A Sustainable Living Lab and Organic Farm in New York

Better Farm helps plant the seeds of sustainable living and social change in the students, artists and other guests who visit.

residents chopping wood

Farm residents get a workout chopping firewood to fuel the house’s wood-burning stove.

Photo by Erin Fulton

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Back in 2008, Nicole Caldwell was living an urban life in Brooklyn, spending gobs of money on rent and rushing through the high-paced, professional lifestyle she’d always envisioned for herself. Little did she know that within the next few years, she would become the founder and owner of Better Farm, a sustainable farm and living lab that would act as an arts, building and sustainability incubator for people from all around the globe.

Getting Better

A born-and-raised urbanite, Nicole grew up in New Jersey, attended college in Massachusetts and got her master’s degree in New York City. But as a child, her respite from the city was her uncle’s home in Redwood, New York, about six hours north of the city. Her uncle had purchased the property—a sprawling 65-acre farm near the then-tiny town—and created a commune where he and others could live together and escape the hustle and bustle of society. Although people grew some plants and had some animals, it was never a formal farm. When Nicole would visit, she and her uncle would talk about their ideas of cool things they could do with the large property. “We’d say, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a writer come and spend time in the off season?’ For us, it was all musings,” she says.

In 2009, Nicole’s uncle passed away and left her the house and property—no longer a commune, but a rambling, sweeping piece of land with a large farmhouse. She wasn’t sure how the farm would fit into her hectic life, and she felt a little intimidated about trying to figure out what to do with the place. But at the same time, she’d been discovering the deeply healing power gardening can have. “Right after my uncle passed away, I was really sad and mourning him,” she says. “There was a community garden up in the Bronx that I would go to frequently, and I found helping out there to be the most healing experience.”

That summer, Nicole decided she needed to go up to the property to get it cleaned up and decide what to do with it. She took six weeks off work and planned to think about renting the place, slap on some fresh paint, and get a feel of what she was dealing with. “In that time I absolutely felt like I was home,” she says. “I felt so happy to be surrounded by so much open space, and I started to think about putting in a garden.”

Nicole had always been eco-minded, she says, becoming vegetarian at age 9, volunteering at community gardens as a teen—but they were all just passing hobbies. “I realized I could start doing these things in real life; this could be part of my everyday,” she says. She took inspiration from her college experience at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, a nontraditional school that emphasizes individuality and experimentation and whose tag line is “Disrupt the status quo.”

At Hampshire, students are encouraged to strive to impact their communities and to turn their education into an “intellectual and moral force.” Nicole started thinking, “What if I put some gardens in here and people could come and learn how to do these things? We could get our hands dirty and learn to build things or put up a solar kit or plant an organic garden,” she says. “I laid the framework and started contacting colleges and community gardening groups and set up a Facebook page saying, ‘We have this thing I’m starting and anyone who wants to come learn alongside me can show up,’” she says. To her amazement, people did.

Building a Better World

Today the farm has visitors whose stays range from a night to indefinite. The farm is a residence to volunteers, students and artists—about 15 or so in the summer months, and down to about five in the winter. Artists come to do residencies at the farm, offering workshops and displaying their work in the barn-turned-art gallery. Students and interns come to learn organic gardening techniques, sustainable building, beekeeping, poultry care, rainwater catchment, hydroponics, aquaponics and more. The farm is also open for short stays via Airbnb, so less-committed visitors can get a taste of the farm’s philosophy.

Nicole’s goal is for residents and visitors to come and learn skills they can take back to their own communities. “We do vertical gardens and small aquaponics and hydroponics kits and rainwater catchment, and someone can come and learn all those things and then go back to New York City or California or Singapore or Kenya and use the concepts,” Nicole says. “It’s kind of like a hands-on training camp or a living lab. That’s the basic crux. We’re not here to get everyone to have a 65-acre farm. We don’t want people to have the excuse that you don’t have the space or time, because actually anybody can grow something or compost or participate in a community garden, and any of those things any of us can do is what will create large, sweeping change,” she says.

For students, the farm offers a certificate program in sustainability, and the program typically lasts one to three months, although it varies and is customizable based on individual situations. The morning session from 9 to 11:30 is all about tending the garden and learning basic organic gardening techniques. In the afternoon, rotating sessions are project-based. For example, programs might cover foraging for wild edible plants; building a structure such as a cabin or greenhouse; volunteering in town with other community groups; or building a rainwater catchment system. Artists typically stay for two weeks to two months, and they commit to spending three to five hours a week doing something sustainability-related.

Nicole says the experience changes just about everyone who comes to stay. “We have a great history of people coming here and being transformed by the experience,” Nicole says. “I think the former ’70s commune had kind of a dropout mentality—people wanted to escape a society they didn’t agree with, and they came here to keep themselves away from the world. Better Farm is the complete opposite: We want you to go back to your communities and facilitate change there.”

One playwright who came for a residency was so inspired by the work Better Farm was doing that she went to Detroit, bought a house and turned it into a writers’ residency program. Another was a Kenyan student who had been studying at the University of Kansas. She came to Better Farm to begin to study water systems, because she was from a place that didn’t have access to water for things like irrigation. Today she is getting a Ph.D. in water systems and plans to return to Kenya and incorporate all she’s learned in her work there.

The farm doesn’t just inspire people in their work; it also empowers people and changes lives. “We have another woman who came here two summers ago as a student, and she’s come back every summer since to run the programming,” Nicole says. “She’s our programming director now. She came up here and found her voice. She really got into farming, and then she got into baking. Now she’s planning to open her own bakery. It’s amazing what happens when people get outside and start interacting with their environment,” Nicole says. She cites research into rehabilitative prison gardens and healing hospital gardens. “There’s a cathartic experience of being surrounded by nature and growing things and caring for a garden, caring for animals, connecting with something bigger than yourself. That’s in the training manual for every therapy or recovery program, and I have the joy of watching that on a small level every day—people reconnecting with this kind of space, and seeing who they are when they arrive and who they are when they leave.”

Nicole sees her work at Better Farm as a small seed with the power to grow into big change if enough people can access the basic skills of sustainability and, simultaneously, see its wide-ranging, nurturing power. “Just to have your hands in the dirt is a primal thing that’s so healing,” Nicole says. “Look at cities like Detroit that have gone through such a difficult time. Detroit is rebuilding with that in mind. They’re doing garden tours by bus. There are unbelievable groups out there creating community-supported agriculture programs within inner-city communities, so people have access to hyperlocal organic food and also have access to get their hands in the dirt and start growing stuff on their own. We talk about the ills of our large agriculture system. If people in cities banded together and started growing some of their own food onsite, what a difference it could make in food, in stress levels, in taking responsibility for ourselves and each other. Everything we see on the news could be corrected by thinking in those terms: Let’s create gardens where we come together for the common good, where we’re nurturing living things as they grow. There’s no doubt in my mind as to the absolute power of those kinds of things. If they were to spread out across the country or world, it would be one of the biggest changes we could ever hope to see culturally.”


Grow the Arts

A major element of Better Farm is its arts outreach program, betterArts. Through betterArts, the group offers year-round cultural activities onsite and throughout the area, sharing the creations of resident artists from all over the world with the local community. “This region doesn’t have a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t still have access to art,” founder Nicole Caldwell says. “If we can acknowledge the power of art to transform society and the world, to bring magic back into our lives, then we allow art to become a catalyst for change. Much like playing in the dirt makes us happier, art makes us critical thinkers. Better test-takers. More likely to go to college and avoid addiction issues. There are so many studies about the benefits.”


Grow Community

Better Farm founder Nicole Caldwell says one of the best and most surprising things about her work at Better Farm has been the relationship the farm has built with the local community of Redwood, New York. “The people locally have offered workshops and training to help us out, then we go back to the community to help them,” she says. “This is a really lovely thing I missed entirely in New York City. There’s an anonymity living in the city, not knowing the people next door. Now people just show up and want to help. And then we help paint the post office or set up a greenhouse in town. There’s a familial thing. People come here and get a little of that, and they’re not the same after having the experience. They leave here and initiate things in their own communities.” Nicole mentions one former Better Farm guest who returned home to San Diego and started an organization to assist the homeless. “It’s called the Brunch Club and they come and give food and supplies to the homeless—socks and toothbrushes and bagels or whatever—and they include little notes that say things like, ‘People care about you’,” she says.


Mother Earth Living editor-in-chief JESSICA KELLNER is inspired and awed by the amazing work Better Farm is doing, and is dreaming of a visit sometime soon.