CAROLINE & TIM
KITCHEN GARDEN FARM
New York City & Sunderland, Massachusetts
Alex McPhail and Casey McAuliffe met in college and instantly were inseparable. After college, they moved to Austin, Texas and both started work – Casey as a preschool teacher and Alex as the screenwriter director for the Austin Film Festival. In Austin they became more and more interested in local agriculture and began to devour books analyzing the current state of farming in the U.S. This research motivated them to become big supporters of their local farmer’s market in Austin. The desire for adventure and to learn first-hand what farming was really about inspired them to quit their 9-5 existences, put a camper on the bed of their truck, their dog Saxton in the backseat, and drive to upstate New York to work on an organic farm. It was there, after working several seasons, that Casey and Alex felt like farming was something worth pursuing for the long term. While still learning the ropes in upstate New York, a parcel of family land in Texas was offered to them to farm, but they still felt too green to take it on and knew they required more skills and knowledge before making a go of it on their own. They decided to move to North Carolina so Alex could go back to school for sustainable agriculture. Casey continued to work full-time for several farms near his school. After Alex graduated, Casey knew she needed one more city adventure before settling down in rural Texas. A theatre major and performer her whole life, Casey yearned to spend a year or two in New York City chasing her dream so she wouldn’t look back later in life and wonder “what if?” The couple moved to Brooklyn and spent an exciting year and a half living in the cultural chaos and majesty of New York. In January 2013, they packed up their Brooklyn lives, settled into their coastal Texas home and launched Moon Dog Farms. Moon Dog Farms is constant work in progress and the heavy rains that have plagued Southwest Texas for the last year have left their fields flooded and vegetables rotting on the vine. “We are thinking about starting a tilapia farm,” Alex joked. “Honestly after the hardships we’ve faced this year with the weather, the only way to make it through is to keep laughing in the rain.” Casey and Alex’s solidarity as a couple is obvious immediately upon meeting them. They are devoted to one another and towards their share vision of turning Moon Dog Farms a viable and sustainable business. They believe that local farms have the power to strengthen their communities, becoming hubs that connect people to the land and to one another. In a state where big agriculture holds strong, Casey and Alex’s small farming operation is a bright glimmer of hope for the future. (Click here to jump to their interview)
What inspired you to move to the country?
I grew up in NYC and Long Island and returned to the city after graduating from the University of Chicago to work at the New York Observer. Over several years working at the weekly newspaper I became increasingly interested in food and cooking and ultimately left the paper to enroll at the French Culinary Institute. I was passionate about seeking out seasonal ingredients from the farmers market and learning from the farmers I met there. After earning my culinary degree I landed a job as a market manager doing cooking demos at the Union Square Greenmarket and started plotting to go to Italy to work on a farm to see if I could handle the physical work. I met Tim (my future husband) when he returned from his own travels working on farms in Italy and started managing one of the farms selling at the farmers market. My experiences on the farm in Italy left me eager to learn more so when Tim decided to return to Amherst, MA to finish his undergraduate degree at Hampshire College I sought out a farm apprenticeship at the Food Bank Farm in Hadley, MA and left the city to start farming full time.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
Initially I missed the restaurants and take-out options in NYC but I quickly grew to prefer cooking at home with ingredients from the farm. When you're growing your own garlic, onions, lettuce, greens, tomatoes, herbs, etc. there are so many phases of development for each vegetable that have different culinary applications and you just don't have access to all of that without growing your own. The other challenge for me was more of an identity conflict. It took me time to not feel boxed in by people's assumptions about me when I introduced myself as a farmer. I identify more as a small business owner and entrepreneur, and my life and work are as complex and fast-paced as it ever was when I lived in the city. I still bristle a little when people say to me "oh, you must enjoy a simpler life now that you're a farmer."
What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
For years I thought I'd be a life long New Yorker. When I moved to the country I was surprised how little I missed the city. We chose to start our farm in the Pioneer Valley because of the Connecticut River Valley's world class soils and thriving agricultural community. It's definitely a rural area but it also benefits from a concentration of population and culture from the five colleges. We have a rare combination of natural beauty, minimal traffic, local markets, art house cinema, successful independent businesses and the convenience of big box stores.
What were the hardest things to get used to?
It took me a while to get used to knowing people wherever I go. I was accustomed to going about my business fairly anonymously in the city. I had a little taste of that small community feeling when I worked at the Union Square farmers market but it was new for me to make connections with people from all aspects of my life and to bump into folks around town and pick up conversations where we left off.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
For several years when the kids were young we rented an apartment in Brooklyn for a week or two during the winter so we could visit old friends and give our kids a taste of urban life. It's important to us that our kids are comfortable on the subway, know how to navigate the streets, and have an appreciation for the human and artistic culture of the city. In recent years we've expanded our horizons to LA and San Francisco to visit new friends and explore new landscapes. Aside from these short term visits it's unlikely we'll be moving to a city anytime soon as we're fully invested and committed to our farm business and intend to keep farming for many years to come.
What do you appreciate the most about life in the country?
Each day usually brings some small moment of natural beauty. Watching a storm roll in over the fields, or spotting a great blue heron or a bear, or taking a hike to a waterfall, or finding a killdeer nest full of eggs in the lettuce bed. There's usually one moment every day when I stop for a moment to notice something awesome.
What inspired you to start The Kitchen Garden Farm?
Tim and I started the farm on one acre of rented land with a goal of growing hard to find Italian and Asian vegetables that we loved to cook. We were both inspired by our experiences working on farms in Italy where simple seasonal food is an essential part of life and a source of daily pleasure. We wanted to create "our own private Italy" where good food was a central part of our family and community.