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Farmer Profile: Bill MacKentley

Farmer Profile: Bill MacKentley

Bill MacKentley – Hardy Fruit and Nut Tree Farmer

Liz Henderson interviewed Bill for this newsletter.

In introducing Bill as the 2019 NOFA Person of the Year, Steve Gilman called him “a Giant from the North Country, a veritable Druid in our midst, far from invisible but dwelling on the Far Out side of the spectrum.…This person’s knowledge of the intricacies of organic hands-on growing -- coupled with unstoppable energy, brilliant intellectual pursuit and deep experiential know-how leads him (and us) in many directions. And he’s a gracious and infectious sharer of that knowledge. As a longtime NOFA summer and winter conference presenter, attendees know his workshops are not to be missed.”

NOFA: Please tell us about yourself and how you got started farming.

Bill: I am 74 now and started farming when I was in my 20s. We live in Potsdam, NY – that’s zone 3, pretty far north. You can’t grow peaches or sweet cherries. I grew up in the Adirondack Mountains, five miles from the nearest other human beings most of the year. My playmates were raccoons and deer! My father was a gifted carpenter who built a small summer resort from scratch. You learn independence back in the woods and that made me want to tackle other projects. I always had the desire to be a farmer, but it’s hard on the north slope of the Adirondacks where the last frost is in July and the first in the middle of August. Tomatoes and peppers were out.

I became a high school science teacher, and in 1972 I set up my own environmental organization – the Environmental Testing Service, working with five universities. Students would research products which could earn the ETS seal of approval for free. That is how I met Diana who became my wife and partner. She headed up all the research for ETS at St. Lawrence U. Coming from New Jersey, she did not want to go back to the city.  

I also met Fred Ashworth, a famous plant breeder and one of the founders of North American Fruit Explorers, my mentor for the next five years. He developed the first blight resistant potatoes in the 1940s, while attempting to grow potatoes for Iceland.  A brilliant guy, wonderfully warm, he gave me and Di an acre of land to start on. We didn’t have two nickels to rub together. I worked for cash and with Fred learning the nursery business, how to graft fruit trees, etc. After 3 ½ years, Fred sent us the deed for that one acre and 29 additional acres on the same side of the road.  We were very lucky – so many people treated me well. Slowly, after Fred’s death in 1977 we were able to purchase all 50 acres of the nursery in Potsdam. Years later we bought the back 80 acres, and eventually the 1829 farmhouse across the road where our daughter Bali lives now with our two grandchildren. Franklin D. Roosevelt ate lunch there many years ago. Our other daughter, Nova, bands owls in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

NOFA: Tell us about your farm.

Bill: Fred Ashworth started the nursery, but did not live off it. When I came on, Fred only had around 100 orders a year. We took it over in 1977 when he died and built it up over ten years. The first print catalog for St. Lawrence Nursery was in 1982. (Steve Gilman describes it as “a highly sought-after, information-rich, hands-on grower’s guide catalog with some 170 varieties of pears, blueberries, cherries, plums, grapes and juneberries along with a specialty in heritage apples for growers across the country.”) We raised and bred hardy fruit and nut trees and had customers all over – Iceland, northern New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Mongolia. People found that our plants lived. They thrived in Northern MN, WI, MI, and even New Mexico at 11,000 feet, and over 6,000 feet in the upper Appalachians of North Carolina. Our goal was to never be boastful, always conservative, offering a good product at a reasonable price.  

We also developed an orchard for scion wood. It is a most eclectic orchard with 300 kinds of apples, pears, plums (200 apples alone), and took most of my life to do that. For many years, Di cultivated 5 acres: to grow one acre of dry beans! Then you rotate out the next four years to prevent incursion of disease endemic to beans. After a dozen or so years she gave it up and returned to her first love – cows. There was just too much dust associated with Jacobs Cattle. We currently grow most of our own food, including around 1500 garlic bulbs, 900 lb beets. 800 lb carrots, etc. Some of the latter provide winter treats for our dairy cow and other veggies we give away or sell at the local food coop.

NOFA: Why did you choose organic farming?

Bill: I worked a lot in research labs where I saw many toxic  chemicals in use. Why would I put poison on something I was going to eat? Why put poison in my system or give cancer to my children 20 years down the road? You have to play along with nature – that was Fred’s advice. With organic farming – everything is focused on life. Since Di and I wanted children, it was rather obvious to farm organically. We read Rodale and started to garden for ourselves and that’s how we got into farming in the 70s. I wasn’t that involved in starting NOFA – I’m not good at political stuff. NOFA is probably the most important of all the organizations out there. It has helped so many people get started and I am happy I could help by providing useful workshops in areas where expertise was scant.

NOFA: Are there books you would especially recommend?

Bill: The one that really got me going was Tree Crops by J. Russell Smith. His teaching fits right in with most of the other great nature/ecology/agriculture writers.  Sir Albert Howard, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Liberty Hyde Bailey, JI and Robert Rodale, Lady Eve Balfour, Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, the list goes on and on, topics vary, but all are profound in their own way. In the early 1900s, visionary thinkers were a much smaller crowd – they all knew one another and regularly tossed ideas back and forth. How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back by Ruth Stout was one such book, not to be missed by aspiring organic growers.

NOFA: do you have any advice for would-be farmers?

Bill: When people ask how you get started in farming – I say – plant something.  I do not have a prescription.  Learn your own way. Start small and go slowly, especially at first...  Read a lot, but don’t believe everything you read. You have to use common sense and experience to find your own way. The logo on our T-shirt says it all: Plant until you’re planted!

Avoid debt like the plague.  No matter how hard you have to work, don’t take on debt. That’s especially hard today.

We need tens of thousands of new people to make the commitment to grow food without using poisons. -Cides kill at the nanoprotoplasmic level, i.e. the atomic level. That is what led me into mycorrhizal research when I retired. If there is going to be future life for our species on planet Earth it will be due to the efforts of organic farmers, the ones who do it for the right reasons. We need to study the Gaia hypothesis, proposed by Margulis and Lovelock in the early 70s When our farming practices emulate those of Mother Nature, we’ll know that humans may have a place in the landscape and organic farmers have a closer connection with the natural world than just about any other group of two- leggeds on the planet. We interact with nature which is fabulously complex and beautiful. That is what will save us from extinction.

NOFA: Are your trees still available?

Bill: After a 45 year run, I have retired from the nursery business. Connor Hardiman, who worked for me for many years starting at age 14, has taken over the nursery. Connor went to Clarkson for two years, then ESF.  When he was 19 or 20, he still worked, coming at 5 am before class.  I thought about how Fred had mentored me and agreed to mentor Connor till he was ready.  Now he is in his fourth year and he’s only 22 or 23.

I still have lots of energy, though I have some hip issues. I coach the NYS horticulture team and take them to annual national competition. I’m also a member of the Northern Nut Growers. Now that I am in retirement, I’m trying to help out others who are just getting going. In farming, you accumulate a huge amount of equipment. I am done with a bunch of things so if someone is going to use it for organic agriculture, I am right there. I feel people out to see what they need. You can’t take it with you. We are too hung up on this whole concept of making money. Nature isn’t that way. Nature cooperates. We should be doing what we can to bring others along.


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AJP/NOFA Field Day at Soul Fire Farm