Most people who trade cities for homesteads have had long-standing visions of simpler lives filled with gardens, sun-kissed clotheslines, wood stoves and backyard chickens.
I am not one of those people.
Manhattan suited me. The Big Apple has the most of everything, and I took giant bites from it every chance I could. I was a regular at museums of natural history and modern art, frequented operas and plays, and loved wandering city sidewalks at all hours. I volunteered at community gardens, attended underground parties featuring burlesque dancers and acrobats, went to pop-up art galleries, and saw live music several nights a week.
To be sure, I was also a nature-lover. The most memorable family vacations of my childhood were to national parks and farms. As a kid, my time was always best spent building forts in the woods out back with my sister. I rescued and rehabilitated injured animals like birds and mice, and went vegetarian at 9 years old. I loved the ocean, the woods, and the mountains. But I completely and unabashedly also loved New York City. So I made it home.
New York City felt like a playground to me.
I moved to Harlem in 2005 for grad school, then picked up a job downtown as editor of a magazine. I steadily acquired debt like any good consumer does, while paying rent on and furnishing apartments I couldn’t afford and living the life of a young career woman and social butterfly. Everything in New York City sparkled in my 24-year-old eyes. I’d escaped the Jersey suburbs of my upbringing and was living independently in the center of the universe.
As a budding journalist, everything the city offered appealed to my sensibilities of exploration, storytelling and experience. I assumed I’d stay in Manhattan forever, send my kids to a public school, and host tiny-apartment dinner parties befitting scenes from Woody Allen movies.
Manhattan supported my lifestyle. As a vegan, I could eat well at any restaurant. Activism was welcomed and encouraged. I participated hungrily in political groups, jogged through neighborhoods that never got boring, and met people every day from all over the world. But as my time in New York City lengthened, I was disproportionately feeding one part of me while starving another.
Surviving the city meant frequently escaping it.
To compensate, I began leaving Manhattan more and more to be surrounded by nature.
I barely noticed it was happening at first. I’d skip town unannounced to go hiking, or spend an entire Saturday in December riding trains to and from Coney Island to sit on the beach with no one around. I took subways from Brooklyn to the Bronx just to dig my hands in the dirt at community gardens, and could easily lose a day on my rooftop planting spinach and sunflowers. Most often, I used my weekends as opportunities to jump in the car and drive 350 miles upstate to a tiny speck of a town along the Canadian border. There, on a sprawling farm property, sat my uncle’s commune called Better Farm.
“Better” meant many things to me.
My Uncle Steve bought a farmhouse in 1970 in order to create a stomping ground for members of the peaking anti-war and counterculture movement. But Better Farm was much more than a commune.
Just three months after graduating college in 1963, Steve was in a car accident that crushed his spinal cord. Suddenly, instead of pursuing his dreams of becoming a journalist like his mother, father and uncle, Steve was a quadriplegic living in New Jersey with his parents and youngest sibling (my dad was just 14 at the time), a new prisoner in his 21-year-old body.
Insurance money from Steve’s accident took seven years to arrive. When it did, Steve spent it on a homestead almost 400 miles away, where he could get the daily care he needed and live less burdened by his disability.
Steve called it Better Farm because of the “Better Theory,” his philosophy that every moment is an opportunity to make things better. Steve was the Better Theory’s poster child; using his injury as inspiration for a community space to serve the disenchanted, mystical, wild children of the hippie generation.
Steve’s friends and family renovated the farmhouse to include wheelchair ramps, indoor plumbing, electric, and a dozen small bedrooms befitting its commune classification. People in town who had never seen hippies before drove by Better Farm on the weekends to catch sight of the topless gardeners, pot plants, and multi-colored house.
Better Farm in 1970. Photo from Better Farm's private collection.
For half a century, Better Farm welcomed anyone who showed up. And show up they did, by thumb, bus and car. Babies were born there, weddings held, gardens tended. The house’s collection of books and records grew until the family room’s walls were filled with floor-to-ceiling shelves overflowing with reading material and music. Conversations around the kitchen table continued. And the cast of characters kept revolving and growing, ebbing and flowing.
Better Farm was my respite from the “real world.”
My experience growing up in suburban New Jersey was in stark contrast to the frequent trips my family took to Better Farm. There, I could sit on the back deck and listen to birds, or perch in the house’s library and pull any of the thousands of dusty books off the shelves and read uninterrupted for hours and hours. The curtains were made of old pillowcases stitched together. Bedroom doorknobs didn’t match and were painted with little flowers. This was no “Desperate Housewives” setting, no place for neighborhood planning boards or perfectly manicured lawns. I was in love.
Better Farm's library in the mid-1980s. Photo from Better Farm's private collection.
Over the years, my trips to Better Farm stayed frequent and my bond with my uncle grew impervious to the outside world. I clung to my farm pilgrimages in spite of the dynamic life I etched out in the concrete jungle downstate. As the crowds at Better Farm dwindled, Uncle Steve asked if I’d like to move in and help him keep the place going. We talked about establishing an artist residency program, using gardens as living labs in which people could learn to grow their own food. We talked about hosting music festivals on the 65 acres of land.
It was tempting, to be sure. But it always felt like I’d be giving up so much to move so far from the academic and cultural hotbed of Manhattan. What of my degrees, my career, my relationships? After all our daydreaming, I’d get in my car and drive the six hours back to New York City. By the time the traffic closed in around me and I could no longer see the stars out of my sunroof, Redwood would already feel so far away—not the “real world” at all.
Then, I started to wonder why the “real world” was so damn difficult.
Most people you talk to who changed their lifestyles did so after a lot of planning and preparation. They applied to jobs, studied business models, filled out loan paperwork, and pursued grants. They had relationships, careers or friends waiting for them.
It’s an absurd reality that we’re unwilling to take chances while we’re comfortable. “What if”s and “but”s keep us from doing so much. And while I don’t wish anything bad on anyone, it’s often the bad that pushes us to take the chances that satiate us.
In 2008 I took a high-paying job I hated covering Manhattan’s Diamond District. I traded my shoebox apartment in the West Village for a large, third-floor walkup in Brooklyn that also doubled my commute and raised my rent. I was neck-deep in a tense, romantic relationship with a man I also financially and emotionally supported. Every day, the pressure inside of me built.
The hours at work destroyed my energy to keep up with any of my hobbies. The spinach and sunflower plants on my rooftop wilted and my beautiful apartment felt increasingly like a cage. The city I loved so well became an impossible burden.
Uncle Steve called that winter from a hospital bed to tell me he had pneumonia. Hours after we hung up, he stopped breathing and was hooked to a ventilator. For the next two months he survived like that until his stubborn, hurt body let go and died.
I went into a tailspin. I threw my boyfriend out of my apartment, and two weeks later got laid off from my job. I suddenly wondered what I’d been working so hard for: a job I didn’t like, money I couldn’t save, crap I didn’t need, a boyfriend I couldn’t get along with? I felt helpless as I frantically applied for job after job, knowing whatever gig I got wouldn’t be fulfilling. What was the point of working 40 hours a week for something that meant nothing to me?
I started composting, worked in gardens and sat in city parks. I rented my apartment every chance I could in order to make my rent money. And I took a good, long look at a large detail in need of ironing out: Uncle Steve had left Better Farm to me in his will.
I decided to make the real world anything I wanted.
At first, taking on the responsibility and legacy of Better Farm felt like another unmanageable stress point. If I couldn’t even cover my monthly rent, how was I going to manage this too?
Time passed without promising job prospects, so I allowed myself to imagine what life might look like at Better Farm. I imagined taking the interests I’d marginalized as hobbies and turning them into my central focus.
There was a lot of cool stuff happening in New York City: urban farming, rooftop and community gardens, and a hyper-awareness of the politics of food systems. Food co-ops were springing up in every neighborhood. But it occurred to me that none of this had to be fringe, temporary, or infrequent. If I wanted to, these things I had so much interest in could be my whole life.
One afternoon in April, I squished my sister and 20 of my closest friends into my Brooklyn apartment and hosted a roundtable in which we all spitballed ideas for what Better Farm could offer and be. Common themes came up: artist residencies, gardens, alternative housing, shop space, recording studios, galleries, events and festivals. If my friends were a cross-section of any urban area, I reasoned, there was a fair chance of there being a market for these things.
And somewhere in all this negative space, I discovered a fearlessness in me to take a chance with no preparation whatsoever, no parachute, and no idea what awaited.
In June of 2009 I filled my Mini Cooper with personal possessions, adopted a puppy, and steered north to Better Farm. I didn’t have a business plan, a job, a partner, or any background in homesteading, farming or carpentry. In fact, the greatest advantage I had was this sense that I had absolutely nothing—including nothing to lose.
I got to Better Farm, smelled all those familiar smells, curled up on the couch in the house’s library with my new dog, and lay there holding onto so many memories. Then I grabbed a notebook, and started writing down ideas.
Nicole Caldwell is CEO and co-founder of Better Farm, a sustainability campus, artist colony, animal sanctuary and organic farm in Redwood, NY. Follow her adventures at www.betterfarm.org and on Instagram: @nicolemcaldwell and @betterfarm