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Farmville

The trend toward local and organic foods has also helped fuel a resurgence in Jewish farming, a seeming oxymoron that actually has a long and deep history in this country

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Rafoel Franklin at his farm in Swan Lake, N.Y. (Itta Werdiger Roth)
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Every morning before breakfast, Rabbi Rafoel Franklin, 60, an Orthodox Jew living in Swan Lake, N.Y., puts on tefillin, says his morning prayers, and then heads outside to milk his 30 cows. Three decades ago Franklin and his wife, Naomi, left Monsey, N.Y., the ultra-Orthodox hamlet outside New York City, to start their farm in the Catskills. Franklin, who became religious as an adult, had spent his childhood in Montana and once worked as a wildlife biologist. He moved out of Monsey because he wanted to live a life that reflected his love of the natural world as well as his devotion to the Torah. “In Monsey I was working as a shochet”—a ritual slaughterer—“and I was dissatisfied by what I saw,” Franklin told me.

His more satisfied life in Swan Lake is filled with feathers, hay, and farm chores. The farm, which he runs with his son, Eliezer, houses a sustainable kosher-chicken company, Pelleh Poultry, that processes 4,000 chickens each week. (Industrial slaughterhouses, in contrast, often handle tens of thousands of chickens every day.) And in November he launched Bethel Creamery, the country’s only organic, Chalav Yisrael (a strictly kosher designation endorsed by Hasidim) dairy—selling the milk to customers in Monsey and Brooklyn.

Franklin’s move to his farm can seem prophetic. Today, the country’s growing obsession with local, traceable food has increased the demand for products like his and lured some young people away from office jobs and toward the farm. This holds true for the Jewish world as well. There are programs like Adamah, an agricultural fellowship in Connecticut, which brings together Jewish twentysomethings to live on a farm, tend its eight acres of organic crops, and milk goats, make pickles, and celebrate Shabbat. This summer, Adamah’s founder, Adam Berman, launched Urban Adamah—a similar program in Berkeley, Calif., that focuses on increasing food access for low-income residents, as well as sustainable farming. Meanwhile, synagogues and JCCs across the country are launching a number of farm-to-shul initiatives, from community-supported agriculture projects to parking-lot gardens.

But with all this new interest in Jewish farming, Jewish Americans’ agricultural history remains largely unknown. In the decades prior to World War II, upstate New York was dotted with egg, dairy, and produce farms owned and run by Jews. Petaluma, Calif., in Sonoma County, boasted a thriving community of chicken ranchers from the 1920s through the 1960s. Indeed, Franklin’s street in Swan Lake was once home to four Jewish farming families whose rousing post-Shabbat gatherings, he told me, routinely piqued the curiosity of non-Jewish neighbors.

Many of these farms were beneficiaries of the Jewish Agricultural Society, an organization founded in New York in 1900 by a German Jewish philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch. An urban Jewish businessman with utopian, pre-industrial leanings, de Hirsch spent his fortune helping Eastern European Jews escape anti-Semitism in their home countries and settle on American pastures, far away from the cities’ tenements. The society provided loans for purchasing land, seeds, and equipment and offered practical education to the settlers, many of whom had minimal prior experience as farmers. It even published a magazine in Yiddish and English called The Jewish Farmer. With the baron’s support, and the opportunity to own land in America (a privilege not consistently afforded to them in Europe), these farmers had the chance to build on Judaism’s ancient agricultural legacy—a heritage filled with agricultural tenets (“in the seventh year thou shalt let [the land] lie fallow,” Exodus tells us) and joyful harvest holidays like Shavuot and Sukkot.

From its founding through the middle of the 20th century, the society helped settle nearly 5,000 Jewish farmers and their families on homesteads in New York and beyond. It also placed tens of thousands of Jewish workers on established farms throughout New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Florida. In California, the German Jewish Haas family—heirs to the Levi Strauss denim fortune—helped fund the Jewish chicken ranchers in Petaluma. In the 1920s, Yiddish plays and concerts were staged in Petaluma, and Golda Meir considered it a vital enough community to make it a fundraising stop in the 1930s.

It’s no coincidence that the wealthy, assimilated, urban philanthropists moved to assist their less-fortunate brethren by helping them set up shop far away from the cities. “Very rich German Jews, they always wanted the Russian Jews should be farmers,” Petaluma resident Hymie Golden says in Kenneth Kann’s Comrades and Chicken Ranchers. “They wanted to prove that not all are merchants or bankers like them.” In 1938 Time reported that there were nearly 100,000 Jewish farmers working in the United States, including Max Yasgur, the amicable dairyman who would famously allow Woodstock to erupt on his fields in Bethel, NY.

Many of these mid-century farm families enjoyed modest success, while raising their children on hard work, socialist politics, and fresh country air. While not overtly religious, the communities maintained Jewish lives that were built around a synagogue, Hebrew or Yiddish schools, and organizations like Hadassah and B’nai Brith. “The local synagogue migrated to the country along with us,” Sonny Whynman, whose family moved from the Bronx to start an egg farm in Toms River, N.J., in the mid-1940s, when he was 7, told me. Many people from his old Bronx neighborhood decided to settle in rural New Jersey, too, he said.

But as the years passed and farming in America declined, the Jewish farms became increasingly harder to maintain. In the early 1960s, the Jewish Agricultural Society surveyed Jewish American farmers. “In the beginning farming was very good, but now [it’s] in very bad shape,” wrote farmer Aron Bakal, from Wurstboro, N.Y. Asked for his thoughts on the future, he wrote, “Time will show everything.”

The Jewish Agricultural Society closed up shop in 1972, and soon the once-vibrant Jewish farming communities were gone. By the late 20th century, when Franklin started his farm, the established notion was that American Jews belonged in cities or suburbs, working as professionals. Farming—aside from the occasional stint on an Israeli kibbutz—seemed antithetical to Jewish American identity. In 2003, Slate ran an article headlined “Why Jews Don’t Farm,” arguing that Jews’ preoccupation with literacy and education had lifted them above manual labor toward more academic pursuits.

Adamah was launched in the Connecticut Berkshires that same year. The program has thrived and inspired spinoff projects like Philadelphia’s Jewish Farm School and Chicago’s The Gan Project. Other Jews, like Franklin, found their own way to farming. Tanya Tolchin—a niece of Sonny Whynman, the onetime Toms Rivers egg farmer—and her husband, Scott Hertzberg, started a farm in Upper Marlboro, Md., that provides fresh produce to CSA members, and they recently launched a Jewish Farmers of America Wiki. Jewish farmers “are pretty much falling from the trees these days,” Hertzberg joked.

Farming remains grueling work, both physically and emotionally. Demographically speaking, the Jewish farmer is still rare (and can sound like a punch line). But farming, like religion, can come down to faith. “I never expected I would farm full-time, I just wanted to live as far away from cities as possible,” Franklin told me. “But baruch Hashem, if you do it properly, farming is the most fulfilling life I could imagine.”

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lazer says:

No mention of Yiddish Farm?

http://www.yiddishfarm.org/

diane katofsky says:

My readings, while researching my family, assigns a less virtuous reason for, German Jewish, assistance to the, Jewish farming movement of the early, 1900′s.

Also don’t forget Kayam Farm in Maryland. http://www.kayamfarm.org/

We have a summer program known as the Kayam Kollel, where a group of dedicated folks farm in the morning and study the Torah’s agricultural aspects in the afternoon.

Great to see an article about Jewish farming!

Hannah says:

I hate. The throw water on the lovers of organic. But the only scientific study. To compare organic to not organic. It is a 14 year study in Great Britain which said there was no real difference between organic and not organic foods. But it damn big difference in price. It is BT Biederman. One said there’s a sucker born every minute have a good day.

Scott says:

Wonderful story, captures the history so concisely and I am not saying this just because we are mentioned. Nice that you mentioned the smug Salon article that was completely unaware of the whole history. Don’t think the article was much about the tiresome organics verse conventional debate. Yasher Koach Leah.

My paternal grandfather had lived on a farmers’ commune in Turkey funded by Baron Hirsch, around 1904, for two years full of hardship. Their first child was born and had died there, so they returned to Romania. I believe Baron Hirsch is the one who funded Jewish agricultural projects in South America, yet I had no idea there was such a movement in USA as well.
Thanks.

Another Jewish-owned agricultural operation to consider is Elmore Roots Nursery in Northern Vermont. http://www.elmoreroots.com/

Growing up in the 50′s and 60′s in a Chassidic community, my classmate’s father was an eggman. He was a Chassidishhe Yid, long beard and payes, holocaust survivor, who regularly went to New Jersey (and upstate NY?) to Jewish farmers to get eggs, which he then sold door to door to Orthodox Jews on the lower east side of NY.

There are many young Americans who begin their exploration and careers in farming through programs like Eco-Israel(http://eco-israel.org). They learn how to live closer to the land and develop their sustainable farming skills during a 5 month stint on Hava & Adam Eco-Educational farm in central Israel.

This enhanced connection to the land is facilitating by the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. And so not only do they develop a love for farming but also a love for Israel.

For many upon their return to America they gain more experience working on farms with the hopes and aspiration to one day have their own farm.

Awesome article. It is great to see that the movement towards cultivating community has been a part of the American Jewish history as much as the broader Jewish history.

Cheers and Shabbat Shalom.

Growing up in Colchester, CT many classmates lived on chicken farms. Of course, here in Israel, we have the world’s highest yield farmers.

Allen R. Schreiber says:

Let’s not forget those of us Jews who are multi-generational residents of the Great Plains, such as here in Nebraska. Many of us were farmers, in the panhandle of Nebraska sugar beets, central and eastern Nebraska traditional crops, we fit right in with our German, Russian, Czech, Polish, Bohemian neighbors for the most part, religion being the only differentiating factor between us.

Here in Nebraska, among the cattle ranchers, the legacy of Julius and Max Wolf lives on in the third generation of their family cattle operation, Wagonhammer Ranches http://wagonhammer.com/businfo.htm owned and ran by my friend, Jay Wolf. Setting the standard in Black Angus and Charolais cattle for a century, Wagonhammer’s cattle are the breeding stock for most of the Black Angus and Charolais herds not only in the Nebraska, but the region, with so many State Grand Champion cattle from various State Fairs it’s hard to keep track of them all.

Needless to say, I don’t buy my beef at the grocery store, I just buy a beef about once a year from Jay’s herd and have the local locker process it.

So, let’s not forget the Jewish cowboys, yippie chai-o chai-ay!!

Michael says:

There is also a shomer shabbos yid who farms in Jonesport, Maine. All Organic and local. Amazing to hear how his lifestyle influences his Torah. A testament to what emunah and hardwork can do.

The agricultural resettlement of Eastern European Jews includes communities in Canada. The prairie provinces had a few such communities; though what is left today is mostly cemeteries.

shushan says:

why should it surprise anyone that Jews outside israel farm? Is this because israeli propaganda has tried to denegrate diaspora Jewry ad portray us as woody allen nebeshishs?

M.A.K. says:

As a fifth generation Jewish cattle and horse rancher from Colorado, this is nothing new!!!

There were those that became giants from the small Jewish Farming communities. Among them were Jacob Lipman a graduate of the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School in Woodbine, NJ who became dean of the New Jersey College of Agriculture of Rutgers University from 1915-39. Lipman
trained Dr. Selman Waksman the discoverer of streptomycin. Lipman Hall on the former Rutgers College of Agriculture is named for Dean Lipman.
Dr. Waksman donated 82% of his royalties from his discovery to build a Microbiology institute at Rutgers. He was also awarded the nobel prize.

James More says:

My grandfather has come here as a blacksmith and he has seen much change in his life while working close with farmers. He is gone now and pretty much gone is the blacksmith trade, so my dad has not followed in my grandfather’s footsteps and I cannot either. So I have gone on to earn a degree for the purpose of a career and I have chosen writing to practice.

Michael Rogovin says:

Also, Eden Village Camp – the first kosher, organic farm camp in the US (world?). Located in Putnam Valley NY, it attracts a very pluralistic crowd from secular to modern orthodox. Kids learn organic farming, herbalism, farm-to-table (goats are milked for cheese and yogurt, chickens provide eggs, kids plant andharvest fruits and veggies for the camp kitchen, even grind their own grain for challah baked in a home made brick oven). Very cool

Joan Levin Sacks says:

Excellent article. September 9th & 10th, 2011 in Clarion/Gunnison & Salt Lake City, Utah will be the 100th Anniversary Celebration & Remembrance of the Clarion Utah Jewish Colonists & Farmers 1911-1921. We are seeking descendants, friends & anyone interested in this unique period in American-Jewish history. For a schedule of events please check-out the website Clarion 100th Anniversary Celebration or Clive Romney at Utah Pioneer Heritage Arts- clive@upharts.org. The Jewish Forward in New York is sending Naomi Zeveloff to cover this event. Joan Levin Sacks

shushan says:

any young Jews interested in becomming farmers? There are several orgs that pair up young people that want to farm with older farmers that want to retire and whose kids dont want to take over the farm. If you play around on google with terms such as young farmers taking over old farmers farms or similar terms you will find the links to these orgs and you can start farming with little or no down payment and pay off the farm as you work and learn!
Try it you’ll like it!

Eugene Kravis says:

I was surprised to see no mention of the Straus Dairy Farm, which now may be entering the 3rd generation of family ownership. It is located in Marshall, California,Marin County; just south of the Sonoma County historical former Petaluma, Jewish chicken farmer community. Straus dairy products are found in many large supermarkets throughout northern California.

Michelle Friedman says:

I grew up on a chicken farm in Divine Corners, near Loch Sheldrake. My parents, secular Holocaust survivors, were among a relatively small group of former urbanites who for various reasons, settled on family farms in the Catskills and south Jersey. We didn’t exactly fit in with the local non-Jews, the local “American” Jews, or the summer borscht belt/bungalow colony folks, but I am grateful to the quirk of history that allowed me to grow up so close to nature

Roberto says:

Baron Hirsch actually funded a great number of Jewish agricultural colonies in Argentina. There is still in the Pampas a town called “Baron Hirsch”. At the beginning of the twentieth century most of the Jews in Argentina were living in these colonies. For some reason, the Jewish families began moving to the cities after one generation. Nowadays, you have towns like “Moisesville” in the middle of the Pampas, where very few Jews remain. I had no idea of Baron Hirsch activities in North America.

Following the post war migration to Southern California, there was a Jewish chicken/egg farm community. At one point, the largest chicken farm in the nation, with 1,000,000 birds, was owned by one Goldman, and named Egg City, in Moorpark, in the San Fernando Valley. My family, on the other hand, had two different farms, one in Baldwin Park, in the San Gabriel Valley, and a second in Norco, near Riverside. Many of the farmers were survivors; many Reds keeping low during the blacklist, some both. Some were stam Yidden……

Rachel says:

This is very inspiring to me as a frum Jew. Farming used to be “the mold” of society, these days professional jobs are. But what about those people that are inclined to work with nature. Life is tough for them in the city.
A good read, and a little hope.

Really really really awesome and great article. 

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Farmville

The trend toward local and organic foods has also helped fuel a resurgence in Jewish farming, a seeming oxymoron that actually has a long and deep history in this country

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