|We’ve got tomatoes and onions and maybe some lettuce for our burger. And don’t forget the potatoes for the fries and the cabbage and carrots that go into the cole slaw. Who grows all this stuff and how’d he get started? Some farmers run giant corporate farms and could just as well be managing a paper clip factory as growing food. But other farmers are like Ray Bradley, age 53, who is learning as he goes and doesn’t like taking orders.
“I grew up in Connecticut, and I never imagined I’d be a farmer. My family had a vegetable garden, and I hated working in it when I was a kid. They always give kids the shit work to do: weeding and all the hard stuff. So I definitely didn’t want to grow up to be a farmer.
“In 1990, I was working as a chef in a restaurant in New York City, and one of the guys I bought produce from asked me if I wanted to come and work with him on his farm. But I’d already made plans to go to Costa Rica and run a bed & breakfast there. Once I got there, though, I could see it was the same old thing, with people telling you what to do. So I packed up and came back to work with that guy on the farm. That lasted about three years, and then he left. I heard he’s a doctor in New Orleans now.
“But I found I really like farming. Most of all I like that I’m my own boss. If I feel like goofing off, I do; or if I feel like working all night, I do. You make the decisions about when to start and when to quit and how to spend your time.
“I also like it because it’s seasonal; you work really hard in spring and summer and fall, but you’re off in the winter. But mainly I like being my own boss.
“I have three helpers: Ismail, Alfredo and Guadeloupe. I couldn’t do it without them. They leave their families in Mexico and come up here every year, for planting and working during the growing season, and then go back home for the winter.
“But being a farmer isn’t all about growing...you’ve got to find a way to get rid of the produce. And that means finding customers. I go into the green markets and sell there, a few days a week. I sell tomatoes and potatoes and corn and cabbage and pickles and eggs--I have 300 chickens--and I’ve got 50 bee hives and 11 pigs. I grow squash and flowers and anything else that sells. I try to grow what sells best, of course, like heirloom tomatoes, which are my best seller. But I’m always trying to come up with new things my customers might want.
“I learned everything about farming by doing it. I made a lot of mistakes and I still don’t know much. I have a lot to learn, yet. To be a really good farmer, you have to outsmart nature. You figure out what to grow and when, and if something happens to a particular crop, you have to have a backup plan.
“Most small farmers have a job in town, and their wife works, so they aren’t only farming for a living. But this is all I do—this isn’t a side line for me.
“One thing I’d like, is to have this farm continue on, after I’m gone. I don’t have kids, but I’d like this land to remain a farm.”