Published September 18, 2018
When Katie McClain-Meeder and her husband, Jesse Meeder, were searching for some available land in the country a few years ago, they weren’t shopping for a farm, specifically.
So when the couple discovered 43 acres for sale south of Franklinville, they decided to make the purchase. The land had possibilities.
McClain-Meeder is now a clinical assistant professor in the UB School of Social Work with experience working with refugees, the child welfare system and issues related to veterans. She is also a weekend farmer who has developed a deep interest in food as a means of social change, and environmental justice as a core tenant of social work.
Meeder has been gardening and farming in both rural and urban areas for more than 10 years, including nine years with the Massachusetts Avenue Project in Buffalo.
“We lived in Buffalo together since 2007,” says Meeder. “We enjoyed being in the city, but I wanted to try farming in more of a rural setting, with more space for things like livestock and growing different crops that maybe wouldn’t work in the city.”
“We also wanted to enjoy, appreciate and take care of a piece of land that can be beautiful and something of value for our kids, friends, family and community,” adds McClain-Meeder.
“What we are doing is very much a part of my interest in social work: food not only as a vehicle for social change, but also food access as a predictor of social indicators, such as health and community well-being,” she says. “Caring responsibly for land and our environment also is deeply connected to my social work values, along with seeing environmental responsibility connected and contributing to a more socially just world.
Jesse Meeder, Katie McClain-Meeder and their daughters, Flora (front) and Charlotte.
“Farming also allows us to raise our two daughters, Charlotte and Flora, in a way that feels sort of vested and rooted in the earth, with values that are important to us,” McClain-Meeder says.
In 2014, the couple started Little Bear Farm from scratch, calling it a bit of an adventure.
“After we purchased the land, we understood that everything we would need — not only for a home, but also for a business — we would have to acquire, build or construct,” Meeder says. “Everything from a drinking well to greenhouses to a septic system. It is amazing how expensive things can be when you are starting a farm from scratch.”
Meeder describes their efforts as building a farming ecosystem. “We are teaching ourselves about soil ecology, experimenting with cover-cropping and soil-building techniques using tractors — which was not something we were doing in the city,” he says.
Meeder and McClain-Meeder have been growing and selling chemical-free vegetables and eggs, using a community-supported agriculture model (CSA), for the past three years on Little Bear Farm. The couple currently has about 120 pasture-raised chickens and grows a variety of vegetables, from traditional staples like tomatoes and potatoes, to more unique varieties such as tomatillos, kohlrabi and unique varieties of garlic.
The couple was motivated not only by their experiences and values, but also by the fact that small food-producing farms that distribute locally have been disappearing from the United States for over 50 years. The couple decided to reclaim land for a small farm, building their operation into one that potentially could feed hundreds of people fresh vegetables year-round with just a few acres in production.
Two of the family's chickens. McClain-Meeder and her husband currently have about 120 chickens and deliver weekly egg shares, as well as veggie shares, to Hamburg and Buffalo's West Side.
Their CSA now delivers veggie and egg shares weekly to Hamburg and to Buffalo’s West Side. “Ideally, we would like Little Bear Farm to also be able to sell to low-income families or fill in some of the gaps between health and lack of access to food,” McClain-Meeder says.
“Right now we sell a limited amount of veggies and eggs to the Massachusetts Avenue Project, based on what we have and what they need for their mobile market.”
While their sales to the Massachusetts Avenue Project make up a very small piece of Little Bear Farm, “Philosophically, we feel a connection with them and what they do,” McClain-Meeder says. “Growing and selling food not only to farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture shares, but also providing fresh, affordable food access to communities where that is often limited.”
The couple also hopes to eventually sell their produce and eggs in their more immediate community.
“Hopefully in our next few years, as we get our feet under us, we will be able to grow our community connections a bit more than we have, so we can start marketing and selling our produce and eggs locally,” McClain-Meeder says.
“Our neighbors have been really supportive, but cultivating a diversified vegetable farm using primarily hand tools is certainly not the typical farming most people are used to.”
While farming and transitioning to living in the country has presented many challenges for the couple, the thing that has thrown both of them for the biggest loop isn’t agriculture related.
“One of the biggest challenges is we also started our family five years ago, right when we began getting this project off the ground,” says McClain-Meeder. “It’s funny when you have your first child, and you think your life is going to remain pretty much the same.
“One of the fun things about starting a farm together is, at the same time, we have also started to figure out how to have a family together, and how to start a farm while starting a family together,” she says.
“But it would not be our farm without our Little Bears, Charlotte and Flora,” Meeder notes.
McClain-Meeder says that after each growing season, she and her husband evaluate how well they are achieving their goals: “Running a successful business; growing delicious food; contributing (in a small way) to more food access for more people; reclaiming and honoring our small piece of land; and modeling social and environmental responsibility to our children.”
“We haven’t struck the perfect balance yet,” she says, “but we are committed to keep trying.”