Nine years ago, when Carol Festa and her husband Tom Geppel moved to their newly purchased 28 acre plot of farmland on the North Fork, she is the first to admit, they weren’t entirely sure what they were getting themselves into. With 13 new Icelandic sheep and two small children in tow, they navigated their new life , (a far cry from their New York City experience) largely through trial and error, converting their newfound passion for sustainable agriculture into a reality.
Here, after nearly a decade on her beautiful 8 Hands Farm, Carol shares her thoughts on stepping out of her comfort zone, “living by the list”, and on what it means to part of such an important grass roots movement to make meaningful change in our food system.
It’s such an incredible story that the development of Eight Hands Farm was inspired by watching the documentary, “Food Inc”, which exposes the environmental harm and animal cruelty that’s incurred through agribusiness. Prior to watching this, did your backgrounds lend themselves to a life on the land, as it were?
When my husband and I started the farm neither of us had any experience in farming. Ignorance was our friend so to speak. Had we had any concept of what lay ahead of us I’m not sure we would have rushed head long into farming. Funny enough, both of my parents grew up on farms in their native Italy. Their families farmed out of necessity and so their experience with farming was quite different from mine. Having left their farms behind when they came to the United States neither of them felt compelled to share what they knew about farming with me. They wanted their children to lead professional lives and quite frankly never have to set foot on a farm. Imagine their shock when they found out my husband and I were going to become farmers. Needless to say everything we learned about farming we learned as we went. Sure we read many books and visited farms but none of this truly prepared us for the realities of farm life.
Working directly with animals and connecting with the soil is a far cry from the daily grind of the concrete jungle - what were the best (and worst!) parts of transitioning from such a hyper aggressive, fast paced environment such as NYC, to the relative quiet (so to speak) of the farm?
Living with the serenity of the north fork has been the best part of transitioning from the fast pace of life in the city. Every day I’m in awe of its beauty. This small stretch of land flanked by the bay on one side and the sound on the other, dotted with farms, vineyards and beautiful open vistas. As a type A personality the tranquility that the area offered was so much better for my well-being then the frenetic nature of city life which only caused to elevate my already intense nature. On the farm, especially when working with the animals I can disconnect even more and it is when I truly feel at peace. I can’t say there is much I miss about working and living in NYC. Whenever I feel the need to experience its energy, I hop on a train or a bus and I’m there in a short amount of time.
What are the most surprising aspects of life in the North Fork and on a farm?
The most surprising thing about life on a farm is that you can only gain control when you learn to let go. Sounds counterintuitive but what you learn very quickly is that there is so much unpredictability around farming and so much beyond your control that you can easily waste much time getting frustrated and letting those feelings overcome you. Its only when we started to focus on a having a productive response to a given situation and letting go of what we could not control that we were able to manage our operation in a more effective manner.
We seem to be an increasingly divided society during these complicated and turbulent political climes, and you note that “food and the meals we share bring us together as families and communities”. Growing up, was food always the connective tissue in your household?
Growing up in an Italian household, food was always a central part of our lives. So many of my childhood memories were around the food we gathered to eat and the conversations we had around the table as we dined, which in the case of my family involved quite a bit of animation and lots of hand gestures. Whether it was during the holidays or our traditional Sunday dinners where my mother’s meat sauce, the star of the show, filled our little kitchen with the most amazing aroma. We always ate together which was more common place those days when families weren’t pulled in a dozen different directions as they are today. This is a tradition I refuse to give up in my own family no matter what our schedules looks like. Our family sits together for dinner almost every evening. And while I wake every morning thinking what will we be having for dinner today, the food we eat is not necessarily the main event at dinner time. It’s the time we take together to hear about each other’s day without modern day distractions and hopefully enjoy a good and healthy meal while doing so.
Speaking of cooking, have you always been confident in the kitchen? Or was it something that you had to cultivate through practice?
I didn’t truly learn how to cook until after my children were born. When my husband and I were first married, he left his career in accounting to pursue his dream of becoming a chef. He went to a culinary school in NY and after completing the program worked briefly in the restaurant business only to determine that it was not for him. That’s not to say it was at all wasted because he went on to cook some amazing meals for me and our families and friends. He was always eager to take over in the kitchen and I was more than willing to indulge him. After my second child was born, I decided it was time for me to be more present in my children’s lives and a career in investment management sales did not facilitate that. I left the working world to be with them and that is when I started to take more of an interest in cooking. I started out learning all the “Italian staples” from my mother. I’ve developed a lot of confidence over the years, stepping away from the structure of a recipe and exploring more ethnic foods. I’m also inspired by the very talented people that work in our farm kitchen, who convert our farm ingredients into amazing meals.
When or how do you feel most grounded?
I feel most grounded when working with the animals on the farm. It’s about caring for their most basic of needs. Food, water, shelter. It’s uncomplicated and when you’re done you know you’ve given them what they need. It’s so satisfying and so real.
Running your own farm is extraordinarily hard work - how do you make time to prioritize yourself? Do you have any routines, rituals or mantras that you regularly utilize?
The only thing I absolutely allow myself every day, and probably the only time I truly have to myself, is time for an exercise routine. I start my day on the treadmill, followed by yoga, and either Pilates or Barre. I’ve only recently discovered yoga and find it’s my way of meditating. I initially tried meditation at the prodding of my husband, who had success with meditation in helping him be more present, but personally found it almost impossible to clear my mind. The focus on breathing in yoga coupled with physical movement allows me to clear away thoughts and be completely in the moment. This helps me set the tone for the day.
How has that informed how you work and how you hope to develop the mission of your farm and the experience for your family?
The practice has helped me not get ahead of myself and stay focused on the task at hand. I’m not always successful but at least I’m aware when my mind is spinning away from me and toward the next thing that needs to get done instead of staying focused on what I’m doing in the moment. This is especially useful on the farm where it feels that there are always more things we want to do than there is time to do them. I try to develop a couple of ideas at a time instead of trying to put several things into motion at once, which almost always is a recipe for failure in execution.
What individuals, public or personal, inspire you?
I used to be impressed by people who did “big things” with their lives and that were widely known for their accomplishments and while I still admire those types I find myself more inspired by those who live a more quite life but whose presence is invaluable to their immediate circle. By that I mean that they touch the lives of those around them in a meaningful way, whether it be their family or their community, and do so with humility and with love.
I love that your farm is called Eight Hands, after the four members of your family who are involved in nurturing it - what do you feel have been the greatest lessons for your kids growing up in an agricultural environment?
There were two primary reasons we started our farm. The first was our desire to be part of the grass roots movement we felt was necessary to make a change in our food system. The second, and probably as important, was to give our children an opportunity to be part of something that would make them feel valued and give them purpose. They were right there alongside my husband and me building the farm. In the beginning it was just the four of us and with my husband having an off farm job many of the responsibilities fell on me and the children. They had roles and they knew what they did mattered to supporting the farm. I hope that it is something they look back on with great pride. More importantly though I hope they learned not to be daunted by the unknown. When my husband and I decided to farm we had no experience in managing livestock. Our experience in farming didn’t extend much beyond the small vegetable garden in our yard and a couple of backyard chickens. So much about farming was unknown to us and yet we managed to persevere despite the many mistakes and failures, the unpredictability of mother nature and the sheer difficulty of the endeavor, all the while gaining knowledge and confidence. And while neither of our children may carry on in farming we hope that they aren’t deterred to follow a passion or pursue an interest by what they don’t know.
How do you set goals for yourself, both short-term and longer term? Do you have specific dreams you hope to achieve for yourself, your farm, your family in the next several years?
I live by the list. I have a list of work objectives and personal objectives. I try to be diligent about crossing things off the list although there are some items that just seem to linger on the list longer than others. Some items just inspire more procrastination. Right now I’m really focused on our business and making it financially viable. We have all the pieces in place for our vision of what we want the farm to be and now it’s all about successful execution. Currently my husband and I are very hands on at so many different levels of our operation. We hope to get to the point where we can afford to hire some people capable of managing more of the day to day while we focus on expanding the educational component of our operation. To date it’s been mostly about getting products to our customers but our intent was always to connect the community to their food and education is part of the mission.
What music are you currently listening to, books you are reading or what activity brings you joy and happiness?
I’m currently reading Animal Farm. I’ve made a habit of reading the books that my son is reading in school. It’s been great because it gives me the opportunity to discuss the works with him and make sure that he is getting everything out of the material that he can. It’s our own private book club.
What is your favorite “recipe” for bringing loved ones to the table? (can be a food recipe or “life” recipe)
A little protein, an array of colorful and tasty vegetables, served in a no judgement zone with lots of love and laughter.