A few years ago, you would have seen Jay Lavery of The Permaculture Inn in a very different setting than Sharon Springs, NY where he currently lives. He was almost as far from being a farmer both in locale and profession as you can get: living in New York City and studying for a master’s degree in clinical psychology at Columbia University.
As part of his studies, he had to fulfill a requirement via an internship in something as opposite from his studies as he could get. He also had to choose something that he had no interest or skill in. Enter farming.
“When you’re studying for a masters… you’re so focused on what you’re studying that you really need to take a mental holiday,” he explained. So he chose the Green Roots Project (the transformation of roofs of high rise buildings into living, greens spaces), which led to studying Food Politics, eventually discovering permaculture, the practice of farming that includes sustainability. That was 15 years ago.
“It was all about what’s happening to our food, and how the food we get in the supermarkets is so highly processed… we’re so used to the over-processed. This was a huge wake up call for me,” said Lavery.
Having the farm is largely the result of his love of food. “I’m kind of a geek about food. I want to know how it got here. How it’s made and where it came from,” said Lavery. He’s always had a love of farming but didn’t pursue it because it was something he was saving to do in his retirement years.
On his quest to find out more about our food and how we as a society have gotten to where we are, he says he blames himself, “…like we all should do… it’s not the supermarket’s fault. They’re only selling us what we want to buy.” He said too that before he bought the farm, he would be upset if the markets didn’t have his favorite staples like chicken breast on sale, a common theme amongst food buyers.
He bought the 35-acre property in Sharon Springs a few years ago after his move from New York City, and a brief stopover in a townhouse in Cohoes where he actually started raising a few crops while looking for his farmstead.
One of Lavery’s successes at the Permaculture Inn has been in raising heritage breed turkeys. His customers have found him via word of mouth and come to him from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. He also has chickens, including Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Reds, and Jersey Giants breeds, sheep and goats. He uses the goat’s milk to produce scented soaps (with 40 percent goat’s milk) he sells via his Facebook page.
His customer base is small but growing.
“The kind of farm I plan on doing for the rest of my life is never going to be the kind of farm that can keep up with a high demand,” he said.” So for now he’s keeping his herd numbers where they are, comfortable — with about two dozen goats, 10 sheep, 60 chickens, and 100 turkeys.
About his heritage turkeys, he says, “I had customers for Thanksgiving who ordered [from an alternative market] and had somebody from there say ‘Go to the Dancing Farm’ so I wish I knew who that person was. That is so awesome and I hope that it happens more. Most people don’t think there will be that big of a difference [between the heritage and conventional breeds] but they’re getting more known in big cities.”
The Dancing Farm, as his farmstead is also known as, originated from a video he posted this past February on YouTube as he danced in his barn. The video got over 17 million views and dubbed him the Dancing Farmer. Since then he’s been featured in the Huffington Post, The Today Show and has appeared on the Ellen Show. He’s been able to incorporate that recognition into his soaps, by naming them things like The Jitterbug, a soap that uses lemongrass and Eucalyptus to repel bugs.
He said at the time he appeared on the Ellen Show, that if he had soap products ready to go then, he’d be a lot further ahead with that aspect of what the farm produces right now, but that the quality is too important to him to have just hurried up and gotten something together to sell. So he decided to do it right, and took his time with it, researching the ingredients and process.
“Because of this whole dancing farmer thing I had to fast forward a little. I thought that four years from now it would happen and was going to market it then,” he said.
Lavery is glad his video has brought attention to farming and says he’s really not doing anything “that great” to have garnered the recognition.
“We need to get back to knowing farms aren’t such a foreign place. …If all of the Dancing Farmer business did was draw attention to farming… that’s the idea,” he said.
In addition to the soaps and heritage breed turkeys, Lavery is now looking into producing ingredients for recipes and aiming toward a Farm to Kitchen idea, not unlike the Farm to Table movement — but with an emphasis on things like flour made from drying and grinding down berries, or dehydrating goat’s milk for use in recipes calling for that.
Lavery says all of the animals raised at The Dancing Farm will be extinct within his lifetime, due in large part because of the lifespans of heritage breeds vs conventional breeds. He’s glad to be raising them and more than understands the struggle to get people familiar with them and the idea of permaculture farming.
“Trying to get people to understand [new paradigm/permaculture] is like getting them to think they can fly,” he said.
So what is permaculture? “It is kind of in depth,” Lavery said as he referenced Bill Mollison and Gary Phillips regarding changes to the environment like retaining water and being able to grow food in such harsh conditions as a desert.
“Changing some of the topography, and whatever water falls, it actually stays where it is. And also changing the way we think about growing food. Permaculture just means permanent agriculture… It’s all about working with nature,” he said.
Future plans for the farm have Lavery looking into things like growing mushrooms and anticipates including ducks so that they eat the slugs and fertilize the mushroom crop — a true permaculture practice.
He also wants the best of both worlds, to provide a manicured garden and a farm with almost a hotel kind of experience but one where visitors can get dirty and help care for the animals as well. To that end he’s working on getting help from neighbors and friends to develop the agritourism aspect of the farm.
The Permaculture Inn is aiming for dual purposes and a dichotomy, not unlike Lavery’s studies that got him interested in farming in the first place.