The village of Richfield Springs in Otsego County, NY, has a population of about a 1,000 people. The borough of Brooklyn has about 2.6 million. Even though Dan Sullivan grew up in New York City, he discovered his heart’s home was the country.
Dan said he grew up playing on the streets of Brooklyn, just like any other city kid, but when he was 10 or 11 years old, he joined the Boy Scouts. Through their field trips and camps, he discovered the glory of Upstate New York. “It was so beautiful I was in tears,” he said. “I decided back then that I wanted to move to the country.”
Life sometimes gets in the way of dreams, though. Dan got his “outside time” running track, but didn’t start learning and reading about agriculture until he was in his thirties. His biggest influence was author Wendell Berry, the environmental activist and farmer. In his book “The Unsettling of America,” published in 1977, Berry argues that good farming is a cultural and spiritual discipline. Today’s agribusiness, however, tends to take farming out of its cultural context and away from families. As a result, we as a nation are more estranged from the land – from the intimate knowledge, love and care of it. Although he was an English teacher, Dan decided his students needed to learn about this too, so he added sustainability to his curriculum.
“A friend called me in 1998 and told me about land for sale in Richfield Springs,” Dan explained. When he had decided he was ready to try his hand at farming, he had first started looking for plots of land in Vermont, but it was expensive. “Here, I looked at a subdivided 300-acre farm that had been in foreclosure. I bought 39 acres for $21,000.” While he had only been to Richfield once before, he said everything seemed perfect.
“I had beautiful soil, woods, a hay field – but there were no buildings and no electric,” he said. “I was 49 years old and I wondered, was I doing the right thing?”
The answer must have been yes, because in 2000 Dan put up a pole barn with a living space on his new property. He started growing large gardens in 2003, commuting from downstate on the weekends to tend them. He finally retired from his downstate job in 2011 and decided to try full-time vegetable farming. From 2011 to 2016, he grew 1.5 acres of vegetables and fruits and sold at two farmers markets a week.
“I made some huge mistakes and found out what I couldn’t grow and do,” he admitted. One thing he couldn’t do was justify driving down to New York City in a beat-up truck to attend one of those farmers markets every week. It wasn’t working out. So he opted to downgrade to homesteading.
“We meet our own needs pretty well,” he said. “My neighbors have beef cattle and chickens, and I’ll supply people with apples and potatoes.”
Having made the transition two decades ago, Dan was adamant he’d never return to city living. “I felt I needed to be by myself out here, but I didn’t plan for the engagement I ended up having with this community,” he said. “It’s pretty rewarding.”
That engagement includes the Richfield Springs Community Food Cooperative, which Dan founded in 2018. Located at the intersection of busy Route 20 and Route 167 (and very close to the Cooperstown-bound Route 28), the co-op allows local vendors a venue to display and sell their products and crafts. Local meats, dairy, produce and artisan items are available there.
“Learning how to run a co-op was a different journey,” Dan said. “To succeed, you need to know how to bridge the gap between the village or the city and the country.”
He also offered the following tips to anyone else considering making the move to country life: “Be ready to adjust. Be really flexible. And remember that you can’t learn a role of life until you live it.”
by Courtney Llewellyn
Congratulations to Dan on following his heart to the country! I was born and raised in Otsego’s neighbor to the north, Montgomery County, and at one point we had more cows than people here. It’s a shame to see the local farms shutting down one by one, and I am happy to hear that at least that large farm is still providing for the local people!