Their Dream Was a Working Farm (But They Weren’t Farmers)

Hits: 24

Claire Ko and Eugene Kwak didn’t want a woodland cabin or beach house as their weekend getaway from Manhattan. They dreamed of living on a working farm.

Never mind that neither had any experience farming. After years of shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket, they had become increasingly curious about where their food came from.

“We experienced this great interest in being able to consume produce from the local Hudson Valley area,” said Ms. Ko, 38, the chief people officer at a cheese company.

To take that interest a step further, Mr. Kwak, 40, an architect and assistant professor at Farmingdale State College on Long Island, began fantasizing: Why not buy some land, give much of it to a young farmer and build a two-family house where they could all live together?

He even came up with a name for his project: Togather.

When he raised the idea with Ms. Ko, she had some reservations. “I said, ‘Do you know I’m a city girl?’” recalled Ms. Ko, who was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. “I’ve only lived in cities. I don’t know anything about living in a house, or even a suburb.”

ImageEugene Kwak and Claire Ko (standing), at home with their tenants, Melissa Phillips and Jack Whettam, the founders of Hidden Acre Farm, and their daughter, Phoenix.
Credit…Eugene Kwak

Mr. Kwak was no expert on rural living either, but he wasn’t about to let that stop him. “Living in the city and being exposed to the culinary scene, I was just naturally drawn to food systems, and looking at it upstream where the production happens,” he said. “I wanted to combine food systems with my design abilities, and try to create something that was innovative.”

So he embarked on a two-year crash course in farming, while conducting an exhaustive real estate search. He spent most of his free time volunteering in the fields at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and at Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming, in addition to attending workshops to learn as much as he could about farm operations (while getting a workout weeding and moving earth).

After considering various properties within a two-hour drive of New York, he and Ms. Ko settled on a 16-acre lot in the town of Crawford, N.Y., in Orange County. Once part of a dairy farm, it was sitting idle. They bought it for $175,000 in March 2018.

For the two-family house, Mr. Kwak designed a black-stained pine box that looks as though it was chiseled away in places to reveal a deck, windows and doors. It contains two apartments: a 2,000-square-foot main unit with three bedrooms and a 1,000-square-foot unit with two bedrooms and a loft for a farmer tenant. Thomas Lane Construction completed the building in February 2019 for a total cost of about $630,000.

Credit…Jeff Cate

To help an enterprising farmer establish a farm, the couple decided to offer a free 30-year land lease on up to five acres. They also discounted the rent for the farmer’s apartment to $1,100 a month, after determining that area homes of a similar size rented for $1,500 to $1,800.

“I wanted to really support and empower young and beginning farmers,” Mr. Kwak said.

When they invited applications through the Hudson Valley Farmland Finder, a service Ms. Ko described as “a website almost like to connect landlords to farmers,” they received more than 50 inquiries. Following an extensive interview process, they offered the lease to Melissa Phillips and Jack Whettam.

Originally from London, Mr. Whettam, 34, formerly worked as the director of sales at a golf company while Ms. Phillips, 35, had a master’s degree in sustainability from Texas State University. But after having their daughter, Phoenix, in 2016, they paused to consider their future.

“We realized that we wanted to be doing something following our passions,” Mr. Whettam said. They found their way to the Kern Family Farm in North Fork, Calif., where they learned about regenerative farming, and never looked back.

Credit…Jeff Cate

Ms. Ko and Mr. Kwak’s Togather project made it possible for them to move to Crawford, where they started Hidden Acre Farm and began producing vegetables and flowers they now sell at farmers’ markets, including the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket, in Brooklyn.

But it wasn’t easy. “When we arrived, it was just a field of weeds,” Mr. Whettam said. Transforming the land into a productive farm required a significant investment of money and labor.

“You’ve got to dig a well, and then you’ve got to get the water from the well to the crops,” he said. “We put in cold storage for our vegetables, greenhouses, fencing. We farm organically and regeneratively, so a lot of investment went into improving the soil and bringing in compost and other soil amendments.”

He added: “We put our entire savings — and borrowings — into starting the farm.”

Following a touch-and-go start last year, 2020 has been more fruitful. “This year has just been worlds apart, in terms of enjoyment level,” Mr. Whettam said.

And they had neighbors on hand to share in their success, after Ms. Ko and Mr. Kwak moved to the farm full-time for five months when the coronavirus began spreading through New York in March.

Credit…Jeff Cate

“Because of Covid-19, we spent a lot more time during spring at the property,” Ms. Ko said. “We were able to help with getting the market ready, harvesting, weeding.”

“And babysitting,” Mr. Kwak said.

“The level of joy is beyond what we expected,” Ms. Ko said. “You just start building a lot of appreciation for what nature offers.”

For weekly email updates on residential real estate news, sign up here. Follow us on Twitter: @nytrealestate.

Continue Reading

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

thirteen − two =