Located in Salem, NY, and founded in 1992 by Rob and Meg Southerland, Gardenworks is a farm and farm store that sells a wide variety of goods. “My grandfather, Foster McEachron, purchased the farm in 1911,” said Meg Southerland. “He was brothers with Don McEachron’s grandfather from Battenkill Valley Creamery. It was a dairy with some poultry, a couple of pigs, and a team of horses. My dad, Harold McEachron, continued that with dairy cows and laying chickens. He was the youngest of three sons. Everyone went to Cornell. The two oldest brothers, James and Phillip, were drafted after Cornell, and my dad was given a choice, so he came back to the farm where he was most comfortable.”
Along with her mother, Pearle Roberts, and their four children, farming continued until 1985 when tragedy struck. “My brother Dan was killed in a car accident in 1985,” said Southerland. “It was a real turning point for the farm. They had 200 cows and heifers, and were mainly a dairy at that point. In the early 1970’s we still had 50,000 laying chickens, but with the price of eggs so low, they had moved out chickens and focused on the dairy. When my brother died, dad was done needing to farm.”
Southerland’s sisters followed in the teacher footsteps of their mother Pearle, who had taught English and French at Hartford and later Bethlehem Central schools. “Judy helps out two days a week here at Gardenworks, and is a retired English teacher. My sister Beth is a teacher resource assistant in Hudson Falls.”
From 1985 to 1991, the property was in transition. “Dad sold all the animals and equipment,” said Southerland. “He assessed the next idea of what he wanted to use the property for, and started planting blueberry bushes and fall raspberries. Our first crop was the raspberries, and about six to seven years later we started a u-pick blueberry farm. It was an all new use of land. We cleared out some of the farm buildings and started storing boats, cars, RVs, etc. It was the next chapter in figuring out how to use the farm buildings and move forward with a project but not needing to hire a real labor force. In 1992, we picked up the business and helped mom and dad with the picking, and helped manage storage. We did floral craft wreathes and arrangements, and little by little we added local handcrafts and artisan’s work. We also went on the road to a lot of juried craft shows. We always had farm pictures and a newsletter with us in an effort to do marketing. We would sell and market so that people knew that they could come and visit us. They could take a workshop in flower arrangement, wreath making and enjoy the farm and the products offered for sale. There were some great shows in Manchester, Larac in Glens Falls, and out in Shelburne, VT.”
Craft shows however weren’t a sustainable venue to keep Gardenworks thriving. “It got to a point where craft shows were declining and were not as lucrative,” said Southerland. “I had expectations of what I needed to make to support the booth fee and setup and keep the barn open, and unfortunately the shows weren’t getting there. So we started doing workshops, events, book signings, selling food, and being a gathering place for different events. Art shows, book signings, having other people giving informational talks and sessions on local products, etc. We involved the community. It’s fun to come and see what there is to see. And then we learned that we needed to have more inventory to support that interest. We couldn’t make everything that we needed for our clients. We continue to do local, but also bring in cheeses from the west coast and Hudson Valley. To make enough of a business out of it we needed to have the ability to order directly from companies.”
That community aspect is important for Gardenworks. “It feels good to be a part of the local community,” said Southerland. “The creamery helps us, and R.S. Taylor & Sons helps us, and so do other local businesses. We’ve always remained active in the chamber and tourism groups and the cheese and fiber tours that go through the area. To learn to be your own entity but to cooperate with other area businesses is an important thing. It’s important to recommend other businesses in the area. Any kind of packaging you can do to make people have a good time in Salem is important. You’ll hear them say ‘so and so would really like this, I want to bring them back here.’ It enriches the whole area. Our customers have become our friends. We love what we do. We love keeping the farm a farm, and fortunately our health and our help have allowed us to do that. We have a great team of helpers and workers and co-workers. They’ve become friends and extended family. They’re the people that help us achieve our goals.”
Each season brings a different crop to Gardenworks. The spring focuses on flowers, and Gardenworks’ greenhouse crop of annuals, perennials, herbs, and vegetables. “It all starts in the spring,” said Southerland. “Planting the fields with flowers for cutting, veggies for the year, and gourds, squashes, and pumpkins for fall harvest. In the summer, blueberries and our weekend cafe are a major focus. The cafe has taken off and is good. We haven’t picked up our farm to table dinners since covid-19 hit. The cafe has increased to the point where it would really push us to do those weekend dinners. In the fall we have raspberries, chrysanthemums, and a huge display of gourds, squashes, and pumpkins. That’s a time where we do our best to do recipes and food sampling. We’re trying to promote good recipes, nutrition, farm fresh food, and the value of knowing what you’re eating and discovering the flavors of truly ripe blueberries or garden ripe tomatoes and how good it can taste.
Looking towards the future, Gardenworks is again approaching a period of transition. Recently, their son Hunter, his wife Kelsey, and their children Walker, Joel, and Lila Pearle, moved back to the area. “We don’t know yet what the future holds,” says Southerland. “We’re exploring ideas. It reminds me of when Rob and I came back in 1990. Dad was tending raspberries and blueberries and that established a baseline. We developed interests and figured out where we wanted go from there to keep a farm a farm. Dad didn’t understand how you could keep a farm a farm with just greenhouse crops and a few vegetables, but supported us in that decision. With 600 acres to manage and feeding the cows and heifers to just the 8 acres that we typically focus on; his scale was very large compared to us. We’ve kept the land in the farm and put it all to use or rented fields to the creamery. Hunter finished his medical residency in family medicine last year, and it happened to be when the pandemic hit. They’re looking forward to living in the country and a garden bigger than they’ve ever had before. Kelsey home schools, and they’re active with other home schoolers and friends. Hunter is working for the Hudson Headwaters Network. There’s no plans set in stone yet, but we’re definitely thinking and envisioning about what can be. They need time to settle in, and see what is of interest for them on the farm.”
This project is made possible with funds from the Statewide Community Regrants Program, a regrant program of the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature and administered by the Lower Adirondack Regional Arts Council (LARAC).