hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues October 2017


Serendipity was just the start

Across two decades, Happenchance Farm keeps growing organic niche


Jamie Snyder kneels with his dogs, Maggie and Benny, in front of a field of broccoli at Happenchance Farm, the certified organic farm Snyder started nearly 20 years ago in the Washington County town of White Creek. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


On a movie-set-perfect morning at the Troy farmers market, River Street is packed with milling shoppers in the corridor between merchants under their tents on either side of the street.

There are cheese mongers, soap makers, purveyors of free-range chicken, and the ubiquitous bounty of vegetables and fall fruits that are piled generously for all to admire.

At the Happenchance Farm booth, Jamie Snyder handles the produce transactions as quickly as he can. The long folding tables beneath his tent are a cornucopia of color: onions, potatoes, orange cherry tomatoes, yellow peppers, eggplant, sweet potatoes, summer squash, acorn squash, beefsteak tomatoes, indigo rose wax beans and green beans.

The watermelon and cantaloupe have nearly sold out. After weighing four beefsteak tomatoes for a woman and making change, he thanks her and then bounds out of sight, returning moments later with more wares from his truck.

The scene is emblematic of a farmer’s life: The tasks involved are nearly nonstop. And Snyder, 51, wouldn’t have it any other way.

This year marks Snyder’s 20th operating his 8-acre, certified-organic farm in the Washington County town of White Creek. To understand why a would-be civil servant gave up a potential criminal justice career for a never-ending commitment to the land (and mother nature’s mandates), it’s necessary to look back to Snyder’s early years.

He grew up in Eagle Bridge in an extended family of dairy farmers. Though his immediate family was never in the business, his first job was working the fields at nearby Moses Farm.

“I started there when I was 13 and worked on and off through high school,” Snyder recalled. “In college, I majored in criminal justice and took the civil service test to become a state trooper but never pursued it. … I just kept getting drawn back to agriculture.”

For Snyder, the allure has always been the mysterious and fascinating process of crop growth.
“There’s something about planting a seed and watching it grow to maturity,” he said. “You have to have some draw to the land and planting stuff, and if you don’t have it it’s hard to explain what the draw is.”


Finding a farm
It wasn’t long after he married his wife, Carol Moore, in 1996, that Snyder made the leap to farm ownership.

“I’d worked for others forever, it seemed,” he recalled. “My wife raised the point that I’m good at farming and enjoy it, so why keep working for someone else?”

Although the dream sounded great in theory, Snyder said finding suitable, affordable land didn’t happen overnight. In their spare time, the newlyweds looked for the right-sized parcel of land on flat terrain that was dry enough for growing vegetables.

“We looked in Vermont, but prices were too high,” he recalled.
There happened to be a picture-perfect farm in their neighborhood that seemed to fit every requirement. Whenever the couple would drive by, Snyder said they’d often muse how nice it would be to live there.

At the time, the property was owned by an elderly couple who were acquaintances. One day, Moore and Snyder popped in for a brief visit, because Snyder wanted to ask the husband a question about his crops.

“During our conversation,” Snyder recalled, “he mentioned that they’d like to sell the property, and that’s how it began.”

The conversation led to the birth of Snyder’s farm – and also to its name.
“It was all happenchance,” he said. “The property wasn’t even up for sale at the time.”
The 18th century farmhouse he, Moore and their two daughters live in sits at the top of a hill with the fields laid out below. The eight acres he farms are on a rolling knoll surrounded by tall locust trees.

“It’s not the most perfect piece of land,” Snyder said. “I do a lot of fine seeding and fine cultivation, and even small rocks can be prohibitive. But it’s mine, and I make it work.”
Moore, who has a psychology practice in Bennington, Vt., hinted in a later interview that her husband was being modest.

“Jamie is a generational, excellent farmer, with lots of experience and a deep understanding of growing vegetables,” she said, reflecting on their decisions of 20 years ago. “The idea of establishing his own certified organic farm seemed natural, given we both are conscientious about what we eat and about treating the earth well, and it seemed completely doable. I had no doubts.”


Going organic
Snyder chose to make Happenchance Farm certified organic from the start, even though the initial process of gathering documents and keeping records proved daunting.

“Once you get routine down, it’s not bad,” Snyder said. “It’s actually helpful to have good harvest and crop records, seed records, planning dates, and harvest dates. In the long-run, it’s very handy to have them.”

Meticulous recordkeeping is only part of the equation, though. Snyder’s organic farming practices include the use of nets, floating row covers, and clay coverings, which act as a barrier between plants and insects. He sometimes uses sprays approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute, a nonprofit organization that aids organic farmers.

“All those methods are just OK,” Snyder said. “They don’t really work great, and sometimes you don’t win the battle. But farming without pesticides just felt like the right thing to do. I do it for the health of the consumers and the overall health of the community and environment. I don’t want to disrespect any farmers, but some pesticides used today can be pretty toxic.”

To face some insect pests without chemicals, though, requires extra effort.
“We try to do crop rotation and planting dates to avoid some bugs, but it’s hard, especially with changing weather,” Snyder said. “Plus there are evolving bugs we haven’t seen before.”


Changing with the weather
Attempting to prepare for the whims of nature goes with the territory, but Snyder said the instability takes its toll on both him and his crops.

“We’ve seen more dramatic weather this year,” he said. “It’ll be dry for a month, then we’ll get 6 inches of rain. There doesn’t seem to be a steady pattern. In late September, we had temperatures in the 90s.”

On the plus side, the first frost has been later each year, he said, “and we use that in our planning now.”

But the increase in severe weather makes him uneasy -- and a tad pessimistic.
“You can lose everything in 15 minutes,” Snyder said. “That’s always in the back of my mind.
“So I guess farmers are generally pessimistic. The last thing you want to do is get a bunch of us in a room together,” he added, laughing.

Snyder hopes one day to have crop insurance, but it’s not currently available to farms his size.
“It’s something that needs to be addressed,” he said. “Small farming is a fairly new thing. It’s easier for the government to insure a 40-acre cornfield, because it’s one crop and a known quantity. But a tenth-acre of radishes and a quarter-acre of potatoes, … that’s a different thing.”
In the meantime, he keeps toiling and tending his mostly bountiful, always-diverse crop of organic vegetables. He’s focused now on late-season potatoes, squashes and root vegetables.
“It used to be that a vegetable farmer was finished after October, but with greenhouses, the season is extended through December,” he said. “Things slow down in January and February, but it never really ends. Then before you know it, it’s March and the season starts all over again.”
Snyder typically splits his workdays between harvesting and planting, even this late in the season.

“I’ll do one more lettuce planting this season, then begin in the greenhouses,” he said. “After harvesting, there’s a lot of clean up to do for prepping fields for next year. Every day is kind of a blur.”

He considers his pricing fair – and not all that much more than non-organic local produce.
“I look at what other farmers are getting for a sense of what I should be charging,” Snyder said. “My prices aren’t significantly more. You can’t charge $5 a pound for tomatoes. There is a certain percentage of customers who would pay double, but we can’t do that around here. Organic shoppers are very loyal. You can’t say you’re organic unless you’re certified, and I love to be able to say we’re certified organic.”


Cycles of life
The end of the week is devoted to prepping for the Troy Farmers Market on Saturday and the Cambridge Farmers Market on Sunday. On Fridays, Snyder delivers his produce to Wild Oats Market and the Buxton School in Williamstown, Mass., the Round House Bakery Café in Cambridge; Brown’s Brewing in North Hoosick; and the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, Vt.

“I love doing the delivery route, because it’s quiet downtime for me,” Snyder said. “Then before you know it, it’s Saturday again, and round and round we go.”

There are undeniable upsides to farming. Snyder’s schedule is flexible enough that he doesn’t have to miss being in the stands at his daughters’ soccer games. And having a banquet of just-picked organic food, he said, has been a boon to his family’s health and wellbeing.
“Farmers are in better shape,” he said. “We tend to eat quality food and are out in the fresh air doing physical labor all the time.”

With the couple’s eldest daughter, Lillian, now a sophomore at SUNY Oneonta and her sister Grace a senior in high school, Snyder said he plans to throw himself into the farm operation even more when the nest is emptied.

“It’ll be a drastic change with both of them gone, but there’s always so much to do with farming,” he said. “We started out selling off a card table at the end of the driveway and have steadily expanded to what we are today.

“I know I should think about retirement, but I don’t think farmers ever retire,” he continued. “All my aunts and uncles who dairy-farmed slowed down a bit, but they didn’t ever stop. Maybe in 20 years, when I’m 71, I’ll start drawing Social Security benefits. There are days when I’d rather be doing anything else other than farming, but it’s very satisfying knowing you’re producing good food for people. And besides that, … when the sun rises over the fields each morning, it’s amazing-looking.”


For more information on Happenchance Farm, visit https://www.facebook.com/Happenchance-Farm-Certified-Organic-Produce-124222900989567/