Betting the Farm: Bard Farm

By Eric Steinman | September 01, 2013
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There was a time, albeit over a century ago, when nearly every Hudson Valley institution, whether a school, large estate or even prison, had a modest garden that produced food for the masses. Most of these gardens were supplemental, and not entirely sustaining, but existed out of both necessity as well as a tangible link between the institution and the land. Population density and significant improvements in food distribution have made such institutional farms a rarity, or at least a quaint little exploit. But at the Bard Farm, located on Bard College campus, something more than a little exploit is in the growing process.

The Bard Farm is a quite modest 1.25-acre sustainable urban farm located in not such an urban setting. Situated between the campus's stately Manor House and a thicket extending down to the Hudson River, the farm organically grows fruits, vegetables and herbs to sell directly to Chartwells, the campus dining service, which it quite successfully did when it sold over 6,000 pounds of produce to them last year.

While the farm is routinely and lovingly worked by a cadre of dedicated Bard students, the genial mastermind of the venture is the young farmer John-Paul Sliva, who started the farm in 2011 and envisioned the project as a means to explore a viable model for an urban farm and provide a working demonstration of the realities of small-scale farming and the potential for community to develop around food. Sliva built up the farm from uncultivated land and with the simple idea that community-based farming, even on such a small scale, could not only create a sustainable community hub, but also, through a direct relationship, greatly improve the institutional buying habits of large-scale food companies like the one at Bard.

"This relationship" Sliva insists, "is a very important question for food activists right now: how can institutions change their buying habits and allow transparency, support sustainable food production and create greater happiness for farmers and consumers?" For Sliva and Bard Farm, this relationship works because they choose to be highly competitive with pricing and meet the demands, at least in part, of the institution and Chartwells. They are able to do this because the Bard Farm is modeled after more than just a business: it's a student space to work, think, study and create outreach programming. Because of this partnership, the farm benefits from a financial support net, in the form of institutional support and occasional grants, that other local farms do not have, and it is therefore operating within the demands that come with local farming, without nearly as much risk.

Because the farm has woven into its design a certain room for creativity, Sliva and company are seeking out innovative ways to push the boundaries of local micro-farming. One crop that Bard Farm cornered the market on was locally grown cranberries, which proved to be an ideal crop to grow in wet clay soil and was seen as a highly desirable local crop to sell directly to Chartwells due to the fact that no one else in the Hudson Valley was growing and selling cranberries. Similarly, Bard Farm elected to grow hops, yet another crop not widely grown in this area, for flavoring beer. They just harvested 31 pounds of hops, which they turned around and sold to Crossroads Brewing Co. in Athens for their locally brewed Black IPA. This makes for a truly local beer.

Continuing toward harvest and the 2014 growing season, Sliva is never short on ideas on how he could sustainably exploit his modest acre, but he also understands that the farm's reason for being, in this location in particular, has everything to do with the student experience and the overriding mission to usher micro-farming into the future.

"I wanted to create a landscape sculpture that would connect students, the consumer, directly and passionately to sustainable food production, the act of hard manual labor and the transformation of food and space."

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