The day that she and partner David Belding bought their first two pigs is the day Dani Baker thinks her mother rolled over in her grave.
“As we picked up the pigs in an old pickup,” Dani recalls, “I thought,’ I went to an Ivy League school and now I’m a pig farmer.’”
It wasn’t a career path that Dani (given name Danida, in honor of a grandfather and grandmother) had planned to take. A self-described “egghead” who grew up in New York’s well-to-do Westchester County, Dani graduated from Brown and earned a Master’s in clinical psychology from Columbia. But she had tired of her job as a psychologist in the New York state corrections system and decided to do what many of us fantasize about – retire early to chase a dream.
Her dream was to take the 102 acres on Wellesley Island that she bought in 2005 and turn them back into a working farm.
Fit and sun-browned, with short curly hair and a ready smile, Dani thinks back to that time and shakes her head. “What did I know about running a farm? Nothing.”
What Dani did have intimate knowledge of was the New York Dept. of Corrections, in which she had worked since the late 80s. Her long tenure took her from Plattsburgh to Glenn Falls, Watertown, Cape Vincent and Gouverneur. Along the way she married, had a son and got divorced.
During her career journey, in the early 90s, she moved to the Thousand Islands, buying a house in Clayton and a camp at Millsite Lake. Free time was spent time hiking and kayaking and furthering a successful second career as a nature photographer.
You had me at amphibian
After her marriage ended, Dani joined a group for single parents and started going to a weekly dance in Syracuse. It was there that she met David Belding, a widower who had moved to Syracuse from Ohio to take a job as a broadcast engineer. Ever the egghead, Dani, making small talk during their first dance, told Dave about a news item she had recently read…about amphibians. She quickly found out that he, too, was crazy about amphibians. After three weeks of dances he finally asked for her phone number and eventually they got engaged.
Thirteen years later, they are still engaged.
With a laugh, Dani says the engagement caused an “anxiety disorder” and she decided that while she loved being Dave’s partner, she didn’t want to get married again.
Missing the Adirondacks where she spent her summers and the cross country skiing she had enjoyed there, Dani thought she might want to buy a larger property with some land of her own. She was feeling restless in her job and still grieving the death of her son, who died in 2002.
It was Thanksgiving 2004 when she saw an ad for an old dairy farm on Wellesley Island and admits she fell in love with its varied geography just by looking at a map. In early 2005, it was hers.
This old house
The first order of business was to make the house that came with the land livable. Left empty for a number of years, the house was a long way from being a cozy home.
“The house was my nightmare,” Dani says. “When we turned on the plumbing, water poured through the ceiling, there was no central heat, you name it, it needed it. We had planned to have all the work done before we moved in, but it didn’t work out that way. Thank God the downstairs bathroom worked.”
As they were getting the house sorted out, they were also exploring the land that came with it. Dave says he and Dani didn’t plan to be farmers when they moved in, but it wasn’t long before they started thinking about how they could bring their acreage into production. They started by selling honey and maple syrup and the second year used a $25 rototiller to create a 3,000 square foot garden.
“Dave said, we’ll can as many vegetables as possible and sell the rest. I said no, we’ll sell as much as possible and can the rest. He’s the professorial and I’m the practical,” Dani says.
In the first couple of years, Dave, a redhead who also is bundle of energy, remembers that the prospect of having a working farm was new and they didn’t have a clear view of where they wanted to take it.
“But we had an abnormal, irrational drive to make it happen. And we got so much positive feedback after we got started that we had to keep it going.”
But oh, my, were there challenges.
Starting from scratch
The acreage, located on Cross-Island Road on Wellesley Island, hadn’t been farmed in 50 years. That meant that there was no irrigation, fencing or other infrastructure in place. Dave, who still has a fulltime job outside the farm, was spending all of his free time building and working the land, while Dani, who retired from the state in 2007, spent 16 hours a day in the garden. Much of what they did was trial by error.
“You can’t take a day off, there are no shortcuts,” Dani says.
On the one day Dani did take a day off, the signaling system used to keep birds out of the corn was accidentally shut off and Dani returned to discover that redwing blackbirds had shredded every single ear of their crop. One of the first cows they bought dropped dead in a field; they’ve lost goats to respiratory infections and parasites and spent one winter raising two (goat) kids in their living room. Coyotes are a problem, they worry about their pigs getting loose and slugs are a perennial pest.
“That’s farming,” Dani says. “People don’t realize how difficult it is.”
Despite the challenges, Dani and Dave have continued to enlarge and add new features to the farm every year. This is their seventh season selling vegetables and they now have anywhere from 200 to 300 different kinds, including 20-30 varieties of tomatoes, as well as squash, peppers, lettuces, herbs and berries. They’ve got a diverse group of livestock, including goats, pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys and ducks. They offer tours, primitive camping, host live-in volunteers and are slowly building the farm into a tourist attraction. Cross-Island Farms has its own website (http://www.crossislandfarms.com/), issues press releases and does its own marketing, skills Dani honed when she had her photography business.
They’ve gone through the long and tedious process of getting the farm and its livestock certified organic, which means they do not use artificial pesticides or herbicides. The health benefits of organic food are especially important to Dani, who has coronary artery disease.
In an early conversation with their county's agricultural coordinator, Dani and Dave asked if there were any farmers with a similar size farm that were making a living. The answer was, “no.” Determined to chart a different course, they managed to go from the red into the black after their fifth year.
“Dani doesn’t sleep much,” says Dave. “I’m Type A but she is Type Double-A. She’s totally driven.”
The couple has been surprised at how much support they’ve gotten from Thousand Islanders who are buying from their farm stand, bringing their families in for tours and volunteer work and supporting a Community Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) program by purchasing weekly “shares” of fruits and vegetables.
“Everybody is cheering us on,” Dani says. “We’ve been told by residents of (nearby) Thousand Island Park that we’re the best thing that’s ever happened on Wellesley Island. It’s been fabulous.”
The “local” food movement has been slow to come to restaurants in the Thousand Islands, however, with only one, Bella’s in Clayton, currently buying Cross-Island produce.
Farming for the future
With six years of intense work under their belts, Dani and Dave still have plenty they want to achieve as they continue to improve the farm and develop it as an agritourism destination. They’re hopeful they can earn enough to allow Dave to retire from his business repairing computer numerical control (CNC) machines in the North Country so he can farm full time. Dani jokes that she’d like to be able to hire some help by the time she’s 80.
Despite the learning curve that Dani and Dave continue to navigate, it’s clear these two are genuinely excited about what lies ahead. They talk animatedly about what they’ve done and what they want to do with their homegrown operation. As Dave wheels off a cart full of squash, with one of the farm’s rescue dogs at his heels, Dani stands in a garden bed, smiling, wielding a knife with dirt-covered hands, putting strawberry transplants in the ground.
Her mother would be proud.