LIZ & WILLIAM
ARTISTS & FARMERS @ BLACK MOUNTAIN FARM
New York City to Sweden, Maine
Urban Exodus visited Liz Deleo and William Simpson’s Black Mountain Farm in the early days of last fall. The leaves were beginning to change and the bounty of the late summer tomato crop still clung to the vines. Black Mountain Farm was still a work in progress, having only had one full growing season under their belts. Before relocating to Sweden, Maine, Liz and Will lived nearly a decade in New York City. It was bittersweet to leave the city where they had met, forged so many friendships and spent their formative years but they felt ready for a major change. Both multifaceted artists, Liz and Will were interested in farming for numerous reasons but reconnecting themselves to nature, living a sustainable and more self-sufficient existence and starting their own venture together were all high on their list. Liz and Will started their journey farming in 2014, working as farm apprentices through MOFGA (Maine’s Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) where they learned the ins and outs of how to manage a small-scale farm. Following their time with MOFGA, with the help of friends and family, they converted a small footprint of Will’s old family camp into their own little operation. They hit many roadblocks in the early days that made them question if they had made the the right choice. Their first winter, they lived in a one-room seasonal cabin without insulation or a bathroom. That winter was particularly cold and snowy and it tested their limits. While building their bedroom cabin, Will sustained a major cut from a circular saw that nearly severed his hand. Overcoming these obstacles together has only strengthened their resolve and their relationship. Liz and Will were tired of being part of the problem and not the solution. Farming they both feel is the best contribution to American society they can make – providing healthy and clean food to their community and maintaining the long-term fertility of their soil through organic methods of regeneration. Now, with three years of hard work under their belts, they have expanded their farmstead to two acres of land, grow a wide variety of crops, and raise chickens, turkeys, ducks and rabbits. They find inspiration in their fields and observing their animals. At the end of a long workday, Liz and Will like to take a breather on their deck and play music, write or make art. Although they occasionally still miss the conveniences, culture and cuisine New York had to offer, they couldn’t imagine returning to the city where Will poignantly witnessed “mankind at its very grandest and at its most flawed.” (Click here to jump to their interview)
What inspired you to move to the country?
Initially, a parcel of land became available and we were inspired to investigate farming as a profession and lifestyle. We were determined to somehow live life in a more meaningful way and farming felt like an excellent way to do that: we'd be producing food, we'd be enhancing the land, we'd be employing ourselves, and we'd be integral to our community. What's more, we were interested in returning to the rural existences we knew as children while at the same time escaping the destructive monotony and consumerism of city life; likewise we hoped to reconnect with the food we eat and the land on which we live. I think at the base of it all, we wanted to set down roots in a manner that was sustainable and which could give to the future rather than take.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
It was extremely difficult to leave our home in New York. We had spent some very formative years in the city, met one another, met a wonderful array of people (some of them lifelong friends), invested ourselves in the urban culture, and considered ourselves on the cusp of becoming real New Yorkers (it takes a decade, they say, and we were nearly there). So uprooting ourselves was a very sad and revealing experience. As for challenges thereafter, one came in the form of our apprenticeship wherein we had to assimilate into a family and their homestead/farm which takes all kinds of patience and flexibility. Through much of it we were terribly lonely and homesick for our former life; we were forced to face our true selves and decide whether this is what we truly wanted. Then, when it came to starting our own business, we had very little money and only a single season under our belts. But all along, we never thought to ourselves, "hey, this is gonna be a breeze", so while we may have been audacious in action, we always remained rational in mind, making the transition bearable.
What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
The idyllic image of agricultural life is certainly not true. Farmers work incessantly with very little time to stop and smell the roses that they themselves have grown. This takes some getting used to; it's important to pace yourself. Eventually you realize that the gift of growing your own food and being able to feed others with wholesome goods far outweighs the blissful notion of living in "perfect" unison with nature. Nature can be cruel, but that's what makes our life here interesting. Plus, everyone out here is really, really, really nice.
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?
The lack of artificial light was something new: we couldn't walk anywhere at night without a flashlight but now we could actually see the stars. And water too: it just can't be taken for granted, it doesn't magically fall from the faucet - eventually it dries up and must somehow replenish. Also, driving everywhere rather than taking the train took some getting used to. Podcasts in the car have taken the place of paperbacks on the subway. Honestly, there was nothing here in the country that was too difficult to adapt to; it all felt more or less natural for us - the right way of doing things. That said, there were plenty of things we missed from city life: 75 cent chinatown pork buns, visiting our old friends at the MET, the sound of the subway, dollar pizza, music, poetry, and art everywhere, walk-ups and fire escapes, the Strand bookstore, bodega coffee, wandering the streets of Harlem, LES, and Brooklyn, hailing cabs, 40s of OE, rooftops, being able to walk anywhere even if it took all day.
Would you ever consider returning to an urban existence?
Being able to set our roots down in the country is one thing we love most about living in the woods. We didn't leave the city because we didn't like it, we love New York and we loved our life there, we just would rather visit when not working and play in the concrete jungle knowing that our business and life is somewhere else now, somewhere with space and sky. We are set here in the country and want it that way but it is important for us to be able to be close to our friends and the city life.
What do you appreciate the most about life in the country?
We really appreciate the space we now have, space to spread out and carry out the projects we've always thought about doing. And here our lifestyle is do-or-die: either we get done what needs to be done or things start to fall apart. We must rely heavily on ourselves and that kind of responsibility is empowering. The things we've accomplished simply out of necessity, out of survival, are things we never thought ourselves capable of. The country will really teach you how to fight for the essentials in life: food, water, warmth, shelter.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
It's important to realize that moving from the city to the country is not, in itself, going to change you as a person. Someone hoping to become more thoughtful, more grounded, or more "in touch" should know that while a change of environment is a step in the right direction, it won't simply transform you. The country may provide the space and the time which facilitate self-discovery, but a person still must apply themselves whole-heartedly to the transformation they desire.
When you go back to the city to visit, what are the first three things on your to-do list?
Good coffee, working out that three-part harmony with our best friend Jared, and walk walk walk walk walk.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
Through our apprenticeship and the past season we were lucky enough to meet and witness many families and surrounding farms that influence us everyday. When all of your peppers die from cutworms we can commiserate and problem solve with others who have experienced similar scenarios season after season. We follow farms and people around the state and country who are doing similar work with their lives and draw passion from their testimonies and photographs. Finding a new design for a chicken tractor or a more efficient way of curing winter squash; as nerdy as it sounds, this creates excitement in us. Every weekend we sell at different farmers markets where, after all the farm work is done for the week and you can display your produce and look around at what others are doing, we feel at ease and on the right path. We know there is always a place to go to ask the questions we need. Podcasts and Settlers of Catan also help.
Have you noticed a change in yourself or your work since moving away from the city?
Our livelihood depends exclusively on ourselves. We get as much out of it as we put in so we've really become the hard workers we always said we were. Also, I think we've become more dependable, more true to our word, with greater follow through and a greater sense of accountability.
Walk us through a typical day in your country existence? How does it compare to the day to day in the city?
Our typical day in the country now owning and running a farm is very different from an average day in the city. The micro and macro aspects of life are much more detailed and much broader at the same time. Farming calls for disciplined organization, focus, and structure that we didn't always need to call upon in the city because so much more is at stake. Everything is seasonal but there are always chores morning and evening. We wake up at 6, or at least we try to and always feed and clean the animals before we are able to feed and clean ourselves. We make coffee, you MUST make coffee and you have to be conscious about eating protein for breakfast where as in the city we might stumble out of our apartment and forget to eat for hours. On a farm there is always something to do, whether it be building a fire in the greenhouse for the seedlings, or planting out a succession of 400 heads of lettuce. In the city we would do a lot of activities that would be absolutely wonderful but at the end of the day wouldn't mean very much. Here, everything becomes an art, how can I build this fire more efficiently? How can we keep our pipes from freezing? How can we lay out our fields in a different way that we can achieve more sun exposure and not as much fertility run off? These things, though not for everyone are fun for us. We do miss not having as much responsibility and running around the streets of New York but when we go to sleep at night we feel rejuvenated and gratified, something we never could really ever accomplish with the city life.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn’t have dared to try before moving from the city?
We find that being our own weird selves is much easier here than in the city. Plus, here we can pee anywhere we want and run around naked if we need to.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
I find that spending time with the animals and observing the plants best informs the trajectory of the farm and the land. Anything we grow or raise deserves the absolute best conditions we can provide. Liz is in love with her succulent plants and finds great joy in cultivating them knowing they don't need to be mass produced and sold, they are her thing. Also, we both love our farm dog (she's really a cat) Pistol. She helps keep us grounded and reminds us that challenges aren't the end of the world.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
Life in the country can be just as nuanced, unexpected, and interesting as life in the city. And the people out here can teach you just as much, if not more, about life and the world. Plus, they're far more willing to get to know you.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
We have just opened up a 1-2 acre field for vegetables so our produce production will increase significantly. We also plan to expand our livestock numbers, adding lamb, turkey and perhaps pigs into the fold. With added food, we'll be able to accommodate another market as well as further wholesale accounts. We'd like to focus on the efficiency of our farm systems to make things easier on ourselves and make living more comfortable for all lives involved. Right now we live in a house that was on the property as a camp when we bought it. It's a wonderful little home but in the near future we would love to build a real home for ourselves.