When then-CALS student Oliver Levis ’01 proposed to recent Human Ecology grad Bonnie Aronowitz ’99, he got down on one knee and gave her an engagement ring carved out of a potato; instead of a gem, it had a “B” inscribed in cloves. She said yes.
So maybe it’s not entirely surprising that more than a decade later, the couple runs an organic farm together—a lively, eccentric operation that has taken over the house and land of his parents’ stately home in Manchester, Vermont. At Earth Sky Time Community Farm, some of the workers live in a converted schoolbus; others dwell in campers, a treehouse, a teepee, and a former apple cider shed. A bakery with a giant wood-fired oven—shipped from Barcelona, along with the two Spaniards who installed it—protrudes from the side of the main house, a white gabled-and-pillared affair dating from 1915. Hanging near the oven are dozens of pairs of old-fashioned roller skates, which Oliver bought on a lark from a defunct rink, and which the farm staff occasionally don for group outings. Friday night celebrations marking the Jewish sabbath, a convivial riot of food and folk songs, routinely stretch past midnight.
Among Earth Sky Time’s most avid WWOOFers—Willing Workers On Organic Farms, who generally swap labor for room, board, and training—is Bonnie’s father, recently retired from the IRS. Oliver’s parents, a psychiatrist and an innkeeper, still live upstairs. The family kitchen has expanded into an industrial production facility, jammed with huge mixers and racks of baking pans. Oliver and Bonnie’s three children—the youngest is named Eden—are as free range as their 300 chickens. “The palatable story of organic food is different from us—we’re the fringe,” says Oliver. “There’s an idea that organic farmers are hipsters doing cool stuff. But we’re an eclectic community in a unique arrangement with different businesses and family members. It’s a more complicated story.”
Each week, Oliver oversees production of some 2,000 loaves of artisinal bread—from a classic pain rustique to a chewy gluten-free multigrain to a white, pre-sliced takeoff on packaged sandwich loaves dubbed “Stevie Wonder.” Bonnie is in charge of processed foods, which include veggie burgers—called VT Goldburgers, they require about 2,000 pounds of carrots annually—as well as hummus, garlic-scape pesto, and a zucchini-based version of baba ganoush. The farm hosts about a dozen WWOOFers a season—”They don’t have to pay for anything while they’re here,” Bonnie notes, “unless they’re snooty about their beer”—runs a sixty-family CSA, sells at four weekly farmers’ markets, and supplies bread to local shops and restaurants. Every Tuesday they host a popular farm night at the family’s Wilburton Inn, featuring a vegetarian buffet and live music, that draws a mixed crowd of tourists and locals. “It’s a crazy lifestyle—just crazy,” Bonnie says with a laugh. “We have these other people who become our family. It’s a great way to operate, and I think society needs more of it. People are in their houses doing their own thing with their own families and having their own struggles; it’s just nicer to share it. It’s not all good and it’s not all easy, but I wouldn’t choose another way.”
Neither Oliver nor Bonnie—who grew up in Queens—comes from a farming background. Oliver got interested in agriculture as a teenager, took some time off before college, and started dabbling with animals and crops on his parents’ land. “I tried to go around selling chickens, knocking on doors,” he recalls. “It was ridiculous and gross. I’m vegetarian now. But that was an early incarnation of the farming idea.” At CALS, he soaked up the course offerings: “I took everything I had a chance to take—vegetable crops, pomology, metalworking, chickens, sheep, dairy desserts.” For a while, he bunked at the University’s cow barn in rural Harford, where he worked at the adjacent sheep farm. He and Bonnie met as housemates in a group rental on Cayuga Lake—site of the potato-themed party that prompted his proposal. “After we got married we moved into a shanty that was closer to Stewart Park,” Bonnie says. “Last time we went to Ithaca, it was condemned. It had caution tape all around it.”
The couple started Earth Sky Time in 2005, and the enterprise has been growing ever since. They note that by splitting the business among the vegetable crops, bakery, and prepared foods, they help to insulate themselves from the vicissitudes of making a living off the land. “It’s nice to have these other aspects of our business that are steady,” Bonnie says. “If there’s a flood, you can be the best farmer in the universe, but you can’t control the weather. I think that baking and farming are fairly similar, in that there are a bunch of variables—and you can control some of them and not others.” Adds Oliver: “But baking is a much shorter cycle. If you screw it up, you get another chance to do it the next day. You don’t have to wait for another year to come around.”