Tree crops for sustainability

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Community isn’t always just about people. When Steven Woinoski, a young man in his mid-20s with twin babies on the way, decided to move to Ithaca to provide a better environment in which to raise his children, he faced several obstacles.

The first, predictably, was money. Even a decade ago, Tompkins County had one of the highest costs of living in rural New York state. For a blue-collar worker and his wife, a mother who wanted to stay home with her children, the price seemed exorbitant.

In addition, Steve knew he wanted to create a self-sufficient lifestyle and contribute to generations to come. Both required land - expensive land if he wanted to remain in Tompkins County and close to Ithaca.

When the nuclear family just isn’t enough, enter the village. The founders of White Hawk Ecovillage in Danby had 120 acres to share and use in alignment with its mission. That was the beginning of another dream Steve had - a community in which to nurture his children.

Twelve years after building the very first home on that new land, Steve is putting a decade of permaculture study, his dream for a sustainable future, and the community behind him to work.

Crow and Owl Farm, situated on six of those 120 acres, is still in its infant stages, but it’s growing by leaps and bounds – surprising, considering Steve is still working 40-plus hours a week at the same company he moved to Ithaca with. His life has changed.

Those twins are now 12-year-olds, and he has two more children through a divorce and recommitment, but his dedication to hard work, White Hawk and the future hasn’t changed. In November 2019, Steve will plant approximately 1200 hazelnut shrubs into the furrows he worked tirelessly over the summer to create.

With the help of the fledgling cooperative, the New York Tree Crops Alliance (NYTCA), Steve plans to create healthy nut oils and butters for the local economy. Although his hazelnuts will take years to produce a sizable yield, Steve has always been one of those far-sighted dreamers – a special kind of dreamer that’s necessary if we have any hope of creating a sustainable future.

Using permaculture practices, his nut crop will include grazing sheep, fowl and a human-made pond in an effort to maintain the delicate ecosystem of the field he’s stewarding and hopefully nourishing it to a better state. As opposed to annual crops, tree crops maintain the soil, protect wildlife, and actually have a slight positive, rather than a significant negative, carbon impact.

Harvesting nuts is not a cheap, nor easy, task. Not only will those 1200 shrubs need to be shorn of their yield, but the bounty will also need to be crushed, pressed and separated to produce quality oils and butters. Again, it’s not something a single individual can do without sizable capital.

NYTCA, a small group of tree farmers from Tompkins County and the surrounding areas, is intent on pooling its knowledge, assets, and combined resources to see this dream to fruition. Steve also has the community he helped found behind him - a steadily growing group of more than 15 households willing to lend hands and support.

Nuts aren’t the only crop Crow and Owl has plans for, however. White Hawk has more land available for its members to utilize, and Steve plans on two acres of that being a ‘you-pick’ berry farm.

With raised beds to reduce the strain on its pickers and to better fit within permaculture practices, a convenient location just off of Highway 96B and land capable of producing ripe, plump strawberries and blueberries, Steve hopes that he can provide a tasty and enjoyable experience for all.

Crow and Owl Farm may be in its formative stages, but there’s still a lot to see. Steve is videographing his experiences, both frustrating and beautiful, as he very slowly (too slowly for his own liking!) transitions from a blue-collar worker to a nut farmer. Some of those pictures and videos will start appearing on his Facebook page - Crow and Owl Farm. Like to get updates and follow his journey.

And, of course, Steve’s dream might not have been attainable if it weren’t for White Hawk Ecovillage or NYTCA. Although other members are also utilizing the land for similar purposes, White Hawk still has more space available for other projects, farming and otherwise.

It also has room for more families and individuals that want to take part in those projects, even if their support is as simple as observing from their new house upon that land. More information can be found online at whitehawkecovillage.org.

NYTCA also deserves support and recognition for its part in this endeavor. The nuts would be expensive squirrel food without the heavy machinery a crop requires to come out of its shell. More information is available at nytca.org.

This article is dedicated to all the dreamers – those who haven’t given up yet – who believe a future can be salvaged using sustainable practices, dedication, and by taking part in a larger community. One person may be able to accomplish much on their own, but sometimes it takes a village, or a co-op, or a community.

This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org.

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