Happy Earth Day! Better Farm Featured in Thousand Islands Sun

Article and photos by  Mary Whiting for the Thousand Islands Sun.

Article and photos by Mary Whiting for the Thousand Islands Sun.

By Mary Whiting

I have always been curious about Better Farm, tucked away on the Cottage Hill Road in Redwood, so I decided to visit with Nicole Caldwell, the owner of the farm. Ms. Caldwell, a transplant from Brooklyn, came to Redwood in 2009.

So, why is this farm named Better Farm, and what is it all about? I knew from friends Glenn Cheesman and his mother, Debbie Cheesman, that they enjoyed their time at Better Farm. Glenn is a drummer who jammed with other musicians at the farm during various festivals and events, and Debbie participated in one of the festivals held at the farm last June.

I sat down with Nicole Caldwell April 12, when it was sunny and warm, almost 60 degrees. We began by walking the grounds of the farm, Ms. Caldwell pointing out the buildings and their purposes. The farm is committed to organic gardening and sustainable initiatives, such alternative building structures and projects that utilize and encourage recycling.

The story of Better Farm begins in 1970 when Ms. Caldwell's uncle, Steve Caldwell, purchased the property. Some years earlier, he was in a serious car accident, rendering him a quadriplegic. He retreated to the North Country from his home state of New Jersey and named the 65-acre farm Better Farm. He had friends who subscribed to the "Better Theory", a "belief that every experience brings with it an opportunity for exponential growth" or that in "every experience, good and bad things come to you and have the potential to propel you forward into something better." 

Remember the Beatles song "Getting Better"? The song's lyrics speak of an individual who has found true love and has transformed previous behavior from cruelty, complacency and anger to "getting a little better all the time."

Another influence that is perhaps the grandfather of this theory of belief is that of French psychologist and pharmacologist Emile Coue (1857-1926), who founded the idea of positive thinking as a tool to be used with medical healing. The principle, or Coue Method, as it had become known, focused on treating patients with the philosophy of becoming better. The core method focused not eh philosophy of "day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better" from Marguerite Marshall's "Applied Auto-Suggestion of Famous French Healer Explained," as it appeared int eh Boston Post Jan. 4, 1923. He noticed that these patients exhibited an improvement, and he is quoted: "I have never cured anyone in my life. All I do is show people how they can cure themselves."

Steve Caldwell invited a group of friends and like-minded individuals to spend time at the farm. Until his death in 2009, visitors enjoyed the wide-open spaces of the farm, which became a commune of sorts for folks who came to stay for a few days or an indefinite period of time. Regardless, Steve Caldwell surrounded himself with people who believed as he did that there is, in fact, a silver lining in every cloud and that life is worth living to its fullest, despite one's misfortunes.

Nicole Caldwell inherited Better Farm in 2009, shortly after her uncles death. At the time, she was editor-in-chief for Playgirl magazine and decided to take a hiatus to visit her newfound treasure for an extended period of time. She spent several weeks on the farm and in the surrounding area and decide dot explore the possibility of running the farm while maintaining her position with the magazine. Through today's technology of Internet, email and Skype, she was able to do both. However, the farm needed a larger revenue stream to keep operating successfully. Ms. Caldwell expanded not eh idea of the "Better Theory" by opening the farm to the public. College students and artists from all over the world and the local community enjoy the farm as a venue for creativity and inventiveness geared toward self-sufficient living through organic gardening, green technology and self-expression through art and music. Students learn about four-season organic gardening and small-scale farming, rain and greywater collection, compost methods, alternative building and energy approaches, chicken care, aquaponics, homesteading and outdoor survival.

My tour of the farm began with a short walk to the greenhouse, or winter chicken coop. Ms. Caldwell told me that she housed the chickens in the greenhouse for the winter with the idea that their body warmth and the concentration of sunshine would keep them warm, happy and producing eggs. It worked. The three dozen chickens produce more than 16 eggs per day. Many of them were rescued from an egg farm and came to Better Farm weary from their previous task of the past year and a half in a commercial environment where they were kept inside and not allowed fresh air. According to Ms. Caldwell, several of them were missing feathers and were not in the best of health. Today they are thriving. Every other year, she rescues chickens and provides them with a clean, safe environment at the farm where they are allowed to roam free. The chickens are also offered for adoption to the community, so the cycle of rescue, rehabilitation and adoptions continues. Soon the chickens will be moved to the summer coop, and the greenhouse will be repurposed to grow produce of rate Redwood Food Pantry.

Ms. Caldwell, a vegetarian and environmentalist, researched organic gardening, mulch gardening and composting. She explained that mulch gardening is a process where a garden be dis layered with compost material that breaks down over time to produce nutrient-rich, healthy soil. The farm, with its one-acre garden, produces 60-70 varieties of organic fruits and vegetables from artichokes to raspberries. She made a point of informing me that no genetically modified seeds are used. Seeds are saved each year to create heirloom varieties of organic seeds. This year the farm has partnered with Alexandria Bay Hearts for Youth and the Redwood Neighborhood Association to grow produce for the Redwood Food Pantry. Each summer, a farm stand on Cottage Hill Road offers produce for sale. Local restaurants have purchased produce from the farm as well.

In keeping with the Better Farm experience of sustainable living, education and serving the community, the farm offers college students who may be majoring in environmental studies low-cost workshops and education programs where students can receive college credit for their studies at the farm. Students stay one to three months. While on the farm, they are given opportunities to further their creativity and ingenuity with assignments and projects that provide hands-on education. They are encouraged through art and inventiveness in eco-friendly undertakings.

The property has two greenhouses. The most interesting may be the stick-built greenhouse that has utilized windows once unwanted by the community.

The "Birdhouse", a larger than life replica of a real birdhouse, has a water system designed by a former student from Kenya. It contains a small solar panel that leads electricity to two lightbulbs and is decorated inside with a mural featuring birds. It is utilized as lodging for visitors. The lumber used to build the birdhouse was purchased from the sawmill next door.

Students have come from Singapore, Kenya, Oregon, Ohio, Arizona, Boston and New York City over the last six years, each one leaving his or her design for resourcefulness and innovation at Better Farm.

The farmhouse, or main house, has two kitchens, eight bedrooms, four bathrooms, a laundry room, office, and library covering four walls The house can sleep 25 people. It is cozy and inviting and exhibits the culture of sustainable living with its aquarium gardens, plants and eclectic collection of artifacts.

The Redwood community and surrounding areas have played an important role in the development of Better Farm. According to Ms. Caldwell, Better Farm previously served as "an oasis, a place for people to escape form the city. Today, it functions because of the community."

Several times throughout the year, Better Farm hosts family oriented community events and festivals that include live music, exhibitions of resident and local artists, tours of the farm, arts 'n' crafts, and food and refreshments. The Better Festival, which welcomes the community for a day of music, tours, food and fun, will be held Saturday, June 20. The gallery, a 1500-square-foot, two-story barn structure, is open for art exhibitions and musical entertainment. Standing on the second-floor balcony, I could see picnic tables and a covered food concession all situated in a natural amphitheater provided by Mother Nature. Visiting students converted the former hay barn into a gallery using passive solar and recycled soy spray foam insulation products to make it the exhibition space it is today.

Spring preparations call for cleanup of the grounds, turning over compost, furrowing the gardens and planting apple trees. Each year, Ms. Caldwell says she plants upward of 100 trees. She is planning a six-acre apple orchard. Other plans call for the building of a new summer chicken coop.

Better Farm will be partnering with New York State in the QIP program in setting aside several acres as designated areas of habitat for the golden-winged warbler, a bird whose population is in steep decline. The program encourages landowners to set aside land for this purpose as opposed to subdividing property, thereby further reducing habitat of threatened species.

Nicole Caldwell has written articles for Mother Earth News, Reader's Digest and Time Out New York and, most recently, has written a book titled Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, slated for release in July. The book offers instructions on everything from turning an aquarium into a garden to upcycling trash into treasures.

The Better Theory is like the Chinese word for crisis, written in two symbols, one for danger and the other for opportunity. The foundation and principles on which Better Farm is based are right on the mark.


Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.