By Cayla Keiser
If there’s a crop that can be grown in Upstate New York, Erin Bullock grows it.
Bullock is the owner of Wild Hill Farm, a sustainable, pesticidefree farm located in Ionia, NY, just south of Monroe County. The farmland is protected by a Genesee Land Trust easement, meaning it can never be developed or subdivided.
“It’s important when we’re farming to not push the wild out and clear [it just] to make room just for food for humans,” Bullock said. “[As a farmer], you get to grow your own food, get a sense of independence, work outside, use your body and move. Our culture’s lacking these things—people want a connection with the earth and soil.”
TAKING THE PLUNGE
Prior to becoming Farmer Erin, Bullock got her degree in landscape architecture and did office work for a year. She soon realized she preferred the outdoors and started a landscaping company. She then worked at a farmers market.
Documentaries came out around then highlighting the foodie movement and organic farming. At 27 years old, Bullock was inspired and “took the plunge,” finding a job as an apprentice on an organic farm in California.
“I came into [organic farming] as a consumer making personal food choices and through my love of plants,” Bullock said. “I thought, ‘I love to grow plants. I think I could marry these two passions together and grow food for my community in an organic way.’”
After a second apprenticeship, Bullock knew she wanted to farm full time. She created Mud Creek Farm in New York, then sold it and took time off before finding her “forever land” at Wild Hill Farm.
“It’s incredible when the CSA members come and you can tell their kids are growing strong and healthy because they’re eating organic vegetables every day.”
KEEPING THE LAND HEALTHY
Wild Hill Farm doesn’t use any pesticides—organic or otherwise. Instead, they focus on preventative health. Bullock compared it to the human body: If we properly nourish our bodies, rest and surround ourselves with a good community, our immune systems will be stronger.
“In the same way,” she said, “plants have this immune system. If we put all of our energy into growing the healthiest plants with strong immune systems, they don’t necessarily get all of the pests that bigger farms get.”
Bullock and her all-female team plant their crops strategically, giving each area of the land a break from similar crop families. Regularly testing the soil to ensure it gets all of its nutrients is key, as is prioritizing irrigation so the plants receive enough water.
Bullock said they also use cover crops—grown for the soil then plowed back into it as compost—to maintain the soil’s life.
Although Bullock employs fully organic farming methods she said they are not certified organic because the paperwork and costs are not worth it for a small farm. Because they don’t sell to grocery stores or farmers markets, they can communicate directly with the consumer without a third party and can be fully transparent with their consumers about their methods. They sell to people directly through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription model.
THE CSA WAY
In a CSA, members cut out the middle person by purchasing food directly from the farmer. They pay for the full season in advance so the farm can plan their budget to purchase seeds, fertilizer, equipment and pay employees. Members then pick up their freshly harvested crops either weekly or biweekly until the first frost.
“[CSA is] a really great business model, super simple, [and we] don’t have to go through a lot of barriers, regulations and red tape,” Bullock said. “It’s just farmers growing for their community.”
Customers agree to share in the risks of farming. If a major weather event causes crop loss, the farmers aren’t the only ones taking the hit.
“[For example], if all the tomatoes get wiped out, we just say, ‘Sorry, no tomatoes this year because of these circumstances,’” Bullock said. “But we mitigate that risk by the diversity of the crops that we grow.”
CHALLENGES WORTH THE REWARDS
Farming isn’t all sunshine, perfectly timed rain and easy harvests. The toughest part for Bullock is the unpredictability of the weather. While her mentors could depend on a relatively stable climate, in recent years climate change has caused more erratic weather.
“There’s always a new challenge of what do we do now? How do we keep [the crops] healthy?” Bullock said. “We’re on the front lines of climate change. That gives us a lot of stress and mental health burden as farmers.”
Although farming can be stressful, it is also rewarding. Bullock feels fulfilled knowing she grew the food that she serves on her dinner table and she enjoys seeing her community “nourished by the sweat of [her] brow.”
“[It’s incredible] when the CSA members come and you can tell their kids are growing strong and healthy because they’re eating organic vegetables every day,” she said. “I am helping my community stay healthy.”
Cayla Keiser is the associate editor for Verywell Family—a publication covering everything from fertility and pregnancy to children’s health and parenting tips—and a writer specializing in health and wellness, nutrition and food sustainability, profile-writing and multimedia storytelling.