Two Syracuse residents recently moved to a farm in Oswego County and are trying to make a go of it. Writer Margaret McCormick talked with them about why they would do such a thing, the challenges and the satisfactions.
It has been a year of firsts and milestones for Daniel Stazzone and Raymond Trumble-Stazzone.
It’s their first season with fields to manage and harvest, a big leap from gardening in the city. It’s the first time they’ve ordered chickens by mail and built a henhouse and a fenced yard for them. It’s the first time they’ve made ice cream with milk from their own dairy goats. It’s their first season as beekeepers, which has yielded a taste of honey and beeswax — and a few stings for Ray.
It’s also their first year as legal parents of their adopted, school-age sons.
Daniel and Ray are in the midst of the inaugural season at Mighty Whimp – The Stazzone Family Farm. The name “Mighty Whimp” is a reference to Ray’s late grandfather, Karl Trumble, whose small stature belied his physical strength and do-anything attitude. Grandpa Karl’s home near Central Square is now home to Ray, Daniel and the boys, and the four-acre property is taking on new life, one step and one project at a time, as a diverse family farm.
They’re also in the midst of selling their circa 1890 Victorian home on the Near West Side of Syracuse, so there will be no turning back. The boys will begin the new school year in Oswego County.
“It’s not easy,” Daniel says. “But we’re excited, and we know all the hard work will be worth it.”
To follow their progress, visit the Mighty Whimp – The Stazzone Family Farm Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/MightyWhimpFarms.
Unusual, but Part of a Trend
Ray and Daniel are the first to admit it: “We’re not your stereotypical farmers.”
They’re young, they’re gay, they’re raising two sons (Jacob, 10, and Cody, 9) and they both work in other fields.
They are also part of a growing group of farmers in New York: those under the age of 35. Farmers in this category grew 14.4 percent from 2007 to 2012, well above the national increase of 1.1 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture.
Grandpa Karl would be proud of the “young crop” giving his land another go.
Ray, 32, is tall and thin, with a soft-spoken, thoughtful demeanor. Tattoos peek out of his weekend wear: faded jeans and plaid shirt, sleeves rolled up. He taught seventh-grade English at Frazer Elementary, in Syracuse, but recently began a new position as a liaison with the Syracuse Teachers Association, offering teacher evaluations and instructional support to the union’s members. He is also working towards a certificate in public administration at Syracuse University.
Daniel, 30, is outgoing and engaging, qualities that serve him well as a licensed real estate agent (and director of new business development) for John Arquette Properties, in Syracuse. He loves to stage homes for sale and to match buyers with properties. He also loves to cook and bake and can’t wait to add a commercial kitchen to the farm. On a recent Saturday, he’s dressed country casual in a Middle Ages pullover and pulls on a pair of high rubber boots as he heads out to the goat building.
Why farming? Why now?
One motivator is the desire to eat healthily, to teach their sons healthy eating habits and to know where their food comes from. The best way to do that, Ray and Daniel say, is to raise some of it yourself.
They’re also inspired by the reality television show The Fabulous Beekman Boys, which has followed Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell as they learn farming and introduce a “lifestyle brand,” Beekman 1802, including a store in Sharon Springs.
But the primary influence is “Mighty Whimp”: Grandpa Karl. Ray and Daniel say their “eureka moment” came after a year of discussion about farm properties, including one near Skaneateles and one in Sharon Springs. Meanwhile, they moved into Ray’s grandfather’s house last year, when his health failed and he needed assistance caring for himself and his home.
“Our ‘eureka moment’ was ‘Grandpa needs help,'” Daniel says.
Karl Trumble died in November 2013. The house was already in Ray’s name, and they decided to “do what makes sense.”
“We thought: We have the house. We have the land. We can do everything here,” Daniel says.
“We really want to make this place beautiful again,” Ray adds.
Planning, Working, Learning
Raymond and Daniel’s goal this year has been to reclaim the land and reintroduce the thriving vegetable and flower gardens that Ray remembers from his childhood.
The chickens — 21 of them in a variety of breeds, to produce eggs in a rainbow of colors — arrived by mail in early March and quickly outgrew their pen in the basement of the house. They now have roomier digs and are producing eggs, which Ray and Daniel recently started selling from the farm.
A separate building is home to 12 goats, purchased in March from Schoharie County farmer John Hall, better known as “Farmer John” on The Fabulous Beekman Boys. The goats kick, nibble, climb on and clamor for interaction with their human caretakers and have started producing the milk Daniel plans to use to make cheeses and other products.
Fields were planted with peppers, cucumbers, squashes, corn, melons, peas, beans, heirloom radishes and tomatoes and more in the spring and are yielding a bounty of good things to eat.
Newer additions to the farm include 50,000 honeybees (Ray is the beekeeper), six turkeys (a gift from a neighbor who discovered turkeys in his chicken order), two llamas to protect the goats and chickens (llamas are known to stomp predators to death, Ray says) and four East Friesian dairy lambs.
The Stazzones are in the process of buying 16 acres of neighboring land. Their long-term plans include using part of that land to plant an orchard and vineyard.
There is a rhythm to life on the farm. During the school year, Ray heads to Syracuse bright and early. Daniel is up at 6 a.m. to feed the goats and to get Jacob and Cody ready for school before grabbing a cup of coffee and a few minutes of Good Morning America and heading off to show or stage houses. Then it’s back to Oswego County for after-school time and activities with the boys, the evening goat feeding and a long list of other chores.
“There is a lot of work to be done, ” Daniel says. “But it’s fun.’’
“If I’m still sitting on the couch at 10 o’clock, I’m sleeping on the couch,’’ he adds with a laugh.
Much of what Raymond and Daniel have learned about farming they have researched online and by reading books like You Can Farm, by Joel Salatin, and Fresh Eggs Daily, by Lisa Steele.
Members of Oswego County Farmers United have been generous with time and assistance, as have other experienced goat- and chicken-farmers in the area.
“The community and the farming community in Oswego County have been so helpful and welcoming to us,” Ray says. “We are extremely grateful for their support of what we want to do.”
Tricia and Scott Snyder — owners of Tricott Dairy, in Mexico — are among those who the Stazzones have consulted. The Snyders raise goats, turkeys, guinea fowl, alpacas — hundreds of animals, in all — and offer educational seminars to the public and encouragement to would-be and new farmers.
“It’s much better to start out small, to learn as much as you can about each animal, to learn the ups and the downs and the pitfalls of being a farmer,’’ says Tricia Snyder, a third-generation farmer. “It’s really easy to get overwhelmed.’’
Raymond and Daniel would like to do it all but are also attentive to the demands of fatherhood and family. They recently hired someone to build fence posts and a goat milking stand and have decided to “farm out” at least one job: the production of goats milk soaps and lotions. They also have had help from fellow farmers this summer, so they could take the boys on a couple day trips and overnights.
Already, they are looking forward to spring and summer 2015. The foundation and framework for the farm will be in place, they say, and they can turn their attention to things like product development, branding and marketing … and renovating Grandpa Karl’s house.
“I think next year is going to be really exciting,’’ Ray says.
Focus on Family
The path to this chapter in their lives began in 2006, when Daniel and Ray met, by chance, at the former Spirits Tavern near downtown Syracuse. Their connection was immediate and intense.
At the time, Ray was working toward his degree in education at the State University College at Oswego and Daniel was studying landscape architecture at the state College of Environmental Science and Forestry. They moved in together, first at Grandpa Karl’s and then in the Hawley-Green neighborhood. Eventually, they bought and renovated several houses in Syracuse.
They knew they wanted to marry and raise children together, in that order. They were engaged in 2010, married in 2011 and adopted Jacob and Cody in November 2013, after serving as foster parents for them and for several children before that.
A couple years ago, they bought a grand old Victorian house on Park Avenue, in Syracuse, and began to give it modern updates, including a custom kitchen, with granite countertops and sparkling new appliances.
Sitting in Grandpa Karl’s outdated kitchen, Ray and Daniel admit there are times they miss the creature comforts of their Syracuse home and the more predictable nature of their lives. They miss walking to Middle Ages Brewery, to Gentile’s for dinner and downtown with their boys.
But everything is a tradeoff, they say. And they see a larger purpose for being here, now.
Jacob is learning how to milk goats. Ray says he gets a wonderful, almost “indescribable” feeling watching Jacob and Cody play in the same fields and climb the same trees he did as a boy.
“This is such a great opportunity for the kids to see a different way of living,” he says.
“We want to show Jacob and Cody the value of hard work and that you can do anything you put your mind to,” Daniel adds.
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