Cultivating Creativity

Old Field Farm is where art and agriculture meet.

The farm began as a generous vegetable garden on a rural property nestled in the Catskills of Greene County, N.Y. There, artist Peter Nadin and his wife, Anne Kennedy, a photographer, began to sow their creativity in the land. Gradually, over 25-plus years, that land has evolved into a home for chickens, ducks, goats and pigs. There’s a wild bee pasture. Indigenous and cultivated mushrooms grow in the forest.

Old Field Farm is where art meets agriculture and, as Peter puts it, the experience between man and land is unmediated.

“It’s a very direct, authentic experience to look out the door, go outside and do some planting,” says Peter, whose exhibit of paintings on handmade paper called “Taxonomy Transplanted” was recently on view at the Horticultural Society of New York. “For me, at least, it’s a beautiful experience — a beautiful way to start out the day.”

The 160-acre Old Field Farm in Cornwallville, west of the Hudson River and about a two and a half hour drive from New York City, is a working example of how plants, animals, people and the environment give and take of each other. Each has its job. Each offers a contribution. There’s a balance — a delicate one, indeed — that Peter helps conduct as he works the land and lets the land “work” him. He plays a dual role. He’s a participator in the farm habitat and an observer/painter who harvests material as he labors.

There’s a certain, “Who’s looking after who here?’” Peter says, adding that the farm raises animals in accordance to the Animal Welfare Approved program, which ensures humane practices.

The farm doesn’t mass-produce anything, but it churns out boutique bushels. Resources (ie. the goods) are left untouched until the farm environment reaches sustainability; then the surplus is sold through specialty outlets: at a market in Hudson, at a fine grocery in New York City, to restaurateurs like April Bloomfield of the noted gastropub The Spotted Pig in the West Village.

Diversity builds character and balance on a farm. And, while nurturing this environment, Peter finds he can forage for materials to use in his art (beeswax, elderberry, black walnut, cashmere fiber) and give his mind a healthy mental “break” while he toils in the garden.

Live and Let Live. Peter’s account of a bee hive that created its “own architecture” speaks to his philosophy about growing plants and raising animals at Old Field Farm. The apiary was started about 15 years ago with a goal to produce a strain of bees that could survive the harsh, mountain winters without a whole lot of pampering by Peter. He could have done more “propagating” of the hives. But he mostly left them alone.

“Over the years, we have developed strains that survive here and don’t require any of that,” he says of extra meddling and care. In particular, one hive was allowed to guide its own interior design, if you will — with no building from Peter (as in creating a Langstroth bee hive.) Most on the property are a hybrid Langstroth and naturally occurring hive structure — except for that one he let “run wild.”) “We let the bees develop [the hive], so that works pretty well in terms of getting them through the winter,” he says. “That hive swarms every year.”

And while some beekeepers will prepare sugar water for their hives in spring to advance the honeymaking process, Peter does not. Instead, he leaves plenty of “food” for the bees rather than harvesting the honey to sell. “We don’t interfere, and we may propagate less honey, but we have stronger hives,” he says.

The same let-it-be philosophy goes for pigs at Old Field Farm. Their breeding program does not involve bringing in feeder pigs. The farm’s pig share of heritage breed Tamworth and Gloucester Old Spots provide humble and noble cuts.

There are upwards of 300 free-range chickens that roam the property and produce rich eggs. The farm also churns out maple syrup, along with jams and jellies that are jarred up in vessels, some of which are made by resident ceramic artists at the pottery and painting studio on site.

The diversity of the farm could be overwhelming, but Peter and his wife chose to populate their property by gradually adding plants and animals. “If you do it one at a time, you’re O.K.,” he says simply. “I wouldn’t want to start pigs and bees at the same time … we have to know how they work, what they are, what the systems are.”

All this takes time, and learning. What Peter has discovered through this process is that every piece of the farm plays a critical role. “What has surprised me the most is the compatibility and similarity of the animal behavior and human behavior — just how much we really are in it together,” he says. “I have come to the feeling that the farmer, myself, is just another animal on the farm. I am bringing a certain cognitive ability, and the animals are bringing something else. So, it’s very interesting to think about …”

Good Material.
Old Field Farm feeds Peter’s creativity in two ways. It offers a break from the easel and a wild stomping ground full of ripe material he can use in his art. Most days, Peter rises and feeds the animals. He’ll continue with other farm chores before settling into his studio. Then, he’ll return to the outdoors, work in the gardens and check on the pigs. “There is a natural physical cycle to break time, move away [from my art],” Peter says, adding that his painting is not a continuous activity. “Getting out in the field is great for clearing the eyes and head, and it allows you to engage in this agricultural activity, which is interesting when you are an artist.”

Peter is merely exploring a connection that was birthed centuries ago. “There is an ancient correspondence between the idea of agricultural cultivation and the cultivation of the mind,” he says. “It’s nothing new. But I think we somehow lost that connection when art became so subject.”

Peter’s return to terra for inspiration also isn’t new. More creatives that are naturally inclined to explore the “why” find themselves re-establishing a connection with the earth, whether through vegetable gardening or hobby farming like Peter. In a sense, working farms have become a sort of retreat, albeit one that requires hard labor to earn rewards.

But the work is a “luxury experience,” if you ask Peter. He and his wife essentially grocery shop right on their property. They dine on lush salads in the dead of winter thanks to greens that thrive in their greenhouse, and sweet baby carrots, pea shoots, herbs and citrus like the lemons that also grow indoors at the farm. He also cures meats and enjoys the abundance of fresh eggs.

“Now that I’m working [at the farm,] I find it extremely productive and beautiful,” he says.