New York Couple’s Secret To Retirement - Farming
The drive up to Jada Hill farm in Deposit, New York is a quiet one. On this early morning, we drive on a raised highway overlooking a fog filled valley. The sun rays manage to pierce through a few parts that aren’t covered by fog, illuminating the trees in a distance. “It always smells like earth every time I come to the farm,” says Kaitlyn, as we turn onto a smaller road and make our way up the winding roads. It is eight in the morning, perfect for photography. Kaitlyn, who worked for a program called Taste New York, introduced me to John and Dawn Alfano. Taste New York is a state initiative that was designed to give a retail outlet for local New York state manufacturers, farmers and entrepreneurs. On arrival to the farm, I am impressed. It is very neat, the paving is perfect, the lawn is mowed and the buildings look like they are newly painted. I see goats congregating in the front yard.
When John and Dawn first moved into the area, just outside of the small town of Deposit in 1999, there was virtually nothing. The place was a bush with no neighbors in sight. There were a lot of bears and deer and it was in the dead of winter. When they pulled up and got out of the car, John said, “this is it.” I am sure you can imagine the look on Dawn’s face. It wasn’t one of excitement. This was nothing remotely close to what she was used to, coming from a busier part of New York. Having learned the rules of construction from his father, John knew exactly when the best time was to look at a property like this. Come in the winter when the leaves are down, see through the trees and know exactly where the water supply would be in the springtime.
There was a small cabin, no running water or electricity. The electricity was seven poles away and they had to pay to get it to the cabin. They had to dig a well behind the house to have a supply of water. They built two bunk beds for when their three sons visited. But with three boys and five grandchildren, they knew they were going to need a little more space. “What if the boys and all grandchildren visited?’’ I ask. “I’ll get rid of the boys and keep the grandchildren,’’ says John amid laughter. As soon as that springtime, they had started clearing the grounds. Instead of a foot path, they had a gravel driveway leading up to the house from the access road. They connected the cabin to the electric grid. As a gift to Dawn for their anniversary in 1999, John built a porch as an addition to the cabin. By 2001, the cabin had been transformed into a house with bedrooms, bathrooms and three spring wells that supplied water.
The Jada Hill Farm
“Our families have farms and I have always been around farms. When we were about to retire we were wondering what we were going to do,” says John. The Alfanos spent about five years studying how to take care of goats. They took multiple classes. Dawn did an online degree in meat goats and parasite control. Their initial thought when they got the goats was to keep them strictly for meat. They knew about trucks that came up north from Manhattan in search of goat, lamb and other kinds of meat. It was after the goats started producing a lot of milk that they decided to do something with it. Dawn started making soaps and creams. They thought about making cheeses and packaged milk, but that would cost a lot in equipment.
Soaps & Creams
The goats that the Alfanos keep provide milk for the soaps and creams. “Because people loved our soaps and creams, they kept asking if we could make other products and it just grew. Now we have bath balms too,’’ says Dawn. In the soaps there is olive oil, coconut oil, Shea butter and palm oil. Some have oatmeal, and others have cinnamon. The fragrances for the balms range anywhere from eucalyptus to mint. “I use all natural ingredients even when I have to color the soap. At the same time I have to make sure that it’s absolutely skin safe,’’ says Dawn. Their most popular fragrance is called ‘Goat Farts,’ a name that was their 8 year-old granddaughter’s idea.
To save money, John did all of the construction work himself. “If I put a dollar amount on the time we spent working on the farm, we’d never get it back,’’ he says. He built a small store on their property where they sell products ranging from soaps, creams, honey, and eggs. They started selling online, in local stores in Deposit and at the Binghamton General Hospital gift shop. Now they also supply Jada Hill Farm products to many customers in various states.
Asked about challenges of this type of work, Dawn says, “My challenge doesn’t involve working on the farm but not being able to leave the farm. My mother died last year and John couldn’t come because he had to stay with the goats.” Another time, John’s friend who helped them in the initial building of the farm was in the hospital and Dawn couldn’t go. “That kind of challenge is a lot harder to deal with than actual farm challenges. It makes you ask why you’re doing farming,” she says. However, asked if they ever see themselves retiring from farming, it was a resounding NO. It is clear that they find peace in the simplicity and necessity of taking care of their animals. Although it comes with sacrifices, as a team they have stepped up to the challenges and embraced this new way of life and seek to share it with the entire community.