Since its inception in 1795, Ryder Farm on Starr Ridge Road in Brewster has been owned and operated by the Ryder family. Each family member put their own mark on the farm; some produced dairy products while others grew and sold herbs, veggies and plants.
Now Emily Simoness, the latest family member to take over farm operations, has a new vision for the historic property, one that blends agriculture and art. Since 2011, Simoness has been sowing the seeds of artistic creativity through the establishment of SPACE on Ryder Farm.
SPACE is a nonprofit dedicated to helping invigorate artists and innovators and their work. The program’s philosophy is that artists need time and space in order to create. Each year, approximately 130 artists descend on the farm, staying anywhere from one to five weeks at a time. In exchange for the solitude and time they are given to create, residents give back two hours to the farm each day to contribute to the sustainability and resourceful preservation of the farm.
Simoness grew up in Minnesota knowing little about Ryder Farm beyond its figurative place in family folklore and its actual place north of New York City. When she found herself living and working as an aspiring actor in Brooklyn in her 20s, Simoness got the urge to reach out to her distant cousin, Betsey Ryder, who at the time was farm manager, to see the farm firsthand.
For Simoness, the experience of visiting the farm was transformative.
“I went home and I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Simoness. “How close it was to the city, the expanse, the fact that it needed some TLC.”
At the same time, Simoness was thinking about how to advance the artistic goals for herself and her community back in Brooklyn.
“Those two needs—the farm’s need for love, rehabilitation and survival and my own artistic community’s need for time and space—were independent, and then they sort of collided in my brain.”
Simoness came up with a plan that brought her community up to the farm to help rehabilitate it while also providing the necessary space for artistic projects to bloom away from the limitations and distractions of city life.
SPACE had a pilot season in 2011, testing the concept for viability and sustainability. Since then, the program has supported 1,300 artists and activists. Programs range from a film lab to a week for those working on the social justice space to a family residency for working parents and their kids.
One of the farm’s programs, The Working Farm writers group, supports eight writers in a non-consecutive, five-week residency that takes place over five months. This arrangement makes the program more manageable for artists with day jobs and family obligations. The residency culminates with The Roving Dinner—an eight-course meal, served in eight locations on the farm with eight excerpts of new plays developed by Working Farm members.
The process of becoming a resident at SPACE is competitive. This year, the farm received 1,200 applications for 130 slots. Prospects apply with a project in mind and are thoroughly vetted before arriving at the farm. Once here, they are largely left alone to pursue their work.
When residents aren’t pursuing their personal projects, they’re engaged in physical labor on the farm.
“There’s been a big capital piece to this, and will continue to be,” Simoness said.
To date, SPACE members have rehabilitated three structures, built two stages, put a dock on Peach Lake, and erected a yurt. Other requirements for residents are that they attend three communal meals each day, give back two hours to the farm, and share an excerpt of their work at the culmination of their residency with their fellow residents.
“The meals are the lightning in the bottle of the whole thing,” Simoness said. “We source a lot of the produce that’s on the table from the farm. The synergy between the farm and the art has always been integral to what it is that we’re doing here.”
This year is the first in which Simoness will run both SPACE as well as general Ryder Farm operations. She believes that bearing responsibility for both sides of the business will help her to develop more opportunities to blend agriculture and art. One example: the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, in which members subscribe to a weekly harvest from the farm. Plans are in the works for monthly pickup parties, which will bring community members and SPACE residents together in a celebration of agriculture and art. At the parties, residents may put on live musical performances or perform excerpts from their plays. And the produce boxes that CSA members take home may hold a book of poetry, a print, or a code for a download of a new album in addition to the typical fare of salad greens or fresh veggies.
“The work that has been seeded here goes out into the world,” Simoness said, referring to the creative projects that SPACE residents cultivate. But she could just as easily be referring to organic produce harvest from the farm’s 127 acres. It’s all a product of hard work, creative vision, and a legacy over 200 years in the making.