Since 2012, Main Street Farms and GreenTree Garden Supply have been growing together. Allan and Bob Cat, the co-owners of Main Street Farms, were some of our first customers when we started making soil at GreenTree. They’ve been using our soil in their greenhouses since then: many of their vegetables start in GreenTree soil before transplanting into the field. We recently got the chance to spend an afternoon talking with Allan at Main Street Farms' new space (formerly Reed’s Seeds) on Route 215 in Cortland.
It’s shaping up to be a tough season for growing vegetables in upstate New York.
June 2015 was a month of record-breaking rain; now, one year later, the fields at Main Street Farms in Cortland have gotten maybe a half-inch of rain for the month of June, when the average expected rainfall is six inches.
This is also Main Street’s first year on their new acreage on the old Reed’s Seeds property -- not the kind of start for a new venture that the Main Street team would’ve hoped for.
Allan took us on a tour of the thirty acres they’ve currently got cultivated, walking along the rows and cataloging the setbacks brought on his crops by the dry weather: “This could be taller… this should be wetter… these should all be greener…”
There are plans for a large pond on the property to help with irrigation, but that’s for next year; in the meantime, Allan is struggling to get by with a well that isn’t yielding as much water as he’d like, and drip lines that are barely keeping the soil damp.
It’s not a disaster. Crops are still growing. But July is typically the driest month of the year. If it doesn’t rain soon, Main Street Farms -- along with many other food producers in the region -- will be in for a stressful season.
Still,despite the uncertainty, Allan’s pretty philosophical about it. “It’s part of the deal,” he told us. “It’s hard right now with the fast expansion we’re trying to do, but it’s a learning experience. Maybe it’ll rain.”
In fact, years like this, tough spells when growing conditions are difficult, ironically seem to be a big part of what motivates Allan to stick with farming.
Most people who are familiar with Main Street Farms know that Allan’s been a farming idealist from the start -- somebody who got into the business as an agricultural activist. Allan used to teach high school social studies; he got dismayed about the quality of food his students were eating in the cafeteria, quit his teaching job, and got into farming so he could improve local food. He teamed up with Bob Cat to start growing high-quality produce on a community scale, using environmentally sustainable methods. Their original aquaponics operation was a result of that vision.
Although Allan started out wanting to make a difference in the way food was produced and consumed, running the aquaponics project with Bob Cat helped him realize the sheer scale of demand in the existing food system.
“When we first started [Main Street Farms] we thought, we’ll get some tanks, raise some fish, grow some greens,” Allan says. “Seems like a lot, but after awhile we looked around, like, ‘Where’s all the food?’”
Cortland is a relatively small community. Even for a town of about 20,000 people, the food demands are huge. “I bet there are at least a hundred tractor trailers bringing food into a place like Cortland every day,” Allan told us. He realized he’d need a lot more space to make the kind of difference he was hoping for, which is what prompted him to expand.
Still -- even with all the new acreage, Main Street Farms can only meet a tiny fraction of the yearly food demand for Cortland. And when the weather gets weird -- record rainfall one year, drought the next -- Allan starts thinking about how unstable our current food system is.
“We need more diversity and more redundancy [in the food system],” Allan says. “We’ve got 15 greenhouses. That’s our climate change mitigation solution. Our CSA forces you to be a part of that resilience too, by eating food when it’s in season.”
After his experience with the aquponics project, which is still thriving, he's deeply skeptical of relying on the technology-intensive solutions being promoted as the future of farming. Allan sees himself, his team, and his farm as part of the defensive line that keeps local food production resilient -- even (especially) when things get difficult.
Of course, even though feeding Cortland and fixing a fragile food system is demanding work, it’s not all grim. “I love my job,” says Allan. “It’s fun, it’s challenging… I work outside with good people. Lifestyle-wise it’s really nice.”
Main Street Farms has pick-up locations for their CSA vegetable shares in Binghamton, Syracuse and Cortland. Tours of the aquaponics system are available by appointment: contact Allan via firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find Main Street Farms at the Syracuse Regional Market. Allan and Bob Cat are also featured in this profile by the Syracuse New Times.