Sarah Rhyanan, farmer, soapmaker
How a native New Yorker went from running a Brooklyn-based soap and florist company to turning a derelict upstate farm into a thriving cooperative…
It’s April 2021 and the endgame of our six-month long winter plays out, as do the later stages of the pandemic.
I return to the main farmhouse after living all winter in a rustic cabin (sans plumbing and electric) and served by a temperamental wood stove. Overall this was an experience I am grateful for, but swear I’ll never repeat. As ever, Worlds End – our 107-acre communal living flower farm project and small soap factory – requires specific sacrifices; my parents, having recently relocated their lives to the farm, needed a house to live in while we plan and build their retirement cottage up on the highest part of the farm that overlooks all the activity of the campus. As in most families I suppose, there are patterns of ignoring one’s own needs for others and we’re juggling this constantly as a family business, one predicated on the false virtues of martyrdom and overwork. I may return to this later, I may not.
For now, let it all be sacred! And around the house now, I experience running water as though I’ve never known it before! Brushing teeth upstairs, or filling a vase downstairs for the first daffodils and forsythia branches.
Here now, spring percolates just beyond winter’s grip; snow melts and there is a quickening of the pulse. There is mud everywhere — outside and then in. Clumps of farmyard conglomerate, the size of York Peppermint Patties, fall from boots and are kicked around the wood floors like hockey pucks, eventually ground down and pulverised by the constant foot traffic, swept into piles of silt by the everyday aerodynamics of us.
Dogs who’ve run through the stream then rested in mud, shake in the evening before retiring to their cages, and mud is atomised, airborne, then snows in gentle piles around the sofa. On earth as it is in heaven.
Our woodpiles, once sixcords strong, dwindle to a few scores of softwood pieces too large and awkward to carry or too small to bother. Our residents on the farm are artists, cooks, ceramicists, shepherds, grain millers, former Marines, Mah-jong teachers and retired auto body repair people. Farmhands and visitors begin to trickle in and so we start feasting every day, no matter what, no matter the mood. Sometimes I’d rather not, but this is the sacrament, and it coaxes some quality good or right for this place and project. Eating homemade focaccia in the middle of the day with ramp butter. Planning herb gardens and potting vines for patios. Watching lambs being born, dancing at two days old. Writing socialist propaganda for our new printing press.
It sounds so good to write it now, but part of me wishes to return always to the beginning – a piece of land that was my personal play place and mess, without outsider expectations – privately mine to brood about; temper my dealings with floristry clients and complex em-ployee relationships. Thin a carrot patch in my underwear, squat for a pee without looking over my shoulder.
Worlds End Farm was born 10 years ago when, for two hundred thousand dollars, we purchased this parcel of Mohawk land located in today’s central New York State region. What came with it was a dilapidated 1840’s Greek Revival farmhouse and elderly barns standing handsomely and stoic with straight roof lines. Saipua, our soap and floristry endeavour in Brooklyn, was six years old and burgeoning, thanks to my mother’s divine ability to measure lye, fats and finances (she has always been the soap maker and bookkeeper) and our ability to create a floristry that stood in strong contrast to the tight, import-driven style of the day. I wanted flowers to be textural, loose and seasonal, and though many had done this already, we emerged on the verge of the Brooklyn ‘makers’ scene and benefited early from my posting of weekly arrangements, to a blog that fashion types quickly latched onto.
I remain convinced it was timing and luck. In the early days I was looking first at Ariella Chezar, Madderlake and Constance Spry for inspiration. I knew nothing about flowers when I started – I could identify tulips and roses and maybe daffodils. Breaking into the professional realm (28th Street – home of the famed NYC wholesale cut flower market) I posed my novice questions to anyone who would humour me. It was exhilarating. The first year we lost thousands of dollars on flower product; buoyed by soap sales, I trudged on and then sold my first wedding. Everything changed thereafter.
I’ve always been personally opposed to marriage – insulted somehow by its predication on the nuclear family and the drudgery of life commonly exemplified by our brand of American capitalism. And yet, suddenly I found myself enmeshed in the wedding industrial complex, well versed in its rules and regulations, its dos and don’ts; I quickly learnt to spew
the most clever wedding planning tips to my clients over coffee or champagne. I tried very hard and I became good at the floral wedding game. I became trusted, and Saipua began to make money.
Flowers and farming are tricky trades to make money at because so much is dependent on the weather, which you cannot control. Add to this a highly perishable product and you end up with a lot of waste and a lot of missed opportunity. If you have 10 crates of the most beautiful broccoli or 20 bunches of dahlias but your farmers’ market is rained off, you’re drowning in product that won’t hold up until your next market. What an event allows for (both with food and flowers) is for you to accurately plan and purchase (down to the stem) exactly what you need, with little waste. My first wedding was a royal purple palette in July 2007 at a small restaurant in Brooklyn. The bride’s budget was $750. I spent about $800 on the flowers at the wholesale market; Alliums, thistles, eucalyptus. It was an invaluable investment. We did three more small events that year. And the following year maybe 15. By 2009 we were rolling, making real money, hiring help and upgrading to a bigger studio in order to accommodate our event work. I was still thrilled to be figuring it out, excited by the opportunity to buy more and more flowers.
Buying flowers is a treasure hunt – there’s strategy involved and a certain learnt prowess that results in the colourful unfurling of one’s spoils as boxes of tulips, hellebores, and ranunculus are unpacked. The snipping of twine on a tightly cinched bale of blooming cherry branches causes a great exhale of pink petals, like paper confetti they litter the studio floor. I sometimes would unpack all my flowers to prepare for an event and then have a difficult time starting the work. Not because I wasn’t excited to make arrangements, but because the moment of having all of my ingredients freshly laid out, glistening and tidy, was so satisfying.
Collecting the materials, assembling the palette of flowers is half the work of making a composition with flowers. The unpacked flowers from the market – and later the harvest from the farm brought into the barn studio – is an arrangement of itself. It is half the battle. This moment, following the hunt and the collection, contains all the potential, the peak kinetic energy. What comes next is all downhill to the compost pile; the slicing, chopping, butchering of stems to create the arrangement, the wedding centrepiece or floral delivery that gets gingerly packed into a box and the box carefully packed into a truck and the truck’s temperature monitored carefully and the route planned and the toll and coffee and lunch money doled out to the drivers, and so on. For a few years towards the end of this city racket we ran a sister business that collected compostables from other florist’s events and hauled giant tarps of spent stems and branches (and inevitably trash) to the farm where we maintained a great pile. The pile is now one of my favourite stops on the Worlds End visitor tour; without fail I perform a little archeology with my boot and unearth from the black gold a wad of plastic floral tape, or a flower tube. The other day it was a clear glass votive candle holder.
These years of hunting flowers and hustling arrangements through the concrete jungle for fancy fashion clients and brides was lucrative. It allowed us to buy the farm in 2011. Worlds End is remote, off of a dirt road without any other houses or roads in sight. The farm was first built in 1825, starting with the farmhouse, and followed with a giant dairy/hay barn and horse stables built between 1830-1860. A tool house/apple storage shed was added around 1900. All of these buildings presented themselves neat and tidy upon our first inspection and I was ready to move in and decorate.
Indeed, what followed was years of building and restoring. We started with the farm house, chipping plaster off walls to expose the original lathe and update the wiring. We moved to the barns and hired expert teams to straighten the mighty 15-inch hemlock beams of the original swing beam barn; at times there were giant ratchet straps attached to trees outside across the yard holding beams in place in the barn. For the first year at least, we slept on an air mattress in the east wing of the house while we ripped out old plaster and the terrifying kitchen. We lived in a state of constant construction for 10 years. I cooked on a gas grill a few steps outside the front door. I learnt to fry eggs on the grill, make pasta, pizza, roast chicken and even bake scones and pies. This winter, after 10 years of grilling outside we put a stove in the farmhouse.
People often ask how I learnt to farm and I answer, ‘the internet.’ I grew up in the northern suburbs of New York City. My mother’s vegetable garden was modest and practical – tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans. There was a row of coreopsis around the postage stamp-sized plot and it was occasionally my job to deadhead the spent flowers. Gardening meant nothing to me then. My love affair with flowers changed that. Growing my own flowers was like opening Pandora’s box; suddenly I could have anything I wanted – or ‘dream flowers’ as I called them. Brown nicotiana, blue Alpine clematis, ‘Patty’s Plum’ Poppies, angelica gigas, brown bearded iris, species tulips, Campanula takesimana.
What I lacked in agricultural prowess I made up for in gumption. Worlds End had not been farmed for more than 50 years. We had to create gardens, build the soil in fields. In 2011 I had to Google ‘cover crop.’ We made swift progress but not without ample failures. I planted $300 worth of bearded iris rhizomes in a triangle because I thought it was neat, and eschewed the idea of farms always adhering to row planting. ‘There’s good reason for rows,’ a farmer friend lightly implored shortly after this iris bed succumbed to weeds.
In the beginning, those first few years, Worlds End was quiet and sprawling. It was always shrouded in mist and it was messy and the mess made great art that I relished. It was my refuge, and personal gardening my play place. I made my dream arrangements from my successes in the flower gardens and from foraged wildlife. As we rebuilt its structures we hosted more people here. Dinners were had with more and more people from the Saipua circle, and with strangers. Chickens and sheep were added as we learned about livestock and its imperative role in managing land and pasture and feeding people (and clothing them with wool from our sheep programme).
In 2017, I let go of our city business to focus all of my efforts on the farm and on a farm-based teaching programme. People came from around the world to learn floral arranging and small scale agriculture and traditional crafts such as basket making, or dyeing with plants. I began to envision the farm as a communal arts and crafts based community, one in which the labour was shared alongside the benefits of living in paradise. Letting go of our city events-based business meant reorienting ourselves to a farm that generated enough income to support itself. The pressure of this financial burden alongside the adjustment to a more publicly facing farm changed the nature of the project immensely. Cut off from its main source of capital (my floristry work in the big city) Worlds End now needed to stand on its own as a viable entity. This struggle persists as I write this. Before I land this story, let me go back in time to a moment I often recognise as a catalyst in this trajectory of a farm project.
In or around 2016 we were commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to make flowers for the anniversary party of a luxury brand. There was a meeting in the afternoon at the museum, but in the morning I was at Worlds End struggling with a sick lamb we called ‘Vitamin B.’ So much of farming – especially livestock – is learning through experience. In our first season with lambs, I had just learnt to give injections to sheep. It is a common mistake to let the syringe go through the skin and out the other side of the skin tent you hold up when giving an injection subcutaneously. I had made this mistake while administering Vitamin B to this lamb – cuddling her sick little body we would be overwhelmed with that deeply vegetal and yeasty smell of vitamins. I worked on this lamb in the morning, desperate to keep her alive, and then drove the three and a half hours down to NYC to be at the MoMa in the afternoon. There, I engaged in a conversation through an assistant to an assistant of an important woman at the brand about the whiteness of the peonies, and if we could get peonies any ‘white-er.’ She refused to look me
in the eye as she communicated through her chain of command.
It was a pivotal moment; I could no longer keep a foot in both camps. It had been, until that point, exhilarating to be a double agent; to be one version of my creative self at the farm and another for clients in the city. But that thrill suddenly turned into an unhealthy and disingenuous feeling that I could not shake. What had got me to paradise could not support me there. I ghosted. In three months flat I shut down the studio and moved everything worth keeping upstate to reorganise.
This interim period of almost four years has been excruciating. The complex financial puzzle of funding a farm without the flowing capital of a city events-based business, paired with our commitment to developing a shared agriculture project that lives in the right relationship to capital, hierarchy and power dynamics, has required exponential amounts of new energy from myself, my parents and those who work on the farm and sit on its loose board of directors. There have been many failings. In the messy process, I have destroyed relationships – personal and professional. I have relied on old patterns when new ones were clearly needed. I have searched endlessly for new ways of working when the old ways were so clearly insufficient.
I know some things to be true. I don’t want to replicate the relationship of employer/employee anymore here. I want a more equitable division of labour that doesn’t mimic the privileges inherent in typical institutional organisations. At the same time, I can’t rely on my own physical strength in the same way I could when I started the farm at 30 years old. I need more rest than I used to in order to show up in my full potential as a participant in the project.
Capitalism works because of accepted exploitations of labour, natural resources, etc. Building an antithetical model is challenging when we still require Wi-Fi, fuel, and (to whatever extent you deem it necessary) things like imported olive oil or wine. Navigating this can feel all-consuming. It’s another scenario where one has a foot in two different worlds.
Lately my thinking has been focused on debasing hierarchy and letting go of power. Here on the farm we are working to attain common goals while simultaneously supporting one another in our individual pursuits. What I share with the other residents on the farm is a love of a particular kind of life that allows for connection and reliance on the land alongside ample time to work on our own creative projects; and perhaps most importantly – the freedom to come and go. Small scale farming has for too long been associated with hardship, excessive toil, insular nuclear families and rugged individualism.
A little known secret about farming is that it’s not hard – what becomes stressful and breaks people is the isolation and relentless responsibility of it. The work itself is intensely pleasurable when you can distribute the work and responsibility among partners.
It’s easy for me to write about these ideas hopefully, and harder to put them into practice. In truth we’ve all grown up inside a culture in which the notions of hierarchy and individual ownership are entangled with our conceptions of wellbeing and success. For me being a part of a collective is much more complicated than being the boss of one.
And so it goes, season by season with great high points and the corresponding and devastating low points. Through the power of iteration, the project (and indeed nature) strives forward to new states of being. Flowers that have always bloomed here continue to unfurl on cue in the spring – the native coltsfoot first, the asters and goldenrod last. Some flowers we’ve introduced to the land fade into their temporal triangles, others gain footing. Mountain mint, hellebores and autumn anemones have all become more permanent residents. Same as with people. Some grace us for a brief time, others keep coming back.
My wish now? To step down as leader, pass it off to others and have more freedom to come and go. To take a rest. And return with new energy to continue the uncharted journey to a new world where value is felt in our hearts more than it is tallied in our coffers.