Gary Kleppel has put himself in an excellent position to practice what he preaches. He and his wife, Pam, own and operate the 16-acre Longfield Farm in Knox (Albany County), NY, where they raise sheep and chickens – and produce amazingly wonderful loaves of sourdough bread.
How did he get interested in sustainable farming? I didn’t know the real answer when I was writing The Emergent Agriculture, he says. We’re sitting in the living room of his pleasant farmhouse, a building dating from the mid-19th century, which seems appropriate to the subject at hand. I remember seeing a Leonard Cohen documentary, he adds, in which there was a song of his called You Want It Darker. In it, he uses the Hebrew word hineni, which means, ‘here I am.’ It means, ‘I’m ready.’ And the song made me cry. Even now I’m choking up. So I asked the question, ‘What am I doing here?’
He’s continuing to explore the topic in a new work, a book-in-progress titled Eden 2.0: How Farming with Nature Can Save the Food System (and Maybe the Planet). But the first inklings of agricultural aspiration came when he was a college kid. I was driving to Cortland, to go to college, and we were going past these beautiful hills and pastures with cows – which I know now is all wrong – and all of a sudden the landscape turned to dairyland, and I was moved by that. I was in no way interested in farming – I was a pre-med student who didn’t want to be a pre-med student – and every time I would drive back and forth between Rockland County and Cortland, I would feel my shoulders relax, and I would feel my head clear.
His career path took a different turn, however. He became an oceanographer. So here I am, I come out of Fordham with a PhD in biology, go to the University of Southern California to do a post-doc in oceanography, and get my first faculty position in Florida at the Nova University Oceanographic Center. Then I go to South Carolina because I’ve been asked to take a position as chief scientist in a study of how suburbanization along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia are affecting the coastal eco-systems, and then I end up in Albany. Hineni. Although I was given a good Jewish background, and know the bible stories, I’m agnostic. So what am I doing here? I can’t explain whether there’s a God or not – my life is based on data, so all I can say is ,’I don’t know.’
The Kleppels purchased the farm while both were still employed, and Gary paralleled learning to farm with learning to teach about farming, eventually focusing on sustainable agriculture issues while a professor of biology. We couldn’t do it on a big scale, because we’d have to give up our careers – I was very happy being a professor – and we would have had to expand and hire people, and I wouldn’t be able to think about hineni.
Both have since retired – And we have good pensions, so we don’t have to worry about our income. Somehow, we have a farm that’s the right size for me to be producing food – it’s a commercial farm, we sell our food – but we decided not to become big, so we couldn’t do this as our only source of income. And it’s not just about producing really good food. I can also teach people how to produce good food, and others, who don’t produce food, why they should be supporting this kind of food.
He encourages visits, and notes that at least 200 people go through the farm every year. We’ve had PhDs done on this property, and I’ve taught courses here that involve using my sheep and my property.
As we talk, a border collie named Chip politely competes for attention. He’s like a five-year-old kid, says Gary, who is devoted to the beast, and who always intended that a dog should figure into his farming plans. When we started raising sheep, we bought a little Australian shepherd, a rescue dog. We discovered that she was good at going around the sheep, but she never quite got it. We realized she wasn’t going to work out. Actually, the sheep figured this out long before I did.
He went to see Barb Armata, who raises and trains sheepdogs at Taravale Farm & Kennel in Esperance (Schoharie County), NY. Barb put me together with Tory, and Tory and I clicked. She was a great dog, and we made a great team. Tory taught me more about sheep than anybody. I still carry her collar on my backpack. She lasted 14 years, and herded our sheep for ten, until she got too weak. We retired her; she hated retirement, and lasted another four years.
Chip is her successor. He is – I hate to say it – better than Tory. We saw this once we were out in the field. Find sheep! Gary commanded, and Chip ran to the pastured flock and begin herding, his movements controlled by a series of distinct whistles Gary sounded. The farm has forty different paddock areas through which he rotates the sheep. He explains that in Africa’s Serengeti you see constantly moving herds of wildebeest and zebra and giraffes, eating a diversity of grasses and plants – “unlike those cows I saw on the hills all those years ago, which are eating one or two planted species. These animals are eating hundreds of different species, and as they move, the birds come in behind them. So we decided to get chickens to be part of our pasture management program.
Not surprisingly, it isn’t pristine-looking pastureland on his farm. It looks like a wild eco-system, because when you farm with nature, that’s what you get. When we got here, I counted ten species of plant, mostly timothy grasses and clover. Now we have at least 49 species of plants, probably way more.
There’s also a lifestyle aspect to his husbandry. We play classical music to the animals in the barn. Studies have shown that it reduces their stress hormones, and we get about three percent more milk from them.
Back at the farmhouse, we get a pungent whiff of his sourdough starter and admire the wood-fired beehive oven in which he bakes pain au levain, a wild yeast bread, and sourdough loaves from a recipe by Chad Robertson, who runs the acclaimed Tartine bakery in San Francisco. There’s also a commercial oven in the kitchen for baguettes, bagels, and more traditional breads, including a German rye speckled with caraway and dill seeds.
But the proof comes from a finished product that we purchase on a Tuesday at the seasonal (early May to late October) Tuesday Delmar Farmers’ Market at which Gary and Pam are fixtures. Some of the wheat for the loaves is coming from their farm, and it’s their own sheep’s wool that’s turned into the blankets and gloves and scarves they sell. We make off with two sourdough loaves and a whole-wheat loaf that features freshly ground wheat berries, and they’re all as delicious as any bread I’ve tasted, if not more so for coming from the hand of someone whose farm I’ve visited. And that’s a key to the sense of community needed to make the emergent agriculture work for us as mindful consumers.
There’s a special energy to a farm, just as there’s an energy to a farmers’ market. And Gary is keen on the topic. I don’t know where it comes from universally, he muses, but I know that for us it comes from the sun, and it travels 93 million miles to the earth, and were it not for this little molecule called chlorophyll, it would just go back into space, and so there’s this energy, which gets transferred throughout a series of compartments in a process we call ‘life.’ And that’s all I know. Hineni. I’m ready. And that’s why we farm.
(B.A. Nilsson, 12/6/19)