Twenty-year employee Richard Fairchild works creating a ditch for a new tunnel to protect crops from high heat in the summer and cold weather in the spring.  Farmer Howie Prussack says these tunnels provide more protection for his crops as climate change gives farmers more to worry about.
Fran Lynggaard Hansen/The Commons
Twenty-year employee Richard Fairchild works creating a ditch for a new tunnel to protect crops from high heat in the summer and cold weather in the spring. Farmer Howie Prussack says these tunnels provide more protection for his crops as climate change gives farmers more to worry about.

Adapting to changes

‘I’m always thinking about what’s next,’ says Howie Prussack, who stumbled on his calling 50 years ago: organic farming

Howard (Howie) Prussack is relaxed, sitting in the warmth of his greenhouse on this overcast March day, enjoying 70-degree weather among the tomato plants he started in late February.

"The celery is up, and we're potting turmeric today. We're also working on ginger propagation," Prussack says.

Turmeric and ginger?

"People are getting older and want foods that keep us healthy," he says. "Powerful herbs and vegetables, carrots, turmeric, ginger - they are all important as one ages."

These are new crops for High Meadows Farm - ginger was added last year, and this is the first year it's grown turmeric. Prussack, 71, says that both are in demand, and he ought to know: He has been farming for more than 50 years.

"People ask me about when I'm going to retire, but I'm having too much fun," he says with a smile. "I'm still enthused about farming, and I'm always thinking about what's next," he says, shifting his weight from foot to foot, a sign of this farmer's near-constant activity.

"My local farming role models all worked well into their 80s(2), so I guess I'll be like them," he adds.

Prussack's background is a who's who of Vermont farming. He worked for Larry Bryant, who owned the Putney Nursery, where the Yellow Barn in Putney now stands.

Another mentor was(3) (4)George Aiken, who was born in Dummerston but lived most of his life in Putney, where his parents were fruit and vegetable farmers. Aiken, who served as the governor of Vermont and as a U.S. senator, also happened to be the founder of the original Putney Nursery.

"Sen. Aiken was always super encouraging, and a local-farmer supporter."(5)

William Darrow of Green Mountain Orchards, who also served as the commissioner of agriculture for the State of Vermont, also played a role in Prussack's early career.

"I got a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build my first greenhouse," he says. "It was a modern marvel with a full metal frame. Bill helped me with it."

'I was having too much fun on the farm'

Unlike the many local farmers who came from old farm families across Vermont, Prussack grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where he remembers watching a Saturday morning television show, The Modern Farmer.

By 19, he was set to begin his second year at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan when a summer adventure, encouraged by his former high school English teacher, sent him by bus from Brooklyn to Bellows Falls.

"Bellows Falls was a happening place in 1971," says Prussack, describing a bustling downtown and remembering (6)Fletcher's, a "quaint and lovely" small stationery store.(7)

With a laugh, he recalls, "I had my fancy Italian ten-speed city bicycle with me on the bus, and the local kids surrounded me like it was a Lamborghini."

Very quickly, Prussack fell into the farming commune community, first at what was then called Nature Farms. Located in Westminster West on the current site of the Earth Bridge Land Trust, the agricultural commune was started by Kim Hubbard, with a focus on growing organic vegetables.

"I had intended to go back to school, but I was having too much fun on the farm," Prussack says with a big smile.

While some of the locals considered the many communes in the area as a bunch of young college kids experimenting in the back-to-the-land movement, Prussack says the 15 people at Nature Farms were serious about the future of agriculture.

"We were all interested in the same thing, and we grew everything. We learned a lot about organics at a time when many people weren't sure what organic farming was all about," Prussack says.

According to a 1979 story in The Wall Street Journal - "More City Residents Move to the Farm, End Up Disillusioned" - the 20-acre communal farm "fell apart in financial disarray two years after it was set up."

The article described Prussack, after fellow communards scattered, learning from his mistakes and ended up getting it right, and the Journal reported that "seven years later, the farm is turning a comfortable profit."

As for his fellow farmers, "One of them, Samuel Kaymen, moved to New Hampshire, where he started (8)Stonyfield yogurt(9) in 1983."

Another member of the farm became vice president of Pacific Bell. Another joined the Navy and eventually returned to the area as a nuclear engineer for Vermont Yankee.

An organic pioneer

In 1979, after working for another local farmer, Arthur Ranney, Prussack bought the place in Westminster West where he still lives and works, High Meadows Farm.

"At the time, my farm and the surrounding acreage were the most expensive farm sold in the area," says Prussack. "The older farmers in the area thought I was crazy to pay that much money to get started.

"I was the first organic farm to get a mortgage through the Farmer's Home Administration," he says with pride. "I became the link between the old farmers and the new farmers through organics."

The farm sale included a number of cows, and Prussack initially shared the farm with a woman who knew how to run a dairy operation.

But within two years, he'd switched over to organic vegetable farming. "I converted the dairy barn into what I needed for vegetables, and I started building greenhouses," he says.

In 1980, Prussack started High Meadows Farm Market near where One Stop Country Pet Supply is now located, and in 1983 purchased a half an acre of the parking lot of the Brattleboro Bowl from Tony Cersosimo, another big supporter of local agriculture. Local architect Leo Berman designed a post-and-beam building and greenhouse.

Prussack ran the store until 1991 and remembers people shaking their heads at the prices of organic, homegrown vegetables.

"I was the first certified organic farm in Vermont in 1976. Our Putney Road store was a little ahead of its time, but it still did very well. And it helped educate people about organics."

A broad acceptance of organic farming isn't the only thing that has changed over the years. So has the weather.

"The weather used to be very predictable," says Prussack with a slight grimace. "Spring has always been sketchy. It's getting warmer every year. Most years there was still snow up to my waist at this time of year, but this winter we've hardly had any snow cover at all."

He notes that weather conditions in every season have become more and more unusual of late.

"It used to be that we'd get a half inch of rain in the summer," Prussack says. "Now we might get a 3-inch rain, or even a 6-inch rain. We had so much rain we lost our potato crop last summer, and we don't have insurance to cover that loss."

Even so, he notes that the changing climate has both plusses and minuses.

"I used to count on a killing frost by Sept. 23," Prussack says. "Now it's nothing to go until Oct. 23, so we get four more growing weeks in the fall. It used to be frost-free by Memorial Day in May. Now maybe it might be frost free by April 20. Climate change has added an enormous amount of growing time, which is huge, but there are also downsides."

Farmers are adapting to the changes, but they can only adapt so much.

"You can't stop the rain," Prussack says. "If it's going to flood, it's going to flood. We've put more drainage in the fields, but that only goes so far. I'm maxed out with what I can change."

High Meadows has thrived in part because of the greenhouses and protective tunnels that shield some of his crops from the weather.

"Protected farming, having greenhouses and tunnels covered with plastic, with or without heat to protect the crops from extreme weather, is the future," Prussack says. "It's capital-intensive, but it is a tiny bit of insurance against the weather."

He has taken a few detours in his agricultural career, including going on the road as a salesman for over two dozen organic food companies, including Amy's Frozen Foods and Whole Foods, but he's happiest growing food on his farm at home.

"I started growing potted herbs for the same companies I was working for until I ended up doing that full time and left working on the road," he says.

Years ago, Prussack sold vegetables out of his truck, sometimes making a weekly run to New York City to do so.

"There I was in my little blue truck with Vermont plates, tossing heads of broccoli out of the back for a $1 a head," he says. "Of course it was all illegal, but the police officers were kind and let me do it because I sold out so quickly," he says, chuckling.

The Covid pivot

These days, Prussack continues to supply local co-ops as well as Whole Foods stores all over New England with potted herbs and vegetable starts, then later in the season with truckloads of winter squash and other vegetables. Before Covid, he had 12 people working full-time at High Meadows Farm.

"We were humming right along until Covid, which changed everything," he says.

Not knowing who was going to buy his products, or if grocery stores were even going to stay open, meant that Prussack needed to cut back to get the business through that period. His wife, Elizabeth (Lisa) Crawford Prussack, who has always been the farm's bookkeeper, crop scheduler and planner, suggested they shrink the business down.

Throughout the pandemic, Prussack was thinking of farmers he had met while volunteering with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Myanmar, Nepal, Cuba, and El Salvador to share information about organic vegetable farming .

"If people in those poor countries can grow vegetables with practically nothing, I was thinking I should be growing as much as possible," he says.

He began to gear his farm production back up to even greater than the pre-Covid times.

That year, the farm produced "massive amounts of vegetables," including 100,000 pounds of onions.

These days, the 65 acres of High Meadow Farms is actively growing about 10 acres of vegetables and cover crops, as well as subletting some pastureland to Leaping Bear Farm in Putney for its egg-laying chickens.

"Having chickens here is helpful," Prussack says. "They eat the grass and the bugs and leave their manure on the fields. I'll be rotating that land back into production at a future point in time."

The farm's 10 acres of production comprise 2 acres of winter squash, an acre of cabbage, 1.5 acres of potatoes and onions, a half acre of carrots, and a few other minor crops. High Meadows is also known for producing black garlic year-round.

"Garlic is a huge crop for us," says Prussack, who continues to sell truckloads of squash and potatoes to local co-ops and at both the winter and summer editions of the Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market. High Meadows also has a strong presence on Facebook and Instagram, which have been "great marketing tools for the farm."

In addition to Howie and Lisa Prussack, the farm employs two other full-time workers: Richard Fairchild, who has worked at High Meadows for 20 years, and Imelda Riley, "the face of High Meadows," Howie Prussack says, since she has done most of the retailing for the past 12 years.

"Our long-term employees are like family," he adds. "We couldn't do it without them."

What will the farm's future bring? Prussack is cautiously hopeful.

"I'm still optimistic about the state of agriculture in Vermont," he says. "There are still a lot of people getting into it, despite it being both the best of times and the worst of time for farmers. People appreciate farmers, and they are willing to pay more for our crops. However, the cost of everything is so much more expensive."

Prussack went on to explain that a 50-pound bag of organic fertilizer now costs $50 per bag. This past week he spent $589 for fertilizer for only a half an acre of garlic. When he started farming, diesel fuel cost 38 cents per gallon - (10)about $1.62 in today's dollars (11)- but now costs more than $4 per gallon.

"Nothing is cheap anymore," he says. "We pay retail but we sell wholesale, that's the story of farming."

Still, Prussack wouldn't consider any other profession.

"I like growing," he says. " I like selling and meeting people at the farmers market. It's the customers that keep me going. I like the steady pace of the work and it keeps me healthy. I've got to stay healthy to farm, and I must farm to stay healthy."

Prussack pauses and smiles broadly.

"I went to school to be an artist, but I'm now an artist in the field," he says.

This News item by Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.

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