue it. We feel that by remaining a small farm, we’re able to oversee every aspect of our farm, which ensures the highest standards for our products and for our customers alike.”
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