From Camping to Organic Farming
By Shary Skoloff, Pennsylvania/New York Landowner
As far back as I can remember, the woods have held an irresistible allure for me. It was the 100 acres of forest, along with 100 acres of pastures and cultivatable land, that captivated my husband, Gary, and me forty-five years ago and led to the impulsive purchase that changed our lives. From our original intent to camp and simply enjoy the natural habitat of the overgrown old dairy farm in Susquehanna, PA, we poured our hearts and souls, not to mention physical work, into developing what is now a certified organic produce farm with a 60-member CSA and presence at two farmers’ markets.
The land, along with another 100 acres of hayfield, woods, and berry bushes 2-1/2 miles up the road in NY, is preserved under a conservation easement donated to the Delaware Highlands Conservancy in 2007.
We don’t ”manage” our woods, but maintain their natural state as a sanctuary for birds, bear, deer, and many small mammals and plants, a wildlife corridor adjoining 10,000 acres of PA state game land. All we remove is fallen limbs and downed trees for firewood.
For the first few years, we camped at the edge of the woods while starting to reclaim the land, build farm infrastructure, and remove rocks, rocks, and more rocks for our first garden. From the beginning, we also hiked through the woods with our infant daughter aboard Gary’s back, to be joined a year later by a second daughter and a dog.
After several years of tenting, we built a small log cabin near one of the two streams that meander through our woods and fields. A more recent addition affords woodland vistas, with a tree-house-like master bedroom, overlooking surrounding tree-tops and mixed hemlock and hardwood forest across the stream.
During our daughters' youth, when they weren't helping with garden work, animal care, and haying, they and friends were free to explore the woods, build thatched forts out of fallen tree limbs and grasses, catch salamanders and toads, and learn to identify wildflowers, mosses, ferns, fungi, and other woodland flora and fauna. They grew up with a love of and respect for nature that we shared as a family and that they have passed on to their sons. It’s a joy to watch our grandsons playing in the same streams and woods that their mothers enjoyed as children.
I’ve also loved solo woodland walks and horseback rides, finding a nurturing solitude that balances life in a crazy world. For me, time in our woods, especially with my camera, is a meditation, as it is for Gary when he is piling fallen limbs into “habitats” for small wildlife and raking leaves for compost.
With our property preserved as a working farm/agricultural and environmental education center, we envision programs to help remedy “nature-deficit disorder,” so responsible for environmental degradation. Trees are the keystone, for all of life depends upon the oxygen/carbon dioxide cycle that would not exist without them.
The legacy that we have long envisioned as our gift to future generations has been partially fulfilled. The land has been protected from development. The farm business has been passed on to a young couple who have expanded its potential with their ideas and hard work, sharing our land ethic and vision for the future. We are planning to gift ownership of the land to a protective organization, retaining a small portion to be passed on to our children and grandchildren, and granting a land lease to the farmers. Some educational programs and nature hikes have been held for the public, and we’ve met with university faculty to explore making the farm available for student research in the natural sciences.
Rachel Carson, in her inspiring book of photographs and text, A Sense of Wonder, wrote: "If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
As much as her contributions to creating an awareness of the dangers of pesticides and other hazards to the environment, Carson’s legacy was her sense of wonder. It is that sense of wonder that has infused our 45-year odyssey on our farm as we have nurtured and stewarded and protected it...and even more, as it has nurtured us, our children and grandchildren, and many others who have visited, all of us finding refuge from the tumultuous world that the 21st century has become. On a recent hike, our 13-year old grandson, Aiden, said with awe: “Grandma, you and Poppa have protected so much land and so many animals! If only fracking doesn’t destroy it.” That “if only” is the biggest threat to the legacy we hope to leave to future generations. Whether our dream is fully realized or is shattered by the reality of pipelines and fracking targeting our area remains to be seen. Our efforts to prevent it, successful or not, will become part of our legacy as well.
For more about protecting your land, conservation easements and leaving land as a legacy, visit the Land Trust Alliance website (www.landtrustalliance.org).