Yes, We Can. How Three Women, a Little Money and a Lot of Sweat Built Ironwood Farm
GHENT, COLUMBIA COUNTY
The 8.75 acres of Ironwood Farm slip softly down a hill behind County Route 9, marked by a couple of tractors and the undulations of a derelict 19th century barn. When a breeze blows, the plastic sheeting covering the farm’s greenhouses crackles; other than that, the only sound comes from a bird colony in the vines that billow over a defunct silo. In one of the greenhouses, an inky black kitten cleans himself on a domestic-scaled washing machine. The farmers use its spin cycle to dry freshly washed greens.
Jennifer Parker, Lauren Jones and Aliyah Brandt have been working this land since 2014, and currently they raise nearly 50 types of Certified Organic vegetables, greens and herbs year round. The trio has been remarkably successful, given their short history and the small parcel of land that they till. Ironwood sells through distributors and multiple CSAs (in both the Hudson Valley and in Westchester); they operate stalls at a growing number of farmers’ markets on both sides of the river; and their goods can be found at many regional shops that specialize in organic and locally raised food.
The increasingly hip Hudson Valley restaurant scene has also been keen to partner with Ironwood. Currently, the farm sells to Gaskins (in Germantown) and W.M. Farmer and Sons (in Hudson), where the chef has commissioned Ironwood to plant special produce this summer. Gabriele Gulielmetti of Hudson’s Bonfiglio & Bread has also commissioned crops—specifically, chicories from an Italian seed import company. Hudson Food Studio’s Chef David Chicane has been purchasing from Ironwood since its first year. Says Parker, “He’s been super-supportive. Dave would come out here and bring us lunch. He’s also done crop planting with us.”
Most notably, Ironwood Farm sells to Blue Apron, the game-changing company that delivers meal kits nationwide by subscription. That company, founded in 2012, is currently valued at $2 billion; in 2015, Blue Apron was credited with buying 3 million pounds of produce from small farms like Ironwood within a single year.
How does the trio explain Ironwood Farm’s rapid success? Parker laughs, proudly, “We’re hustlers!”
None of the women of Ironwood Farm comes from a farming family. The closest is soft-spoken Lauren Jones, whose grandmother raised cattle in Texas. Instead, Jones came to farming from a start in social justice. “I was living in Oregon and working in the nonprofit sector after college. We were working in a mentoring program, and I was doing home visits with people in poverty. I began to notice that the programming we were offering was ineffective because of food insecurity. So, I started a little garden for the mentoring program, and then I began growing my own food with some friends in Portland. After work, we would go out and grow our own food.”
It was farming that ultimately chose Jones. “I think office jobs are really hard. I was having a hard time in the office environment, you know... it wasn’t jibing with me.” Jones left Portland for a job at Little Seed Gardens, a 100-acre farm in Chatham, NY, that raises 20 acres of Certified Organic vegetables. There, she eventually met up with Brandt and Parker.
Brandt studied environmental science in college, then worked at two farms prior to joining Little Seed. “I feel like I wanted a job where I was outside and physically doing something to make something that I could use to sustain my own life.” Jones and Parker laughingly marvel at Brandt’s physical prowess. She actually does CrossFit on top of her heavy farmwork.
Parker, fair-haired and rangy, bounced around a lot after college: North Carolina, Brooklyn, Guatemala and Washington County, NY. She’d trained as a sculptor. “I think that, with farming, you get the same the aesthetic satisfaction [that you get from art]. You have the ability to create a whole world, but it’s always changing—it’s collaborative with nature.” Parker started her growing career while still at UNC Chapel Hill, working on farms. Parker found the work “fun and powerful, like a vibrant way to live. It felt good.”
Eventually, Parker found herself back in Bushwick, Brooklyn, after a stint on an upstate sheep farm. “I was just, like, ‘I can’t. I don’t want to live here.’ I immediately came up to the Hudson Valley to help someone start a farm. That lasted two years, and then I wound up at Little Seed.”
The trio’s path from Little Seed Gardens to owning and operating Ironwood is easy to track. They formed an LLC, and each ponied up $2,000—just, says Jones, “to feel like we all had skin in the game.” Then they took out a big capital loan via The Carrot Project, a group of New England–based investors that help farm and food businesses access financial support through banks. But even with this assistance, the women of Ironwood will be personally (and financially) exposed if the venture fails.
As with many start-ups, the first year of Ironwood was hard. Not only were they planting their first crops, but they were building the infrastructure—irrigation systems and green- and fieldhouses—that they use today. Jones was heavily pregnant with tow-headed Elsie, who now toddles around the farm with her father, Jonathan Taee. That year, the trio deferred their own payment, so both Parker and Brandt needed to work other jobs to get by. That left them pulling 70- to 80-hour work weeks. “There were a couple of screaming matches, for sure,” admits Parker. “That first year, I was saying ‘I cannot do this forever!’ But then the next year, we were able to pay ourselves and things got much better.”
Brandt was working full time at Lineage Farm at that point, located five minutes from Ironwood. It meant two full-time jobs involving heavy labor. “Luckily, I was also falling in love and so I was really excited. I feel like maybe that gave me some energy ... also, it was just really inspiring to be building our own thing.” Still, she admits, “There were some really tough emotional times between the three of us.”
Says Jones, “I was fully pregnant, working full time out here on my own. I was carrying irrigation pipe around on my own. I was doing a lot of tractor work on my own. Harvesting a lot, on my own.” “One day I had to harvest 550 bunches of kale by myself. I was, like,
‘OK, what time do I need to start? Because it’s going to be 90°.’ I know that this is going to take me at least four hours, and we didn’t have a harvest cart. So I had to drag a tank out there, and then I dragged the hose out and filled the tank. I picked as fast as I could. And then it was, like, dunk the kale in cold water. Pack it. And then when I get to a certain number of boxes, carry it back to the cooler.” Jones pauses, remembering. “What came out of that first year, for me, was the feeling that I could do anything.”
The decision to be a woman-owned farm was not political, or even particularly intentional. “I don’t think it was even a conscious choice,” says Parker. “Like, ‘I only want to work with women.’ I ended up working with a lot of women over my farming career, so that was just the pool I had to choose from.” Jones jumps in (they do this a lot), “But that’s an interesting question...I mean, if one of us was a boy, would the farm have a different value? Or vision at its core?”
It is an interesting question. According to a 2016 Fortune article about Blue Apron, the company’s national farm sourcing team is totally comprised of women, and much of what they source is also grown by women. In addition, women workers make up the majority of those seeking employment at Ironwood. At this, Jones laughs. “I mean, we invite men to apply for work here. We don’t put out ads saying ‘only seeking females!’”
The women bristle at the idea that operating a women-owned farm makes them unusual. “I feel that women have always been at the center of agriculture,” observes Jones, “maybe not in the forefront in people’s minds in our society, but women have been a part of food production for forever. Just because they’re not [Parker interjects “in the historical narrative”] out flexing their muscles in front of the barn, that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”
Parker follows up. “I just think anyone is capable of being either strong or weak, regardless of their gender. So maybe there’s a popular assumption about what women can and can’t do, but the reality is that we have been doing this. The whole time. So, why is this even a question?”