Photograph by Lisa J. Godfrey
The blessings and burdens of tending a Keene Valley farm
Farmer Lissa Goldstein likes her produce to be pretty—red radishes free of any trace of the soil that cradled them; gently dimpled blueberries; kohlrabi the color of an Adirondack twilight. The vegetables should be wholesome and look the part. She’s a perfectionist that way.
Goldstein, 36, and her staff of four at Wild Work Farm grow three-dozen crops in the fertile soil of the Ausable River floodplain in Keene Valley. The setting is as picture perfect as the produce Wild Work sells at the Keene farmers’ market, local restaurants and through a farm share. A bend in the river hugs cultivated acres. Weathered red barns and a white farmhouse stand as testament to more than 100 years of Goldstein’s family making a living from the property. Mountains rise steeply on the other side of the river.
The proximity of the river is in some ways ideal. It offers irrigation in dry times. After long, hot days of farming, Goldstein is grateful to submerge herself in its cold water. It is also a threat. Floodplains are fertile, but they are also dangerous. A season of crops can be wiped out when the river breaches its banks. Goldstein lost her fall crops to a flood on Halloween 2019, and she’s endured numerous scares since then.
“I feel lucky to farm here, but it is a blessing and a curse,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein’s ancestral ties to the land are through her mother, whose great-grandfather Livingston Ludlow Taylor bought 100 acres in 1906 and called it Rivermede. He had four daughters, one of whom, Prudence Taylor, also farmed and operated a boardinghouse from the 1940s through the 1960s. Occasionally Goldstein meets someone who remembers working for her Aunt Prue, a tough lady by all accounts. The number of tilled acres at Rivermede expanded and contracted over the years. At one time, cows grazed in the shadow of the mountains. Goldstein’s cousin Rob Hastings is now the caretaker of the property and operates Rivermede Farm and a farm market in Keene Valley.
Goldstein grew up in the Washington DC area. She spent two weeks each summer in Keene Valley and worked at the farm as a teenager. In the 1980s, her great-uncle reorganized ownership of the property and created a corporation which is now made up of about 50 family-member shareholders, including Goldstein. A board of trustees approves improvements to the property.
Goldstein long planned a career in farming or another, agriculture-adjacent career involving physical effort outdoors. She traveled extensively after college, including a stint in Kenya working with organic farmers, and took jobs at several farms in the Pacific Northwest before moving to Vancouver, where she managed an urban farm and met her husband, Steve Wyatt. These experiences deepened her skills and nurtured a vision for what she wanted if she ever had her own farm: to provide healthy food grown in an environmentally sound way, to see her vegetables served in restaurants and to provide stable employment for people to build careers.
Attracted by the relative affordability of land and the prospect of being closer to family, in 2017 Goldstein leased three acres from Rivermede, Inc. Wyatt works as a carpenter, and the couple rent a home in Keene. “I always had a fantasy about coming back here,” she said.
In addition to cultivating Wild Work’s acreage, Goldstein grows vegetables in high tunnels and in 2020 added a new greenhouse and wash-and-pack building made from an insulated shipping container.
She doesn’t have the space for pumpkins or corn, but she grows some cabbage and winter squash. She sticks to what pays the bills and thrives, rather than trying to force a crop to grow. The growing season is short; she doesn’t have time to coddle beets or zone-marginal plants, but she does take suggestions and experiment. This year, ginger made an appearance in the Wild Work farm share. She uses a web-based ordering system to reduce waste and so her customers get what they want.
Goldstein is petite and brown-eyed. She wears a nose ring and curly brown bangs and speaks warmly and quietly about the level of organization required to make her business a success.
As it is for all farmers, the seasons provide the structure for Goldstein’s life. Summer workdays start at six a.m. and go until five p.m. Goldstein sells fall crops until December and spends the first weeks of winter planning and reflecting on the goals Wild Work met in the just-completed growing season. She takes January off, and in February she starts seeds indoors. In March the first plants emerge in the tunnels and by the end of April she harvests the first kale, peas, fennel and chard. May and June are planting months, and by the end of June harvesting starts to pick up. Like a ship captain, Goldstein always has an eye on the weather.
“There’s a river gauge at Au Sable Forks,” she said, but by the time it’s reached high water, her land upstream would already be inundated. “You never know what path a storm is going to take and you’re always trying to address your risk tolerance. You want to save stuff, but not pull immature crops. I’ll be interested to see how and if my tolerance changes over time.”
This fall will bring a new change in the structure of this farmer’s life: Goldstein and Wyatt are expecting their first child in November. More than ever, she feels the push and pull of her desire for things to be just so against a background of events out of her control, from the precarity of the local housing market to the unpredictability of climate change. Her three little floodplain acres feel increasingly vulnerable.
But when February rolls around, she will plant her seeds like always, using all the knowledge she’s gained to make them as close to perfect as possible. Everything else is out of her hands.
Learn more about Wild Work Farm at www.wildworkfarm.com.