Farm yields mixed vegetables, two artistic careers, one marriage

| 29 Apr 2013 | 12:59

The broker was already apologizing as they drove up the winding driveway, past abandoned equipment and cows wading in muck. The decrepit 88-acre dairy was five times bigger than what Keith Stewart and Flavia Bacarella were looking for, not to mention further away from Bacarella’s job in the city.

Two days later, Stewart bought the Greenville farm for the asking price of $215,000. He didn’t know much about farming, but he’d been a real estate consultant and could recognize a good deal.

“It’s not that I am necessarily a person who can go around making quick decisions on important matters, but in this case it was like, don’t f*** around,” Stewart recalls. “It looked to me like it had potential. You could do lots of things here.”

Twenty-six years later, this rough land – with its hills, woods, six different types of soil, groundhogs, deer, rabbits – yields organic vegetables, herbs and signature garlic that’s been praised by the NY Times as “from another planet.” Stewart employs eight seasonal workers, most of them bright eyed future reformers of the food system.

He just released his second book, Storey’s Guide to Growing Organic Vegetables. To be asked to write the tome on a subject Stewart only came to in his forties “was a stroke to my ego,” Stewart acknowledges. The book took two years to write and a third to edit. “I was getting up early, staying up late. A lot of times I’d sit there and just suffer,” he said. “What to say that has not been said ten thousand times?”

The book is not only a straightforward guide to growing food and making a living doing it, and not only a philosophical treatise, and not only good reading, but all three. Pick it up and you might be inspired to become a farmer. Or at least a gardener who knows how to make a field map.

The farm has also acted muse for Bacarella, who chairs the art department at Lehman College, channeling her artwork into a new medium. Until a decade ago, Bacarella considered herself a painter who dabbled in pen and ink and monotypes. Just once, she carved a tomato into a block of wood and then stamped it onto a piece of paper.

When Stewart was working on his first book, It’s a Long Road to a Tomato, Bacarella sent the publisher her portfolio. The publisher liked the woodcut print and to Bacarella’s horror, wanted 20 illustrations like it.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. She started with the tractor, the machine that tops Stewart’s list of indispensible tools of the trade. She blackened her hands making 20 charcoal drawings and carved her favorite into a piece of scrap wood. She did a nest of wrens that lived underneath a flat of kale. Telling no one what she was up to, she made prints and hung them on the wall.

The day Stewart looked at the wall and said, “This is promising,” Bacarella knew she was onto something. At Stewart’s first book signing, she sold 15 prints, and she’s been showing and selling her work ever since.

Bacarella works from a sun-filled studio the couple built in 2005. It’s a major upgrade from the corner of the barn that she’d been sharing with mold and bats. The studio overlooks a birdfeeder, a Valentine’s Day gift from Stewart. After 20-something years of marriage, this year was the first Stewart acknowledged Valentine’s Day, Bacarella pointed out laughingly. Things must be going well.