A community farm with Gaelic roots and ‘Wilbur the Worm’

Posted 5/9/23

LIVINGSTON MANOR, NY — There’s a new community farm springing from the rich soil of the Catskills between the Manor and Youngsville, about hallway as the crow flies—or perhaps, more …

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A community farm with Gaelic roots and ‘Wilbur the Worm’


LIVINGSTON MANOR, NY — There’s a new community farm springing from the rich soil of the Catskills between the Manor and Youngsville, about halfway as the crow flies—or perhaps, more fittingly, as the sheep shamble.

Gael Roots Community Farm, the handle of this contemporary self-sustaining endeavor, traces its roots to the Gaels, the ancient peoples of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. According to Iris Fen Gillingham, the visionary founder of the local enterprise, the Gaels “valued reciprocity with nature and community.”

And they “also acknowledge the foundation and shoulders that we all stand on, of ancestors, past farmers, and people who cared for the land before us,” she said. As a metaphor, the name also refers to the “plants, vegetables and life in nature; the roots are integral to the health of a tree, plant and organism.”

In a very real sense, Gael Roots Community Farm is a multigenerational dream, as Gillingham grew up on Wild Roots Farm, a 100-acre farm owned by her folks Wes and Amy. It’s just down the road apiece from the community farm, on territory once shared by the Lenape along the Delaware River, and by the Haudenosaunee Nation, who once lived in what are now known as the northern and western Catskill Mountains.

Wes Gillingham was instrumental in creating Catskill Mountainkeeper, an environmental advocacy organization, and both he and Amy still grow all their own food, raise two breeds of sheep for wool, tend Scottish Highland cows, and over the years instilled a deep love for land and people in their 23-year-old daughter Iris Fen.

She “grew up eating mainly food grown and raised on their farm and learning the history of the land on this mountain,” Iris Gillingham said. “Growing up here, my parents taught me about community, really valuing this local community and what holds it together, going through floods together, seeing how everyone showed up for each other.”

People still remember the food her parents gave out, she said, during one of the region’s devastating 500-year high-water events.

She was homeschooled, except in seventh grade when she attended Sullivan West. After graduating from SUNY Sullivan’s high school/college credit program as a junior/senior, Gillingham went to John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC, taking classes in mountain music, woodturning and soapmaking.

In 2013, Gillingham joined Manor Ink just after it was launched, and in the wake of a brief hiatus, was asked to help restart the local student-driven newspaper. She served as editor-in-chief until she left for college in 2018.

“Thanks to Manor Ink, I learned valuable life skills, went to town board meetings, interviewed local residents, researched issues pertaining to or impacting our town and region,” she recalled. “I covered dairy issues as local farms faced an unjust food system, interviewed local farmers, community elders, artists and elected officials.”

Expanding upon her views on the perilous state of small farms trying to make ends meet in these days of huge ag-businesses, Gillingham said, “It’s more and more challenging for small farms making a living.” Ag subsidies go toward massive farms, and “If you talk to farmers in this area, the majority of their income comes from taking their produce to New York City.”

But it’s very important to feed the local community, she said. “Our local school boards don’t have the financial support to actively purchase vegetables.”

The new community farm is hoping to work with Livingston Manor Central School to change that.

“If people in this community can’t afford to go to farmers’ markets, or purchase food for our schools, and the kids aren’t fed local healthy food, then that’s an issue that’s not the fault of the schools or the families, it’s the system,” she said.

Iris Fen Gillingham and her crew have big plans for the 150-acre Gael Roots Community Farm. The goals include a farm-internship program, a fiber-arts residency in collaboration with the Catskill Art Space, fiber arts for kids, and to continue holding gardening and outdoor ecology activities with kids in summer school—a program she started at Manor three years ago, hoping to work with the school to grow nutritional food for the “Home of the Wildcats.”

In a recent summer program, students in grades K-7 learned about wild weeds, what it takes to grow plants from seeds, and named the worms after finding them in the rich soil. That includes Gillingham’s favorite, “Wilbur the Worm.”

On the weekend of June 24, the farm is planning a summer solstice farm day of festivities, with music and a bonfire.

“Gael Roots Community Farm will be shaped by the community, by interns and the people that work this land. This is a place of sowing seeds for social change, instilling a connection to nature, and encouraging a dynamic creative culture,” Gillingham said.

“It feels big and surreal to be starting an educational farm and space for community. I look foward to having you all visit the farm, feast with us. Learn together, and connect to this place.”

The Gael Roots Community Farm team comprises Iris Fen Gillingham (farm coordinator), Raeanna “Annie” Johnson (Dzil Yijiin to Catskills coordinator), Amy Gillingham (farming and wild food coordinator) and Wes Gillingham (resident farming mentor and board member).

The board includes Mimi McGurl, Kanienishon Arquette, Doreen Stabinsky , Ife Afriye Kilimanjaro and Anita Goetz.

Gael Roots Community Farm, located at 734 Cattail Rd., was formally established as a domestic nonprofit on November 16, 2022 and is a member of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAP).

For more information about the Gael Roots Community Farm, or to sign up for its newsletter, email Iris Fen Gillingham at www.gaelrootsfarm.org, or follow the farm on Facebook and Instagram @growwildroots.

community farm, Gael Roots Community Farm, Catskill Mountainkeeper, Wes Gillingham, Iris Gillingham


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