In the Field / The vision that became Canticle Farms



Rows of lettuces and cabbage are worked and weeded by hand.

Photos by Devon Dams-O’Connor

 

In the middle of a quiet farm cloistered by green hillsides, a woman kneels between neat rows, head bowed, peacefully transfixed on her vocation. She coaxes one bright orange carrot from the earth, rubs the dark soil from its smooth surface, and moves on to the next with practiced, patient intention.

 

The carrots are part of the bounty at Canticle Farm, a nonprofit agricultural organization run by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, near where Five Mile Creek flows into the Allegany River. The farm’s mission is to nourish the mind, body, spirit, and earth by growing over forty varieties of Certified Naturally Grown fruits and vegetables cultivated for community-supported agriculture (CSA) share members, the farm’s public market, the REAP farmers market in Olean, and charitable donations of fresh food to those who need it.

 

Canticle, a word meaning “song of praise,” began in 2000 after six members of the Allegany Franciscan’s Justice and Peace Committee attended an Earth conference in Ohio and learned about a similar farm model run by another order of Franciscan Sisters in Indiana. Excited about the idea of creating a sustainable source for healthy, homegrown food for their rural community in Western New York’s Southern Tier, the sisters got to work building a farm with the help of the strong connections they had cultivated in their community through the Church and St. Bonaventure University. A former corn grower agreed to sell them his land when he learned it would remain a farm. People came to lend a hand when they could. They worked out of carports until the community held a barn raising. Canticle started small their first year with forty CSA members and fifteen weeks’ worth of modest produce.

 

At first, some people in town called it “the sisters’ little garden project.” But, a year later, interest had grown and so had the workload, so the sisters sought a full-time farm manager to oversee the countless details that go into planning, planting, tending, harvesting, and distributing fresh produce. Mark Printz, who traded a nine-to-five corporate job to oversee the novice farm, joined Canticle Farm as farm manager just before the start of the second season.

 

Today, he manages a staff of about a dozen full- and part-time farmers who tend crops on fifteen acres of land, and the number of CSA shares and length of the share season have both more than doubled. The sisters no longer work the fields but remain actively involved in the direction and mission of the farm. Canticle now has a second property across the river on Old State Road with a year-round farm market building that’s open on Tuesdays and Fridays in the summer, and Tuesdays in the off seasons. Its shelves and coolers are full of Canticle’s fresh produce, seasonal treats from other nearby farms who specialize in seasonal crops like sweet corn and strawberries, plus meat, maple syrup, eggs, jam, and more from other local farms and food producers.

 

A wooden trellis welcomes visitors; the farm stand is open Tuesdays and Fridays in summer and Tuesdays in off seasons.

 

Canticle’s bounty is produced by putting nature in charge. When the sisters first acquired the farmland, the soil was severely depleted from decades of growing just conventional corn, and it took years to return the gravelly silt loam to its natural state where plants could thrive. Printz and his crew started by doing absolutely nothing at all, letting the cultivated land lie fallow and undisturbed for a few seasons. When they eventually turned the first fields, they turned in manure and compost to add nutrients and help the soil achieve the right balance of drainage and hydration.

 

“We watched the land come back to life and nature heal itself,” says Printz. “Even the worms came back eventually.”

 

This hands-off approach is central to Canticle Farm’s belief that farming should nourish the earth, not damage it. Since the very beginning, the farm has opted for crops that are Certified Naturally Grown. Similar to organic certification in that it prohibits the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, Printz says the Certified Naturally Grown distinction is a more grassroots option that costs significantly less and relies on farmers inspecting each other’s farming practices to maintain their certification.

 

Workers weed and harvest by hand. Deer deterrent comes from Printz’s pint-size border collie mix named Izzy (coincidentally short for Isidore, the patron saint of farmers), who monitors the treeline for potential intruders, and from old-fashioned scarecrows whose flannel shirts are doused in fish emulsion. Fields are rotated every two years to give them a rest. Twenty-five solar panels on the side of the barn soak up the sun’s clean energy to silently power the farm’s refrigerated storage units, run greenhouse fans in the summer, and heat the greenhouses when temperatures drop.

 

This sustainable way of farming not only keeps the soil, water, and air as clean as the day it was created, it also fosters a calm, contemplative landscape that has a distinct spiritual quality. Sure, the farm was founded by Catholic sisters and there are a few small statues of St. Francis nestled in quiet places around the farm. But Canticle has welcomed people from every belief system to its land from day one, and has hosted leaders from the neighboring Seneca Nation and the Hindu and Buddhist faiths to share their beliefs on the sacredness of the land, the natural world, the human body, and the divinity of charity.

 

Scarecrows are a natural pest deterrent.

 

Every year, Canticle Farm donates hundreds of pounds of produce to local food pantries and soup kitchens, and, last year, provided thirty-two produce shares at no cost to families in need. This program is a living example of the Franciscan Sisters’ mission to serve others, especially those struggling with food insecurity in Allegany’s economically challenged area. The produce donations are supported by grants and contributions from organizations and individuals, sometimes from families who buy full-priced CSA shares and add a little extra to their payment to help out another family. Grants and donations also fund a robust education program that invites school children out to the farm for a day of learning how things grow, and that teaches adults how to prepare and store the wide variety of healthy veggies they may not be familiar with.

 

Eighteen years since the Franciscan sisters first had their vision, Canticle Farm has become a hub for healthy food, hard work, immersive learning, and respect for the natural world–and a testament to how community-supported agriculture can create an agriculture-supported community.

 

To see farm market hours, make a donation, find tours and events, or purchase a CSA share, visit canticlefarm.org.

 

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