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PHOTO: B.A. Nilsson

Farm in Harmony
By B.A. Nilsson

Montgomery County couple set an example of sustainable agriculture


Except for the occasional bellow of an amorous boar, the farm seems oddly quiet. But we’ve driven through so much farmland, so much countryside to get here, the car windows down on this hot, muggy day, that we’ve grown accustomed to the rural clamor. In fact, blackbirds and robins are constantly shrilling, a flock of hens cackles in the distance, roosters crow, and every now and then an 800-pound sow named Grumpy lets loose with a basso sigh.

She’s a Gloucestershire Old Spot, a heritage breed so old it predates such record keeping, and one that’s known for its particularly delicious ham and bacon. And that’s why she’s here, dining on organic grains and vegetables, sampling the best-quality hay, living in a style of comfort as different as can be imagined from the way your last ham-supplying pig was raised.

And that’s the purpose of this pig. She may weigh in as the most obvious occupant of the pastures of this farm called dharma lea, but she’s just one element in a harmony of husbandry that includes a way of human life as well.

French philosopher Rene Guenon defines “dharma” as “the essential nature of a being, comprising the sum of its particular qualities or characteristics, and determining, by virtue of the tendencies or dispositions it implies, the manner in which this being will conduct itself, either in a general way or in relation to each particular circumstance.” “Lea” is an Old English term for a meadow or garden.

“It wasn’t an epiphany or anything,” says Phyllis Van Amburgh, “but we did think carefully to find a name for our farm that best reflected our intentions.” The farm, which she owns and operates with her husband, Paul, covers 174 acres in the Montgomery County town of Sprakers. They lease another 140 acres nearby.

Grumpy is but one of eight sows, most of which are crosses of Old Spots and Tamworths, another heritage breed known for its leaner meat. While Grumpy snoozes by the nearest fence, the others are scattered throughout the muddy pasture. And there seem to be piglets galore, trotting about in groups of three or four, paying no heed to the hens strutting alongside, exploring the bug-rich ground.

Beef cattle graze in another pasture, a herd of 15 English Hereford, whose grain-free diet, completely different from industrially processed supermarket beef, produces meat with a markedly better flavor.

And, whether you’re enjoying beef, pork or chicken from this farm, you’re dining on meat free of the chemicals forced upon the creatures both to provoke quicker-than-normal growth (and passing those growth hormones along to you) and to compensate antibiotically for the filthy conditions in which the animals are raised.

Although Phyllis and Paul both grew up in rural towns in the Albany area; they were headed in different career directions when they met. Paul was sales manager for a glove importing company, while Phyllis was studying occupational therapy and working in a pediatrician’s office.

“I was seeing a tremendous number of food-allergy cases among children,” says she, “which coincided with the rise of pervasive developmental delay, a condition that falls under the autism umbrella.”

At the same time, she and Paul were taking care of a farm in Rensselaer County, where Phyllis, always an equine enthusiast, was raising draft horses. “So we often went to draft-horse events, which bring together traditional farmers who use horses, rotate crops and grow organically, and are very interested in health issues. It wasn’t long before the light went on and I realized that I was seeing evidence of the harmful effects of corporate farming upon children.”

Sustainable agriculture includes the processing of the meat, which led the Van Amburghs to work with a nearby company, Northeast Livestock Processing Service Co., to find the best slaughterhouses, which is a challenge for the small farmer who still wants to merit U.S. Department of Agriculture approval. Employing a quality-control middleman gives the small farms like dharma lea what is essentially collective-bargaining power, and thus better access to the processors.

You can see the result in the recently expanded meat department at Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-Op, where dharma lea’s kielbasa, chorizo, bacon and hot dogs are among the offerings. You can also see it right at the farm, where you’re encouraged to pick up your order.

Pork products include the usual chops and ribs, hams and roasts, as well as a sausage variety that includes sage-rich breakfast links and sweet or hot Italian-style blends. Turkeys are soon to be added to the poultry variety (don’t forget the fresh eggs), and the first round of beef processing is set to begin shortly.

“Farming needs to be neighborly,” says Sarah Johnston, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, “and that’s a criteria for a good organic farm. You’d enjoy living next door to it because their animals are raised on pasture and you know that their kids are petting them up to the animals’ last days.” NOFA-NY is a consortium of farmers and gardeners—and consumers as well—intent on creating and maintaining a sustainable food system that’s not only ecologically sound but also economically viable. “Many people are still largely unaware of the nightmares that are part of raising cheap meat in this country. Paul and Phyllis understand the benefits to the consumer of grass-fed meats.”

Farming is a tougher-than-ever career, thanks to a corporate-sponsored model that has compromised sound techniques in the pursuit of lowest-possible pricing. To eat well used to mean to eat until you’re fat, but we’ve done that as a culture and we’re suffering for it. To eat well should now mean to eat responsibly, and sustainable, chemical-free agriculture is the only model that makes any sense.

There’s also a less-tangible moral aspect to a model in which the animals you eat live in peace and comfort, as was clearly the case in the barns and pastures at dharma lea. Perhaps that’s why it seemed so quiet.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


One of the best in-state summer trips is a tour of the Finger Lakes wine country, where you can set up in a bed and breakfast and travel the length of the lakes. Add another stop to your journey by visiting the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua (right on the lake, in fact). This newly opened facility features a training kitchen, a 44-seat demonstration theater, and a tasting room featuring the best of the state’s wine. There is also the Taste of New York Lounge, where you can pair food and wine samples, an outdoor orchard and vineyard, an exhibit hall with interactive displays and a retail center. It’s located at 800 South Main St., phone (585) 394-7070. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail

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Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore


Elaine Snowdon

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky

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