Local Bounty: Family still learning together to grow at Leaning Birch Farm in Broadalbin

BROADALBIN – At Leaning Birch Farm, seedlings sit on LED-lit shelves; there are germinator trays and propagation house benches. The scene is flush with the tiny green beginnings of produce.

“This is where the magic starts,” said Daniel Fera, owner of the farm.

The setup is based out of the home of Daniel and his wife, Rose, on County Highway 107 near Honeywell Corners.

Most batches are transferred to the backyard garden during warm months or one of three year-round high tunnels.

Working with his son, Nic, in the field, the two rely on a mix of sustainable old- and new-world practices to yield roughly 150 vegetables, 40 flowers and 20 herbs.

Attracting interest beyond the farm is a separate and welcome task. “We’re people-people, more than farmers,” said the 70-year-old grower.

Hoping it would help pay the bills during retirement, Daniel in the early 2010s planned to grow beyond his home garden and launch an organic garlic farm. Gradually, the micro-farm became more expansive and diverse.

Planting grounds are now maxed out. Electricity remains limited. Leaning Birch, backed by federal aid, aims to expand irrigation volume and automate pumping systems, making up for some of the land’s deficiencies.

“If we knew what we signed up for in the beginning it would probably be done at a different location,” Daniel said.

Daniel and Rose moved to Broadalbin in 2011 after renting in Saratoga Springs for more than 20 years.

As renters, the family set up multiple gardens and a roadside farm stand. Once growing an overabundance of crops in the 1990s, they unsuccessfully attempted to tap into the city’s farmers’ market.

At the time, Daniel Fera owned a string instrument repair shop but found the work unsatisfying.

“It felt like I was taking from society rather than contributing to it,” Daniel said. “This is definitely contributing to society, what we do here.”

Holding progressive values, Daniel views his goods as climate-friendly, natural alternatives to internationally shipped products.

Set on transparency, he invites curious guests to observe each facet of production.

“We can show them what we put in the soil, what we use, what we might spray with,” Daniel said. “And if we were Certified Organic, everything we use would be allowed in that Certified Organic program.”

Accredited as Certified Naturally Grown, Leaning Birch is required to avoid herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and genetically modified organisms. The nonprofit-based label serves as a cheaper, easier alternative to the Department of Agriculture’s Certified Organic label.

Under federal law, products can’t be labeled organic without accreditation from the National Organic Program.

Compliance with NOP production log standards requires hiring a full-time recordkeeper, which would overrun Leaning Birch’s budget, the Sacandaga area growers maintained. What’s more, they’re not interested in the designation.

“Our customers know us,” Nic said. “We think there’s a lot more value in having direct relationships with who is growing your food than there is an interesting label.”

Personalizing each relationship beyond agriculture is a critical element of community relations, according to Nic.

Working in farmers’ markets, the 38-year-old grower strives to remember as many customers’ names as he can.

“Let them know that they’re familiar to you,” he said. “And you’re gonna see [them] a lot more when you do that.”

Nic credits his rapport with customers to 13 years in the restaurant industry.

Losing work as a restaurant manager in Brooklyn, he pledged that he and his now-wife would slowly build up his parents’ farm while working separate jobs.

“And they came up and we just tried to hit it out of the park the first year,” Daniel said. “It didn’t go well.”

The Feras tried community-supported agriculture, a subscription-based crop sharing system but few joined.

Wholesale distribution never became a significant share of the pie either. Leaning Birch found brief success in the New York City market until grocers and food-service players stopped accepting products during COVID-19.

Among several occasional local buyers, Hamlet & Ghost remains the farm’s most consistent restaurant partner, buying cherry tomatoes in bulk each year.

“My feeling was that I’ll take my connections and my familiarity with the restaurant industry, and then going into this business I’ll be able to interface with them really well,” Nic said. “But we just found that’s not where the money is for our operation.”

Daniel said that farmers’ markets are the greatest source of Leaning Birch’s year-to-year growth. The two, helped by Rose on the weekends, currently have booths at the Schenectady Greenmarket and Spa City Farmers Market.

Proudly, Daniel pulled up a picture showing a crowd surrounding Leaning Birch’s table in Saratoga Springs.

“We did $400 in 20 minutes,” Daniel said. “Nobody else was doing business around that, but a lot of it has to do with the quality of the display.”

In the midst of the pandemic, the natural food sector experienced historic growth and at-home dining boomed.

Almost two-thirds of shoppers polled by CPG Sales and Acosta in 2020 reported cooking and eating more meals at home since the pandemic started.

“They’re gonna buy fresh local produce to cook with,” Nic said. “So it behooves me to get people cooking, and we’re all passionate about cooking.”

Harvest sales tripled that year.

Beyond the market model, Leaning Birch hopes to attract more business this summer with a home store and to post more-based recipes on social media.

“It’s one thing to have a bunch of pretty vegetables in the basket,” Nic said. “But then to see something prepared from that and just have that visual appeal is great.”

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