Shepherding Sustainability at 3-Corner Field Farm
Nestled in the bucolic Battenkill Valley of southern Washington County, you’ll find the Tuscany of upstate New York. An easy one-hour drive from the Capital District, you’ll find farmers who practice sustainable agriculture, great stewards of the land like Karen Weinberg and Paul Borghard.
Karen Weinberg and Paul Borghard are full-time farmers at 3-Corner Field Farm, a dairy sheep farm in Shushan, NY. While they weren’t always farmers—Paul worked in the corporate sector and Karen earned a PhD in industrial organizational psychology—in the late 1980s they left their urban lifestyle and moved to Washington County to pursue Karen’s childhood dream of having a farm.
Through Paul’s work, they lived in France for a few years. While there, they ate great cheeses and became fans of the long-time European tradition of using sheep milk for artisanal cheeses. They also became more aware of farm production methods, caring about how their food was grown and raised, and learned more about terroir, flavor married to place.
They had already tried out sheep on the farm—a neighbor gave them a couple of sheep to help keep down the farm’s fields around a stream bed. So, when Paul and Karen returned from France to settle in at their Washington County home, they already knew they’d love these animals, appreciating the sheep’s versatility in providing everything from fiber to meat to milk.
Karen and Paul knew they didn’t want to raise animals in a confinement system and looked to use as much pasture as possible for the sheep. During seven to eight months of the year when the grasses are exposed, they move fences every few days, allowing the ruminants to graze as they are naturally intended. While grazing, the sheep provide the land with a natural fertilizer that enhances the quality of the soil. Now, Karen and Paul milk approximately 125 East Friesan-cross ewes and pasture raise around 300 lambs each year on about a hundred acres of grass, clover and alfalfa, farming in a sustainable manner.
With their daughters Emily and Zoe, they mark the third family to produce natural goods from the land here since the farm was originally settled. The family farm’s stately 1840s Greek Revival farmhouse shares a stunning setting with a trio of renovated red barns, which house farm equipment, a gleaming milking parlor and a sparkling cheese room. Another barn comes to life during shearing and then lambing season each spring; in autumn, the barn stores beautiful round bales of hay for winter use. The farmhouse’s stone foundation provides the basement’s perimeter and serves as an aging cellar for their sheep milk cheeses.
Farming is a seven-day-a-week job on 3-Corner Field Farm, requiring constant care and attention. To accomplish all that needs to be done, chores are divided with a couple of dedicated, animal-loving employees: Stephanie Saddlemire, who lives just down the road, and Julie Lant, who grew up on a dairy and now lives on a farm in nearby Hoosick. Both women share Karen and Paul’s values about how to treat the animals and the land. Paul and Karen’s daughters grew up as farm kids; now Zoe works on the farm when home on college breaks, and Emily, a teaching assistant in France, helps out when back at the farm on visits.
Karen and Paul make every effort to focus on the health and well-being of the animals as well as the environment, treating both with respect. Paul milks the sheep (the ewes are only milked while on pasture), maintains equipment, tracks financials and payroll for their small staff and has implemented alternative energy initiatives that reflect their focus on sustainability. Karen tends to the sheep on pasture using rotational grazing, makes award-winning artisanal farmstead cheese and yogurt and direct-markets their farm’s products to regional purveyors and to an appreciative audience at Manhattan’s Union Square farmers’ market.
At the New York City market, Karen answers customer questions, describing the farm and methods used to tend to the flock and sharing the story of how their popular yogurt and cheeses are produced. Because Karen and Paul know the animals, the land and the people who purchase their product, they carry with them a perspective and connection absent on a large, factory farm operation.
“Every part of farming in a sustainable manner is gratifying,” she says. “If it were a factory farm, things might be very predictable from one day to the next. The various parts of this job are so different: keeping the sheep on pasture, making cheese in the cheese room and marketing regionally and in New York City. It’s more of an intellectual challenge than any other professional experience I’ve had. When you walk into the pasture and see all of the healthy lambs grazing on sustainable pasture, it’s a nice feeling, and when a customer tastes the cheese and says, ‘Boy, this is really good!’ it’s really rewarding. Here, I face issues of integrity—what’s done each day has a direct impact on other people and the animals.”
Karen has cultivated a regular customer base of people who care about where their food comes from, such as Myra Kornfeld, a long-time culinary instructor who teaches classes at places like Manhattan’s Natural Gourmet School of Health and Culinary Arts as well as the Institute of Culinary Education in New York (see her recipe for Lamb Burgers with Taratour Sauce on page 33).
In her classes, Kornfeld stresses the importance of cooking with great ingredients. Kornfeld has a deep appreciation for the products from 3-Corner Field Farm, “The way the animals are raised has a huge impact on the quality of the meat and dairy.” She uses 3-Corner Field Farm’s meat and cheese in her cooking classes, and one of her classes shows students how to use all parts of the lamb, including bones, neck and liver, to make delicious dishes.
“When you’re cooking with organ meats, you’re using product that’s really nutrient dense. Your food can be nutritious and delicious at the same time,” she says. “They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”
Kornfeld says she enjoys visiting with Weinberg at Union Square Farmers’ Market. “Having a conversation with Karen about how she runs her farm is always fun. She’s engaging and so intelligent and it’s a wonderful interaction when you’re getting food from someone you know.”
Cheese has become an increasingly popular part of 3-Corner Field Farm’s production. Weinberg has honed her cheesemaking skills through working one-on-one with cheesemakers and taking classes to continuously refine her technique for fresh and aged cheeses, resulting in a stunning array of American Cheese Society winners. She’s returned to the way things were done in Washington County a century ago, when dairy farmers got their milk from animals they raised and produced cheese right on the farm.
3-Corner Field Farm is a popular stop on the Washington County Cheese Tour, a self-guided tour of a number of farms with farmstead cheese operations. This eagerly anticipated event is free and open to the public. Taking place over a September weekend, guests are able to wander into the pastures, see the sheep grazing, observe the cheesemaking facilities— and, of course, sample great cheeses.
Jonathan Milks, cheese and specialty manager at Honest Weight Food Co-op, one of the Cheese Tour sponsors, loves the idea that he’s getting cheese that’s as local as possible. “It’s such a great thing to have this relationship, reducing the footprint and being able to support local farms.”
“Karen’s cheese is world-class. We carry her Battenkill Brebis, Shushan Snow and Frère Fumant, all American Cheese Society winners. She takes the time, even after a long day of working on the farm, to come down to our store and demo the cheese, talk to our customers. More than ever, people want to know who’s making the cheese, how the animals are treated and what they’re eating.”
Milks also mentions the ricotta cheese that’s popular on the farm during the annual Washington County Cheese Tour. “It’s served with a drizzle of local honey—and with the money that’s collected, Karen donates the proceeds to the local food pantry.”
Renata Pilato, the Cheese Tour coordinator, says, “There is an art to sustainability and it takes so much work to do it and do it well. Karen is successful—from the care of her flock to being a great marketer—she encompasses the whole spectrum. She raises sustainability to an art form.”
Through cultivating a loyal customer base and engaging her customers on the topics of how the animals are raised, dispensing delicious samples and providing recipes for using various cuts of meat, Karen emphasizes, “It’s the opinion of our customers who purchase the meat, cheese and yogurt that we raise and produce that’s so important. People have become more concerned about the source of their food and they want to know how the animals are treated, what they’re fed and to know how the sheep live their lives.”
Caring about how our food was grown or raised, and finding the shortest path between farm and fork, makes for great cuisine. The generous spirit shown in the stewards of 3-Corner Field Farm makes the food taste that much better.