Growing Young Farmers from the Ground Up
Years before the words “mentoring” and “magnet schools” came into common use, Dan and Joanne Tilley were mentoring kids at their magnet farm in the Hoosic River Valley. It began in 1938 when Dan’s father bought a farm near the intersection of Route 7 and Route 22 in Hoosick Falls. (Yes, there are two spellings of Hoosic/Hoosick depending on whether you are talking about the river or the town.) Dan wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be a farmer upon graduating from Paul Smith College. But when his father asked him to help with the dairy, Dan came home to the farm… and stayed.
Dan stayed close to home when it came to marriage as well. His wife Joanne (Herrington) was a local gal who grew up on her parents’ farm only seven miles away. In 2008, Joanne and Dan stopped milking cows at Tilldale Farm and started raising organic grass fed beef and pigs for meat. All of their animals are heritage breeds, born and raised on the farm.
Dan and Joanne are also conserving the 86 acre SherMar Farm, owned by Joanne’s mother, Marjorie Herrington. SherMar provides critical support land for hay and pasture for the beef herd. “Mom’s place is just beautiful. It belonged to her mom’s family first and my parents bought up all the land around it to ensure it would stay a farm,” Joanne says.
Dan’s three daughters didn’t take an interest in farming but the rest of the neighborhood sure did! According to Dan’s daughter Erika, “Teenage boys from all around town showed up in a steady stream every summer to help out on the farm. There was Rick, and Jeff, and Jake, and….” Erika’s list went on and on.
According to Dan, he just “baited them with chips and soda” and they kept coming back. Dan’s grandmother fed the teenage crew lunch for years before Dan’s Aunt Jane – who still lives on the farm and mowed the grass until she was 93 years old - took over lunch duty. Even Bennington College (a place well known for the arts but not for its agriculture program) sent a student intern, raised in New York City, to spend six weeks at Tilldale Farm in the dead of winter.
Last summer, a four-year-old son of one of Dan’s former “students” arrived with his dad. The four-year-old rarely got off the tractor voluntarily during daylight hours and knew how to check hay for moisture content by the end of the summer. In addition to the kids, Dan’s retired farmer neighbors volunteer regularly to help Dan cultivate his fields because, well, it takes considerable skill and experience to cultivate a field and they like doing it.
Dan raises the animals and Joanne is responsible for growing their customer base at three area Farmers’ Markets. They also wholesale through an online grocery that has over 1,000 customers, primarily in Boston.
With ASA’s help, the Tilleys will be conserving about 289 acres on Dan’s farm and another 86 acres on Joanne’s family farm. About 87% of the funding to conserve the farms is coming from New York State through the Hudson Valley Agricultural Enhancement Program. The remaining funding is being donated by the Tilley family.
Tilldale Farm lies close to the junction of Routes 22 and Route 7 in Hoosick Falls. While it is very beautiful, the proximity to these roads also makes the farm very attractive to developers. It would not be hard to imagine a line of big box stores popping up on what are now the Tilley’s flat, fertile fields along the Hoosic River. In fact, over the years several developers have suggested just that. But Dan and Joanne couldn’t stand the thought of their land being covered with parking lots and stores after their family invested 75 years of “blood, sweat and tears” into making that good ground grow good food.
Ironically, now that many big box stores have fallen on hard times due to an increase in online shopping, there might have been a string of empty, decaying stores strung along that river bank had the Tilleys sold their land for development when they were first approached 20 years ago.
Tilldale Farm is part of ASA’s Hoosic River Watershed Priority Area where - because of your support - ASA has already conserved over 5,000 acres. It seems a pretty sure bet that future generations will thank the Tilleys and others who conserved their farms nearby for saving good river valley soil and keeping food, families and communities growing along the Hoosic River.
“We are glad to conserve this land because eventually we are going to retire and now another farmer will be able to afford it.” – Dan Tilley
Funding for this project was provided by New York State through the Hudson Valley Agricultural Enhancement Program administered by the Department of Agriculture and Markets.