CNS PHOTO | GREGORY SHEMITZ

Volunteer Rebecca Gallo smiles while planting lettuce at Sisters Hill Farm in Stanfordville, N.Y.

March 28, 2011
BETH GRIFFIN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

STANFORDVILLE, N.Y. — Who knew that Catholic social teaching was a glorious assault on the senses?

At Sisters Hill Farm in Stanfordville, it has the taste of sweet crisp carrots, the fragrance of fresh basil with dark loamy dirt still attached to its roots, and the sight and sound of winged insects pollinating bright orange zucchini blossoms.

It feels like the warm breeze that blows papery skins from the wooden table in an open barn where onions are trimmed and bagged.

Walking the six acres under cultivation, farm director Sister Mary Ann Garisto told Catholic News Service, “This farm epitomizes all of the aspects of Catholic social teaching: in giving to charity, in building community and in being good to the earth.”

Sister Mary Ann is a Sister of Charity of New York. Her congregation has sponsored the farm since 1999 to express its reverence for creation and extend its mission of education and service to the poor.

The farm grows more than 100 varieties of some 30 vegetables and herbs without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

It participates in community-supported agriculture, which means it has shareholders — 225 of them — who receive weekly distributions of fresh produce in exchange for a contribution that covers the production costs and pays the farm staff a living wage.

The annual harvest weighs in between 30,000 and 36,000 kilograms. At least 10 per cent is given to nearby soup kitchens and food pantries.

Sister Mary Ann said in 1995 the sisters identified women, the earth and people living in poverty as their focus for the new millennium. “We wanted to reverence creation in a spirit of interconnectedness.”

PERSISTENCE

It took several years for the idea to take root within the congregation, but Sister Mary Ann persisted.

CNS PHOTO | GREGORY SHEMITZ

Dave Hambleton demonstrates a tool used to plant seed.

“Community-supported agriculture gets people in touch with how their food is grown and provides them with wonderful, wholesome food,” she said. “We give the crops healthy soil. And just like humans, plants that are not stressed will be immune to diseases.”

The farm became operational in 1998 and David Hambleton became head farmer in 1999.

Hambleton aspired to be an organic farmer and was intrigued by the opportunity to develop a sustainable operation, literally from scratch. Sister Mary Ann described him as “a Renaissance man,” adept at farming, drafting, construction, mentoring apprentices and supervising volunteers.

MAXIMIZE PRODUCTION

Hambleton has developed useful systems to work effectively to maximize food production. He plants cover crops after harvest to restore nitrogen to the soil naturally, leaves areas unmowed to create diverse habitats and attracts beneficial insects with flowers.

Hambleton hires two apprentice farmers each year and organizes the ongoing efforts of volunteer shareholders.

“I am looking to train people who are going to run farms,” he said and he is proud that many former apprentices now work as farmers or in related fields.

A core group of volunteers weed, harvest and help with other farm chores.

Hambleton said volunteers are a key distinction between the sisters’ farm and a private undertaking.

He described Pete, a volunteer who has dug as many pounds of rocks from the soil as Hambleton has harvested produce in 12 years.

“If it were my own farm, there wouldn’t be a Pete,” he said.

Sister Mary Ann said there is something mystical about Sisters Hill Farm. “The Spirit pervades this place. It’s truly holy ground. Our food is so good because it’s grown with love and reverence.”