By Sabine Rhyne
My favorite walk takes me by High Meadows Farm in Putney, where Howard Prussack and his wife Lisa have been farming for 36 years. I’ve noticed lots of activity and investment in the fields, and it seemed like it was high time to check in again with Howard to see what he’s been up to. Back in 1971, he came up from Brooklyn for the summer, and never left. Howard was a member of a farm commune, Nature Farms at the time, one of many who settled in Vermont in the early ‘70s. After the commune’s dissolution, Howard took over the farm and the equipment, and moved down the road to his current land. He went to a workshop up in Poland Springs, ME, and learned of a brand new FHA program supported by President Jimmy Carter for beginning farmers, and he and his organic farm never looked back. He built a greenhouse with a grant from the Department of Energy, and along with his vegetable business, started focusing on bedding plants and herbs, shipping all over New England.
But in 2004, he got a phone call. A young woman who had worked with Howard years ago while a student at SIT called him, and asked if he would be interested in going to Nepal to work with farmers there on organic farming methods. This was a program through Winrock International, a non-profit created originally by Winthrop and later John D Rockefeller III to connect people around the world to increase economic opportunity in sustainable ways. Howard and Lisa were amazed by the experience. It was a very rural village, very small, very unassuming, located ten miles from the Indian border. “We loved the people, loved the food. The whole experience was so very real,” he said. He met mostly with nursery owners, and one of them is in touch with him to this day. “He doubled their income the following year, and now, this farmer won a farmer-of-the-year award in his region, has twenty people working for him, and got married!” This last point was important, as the Nepali farmer’s economic success made a marriage more possible.
It was such a rewarding experience that Howard went back, and has since traveled to El Salvador, Myanmar, and Cuba. “In Myanmar, I got there a week after Obama left,” he said. “We met in a temple, and when I walked in, there must have been 400 people there!” Last spring, he journeyed to Cuba to help assess needs. They visited all kinds of farms: urban farms, tobacco farms, raised bed farms. He is scheduled to return in a few weeks with a delegation of familiar Vermont farmers such as Mike Collins and Paul Harlow for the Cuban Organic Farming Conference.
But here’s one of the best parts: “I learned at least as much as I taught,” Howard said. Upon returning home the first time, he decided to invest more in his own farm. Over time, he increased the acreage in vegetables, which he continues to do; he bought more equipment, hired more people, and put over $600,000 of capital investments into the farm. He improved the drainage, dug wells, and irrigated. He converted an old dairy barn to better purpose with new concrete floors, a sunporch, and an efficient Coolbot walk-in. He invested in solar panels, which return 150% of their power needs.
High Meadows now has nine greenhouses with about 25,000 square feet of growing space. They are all used yearly for tomatoes, and most years raspberries, with the bedding plants sitting between the rows. The tomato crop is grafted to hybrid rootstock to maximize yield. Howard’s tomato specialist has now achieved a 99% success rate from his grafts, an amazing statistic.
All of this production means that High Meadows’ produce is on tables all over New England. “Vermont cannot eat what the large Vermont farms produce,” he explained. “Big farms always export.” He was packing up his first one-and-a-half ton of carrots for Hartford, CT. There are still four tons in the field, mind you.
Howard has been a strong proponent of paying fair wages on farms. “If local people really want to have local farms continue, they need to support farms that hire local people and provide good wage jobs in return for the local support. We are proud to support the Food Justice program and are in the process of being certified a Food Justice Farm.” he said. His vision of the future, unsurprisingly, is to continue to work with good people like his current farm staff, continue to develop his land, and even possibly to tie everything together with an international training center at the farm. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.