Muddy Fingers Farm – For the Love of Food

Matt plants cucumbers by hand while Liz works towards him using the prone weeder. The weeder has an electric motor and is controlled by foot pedals.
story and photos by Ann Cady

When I was a kid, I didn’t think of farming as a job that you could go into. I knew people farmed, but I didn’t understand that it was also a small business and that you could start one. I also didn’t know my grandfather named all his cows Susie because he butchered one every year for meat and Susie was not the same Susie in the field each year. In my defense, I was a little kid and the hamburger just came out of the freezer by the time I saw it.  

Fast forward a number of years and I find myself thinking about where my food comes from, who grows it and how to reconnect with real food. It turns out Chef Boyardee, cheeseburgers and TV dinners are a “sometimes food” (thank you Sesame Street) and no amount of watching Iron Chef makes your pot roast edible (I failed you Iron Chef Flay).  

When I first got married and moved to Elmira, I decided it was time to learn to cook and promptly joined the Muddy Finger’s Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) run by Matthew Glen and Liz Martin. I think I bit off more than I could chew that first summer, but I’ve continued to go to their booth at area farmers markets ever since and who better to talk to about real food than actual farmers. So, I put in a call to Liz and she invited me out to Hector to talk about all things food and farming. I brought my notebook, she broke out ice pops and we sat down under a big tree in front of the farmhouse to talk. The breeze was gently blowing through the branches above us and Luna the farm dog pranced around us sniffing, rolling in the grass and eating the occasional apple. That dog’s tail never stopped wagging. Literally, never stopped. Not even once.    

In the Beginning

Liz and Matt are a modern-day agricultural fairy tale. Man and woman meet while working at the same CSA (Maysie’s Farm in Chester County, PA), fall in love and decide to spend the rest of their lives together – farming. I feel like there’s a romance novel in there somewhere; their eyes meet across rows of seedlings and as the plants mature so does their love for each other. I’ll call it As the Corn Grows, but I digress. Matt and Liz had one goal for their future. That both of them could be employed full time on their own farm. Both loved the outdoors and didn’t want to spend their time in an office, with a boss, or a 9 to 5 job. So, in 2003 they moved to Liz’s hometown of Horseheads, and decided to start their own CSA. “My family and Matt’s family always had gardens so both of us grew up seeing fresh food come into the house,” Liz said. “And what could be more fundamental than feeding people?” 

First, they borrowed land, then rented land and finally in 2006 stumbled across an ad on the bulletin board of a now defunct natural food store in Watkins Glen for a small farm for sale. The house was in good shape and the price was right but the land needed clearing and it was a little farther away from their market locations than they wanted. But they just couldn’t walk away. For the last 17 years they have called that 5-acre property on the east side of Seneca Lake their home. The first year on the farm they grew their crops on a rented field in Montour Falls while simultaneously clearing two large fields at the new site for the following year’s planting. Currently, the farm consists of the farmhouse, an old barn, six high tunnels (named after NPR hosts), two ponds, a small orchard, three fields, a washing barn and an impressive solar array. They plan, plant and tend to the land themselves with help from their harvest crew – consisting of Matt and Liz’s parents. 

Muddy Fingers Farm currently provides food for approximately 70 area families through their CSA shares – they also have shares available at a reduced rate to low-income families – and participate in multiple farmers markets in Elmira, Corning and Ithaca. They even have gift cards so if you are afraid that you won’t be able to eat everything that comes with a weekly share you can still support the farm and pick up organic produce each week. CSA is a win for both farmers and consumers. It gives the farmers a more stable income stream with less risk and consumers receive healthy local and in the case of Muddy Finger’s Farm organic produce all season long.   

An Organic Farm Is Born  

This is the farm’s sixth year as certified organic and I wanted to know what that meant on the farm side of things. “We haven’t changed the way we farm; we just pay someone to label us as organic,” Liz said with a laugh. “In the past we just had a sign that said no herbicides or pesticides and for most of our customers that was fine. Then for a while we were certified naturally grown which was a good farmer-led program, but we spent all our time explaining to people what that meant.”

She also explained there are some complaints among farmers that the USDA organic program is skewed toward big agriculture because it requires a significant amount of bookkeeping for each crop that’s planted. It is much easier to keep records when farmers are growing many acres of only three or four crops rather than small farmers which need to grow many different crops in order to make a living. Despite the extra paperwork and occasional bureaucratic red tape, they are going to continue in the program for the foreseeable future. “When I shop at the store I’m glad for the organic label, but at the farmers market I think you should just ask the person who grew the food,” Liz said.        

In addition to selling food through its CSA and to regional distributors, Muddy Fingers Farm also sells seeds to local seed companies. Liz and Matt are excited about this relatively new venture and consider it to be the last step of the local food movement.  “Most seeds are still grown in the arid west, but our local climate is different,” Liz stated. “We need people to breed seeds for the Northeast where it’s cold and the days are shorter. Also, at some point we aren’t going to want the daily demands of hauling to the farmers markets so it’s nice to have a diversified revenue stream.” 

Last year they grew seven varieties of seeds including lettuce, two types of peppers, two types of zinnias, beans, soybeans, parsnips and beets. Just to give you an idea, eight 100-foot-beds of beans with two rows each will produce about 200 pounds of bean seeds and they will reserve seven pounds of seed to sow for next year’s seed crop.  

An interesting side note, it turns out that beet seedlings smell like chocolate when their first flowers bloom. I’m planting my entire front yard in beets this spring.   

Farm to Table?

I can still see my great-grandmother in her kitchen with 5-year-old me sitting at the old silver aluminum table swinging my legs under the chair. 

“Stir this cake mix for me,” she says.

“Sure Big Grandma, how long?” I ask.

“Till it’s done,”

“How will I know when it’s done?”

“It will be done,” Big Grandma replies

What? When? How? Are you a Jedi? A short time later I was demoted to playing with the leftover pie crust, my brief career as sous chef over. My version of cooking from scratch involves opening a couple of cans, a bag of frozen veggies and a bag of frozen meatballs. I call it soup.

Liz said what we need is more people eating local but we also need people who know how to cook. Cooking is a skill and cooking well with real ingredients even more so. It makes me wonder if small local farms fail not because of big agriculture, the economy, or politics but because people (like me) no longer know how to make meals from real food that tastes good. Full disclosure, I’m drinking a can of Coke and eating a frozen mac and cheese bowl as I type this – someone help me, please.      

A Way of Life

At the end of my visit, I asked Liz what advice she would give people looking to become farmers themselves. 

“Start by working on a farm,” shereplied. “It’s a great way to get involved and learn. Ironically, you can sometimes make more than the farmer you are working for since you are paid hourly then if you were comparing hours to hours. As your own boss you really get to cultivate the life that works for you but as a farmer you have to be comfortable with the fact that your to-do list will never really be done.

“Have the courage to try new things and change direction if you need to. I think people are done a disservice when they don’t remember what it is like to accomplish something with their hands. For us to see where we have come from and where we are now and to know we’ve done all of that, there’s an immense satisfaction in that.”

Liz had one final tip for me. She suggests sauteing vegetables on the stove with a little garlic, butter and soy sauce – according to her it never fails. 

You can find Muddy Fingers Farm online at; all the information regarding their CSA shares, gift cards and farmers market locations are there. They also have a Facebook page and publish a weekly blog post with farm updates and what produce is available that week.  

One last thing, since my visit to the farm Luna, the farm dog passed away. Her legacy lives on though Kennedy and Bella who follow in her proud tradition as tail-wagging farm dogs. 

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