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Arden Farms makes a go of nonprofit status

Last fall’s two-ton, $4,000 crop of fat French heirloom carrots on Elbert Hubbard’s Arden Farm couldn’t make up for all the peppers, tomatoes and squash that spoiled in last year’s wet spring.

Bad luck kept coming for Hubbard’s great-grandson, Dan Roelofs, a self-taught farmer. In November, the 7-foot snowfall made things even worse. Two of the four greenhouses, worth $15,000 and uninsured, collapsed. The next morning, the tractor broke.

“It’s just very traumatic,” Roelofs said earlier this winter. “I’m trying to dig myself out.”

Defying bleak prospects, Roelofs is trying another way after eight years of working the family farm. To make the numbers work and, perhaps, to channel his great-grandfather Hubbard’s legacy for innovation, Roelofs decided to turn the 65-acre organic farm in East Aurora into the Arden Farms Institute.

“I need to learn from this situation,” Roelofs said. “Why not make it so lots of people can learn from it?”

Since October, the farm has been a nonprofit, one in a small collection of fledgling organizations sponsored by Buffalo’s Wellness Institute. This led to a new collaboration with Trocaire College’s dietetics program. Continuing projects include farming 10 acres at 1821 Billington Road with an aim to double sales of Community Supported Agriculture shares from last year to 140.

As Roelofs orders seeds for golden beets and heirloom tomatoes, he thinks of his great-grandfather’s ideals about art and work reflecting nature.

“That’s totally where I’m at. I see beauty in being outside, and that’s fulfilling,” said Roelofs, 44. “I’m trying to rebuild a connection for the people of Erie County and others throughout the world: Back to small-scale farming and away from industrial agriculture. I really like growing food and feeding people and eating well.”

Hubbard once enlisted his crew of artisan workers to take breaks from making copper lamps, furniture and books and grow food for their meals.

“My goal with the farm is to re-create exactly the original,” said Roelofs, who was featured in the 2009 PBS documentary “Elbert Hubbard, an American Original.”

It has been 100 years since Hubbard died in the sinking of the Lusitania. The Roycroft Campus, built by Hubbard to evoke the English countryside, is in the midst of a renaissance, a campaign to restore the stone buildings and the grounds and raise $1.3 million to buy the old printing factory.

Roelofs would like the family farm, two miles away, to follow suit.

“I’m back into the whole Roycroft legacy like no other descendant,” he said. “I feel so in my element in East Aurora. Hanging out at the Roycroft, it feels more like home than anything. It’s like I belong to it.”

Roelofs has a merry, elfin quality and an easy laugh. He looks more work-worn and ordinary than the dapper photos of Hubbard in wide-brimmed hats and neck scarves tied in loopy bows.

Roelofs moved from Massachusetts to East Aurora eight years ago after the death of his father, a retired professor. The farm was named for Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, by Hubbard’s second wife, Alice, who was Roelofs’ great-grandmother.

Roelofs, who was a technical director at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center for two decades, loved the farm since he was a boy visiting with his family in the summer. His grandmother, Miriam, once distracted a crying fit by leading him to the barn to collect eggs.

He remembers that his grandmother and his father weren’t drawn to the Roycroft Campus. “They did kind of lay low in town … They were kind of like black sheep,” he said. “My grandmother was the love child.”

Miriam Elberta Hubbard Roelofs was born in 1894 during the unconventional, infamous part of her parents’ lives. Her mother, Alice Moore, was a schoolteacher who boarded with the Hubbards. She and Hubbard fell in love while he was still married to his first wife, the mother of his four children.

Scandal broke when Moore’s sister and brother-in-law, raising Miriam in Buffalo, sued for child support. By then, Hubbard had quit as an executive at Larkin Soap Co., where he started out selling soap as a teen, and started the Roycroft, at first as a print shop.

Hubbard became hugely famous due to his inspirational writings about the virtues of vocation along with his genius for sales and one-liners, like, “Blessed is that man who has found his work.”

Roelofs, who studied agriculture at Sterling College, continues his studies here. He has worked with Cornell Cooperative Extension staff on pest management. Last year, he warded off tomato blight by stripping off leaves close to the ground so air could circulate.

He struggled to hire staff with the low wages he could afford. Last summer, his sister Cora visited and told him “It’s a miracle that you’re still in business.” She convinced him to try operating as a nonprofit.

Soon after he announced his new status, Niki Klem, the new director of Trocaire’s nutrition program, asked for a meeting. “Food doesn’t start in the grocery store,” she said. “Not all farmers or food producers care so much … Dan’s enthusiasm is completely infectious.”

This year, one of her students will plant and harvest things like baby lettuce and work with a chef to host a May 8 community dinner, which Roelofs hopes will start off more collaborations between farm and institute.

As winter creeps toward spring planting, he is optimistic. Arugula is growing in a greenhouse. His grandmother’s barn is swept clean and, with a basket of garlic and honey jars on a table, ready to open as a farm store soon.

The public has a chance to get a look at the operation at an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday.

email: mkearns@buffnews.com