Tiny Hearts Dig Deep

Jenny Elliot & Luke Franco

Tiny Hearts Dig Deep

  • words jacqueline raposo
  • photographs larissa fatseas

Tiny Hearts
Dig Deep

In the bleak midwinter, Copake, New York stands isolated. Driving down narrow roads curtained by tall trees, a bend turns and opens to dark fields, empty of vegetation. The sky expands, exposing hovering gray clouds. Nothing breathes within eyesight, save a lone horse shivering next to an open barn. The air sits heavy. All is still.

“I love it. I love it,” says Jenny Elliot, the co-owner of Tiny Hearts Farm. With her husband, Luke Franco, they work fifteen of two hundred acres gated together as the Copake Agricultural Center, which they share with three vegetable farmers. Nestled warm inside their farmhouse, they gaze out into the gray. “You get a chance to reflect on the season, and plan for the next. It just… quiets down.”

They revel in their brief winter Copake respite. Cozy in their craftsman house muted with warm yellow light and dark wood, their son George bounces and sleeps while stems slowly grow in the backyard greenhouse, and perennials root down deep in the exposed ground. The absence of sound and color make for a stark contrast to the flowers they grow in the fury of spring and summer: dahlias, peonies, celosias, and scabiosas, plus hundreds of uncommon varietals they test for color, strength, and vase life.

Tiny Hearts Dig Deep
Tiny Hearts Dig Deep

Farm life didn’t come naturally to them. Musicians by training and trade—Jenny has a degree in music history and Luke’s a jazz guitarist—they despised the gloomy urban office life sometimes required for artists to make ends meet. Jenny began assisting a local farmer, loving the fresh air. Together, they borrowed a landlocked acre in Westchester, thirty-four miles north of New York City. They thrived during the frantic dirt-under-your-nails learning curve of growing vegetables and a few flowers. After observing the established vegetable competition at farmer’s markets, Jenny and Luke accepted their greater value lay in flowers.

Lacking greenhouse space, Jenny revived an old-world seed-sprouting method: they rigged hay bales together, filled them with horse manure, watered them generously, and layered them with palettes and fledgling seeds. It took “a lot of shit shoveling,” she jokes. Hauling water from a pond, expensive apartment rentals, and driving forty-five minutes to free house to assemble bouquets were affordable but not ideal working situations. “You have to do what you have to do,” Jenny says.

They were happy, but without room for real growth. So when they discovered the Northeast Farm Access they jumped to apply, dreaming of what they could do with a real house and automatically-renewing thirty-year lease. “I think they liked us because we did that scrappy stuff on that first field,” Luke speculates of them landing the deal. “It demonstrated entrepreneurship; we did all that work with nothing, so what if we had a nice place to live and farm?”

Three years later, they paint an idyllic picture. George, born in May, rocks away on Luke’s shoulder. He’ll grow up largely without overwhelming urban racket or big box store fluorescents. In the expansive greenhouse—replete with a watering system and whirling fans—colors bloom amongst the fresh smell of dirt and vegetation, even in the gray of winter. Of course, it’s easy to dismiss their lives as calm and quiet during this brief period of rest. In the northeast, the planting season begins in February, bursting from spring into late summer, and requiring outdoor physical work still through November. But now, nothing much happens in Copake.

 

Luke Franco

 

They use the time to plan, choosing which varietals they’ll test this season and anticipating worst-case scenarios.  “You could set every little detail,” Luke warns, but farmers must be “prepared to react in the moment to whatever comes your way–mother nature, the market, or otherwise.” Their growing success in Copake is a testament to both planning and flexibility. Neither project strict business goals or timelines, but in three years their greenhouse, barn, and five acres are up and producing. They have four employees, and regular clients. The peony bushes they planted upon arrival should produce their first blossoms this spring. If the weather or market shifts, they’ll shift with it. “We’ve been lucky that farm-y, garden-y flowers have been in style,” Jenny observes. “That can change. That’s where it’s important that we love farming, and that we love farming flowers second.”

But for now, flowers are their thing. For now, it’s enough that George sleeps softly, and the cold rain drips. It’s enough to sit quietly and ruminate about the greater meaning of farming.

Tiny Hearts Dig Deep Tiny Hearts Dig Deep

“I enjoy being connected to this land, being responsible for it, and making decisions that help it flourish,” Luke ponders. “Being connected to the land brings meaning and value to the stuff we have. I try to keep that in mind as we make everyday choices in our home and work. That it’s important to have things of value. Not just material things: people and relationships, too.”

“Living in this small town,” Jenny continues, “you can’t throw away relationships, because you see the same people every day: and not just our farmers, but the guy who works at the bank, and the dude at the gas station. In this small town, it’s everybody. I’m surprised at how nice it is.”

As far as flowers go, they plan funky new woody shrubs, perennials, and garden varieties. They recognize the intangible joy flowers with vibrant personalities bring to a special occasion or a mid-week dinner table. And when spring comes ‘round once again, they’ll take George back out into the barn to sit while they clip and cut and bouquet. “He’s got that look of wonderment about him while he’s looking at them,” Luke observes of his son, still rocking in his arms. “We try to have that same feeling about everything we grow.”

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