ORWELL TOWNSHIP — Metal framework arches over a field. It’s shaped like a row of leaves.
Below, the earth’s still a tired winter brown. But soon — when the sun hugs it, hard and warm, and tiny seeds tickle its face — it will laugh a dozen shades of green.
Spring’s coming to Russell Sprouts Farm.
On a recent afternoon volunteers are busy at the vegetable farm along Route 187, north of Rome. It’s a cold day, but they’re getting things ready for growing season.
They’re putting up framework for a high-tunnel building. Something like a greenhouse, it will have a plastic covering that can be put up and down and draw warmth from the sun to heat the inside. The high-tunnel building will help manager Sheila Russell do what she loves — grow, grow, grow.
“We are an organic vegetable farm,” Sheila explains as the volunteers work. “This is my third year in production.”
The three-acre business is on land owned by her dad, Rex Russell, at his family’s maple syrup operation. The entire farm’s been in the family since the 1700s.
“I’m the seventh generation to farm,” Sheila says. That makes her proud. “It is really cool!”
It’s “pretty darn extraordinary to think my ancestors worked the same land.”
In the past, Sheila worked in corporate publishing in Cheyenne, Wyo. But along the way she became concerned about the way food is produced. “Just became passionate about our food supply,” she explains. She decided to do something about it ... to farm. So she came home.
She and about five part-time helpers work the farm, mostly manually, using organic pesticides and irrigating with spring-fed pond water. They fertilize with manure and cover crops like a rye/vetch mix.
“We kind of do a crop rotation,” she explains. For example, Shelia might start out the year with spring peas and onions in a plot, then till them in – the pea plants would give the soil nitrogen – and plant beets. Grow, mow, till ... keep one thing after another going and nourishing the earth until fall.
This afternoon, men climb on a red ladder inside the framework. A little forklift hums. A drill and other tools lie on a table, a shovel leans again the ladder.
The cold April wind throws a little tantrum, not wanting winter to end or any one at all to grow any thing at all.
The workers just ignore it.
“We’re going to dig that right up,” Sheila says of the ground under the high tunnel. The warm shelter will let her grow earlier in the spring and later in the fall.
She reports having “about 100 varieties of seeds.” She grows tomatoes — around 800 plants — cucumbers, squash, cabbage, beets.
“Eight thousand onions!” helper Sandy Roof says with a laugh.
“And we hope to offer organic seedlings,” Sheila adds. They may be ready by Mother’s Day.
Russell Sprouts is involved with Community Supported Agriculture, which lets local residents invest in the farm in the spring, then share the harvest. If they do some work, they get a discount.
“Last year I had 22 members,” Sheila reports. This year, it’s 35.
Community is important to her. She wants to help the people around her, wants to provide healthful food, and to teach them.
Sheila believes good food leads to good health. Her dad has a saying: “Pay the farmer now or pay the doctor later!”
“It’s an investment in your health,” she says of organic foods.
Besides the CSA program, Russell Sprouts runs a roadside stand for the public. There, Sheila plans to sell vegetables, locally grown fruit, breads by a local baker, gluten-free products, syrup, honey and cheese. She’s also looking for other local foods. The farm accepts government food vouchers.
Russell Sprouts has provided vegetables for a local restaurant, too. “So it’s catching on,” Sheila says.
The farm also features a children’s garden and two special little friends: Millie and Billy, the pygmy goats. They’re named for Millie and Billy Russell, Sheila’s great-grandparents.
Sandy, too, loves everything about the farm — being outdoors, seeing things grow. “The harvesting, the work,” she adds. “It’s just all awesome!”
Sheila’s a farmer at heart. “I enjoy just the process of watching the seeds grow and then sharing that with the community.
“It’s pretty satisfying.”