Alethea Vasilas and Erin Staub of the Orkestai Farm are here to tell us about their journey and experiences teaching and mentoring new farmers on Long Island, NY
Orkestai is a not-for-profit ecological farm community that explores the relationships between Ability, Ecology, Agriculture, and Art. Their day programs foster pre-vocational skills development, healthy living, social engagement, and more. Orkestai Farm is beyond honored to be voted Edible Long Island’s Local Hero for 2015! At the heart of their mission is Expressive Agriculture, which refers to our recognition that an agricultural ecosystem is not only a chorus of biodiversity, but also a collaboration of people who move together to cultivate the land and choreograph themselves. Through person-centered expressive and pre-vocational support on the farm, adolescents and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities learn to grow food and feel empowered and confident about who they are and what they can achieve.
Tell us a little about yourself.
It’s a non-porfit organization.
OR – KESS – TIE
Our name derives from the ancient Greek word “orkheisthai”, meaning “to dance or to set in motion, to stir up, to raise”, and refers to the space of the ancient theater where choruses of dancers moved together to interpret the non-verbal aspects of the play being performed. It beautifully describes how we envision a farm; as a community collaboration that needs an orchestra of farmers who work together to grow healthy food and merry people.
Tell me about your first gardening experience?
Alethea – started gardening with father at about 5 years old, got paid a penny a weed.
Erin – grew up in New Orleans, LA. Small gardening experiences with grandmother. First real farming/gardening experience came a couple of years ago about 5 years ago, participated in the Woofing program in Northern New Mexico with an amazing old hippie couple.
What does organic gardening/earth friendly mean to you?
Alethea: Having dabbled in both permaculture and biodynamic I think organic gardening is a good start but can evolve into a more ecological inclusivity. When you till the soil it helps fertility immediately, in the long run you’re killing a lot of the soil system that helps keep the land healthy, organic means we don’t use any kind of chemicals at all. Trying to build soil by adding to soil, not killing any of it. Trying to mimic what you find in nature is the closest we can get to keeping our farm ecological while keeping the environment down. Being inclusive to communities of mico-organisms and bacteria and protozoa etc that can be built up by adding mulches and green manures instead of constant tilling.
Who or what inspired you to start using organic techniques?
Erin – raised and made the most sense for me. Both approach life holostically. Alethea had it ingrained from father who runs a certified organic farm on Long Island as well.
How did you learn how to garden organically?
Erin – working on a biodynamic farm – beyond organic – mindful ways of going about farming and gardening, very subsistence oriented rather then market or money oriented.
Tell us about something that grew well this year.
Huge escarole crop which was so yummy and didn’t require a ton of work. Grew an amazing Organic Non-GMO Costata Romanesco Zucchini – HEIRLOOM
Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?
Excited about growing more heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables. Astounded by taste and heartiness and everything of heirloom produce.
Tell me about something that didn’t work so well this season.
Tried Hon Tsai Tai which is an asian green, probably didn’t water enough, with mulching system don’t have to irrigate as much as other farms.
Peppers had a lot of virus.
Something that you find is easy to grow and is generally successful every-time.
A perennial – jerusalem artichokes or sun chokes. Cross between a potato and a water chestnut.
Tomatoes are usually a good crop, and eggplant.
Beds are about 3½ feet wide, 140’ long
Mission statement: To promote the creative participation in society of those differently-abled, through practicing ecological agriculture and the expressive arts.
Alethea was working with a young woman, giving her direct support, helping her study and attend university. Wanted to go visit Alethea’s dad’s farm and after visiting a few times, her mom and her decided they wanted to be farmers. Alethea encouraged them to go to the local state park and ask them for a piece of land to try it on, and the state approved it, and Althea and Erin managed it for 3 years and eventually this became Orkestai Farm which can be found at the Planting Fields in Oyster Bay, Long Island, NY.
Something you would steer new gardeners away from that you find is typically challenging to grow in your climate.
We got cut off but the Pineapple story is fun to hear.
Celery is very water intensive.
Brussel sprouts are hard to grow when you don’t use any insecticide.
Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden.
Erin: Have to mow whole acre because they have to have big paths between rows.
Alethea: By the time August comes around I hate everything and by January I love everything.
When talking about mowing we discussed the benefits of listening to audio books on tape as long as it doesn’t detract from paying attention to what goes on the garden.
What is your favorite activity to do in the garden.
When 2 student farmers connect on the farm, especially ones who maybe struggle to communication or being around with others and they are able to come together in a safe environment and grow closer.
A favorite tool that you like to use? If you had to move and could only take one tool with you what would it be.
Alethea: Hori Hori, a japanese spade/knife/serated edge with a wooden handle that serves so many functions. and a long grub hoe.
Erin: Also a fan of the Hori, hori, but also likes her Broad Fork which is fun like a pogo stick.
Eating or harvesting vegetables or fruit on time?
CSA model helps with that so having a set schedule and they know big harvest is going to be Friday morning and then members come to pick up veggies Friday afternoon. Farmers market is next day on Saturday. Keeping things simple this year.
Do you have any secrets for preserving food-making it last?
One of the CSA members preserves food and has a baby that they call “Farm Girl.”
Do you have any special techniques for cooking weird or unusual foods?
Land SeaWeed – wouldn’t recommend unless your gonna eat it right away … cousin to the tumbleweed. Was quite delicious, a succulent and is salty and put in a salad when it was tender.
A favorite recipe you like to cook from the garden?
Heirloom tomatoes freshly picked, olive oil, and salt. Stick with simplicity. An heirloom zucchini too.
A favorite internet resource?
Speaking with other farmers directly. Having access to local people who are growing food is the most appropriate resource, like someone down the road, that you can compare notes with someone in your own zone or climate. So maybe the internet resource would be the white pages to get phone number of local farmer.
Any business resources you have to think about finances or how to make your farm profitable, and compliant with rules and regulations?
The Foundation Center for resources about starting non-profit, how to incorporate, follow bi-laws, how to deal with your board, fundraise, etc.
For farming resources, when ordering seeds, the seed catalogs, especially a lot are online, have some of the best information for specifications.
If you have a business to you have any advice for our listeners about how to sell extra produce or get started in the industry?
Had a booth at State Park’s Arbor Day Festival at end of April. If there is a farming conference to explain to people directly what a CSA is important. Getting into a green market or a farmers market.
Final question- if there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the earth either in your local area or on a national or global scale?
Althea – Everybody should be mulching. At the heart of almost every issue on the planet, emotional awareness within oneself and one’s relationship, doing personal work which then affects all aspects of your life. Besides participating in the environmental movement and farming movement, everyone should have the best relationships. In farming movements and permacultural movement people focusing on the science and what to do and less on observation, internally, a lot of judgementallity, if we are going to work together on the environment we can’t have
Need a place to talk and relate to each other and we can naturally evolve and make the right choices for our planet.
Erin – Mindfulness and caring about relationships and then your mindful about caring for the environment.
Do u have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?
Erin: Why Not? No reason why not?!
Alethea: Read Teaming with Microbes. Imagine this world’s so much bigger then what you can understand.
Go to website: www.orkestaifarm.com “Orkestai means collaborative movement from the greek word to dance together and refers to the space of the ancient theater where choruses of dancers moved together to interpret the non-verbal aspects of the play being performed.
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