“I believe a farmer’s job is to continuously adapt and grow”,

Angela Ferraro-Fanning, Axe and Root Homestead, New Jersey (USA)

 

Not far from New York City, in central New Jersey, USA, Angela Ferraro-Fanning decided to reconnect with nature and grow her own food. She does not have an agricultural background, but as the years went on her curiosity allowed her to learn and grow her homestead farm. Today, Angela and her family live on an almost self-sufficient homestead, away from the rat race.

Although she didn’t grow up in a farming family, about a decade ago Angela Ferraro-Fanning had a strong desire to reconnect with nature, grow her own food, live with the shift of seasons and raise animals. She started out on a small ¾ acre (30 are, red.) plot where she kept her first trio of ducks and learned about vegetable growing and tapping maple trees for homemade syrup. Since then, she moved to an 18th century 6 acre (2.5 hectares, red.) farm: the base of Axe and Root Homestead.

Away from the rat race

“Upon the birth of my first child, I no longer wished to participate in the rat race”, Angela explains. “A full time job behind a computer and a baby resulted in little-to-no time outdoors and opting for convenience foods that are largely unhealthy. I wanted more for my life than this.”

Angela had always had a hobby vegetable garden but never anything substantial. As her desire for living outdoors and reconnecting with nature increased, she started growing more homegrown and organic fruits and vegetables. Soon, she started making homemade bread and soap and purchased three Cayuga ducks for eggs. The first steps towards a homestead were taken and the idea would grow into Axe and Root.

“We are located about one hour or so by train from New York City”, Angela explains. Though we are so close to a major metropolitan area, the landscape here is quite wooded. We see black bear, coyote, bobcat, and a wide range of wildlife which includes both large and small game.” The farm boasts many food forest gardens, a home orchard, a hobby vineyard, two Clydesdale horses, five sheep of Romney and Shetland breeds, ten guinea fowl, eight geese, around thirty-five ducks and a large number of Saskatraz honeybees on top of the main annual garden area.

“I completely curated my permaculture farm which means every plant and animal here is a contributor; all parties have a purpose in our farm ecosystem. The goal is to grow as much of our own food as possible while giving more back to the soil and nature than what we are taking from it.”

Recreating an ecosystem

The farm was built in 1775 and has been a working farm until the 1950s. “Since that time it had become home to chickens and cats until our family took up residence in 2016”, Angela says. “Now I work to restore my current landscape which is still prone to major flooding, had been sprayed for years with chemicals, and was void of any animal’s returning nutrients to the soil.”

At Axe and Root Homestead, the animals are viewed as contributors to the farm’s ecosystem rather than food. “I don’t process or eat any of my animals. Every one of them contributes to the health and well-being of the farm, the other animals and/or the soil.” Angela practices permaculture, a way of growing food and raising animals in a way that mimics patterns found in nature. “Every plant and animal contributes to a working ecosystem which creates a greater whole; nothing exists in isolation”, she says.

The horses offer manure for compost, pulling power, riding and leisure. At the same time, they ingest parasitic larvae that infect the farm’s sheep when they graze the pastures. “The sheep, in turn, ingest parasitic larvae that infect horses while grazing so the horses and sheep work to break each other’s parasite life cycles, keeping one another healthy.” The sheep offer wool for the family and help manage the grassy wild animals. “All the animals on the farm provide nutrients and fertilize the earth as they go. Ducks and guineas break apart manure heaps looking for insects, ingesting parasites, all while still offering eggs. The ducks remove slugs, snails, and other pests from our growing spaces, while the guineas ingest ticks, reducing tick-borne illnesses for all humans and animals. The geese offer eggs, eat weeds left behind by the horses and sheep, eat fallen orchard scraps, and also sound their alarms to predators as guardians for the rest of the flock. Honeybees increase our pollination yields. Everything works together.”

Just like the animals, the plants also work together on the farm. Instead of growing rows upon rows of the same crop, Angela opted for growing in vertical stories with underlayers, mid layers and overstories that favour as many perennials as possible. “This allows me to increase the yield per square foot, improve soil health and sequester more carbon from the earth’s atmosphere. It also invites more native predatory insects, wildlife, and contributes more biomass to the soil. These techniques are not new and have been practiced by many cultures for centuries.”

Angela’s knowledge of farming is mostly self-taught. Always curious, she does her own research, reads a lot on the subject, asks questions to mentors and attends classes when she can. “Just a few weeks ago I started taking permaculture courses to solidify my knowledge through Cornell University in the state of New York. I believe a farmer’s job is to continuously adapt and grow, especially as the world changes around us.”

Co-existing with nature

The days at Axe and Root Homestead follow a basic routine, altered by the seasons and never-ending changes that come with farming. Angela’s first concern of the day is always feeding the animals. “They get their breakfast at around 6.30 am after I got up. When that is done, I prepare my kids’ breakfast and get them off to school. I then return outside to clean barn stalls, work in the gardens, or harvest produce.”

Her initial wish being to slow down, any projects Angela has outdoors are worked on until mid-afternoon. “This is when my children come home and I return to the house to make myself available to them.” Afternoons are for assisting her children with snacks, homework and making dinner. In the evenings, she goes back outside to feed the animals once more and lock up for the evening. The daily routine is interspersed with various chores such as building, planting, harvesting, processing, tree tapping, working the horses or any other work that needs to be done at that moment.

If Angela does not notice much prejudice towards her as a woman farmer and is grateful for her very supportive family, her homestead support system in-person and on her online social media platforms, she does face criticisms towards what she does. Those mainly have to do with the type of gardening and farming she practices. “Because I work with nature and not against it, my work has been dubbed ‘warm and fuzzy,’ ‘unrealistic,’ ‘unproductive,’ ‘unsustainable,’ and ‘not applicable to white people’ “, Angela says.  Even though these criticisms hurt when she is confronted with them, she firmly believes in what she does.

“Though some folks may not believe the practices that I share on social media or in my books are real, do work, and are inspired by a genuine desire to heal the land, Mother Nature shows me otherwise. We have more resident birds than ever before, have seen more predatory insects than when we first moved here, and have seen our soils greatly improve. Our crop yields continue to increase and I am doing all of this without the use of chemicals and wild animal removal.”

Trying to mimic nature and build a farm ecosystem comes with trial and error, and the difficult moments often eventually turn out to be lessons. One such lesson for Angela was free-ranging a flock of birds without the presence of a livestock guardian dog. “We lost many ducks by way of hungry fox and coyote very quickly. I learned that I needed a livestock guardian dog to communicate the boundary line to existing wildlife which area was my farm, and which was their hunting ground. Now our farm and surrounding nature co-exist beautifully.”

 

“I believe that humans are meant to grow and raise their own food; they just don’t have to do it at the expense of the environment”

 

Go slow

If there are hard moments on the farm, there are also plenty of beautiful ones. “One great memory was the first peach I harvested from my own fruit tree. Fruiting trees are slower to develop and yield than annual crops. The taste of that first peach was worth the wait”, Angela remembers. “Another was the time I first used a draft horse to pull. His power and strength were an extension of my own, and to have a large animal trust me and want to partner with me to accomplish the same mission was an absolutely incredible feeling”, she says, explaining that she uses positive reinforcement training and natural horsemanship when working with her horses.

“There’s a statistic that states that when our grandmothers ate fresh oranges in their time, those oranges contained 10 times the amount of nutrients as our modern-day oranges – as a product of mass industrial farming – do today. Soils are being depleted of organic matter and nutrients at an alarming rate and this is scientifically proven in nutritional studies”, Angela explains why she is doing what she does. For her, it all comes down to knowing where her children’s food comes from. “I want to know they are eating the most nutritionally dense food possible, free of harmful chemicals.”

“I believe that humans are meant to grow and raise their own food; they just don’t have to do it at the expense of the environment. In fact when animals are properly managed and rotationally grazed, and when nutrients and biomass are returned to crop soils, we can improve our environment and sequester more carbon.”

Her advice for women dreaming of a career in agriculture: get started now but go slowly. “There is no perfect time to start. There is no waiting for the stars to align. The best way to gain experience and to learn is to just jump in. Put one foot in front of the other, take baby steps. Learn one thing and keep adding. There is no way to know it all, nor to know it all quickly.”


Angela Ferraro-Fanning (40) has a Bachelor Fine Arts in Graphic Design and is currently working on a Permaculture and Ecological Design Certificate. A permaculture farmer and author, she just finished writing her sixth book called The Sustainable Homestead, available for pre-order now on Amazon. This latest book includes information on soil health, site selection, growing food, raising animals, designing a pasture, composting, implementing a home orchard, and a few food preservation bits. Angela also published a series called The Little Homesteader (US)/Little Country Cottage (UK, Australia, New Zealand), meant to inspire children and families to live by the seasons with crafts, recipes, activities, and homesteading wisdom.

 

You can follow Angela:

On Instagram

On TikTok

On YouTube

On Amazon

Or have a look at her website

 

 

This article was published in Women in Ag Magazine 2022-004. Click here to read the magazine.

 

 

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