SHEFFIELD >> He's as good at raising money as he is at raising chickens.
Farmer Dominic Palumbo, of Moon in the Pond Farm in Sheffield, was facing foreclosure last month when he came up with an idea: he would crowdsource his debt. Friends told him not to do it, warning him that he shouldn't go public with his financial troubles.
He disagreed. "I believe in being honest," he said. "That's what organic farming is about."
On June 1, he posted an announcement on his various social media channels and sent an email asking for $50,000 in 40 days to keep the bank from taking back the farm.
"Our small, diverse, local farm has struggled, survived, and continued growing strong against the relentless tide of industrialized, government-subsidized 'food' producers, yet has not been able to recover from the economic downturn," he wrote. "Moon In The Pond is NOT too big to fail. Uncle Sam is NOT coming to the rescue. The bank is calling in the mortgage."
Palumbo bought Moon in the Pond 25 years ago and now farms over 100 acres of his land and his neighbors', producing heritage breed cows and chickens, along with produce, mushrooms and bees.
Minutes after he posted his plea for help, the first donation came in. For the next two weeks there was a steady flow from friends, customers and strangers. His postings reached tens of thousands of social media feeds. Food writer Michael Pollan tweeted his announcement.
An old friend from high school in Rhode Island, Don McGuire, donated because, he says, "I have always deeply admired Dominic because he went off and made this wonderfully sustainable farm." He's never been to Moon in the Pond, but he encourages his students at the University of Buffalo, where he teaches classics, to apply for the internships there.
Then things got quiet — hovering at about $20,000 for three weeks. As the final weeks neared, he was still $14,000 short. But with a week to go, a friend said he'd put up $7,000 if Palumbo could raise the other $7,000. And then another friend from childhood — whom he hadn't seen in 45 years — wrote a check for another $7,000, saying "I don't want you to lose the match." With two days to go, he'd met the deadline. But the donations kept coming — and they still are. As of last week, he's raised almost $60,000.
The big donations were important, he says, but it was the checks for $10, or the cash pressed into his hand at the farmer's market, that really made him feel like the community respected and valued his contribution.
And then there are others who wonder if it's appropriate to fundraise one's debt. Palumbo says he understands their point of view, but points out that the farm became a non-profit in 2008 because it has a large education component, which makes it worthy of the community's support. He offers year-long apprenticeships and shorter internships to people wanting to learn about organic farming. He maintains an open door policy at his farm so visitors can walk the property and see what a small, organic farm operation looks like. He also offers food and farming classes both on and off the property; including chicken slaughter workshops, cheesemaking, and classes on raising pigs. The educational aspect takes time away from production on the farm, he says, but he believes it's just as important to teach people about food as it is to grow it.
"We need people that are knowledgeable about ethical food and have the right tools to produce it," he says.
The farm's finances began to falter during the economic downturn in 2008, and he began downsizing: cutting down on livestock and running the farm on a bare-bones budget. When the brutal winter of 2014-2015 hit, he fell behind in the rent. After that, he began the process of a mortgage modification, which took months to pursue while the debt continued to increase. In May, the bank denied the mortgage modification and notified him of their right to immediately foreclose.
But he feels confident the influx of cash, combined with the downsizing he's previously done, will keep the farm solvent going forward. The fundraiser alerted the community to the difficulties he was having running the farm, and people came forward to offer him legal and financial advice in addition to money. He's working with his advisors to figure out alternate ways to shoulder the burden of the mortgage going forward, possibly with the continuing help of a small group.
Jim Gop, owner of Heirloom Fire catering company, says he's grateful the community pulled together to support Palumbo.
"It's very hard to make a living, to educate the next generation of farmers, and grow crops that don't have a huge yield," he says. "I hope the fundraiser raises awareness about what he's doing so more people will do business with him, and more people will start to understand the real cost of farming and producing nutritious food."
On the farm
Interested in learning more about Moon in the Pond Farm? Stop by for a visit:
Where: 816 Barnum St., Sheffield
For more information: Call 413-229-3092 or visit mooninthepond.org