Small-scale sustainable farming is becoming more and more data-driven. Pleasant Valley Farm is Exhibit A for the trend.
Data is the root of what Paul Arnold calls his "relentless drive to do everything more efficiently." The entire agricultural operation he runs with his family 30 minutes east of Saratoga Springs is geared toward discovering new ways to sustainably grow fruits and vegetables and reducing inputs of labor, fertilizer and other resources, while producing a larger output of crops that are healthier and better-tasting.
In the nearly 30 years they've been running their Washington County farm, Paul and his wife Sandy have created advanced systems that increase the profitability of their operation, earning them invitations to share their techniques at conferences around the country and in Canada. Moreso than many famers, they have demonstrated that small-scale agriculture can be both a highly satisfying and financially rewarding career choice.
To assist in their modernizing of the farm, the Arnolds have deployed monitoring equipment that pulls in temperature, humidity and other readings from about 25 different wireless devices distributed around the farm, enabling them to track what's happening in storage facilities, greenhouses, high tunnels, and other structures. An alarm will sound if there are any issues, with notifications to phones and computers. Remote surveillance cameras enable them to "watch' the farm when they travel.
As yet, the Arnolds have installed no such devices at Pitney Meadows Community Farm, but they undoubtedly will at some point. Their plan is to train the next generation of famers on some of these successful and advanced techniques. Since 1995, the Arnolds have hosted at Pleasant Valley Farm more than 50 interns from around the world, many of which are operating their own farms now or have remained in the agricultural field. At Pitney Meadows, they aim to employ and teach many more.
Growing up in South Glens Falls, Paul had little exposure to farming as a child, except for annual weekends he spent at an uncle's dairy farm each summer. But he "got deep into agriculture" when he went to work for a nursery/greenhouse operation after graduating from high school, he says.
After taking a trip west that exposed him further to farming, he decided to make farming a full-time career. A big motivator: "I wanted to sit down to a meal with my family and enjoy knowing it was all foods we'd grown ourselves."
Starting with a large garden he planted in his father's back yard in 1987, Paul went on to purchase what was just land in 1988 in Argyle, and then he methodically set about mastering the essentials of small-scale organic agriculture and built up Pleasant Valley Farm with his family to be the thriving farm it is today.
The 'eat local' movement was just taking off. "Sandy and I wanted to be part of it," he says.
Owning 60 acres of land and leasing another 120, Paul and Sandy today sell vegetables and fruits grown with organic methods to local farmers' markets and restaurants in Saratoga Springs and Glens Falls. They enjoy selling a diverse mix of fresh, healthy produce to the community year-round from the five acres they have in production, with another four acres in cover-crops for rotation; the rotations of vegetable, grains, and other crops are a valuable system for any farmer.
With three "high tunnels" -- unheated solar greenhouses -- they're able to grow such leafy crops as lettuce, kale, swiss chard, Asian greens, spinach, and arugula right through the winter. Their high tunnels have automatic, computer-controlled, roll-up sides that help maintain the proper temperature and humidity year-round.
The Arnolds' two grown children, Robert and Kim, have contributed to the family operation since they were toddlers, mastering virtually all tasks that involve the operation of the farm, including planting, fertilizing, weeding, harvesting and marketing. Kim, at age 21, ran the farm for most of September while Paul and Sandy were at an agriculture show in Europe. Now a senior at Rochester Institute of Technology, Robert has already established his own business, Smart Farm Innovations, which helps farmers achieve higher productivity through high-tech applications and equipment.
As a member of the Pitney Meadows Board of Directors and chair of its Buildings and Grounds Committee, Paul confronts a major challenge in renovating the property's existing buildings, including a farmhouse that has been without electricity for years. After much digging of trenches to carry the lines and mounting of electrical equipment, the initial installation of electricity is now complete, and water, sewer, and natural gas are still to come.
"We are figuring out what each building needs and when, as well as plan for new structures for the community farm," he says. "It is so exciting and rewarding to see the historic 150 year old Pitney Farm come to life again, and have Bill Pitney work along side me."
By Dan Forbush with Miranda Sullivan, Assistant Publisher