KNEEHIGH FARMS – A ONE-WOMAN FORCE OF NATURE
by Denise Gierula
Kneehigh Farms, a weekly vendor at the Antietam Valley Farmers’ Market, is a one woman-run vegetable farm located on 2+ acres outside of Emmaus in the Lehigh Valley. And who is that one woman, you ask? It is Emma Cunniff, near and dear to our hearts, as she was the first vendor to sign onto our market. Emma says, “I took a chance–I wanted to have it set early on in the season so I could plan around it. I respect and appreciate all you who started it and your dedication/labor/love that goes into it every minute. Ya’ll are amazing and making good things happen in this area. We’re on the same team!” Emma lives true to her mission statement, which declares, “Over 100 varieties of fresh produce are grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers for our CSA (Community Support Agriculture), Farmers’ Market, and local restaurants. Kneehigh Farm prioritizes high quality produce, ethical practices, healthy soil and happy people. We are committed to creating connections between families, their food, and their farmers.”
Born and raised in Santa Cruz, California, Emma has been farming since 2009 on various farms throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, California, and the Pacific Northwest. She is a graduate of the Beginning Farmer Training Program at The Seed Farm, a non-profit educational program that offers a new farmer-training program and agricultural business incubator, in partnership with Penn State Extension’s Start Farming program and Lehigh County. It gives apprentices the opportunity to continue their farming business on-site. “I looked up Beginning Farmer Training Programs, and found The Seed Farm in the Lehigh Valley, states Emma. “At that point, I had a lot of farm labor experience, but I needed to acquire the business and management skills required to start my own practice. After a year, Kneehigh was born!!”
I asked Emma what her parents thought of her ambitious drive across the country to become a farmer. She replied, “At first, my parents were skeptical that I would pursue farming as a viable business. They’ve always supported my interests and endeavors, but I believe part of them wanted me to go to college, get a degree, and THEN do something I was passionate about. I realized early on in high school that this path was not for me. After 7 years of following this thread, my parents are now proud and 100% in support of my continued career as an organic farmer.”
“I was never exposed to this way of life–even though Santa Cruz is a place overflowing with fresh produce, beautiful natural spaces, and progressive folks. I was always extremely close/connected to nature, but was never very interested in production growing/agriculture. I was (and still am!) fascinated by Permaculture practices, (designing systems/landscapes based on observation and mimicry of natural cycles & systems)” said Emma. I asked her to explain agriculture through a Permaculture perspective and she replied, “I approach farming with an outlook of ‘regenerative design’–that is, one that heals and strengthens the environment/food systems/communities, rather than depleting them. The ethics behind Permaculture is “People care, Earth care, Fair Share”–an ideology that I strive to uphold in all my practices. I look at farming as a holistic lifestyle, as well as a radical opposition to the destructive force that our conventional growing systems represent. Feeding my community has become more than something I just ‘like to do’–my job is my lifestyle, and I love that.”
Emma is not just farmer but also photographer and blogger who shares her love of farming, food, and folks at the About Me page of wellspringsummer.wordpress.com, along with her Instagram and Facebook page. She arranges her produce so attractively that I can barely wait for her to finish before I am taking photos of her stand for our market website. She sells her produce to various restaurants in the Lehigh Valley (such as The Bayou, Heirloom, 187 Rue Principale, Bolete, Jamison Publick House, The Hamilton Kitchen) and Philly (Honest Toms Taco Shop, Mariposa Food Co-op, Bar Savona, Zahav, Johnny Brenda’s, W/N W/N Coffee Bar). And Emma currently fills 35 full CSA shares and 10 half shares through St. Luke’s Hospital in Allentown and is looking to fill at least 50 shares next year. “There’s lots of information about what I grow/when, what to expect, prices, etc. on my website www.kneehighfarms.com for the 2015 season and I am excited to enter this coming year with more ideas”, Emma states.
“I remember harvesting beets on the farm in California I worked on, day-dreaming of moving to PA and starting my own farm one day,” Emma recalls as I asked how she choose Kneehigh as her farm’s name. “I was passively rolling names over in my brain, and remember thinking, “what rhymes with Lehigh…Kneehigh?” When I moved here, I was in a sort of bucolic stupor and simultaneous repulsion at the monocrops of corn and soy. The farm is a little green jewel amidst a sea of GMO corn, soy, and commodity crops (the property is surrounded on all sides). This big scale, subsidized ag is the epitome of everything I am fighting against with my little plot. However, I love watching the corn grow and indicate the changing of seasons. Kneehigh became a recognition of the conventional way of farming (you want your corn knee high by the 4th of July), but also an opposition to that. We may just be knee high, but we’re growing!”
Kneehigh Farms is in its second year of production and other than farming 2 acres of land, by herself, at the mercy of Mother Nature, I asked her about challenges and rewards. She replied, “Tough questions! The biggest challenges are pushing my intellectual edges. I get so fixed in certain learned practices, that I forget I am an evolving, changing grower, and need to adapt to variable circumstances. It’s challenging putting on so many different hats: The office work, the farm work, the delivery, the marketing, etc…it’s difficult to juggle it all and find time. I’m learning that I need to delegate tasks more efficiently, and hire some capable people if I want to grow the business–it can’t always be just me, and that’s a hard lesson to realize.”
Emma continues, “The rewards are endless, and I keep discovering more : I eat really well. My body (for the most part) feels healthy and strong. I see people being positively affected by my food and wanting to share that with me! I hear people’s enthusiasm and feel their growing support for what I do and what I produce. I am part of a swelling movement that is starting to demand local, fresh, organic food, and am willing to trust me to provide it! I get to greet the day and experience all the bizarre, beautiful, quirky, and sad things that happen in nature. I am constantly humbled and challenged in ways that make me more resilient, but also receptive and reflective. I provide a service that every. single. one of us needs. And I aim for them not just to need it, but enjoy it, crave it, savor it…When the attention, time, and detail I dedicate to quality of the food I grow is recognized–that’s rewarding.”
There is a little blurb on her website that she feels passionately about whenever she takes the time (or is asked!) to remember why I she does what she does:
“The unavoidable result of people growing their own food is the building of community, of neighbors knowing neighbors, of resiliency, solidarity, pride. I am looking to regenerate a feeling of camaraderie–that we are eating, breathing, beating together. For me, the meal has become more important than the food–by this I mean the act of coming together to share conversation over a delicious meal is the final objective. Food brings people together, especially food that people have a personal connection to. I see growing one’s food as the most deliberate, effective form of activism. It requires dedication and labor, but has the potential to solve an array of issues and challenges that communities face all over the world.”
In the upcoming weeks of market, Emma said we could look forward to more heirloom tomatoes, and those sweet-like-candy Sungold cherry tomatoes along with fun, specialty crops like okra, ground cherries, and different peppers. Fall will bring on a bunch of different radishes, turnips and root varieties as well as greens and more lettuces, potatoes and onions.
I asked Emma the question I ask all our vendors…her thoughts on the Antietam Valley Farmers Market. Emma replied, “I love my market mamas, (yes, that’s what she calls us) I love the routine of going to market each week, of meeting new faces and actually seeing the people who eat our produce. There’s a deep joy I get from this, and of seeing so many neighbors and community members excited about this new event right in their front yards! I’ve only heard positive affirmation.”
The Market Mama in me had to ask the tough question of what happens in 2017 when her land lease with the Seed Farm has ended. Emma said, “It’s been a challenge deciding how I want to pursue my farming practice after my contract at The Seed Farm is up, and how to remain a financially successful business once I need to invest in my own infrastructure and pay independently for resources. The timeline is difficult–I want to raise a family where I farm, but I’m not quite ready for that yet, so I am hesitant to really commit to a property if I’m not 100% sure I want to raise a family there. If anyone has any unused land–send them my way!”
Emma reiterated, “I feel so grateful to enter each day knowing I am inspired, motivated, empowered, and proud of what I do–that it encompasses a deep satisfaction physically, intellectually, socially, spiritually…I can’t emphasize enough the importance of working with the land, observing the land, using your body, being humbled by forces larger than you (or anyone) and feeding the earth so it in turn can feed you and others.”
Emma shares a recipe below. “Made this one tonight for the first time and fell in gastronomic love with it!”
CHARRED OKRA WITH TOMATO & GARLIC
Adapted from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi
About 1 lb of Kneehigh Okra
2 tsp good quality olive oil
4 cloves Kneehigh Garlic, thinly sliced
.5 lb halved Kneehigh Sungold cherry tomatoes
2 tsp chopped Kneehigh Italian parsley
2 tsp Kneehigh cilantro
1 Tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
A little tamarind paste mixed with 1 Tbsp water
Maldon sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
- Trim the okra pods, removing the stem just above the pod so as not to expose the seeds.
- Place a large, heavy bottom frying pan over high heat & leave for a few minutes (I used a cast iron). Throw in the okra in a few batches (not to overcrowd) and dry-cook, shaking the pan/stirring them around for 4 minutes until they are slightly blistered.
- Return all the charred okra to the pan, add the olive oil (careful of it sizzling and spraying), and everything else to the pan and cook for a few more minutes to warm/soften the tomatoes, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish, drizzle with a little more olive oil, salt, and more lemon if needed.