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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.

| March/April 2016

  • Farm residents get a workout chopping firewood to fuel the house’s wood-burning stove.
    Photo by Erin Fulton
  • Better Farm residents come together to cook and share meals in the communal kitchen and dining spaces.
    Photo by Erin Fulton
  • Better Farm's visitors stay for varying lengths of time, ranging from overnight to indefinite.
    Photo by Erin Fulton
  • Nicole collects eggs from a chicken coop built by farm residents.
    Photo by Erin Fulton
  • Nicole works on outreach with the company of two of the farm’s dogs, Kobayashi Maru (left) and Han Solo.
    Photo by Erin Fulton
  • The main house houses 23 people, while other residents live in studios, yurts and converted barns around the property.
    Photo by Erin Fulton
  • Drying veggies and herbs act as natural décor. Here, drying okra looks charming pinned on a clothesline.
    Photo by Erin Fulton
  • The Better Farm community, founded by Nicole Caldwell, runs a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program for local residents from May through November.
    Photo by Erin Fulton
  • Better Farm produces between 60 and 70 varieties of vegetables and fruits.
    Photo by Erin Fulton
  • Better Farm is home to around 35 chickens, mostly rescues from area shelters, and six rescue ducks.
    Photo by Erin Fulton
  • Evidence of the many artists, builders and makers who have lived on the property is seen in the décor and furnishings throughout the home.
    Photo by Erin Fulton
  • Interns, students, resident farmers and artists bunk up in some of the farmhouse’s many bedrooms.
    Photo by Erin Fulton

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.

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