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Making it Work: Couple Transforms Fallow Plot into Viable Farm

In 1979, Deb and Tom Decker bought a small plot of land that was stripped of its topsoil when the Taconic Parkway was built. The land might not have been put to productive use had it not been for the couple, who brought extensive skills and knowledge to their farming enterprise.

Deb has been farming Double Decker Farm full-time since 1990. All photos by Jaclyn Rose Bruntfield.

In 1990, Deb and Decker, her husband, began farming their land in the bucolic Hudson River Valley while also working full-time and raising two young children. They initially sold flowers at the Great Barrington Farmers Market, which opened that year. Since then, the farm has expanded to include a variety of fruits, vegetables, and decorative plants.

“We both were really drawn to farming,” she says. “I really think it’s a genetic disposition to farm. Either you’re into it or you’re not. A lot of people would kill themselves first.”

Deb earned a degree in floriculture at SUNY Cobleskill and worked for 12 years at a garden center in Great Barrington, Mass. Tom is self-taught in agriculture from planting fruit trees and tending greenhouses as a groundskeeper at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, also in Great Barrington. Deb says these experiences gave them a foundation upon which to build their own farm.

“Sometimes I look back at our records and say, ‘How did we survive? How did we feed our children?’” she says. “But I’m very grateful that we did it. I’m glad that we had worked on something for many years and, when the time came, we were able to segue into that.”

The couple has been working Double Decker Farm full-time since 1997. They currently own nearly six acres, with two and a half acres farmed on rotation each season.

Investing in the Farm
“We have needed everything that has come our way when it has come our way to make this work,” Deb says.
When Tom’s parents, who lived next door, passed away, Deb says they used his inheritance to invest in the farm, buying a mulch layer, transplanter, and cargo van.

“Without that, there were so many ways this tiny little farm could have failed,” Deb says.

Potted plants and herbs get their start in a greenhouse in early spring.

Deb also credits the Great Barrington Farmers Market, which is 20 miles from the farm, with supporting their business.

“People in Great Barrington always have such great appreciation for what we’ve done,” she says. “We’re their family and they’re our family.”

Double Deckers
In order to restore the farm’s soil and improve its structure, Deb explains that manure, hay mulch, rock phosphate, and green sand are added each growing season.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work to put it in, but then it’s good for the season,” Deb explains. “After you’ve gotten a whole season of beautiful work out of it, it goes into the soil and feeds the worms and becomes organic matter. That’s what we call a ‘double decker.’”

“I like it when Tom takes a handful of soil and there’s worms all in there,” she says. “Last year we had all of our tomatoes, herbs, and flowers hay mulched. It was so beautiful.”

Working with the Seasons
Aside from a vacation each fall, Deb says the farm keeps her and Tom busy year round.

“In July and August, we’re up really early harvesting what we can and cultivating,” says Deb. “We’ll bring music and chairs and water into the shed when it’s killer hot and sit with piles of onions and cut their roots off. It all has to be done, so we just try to work it around the weather and the season.”

“We work all winter,” she explains. “This year we’ve been cutting brush, cutting trees, cleaning up stuff that we would normally have to do in the spring.” The couple also uses time in the winter to order seeds, do paperwork, and repair their tractors.

Outside Deb’s home, which sits atop a hill overlooking the farm, is a huge, intricate clock that she created using clay and tiles. She says she tries to make time for her art in the winter, though the farm takes priority.

“We’re going to work if we can,” she muses.

A Boutique Farm
Double Decker Farm is so small that Deb says it doesn’t qualify for agricultural tax write-offs.

A variety of decorative plants start out in the greenhouse at Double Decker Farm.

“People will call us a boutique farm, but that’s the only way we can afford to be a farm. If you piled up all the high-quality food we’ve produced in 20 years, you’d be amazed where it came from.”
She dismisses criticism that the “boutique farm” caters to the wealthy elite.

“Good food is expensive,” explains Deb. “If your food is really cheap, you’re getting crap. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with selling our product for the price we do. Not making a profit, for us, would be unsustainable.”

Deb believes that more people should try growing their own vegetables to experience how difficult it is, and so they know “what good food tastes like.”

“There’s nothing like someone trying to grow a tomato plant to understand why we charge $3.50 a pint,” she says. “[In 2011,] we had 13 inches of rain over Labor Day and seven inches of rain in July. There are blights. So many things can happen to a tomato.”

Eating Healthy Together
“People have to be taught how to shop conscientiously,” Deb explains. “Many people don’t know how to cook anymore. They’re eating burgers, Chinese food, and quesadillas, so they don’t know how to buy good stuff.”

Deb says that shopping at markets and preparing fresh food serves as an opportunity for families to create memories.

“If you took $10 and made a game of it with your family, everybody can go and try to put together a salad, a soup, or a dessert,” she says. “Then you go home, talk about the stuff you bought, make it into a meal, and then you eat it all together. How far would that go for people to be eating healthy, educating, and having fun together?”

Deb says that making a raspberry tart from scratch can be less expensive for a family than a night at the movies. “Some people don’t have a clue that they could go and buy fresh raspberries, make a pastry crust, and bake it with some honey or sugar. It was two pints of raspberries an hour ago, but now you’re sitting down together eating one of the best things you’ve ever eaten. It creates a memory and it was your entertainment for the day.”

The Future of Double Decker Farm
Deb says the local food movement has provided an uptick in business for Double Decker Farm.

“For us it’s good,” she says. “Things come and go in cycles, but as far as the buying local movement goes, I think it’s only going to get better.”

The couple’s two oldest children work at the Hawthorne Valley Farm Store in Harlemville. Their youngest daughter helps out on the farm, mixing different colored tomatoes into containers and creating flower bouquets. But Deb says that her children have no interest in staying on the farm.

“They like good food and the idea of farming, but who wants to go pick 30 pints of cherry tomatoes when it’s 90 degrees?” she says.

Deb says that she and her husband have created a sustainable business model through expanding their business slowly over time. She believes that market organizers and potential new farmers could benefit by adopting similar strategies.

“Sustainability is something where the inputs and costs—monetary, health, environmental—are less than what you’re getting,” she says. “We’ve always worked under the premise, ‘Don’t get any bigger ‘til you can’t get any better.’ And as little as this place is, we have so much stuff after 22 years that we can still do. The longer we work at it, the better our systems get.”

Jaclyn Rose Bruntfield

Jaclyn Rose Bruntfield is a writer living in New York’s Hudson River Valley. After completing her thesis, “Stewards of the Land: Representations of Agricultural Authenticity in Columbia County, NY,” she received a Master’s degree in English from SUNY Albany in December 2012. Double Decker Farm was one of the family farms featured in Ms. Bruntfield’s thesis. She can be reached at jaclynbruntfield@hotmail.com.

3 Comments

  1. Dave Horton on November 28, 2013 at 11:46 pm

    I own a 9 acre lot in Lafayette NY where apples are the big commodity here, grapes grow well but this market is flooded with those products and prices are low.
    This property was cleared years ago and today brush and goldenrod rule the landscape, our goal is to build a small home get the land cleared for a small farm operation without reliance on heavy machinery.
    I expect 3 to 5 years would accomplish my goal, any thoughts and advice?.
    Dave Horton

  2. Deb barber on December 13, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Good luck, here is our advise… Work hard but take some time to enjoy life.
    Don’t get any bigger until you cant get any better
    Don’t grow more than you can sell
    The best fertilizer for your garden is your shadow
    Only grow things that make you money
    That is it in a nutshell.
    Ps never count on the rain
    Sounds really cliche’, but it is all good stuff, the best stuff we have learned.
    Don’t know how good your soil is…ours was stripped before we got the property….we put soooo much organic matter in over the years, that if we walked away tomorrow, it would be a hotbed of life and activity in the fertile soils we would leave behind…even after supplying tons of veggies and flowers over 23 years!
    The fact you are asking and learning gives you a great chance for success! Now just stay healthy and don’t get hurt!
    We wish you the best of luck and happiness on your farm
    Deb and Tom

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