“I think a lot of people have this image of a farmer as being someone who is slow, traditional, doing the same thing day in and day out. In fact I’d say it’s the opposite. You have to be extremely bright and thoughtful, capable of turning on a dime and making things work.” -Karen Weinberg, 3-Corner Field Farm
by Michelle Kiefer
Farming isn’t for the light-hearted. Faced with unpredictable weather patterns, 24/7 responsibilities, and an agricultural system that seems intent on keeping small farms out of the game, it’s a profession even the iron-willed would balk at. But former Brooklynites Karen Weinberg and Paul Borghard have turned 3-Corner Field Farm in Shushan, New York, into a success. Inspired by their time living abroad in France, Karen and Paul adopted a European-style approach to farming long before “local” and “sustainable” were buzzwords. Their sheep’s milk cheeses and pastured, grass-fed lamb have gained the respect of the New York’s most discerning eaters and chefs, and Brooklynites are fortunate enough to have access to 3-Corner Field’s products right in our own backyard – at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket each week.
We spoke with Karen to learn a little more about the daily workings of a sheep farm, as well as the challenges faced by small-scale, sustainability and quality-focused farmers forging their own path in an industry dominated by corporate interests and commodity products.
So Karen, how did you get started as a farmer?
We purchased the property twenty-two years ago with the potential for it being used as a farm, and we finally turned it into a commercial enterprise eleven years ago. We had just returned from France where we had been living for three years. When we got back the local food movement was just starting to take off in the States, but Europe had been sustainable for centuries, full of small farms and artisanal products. The small farms in France grew a variety of crops- everything from walnuts to pigs to tobacco. That European model was completely different from the large, specialized farms here in the US, and that’s what we had in mind when we began. Our goal has been to maintain a sustainable enterprise while still producing as much as we can. We chose to raise sheep because we had had them before and enjoyed having sheep, so we felt it was something our farm was well suited for.
Tell us more about your time in France. How did French culture influence your approach to farming?
In France we spent a lot of time eating great cheese and food. We didn’t go with the intent to look closely at the food, but it became clear even in a large cosmopolitan city like Paris that there was an emphasis on knowing the origins of your food. We traveled all over France, visited farmers markets, and ate locally grown food. Even in the supermarkets it was common to see products from small farms. Or you would go to a good cheese shop where the marchand bought cheese from small farms, had been to these farms and promoted them and their products in his shop.
In the US you see- especially with dairy farms- the cows are kept inside, the milk is picked up by truck and sent somewhere else. The milk is a commodity. Our farm is not set up to make money doing that. Even with the different agricultural tax and regulation structures that exist in France, we still felt it was a better model for us to follow than what our neighbors were doing in the rural Northeast.
What did you do before you went into farming?
I have a PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. My husband has a degree in law and business. We had lived in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. When we got the farm, we fixed it up and would visit on the weekends. But living on the farm was always something I had in mind.
Can you tell us more about the day-to-day workings of the farm?
Unlike many farms, our farm is seasonal – everything is based on the natural seasons of a sheep’s life cycle. The year begins when the lambs are born at the end of March-April. It’s the beginning of our work year, just like some people have fiscal years, because we can’t milk until the sheep have lambs.
We’ve designed a system to fit the sheep’s natural behavior. The sheep are bred in November. As the weather warms the grass grows and then we take the lambs on pasture. The spring pasture is the most lush and that gives the largest supply of milk. We wean the lambs from their moms when they are well grown and physically mature enough – healthy enough to be on their own. We start milking in May.
Everything is pasture-based, and the sheep are virtually never in a barn. The work we do is not just about the cheese. There’s a lot of work out in the fields – mowing, weed-whacking, maintaining the fencing that keeps the sheep safe and helps us move and milk the ewes…There’s a tremendous amount of work in order to keep the animals in the lifestyle they should have.
We milk two times a day – morning and early evening. Border collies help move the sheep. Then there’s everything involved in the milking process – setting up, and moving the sheep back and forth to the milking parlor. My husband and daughter do the milking. Then I handle the milk after the milking – that’s my role. Besides my husband and I, who work the farm full-time, we have two part-time people who help us, and two more people who work with us part-time in the summer.
It would be much easier if we kept the sheep in a barn- that’s how most dairy farms operate. Most let the animals outside for fresh air, but they don’t get their nutrients from pasture. That’s why our products cost more than the dairy in the supermarket, because the dairy in the supermarket is from industrial producers, and the milk from those farms is a commodity.
What’s the biggest challenge you face as a small farm?
The biggest challenge in being profitable is that we’re not in control of hardly anything that happens. We’re very dependent on the weather, which affects the animals, the price of everything we purchase, and the amount of people who come to the market to purchase our products. Primarily because we’re pasture-based we’re in an environment where we have a lot of things we can’t control. It’s a bit daunting.
I think a lot of people have this image of a farmer as being someone who is slow, traditional, doing the same thing day in and day out. In fact I’d say it’s the opposite. You have to be extremely bright and thoughtful, capable of turning on a dime and making things work. My husband and I both have advanced degrees, and though we may not get the chance to use them all the time, it takes as much intelligence to run this farm as it does to get a PhD. We’re in charge of everything- purchasing, animal health, pasture management, machinery, cheese production.
What role have Greenmarket sales played in the success of your business?
It’s integral to what we’re doing. 70% of our sales last year were in retail through the Greenmarket. It’s critical to our income. When we first started we would do one day a week at a less busy market for only a few months. But then we expanded what we produce so we have product year round and the market provides a steady income. Now we’re there 11 months out of the year. And it’s a great venue. People come by from all around. We got a lot of our accounts for restaurants and cheese shops through the market.
It’s helpful because we’re put in front of consumers with our products. I’m the one that goes to the market, and it’s been a real learning opportunity. Seeing what people like and don’t like, how they respond to a new cheese or new cut of lamb. We receive direct feedback, and a lot of our customers have good taste: they’re food professionals, food writers, chefs, storeowners. Their feedback helps us to change and grow what we’re doing.
You can find 3-Corner Field Farm every Saturday at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket.