While an apprentice at Stone Barns Center in 2012 and 2013, Tyler Dennis had a hand in each stage of a plant’s lifecycle: planting, weeding and harvesting in the vegetable field in spring and summer; then, through the winter, meticulously seeding trays and caring for sprouts in the propagation bay of the greenhouse. It served him well, because Tyler is now in charge of his own diverse vegetable operation at Alewife Farm, deep into plans for his second season of growing. Of the many factors that have helped him start up his burgeoning farm business, relationships—with people, with businesses and with financing groups—are the most important.
Alewife Farm is the fruit of a land partnership between Tyler and Ben Hoyer, a longtime Stone Barns Center member and volunteer. Land access is one of the greatest challenges that beginning farmers face. So, when Ben saw a tangible opportunity to help a young farmer he knew leap that hurdle, he took it: He purchased 40 acres in Clinton Corners, N.Y., on which Tyler signed a seven-year lease to farm.
As part of their agreement, Ben covers permanent infrastructure and improvements; he constructed a barn, installed electricity and sank a well. Ben also provided Tyler with a personal line of credit, which Tyler believes helped him secure a loan from The Carrot Project. Although Tyler is the sole business owner of the farm, and has part-time field help, Ben spends three to four days a week helping out at the farm.
In his first season, Tyler grew an array of vegetables, over 100 varieties. Nearly all of his crops were sold at wholesale—some to nearby restaurants like The Red Devon, Market Street and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and the rest to online food startups like Farmigo and Quinciple.
Quinciple is a subscription food service offering New York City residents curated boxes of goods and produce from a network of farmers and producers. This relationship has been an especially valuable one for Alewife Farm’s first year. At the start of the season, Tyler agreed to sell Quinciple quantities of selected items. “I was able to plan for specific crops and specific harvests, sometimes months in advance,” Tyler says. “That’s a crucial thing for me because, in the first year, there is just so much that you can’t predict.”
Feeling well-organized and secure in his financing and operational systems, Tyler aims to double his growing space to about seven acres. He is also applying for a New York State New Farmer Grant, and plans to begin selling at more farmers markets like the one in Beacon, N.Y., where he’ll be this winter.
There are still challenges—nailing down reliable markets and having enough cash-flow on hand to hire the help he needs, to name a couple—but overall, Tyler’s spirits are high. “It’s definitely the hardest that thing I’ve ever done, but it’s working,” he says, “and the further I get into it, the more confident I feel that it’s what I really want to be doing.”
Read more about Tyler and Alewife Farm. While attending the National Young Farmers Conference earlier this month, he became the subject of a feature in the Wall Street Journal.
Originally published December 18, 2014