Interview with the Southerland Family of Gardenworks Farm

by Marissa Sheldon, MPH

Gardenworks Farm is a fourth-generation family farm located in Salem, New York, and run by Meg Southerland and her husband, Rob. Meg’s grandfather started the farm with a focus on dairy and poultry in 1911. In 1932, Meg’s father, Harold McEachron, graduated from Cornell University and returned to Salem to expand the farm to 600 acres of land with 200 cows and 50,000 chickens. The farm has evolved and adapted over time based on the state of the economy and the family’s capacity, eventually moving away from dairy and poultry to focus on specialty crops. Gardenworks now offers a “u-pick” berry patch, a greenhouse, a marketplace featuring specialty foods and handmade crafts, and a cafe providing farm-to-table dinners and more. 

Meg and Rob’s son, Hunter, a physician specializing in family medicine, and his wife, Kelsey, have recently joined them on the farm to provide education about the intersection between agriculture and health, focusing on topics such as lifestyle medicine and plant-based cooking.

Food Policy Center: Thank you all for participating and sharing more about Gardenworks Farm! The farm has been in your family for more than a century – could you please share some more details about its history and how it has evolved? 

Meg Southerland: The Gardenworks Farm was purchased in 1911 by my grandfather, Foster McEachron, and was home to my dad and his two brothers. The farm was a dairy farm with a small flock of hens.  

After graduating from Cornell University, my dad returned to the farm, where, by 1965, he had expanded poultry production to 50,000 chickens (for eggs) and added 200 Holstein cows. He relied on farm advice from Cornell University Extension Agents, Cornell Specialists, and other agricultural organizations. He was progressive and hard-working. He loved being a farmer, and my mom was a very supportive partner in agricultural marketing and communication. 

My brother joined the family farm after attending SUNY Cobleskill and was the managing partner until his death in an automobile accident in 1985. 

Rob and I started Gardenworks in 1990, after my dad and mom had retired from dairy farming.  They had planted blueberries, fall raspberries, and Christmas trees. Over the last 30 years, we built a greenhouse, renovated the dairy barn into a destination retail marketplace, and added specialty field crops, farm agritourism events, and educational programming.  

Gardenworks is a four-season farm with spring greenhouse crops, summer u-pick blueberries and vegetables, u-pick fall raspberries, and a Christmas barn with handcrafted gifts, specialty foods, fresh wreaths, trees, and trimmings. 

Kelsey and Hunter have added the Pick Your Own Healthcare Field and extensive programming about plant-based eating for healthful living. Food can be medicine! Their knowledge and energy create a new initiative for the farm; the intersection of health and agriculture.

Rob Southerland: I was first introduced to the farm in 1971 when I drove Meg home from a summer internship in the Philadelphia area. I had never stepped foot on a large, diverse, and active farm enterprise. Sunday was a day of rest only after the eggs were collected from 50,000 chickens, the chickens were fed, and 100 cows were milked and fed twice a day! Meg and I were married in 1976, and for the next 25 years we were involved with careers hundreds of miles from the farm, visiting only for short stays during the holidays. In 1990, Meg and I moved back to Salem. I became a partner in a planning and architecture firm, and Meg was determined to renew the farm and grow a business. Hence, Gardenworks was born and Meg successfully grew the business from that point on. I retired from my architectural position and started work on the farm full-time in 2015.

I incorporated my interest in food with a weekend cafe and farm-to-table dinners as well as food-related workshops. I also assumed management of farm maintenance and building projects and assisted with the growing of fruits, vegetables, and Christmas trees.

Hunter Southerland: Reflecting on the history my parents have outlined is always special. I love to walk the land, appreciating the natural springs, hardwood forests, valley fields, and crisp, clean air while picturing those generations before us similarly taking pride in this place and the privilege of working the land. While technology, practices, and what we produce have evolved over time, I’m confident each generation felt it a true blessing to be here and appreciate the gift of each day spent on the farm. Whether it be while pruning blueberries, splitting locust posts, or pulling weeds, I cherish times when my mind pictures my Grandpa Harold or my parents working this land and I sense the honor of continuing their efforts and our family heritage.

Kelsey Southerland: Thank you for taking an interest in our family and farm. And thank you for what y’all do in this space! The farm has an incredible history and is a beyond-words destination location. The fields of blueberries and hay, the brooks and falls, the maple lines and forest, the cabin in the woods; they inspire great awe. The 125-year history of the family on the land, and the hard work put in by Meg and Rob, regenerating it into this place of great beauty and charm, where the arts intersect with agriculture, is a testament to vision, dedication, tenacity, and hard work. We are honored to be able to steward it into the next generation with a passion focused on the intersection of health and agriculture but hopefully with the same vision, dedication, tenacity, and hard work that has been so wonderfully modeled throughout the generations.  

FPC: Your family has always made sure to stay current on the latest market prices and trends and has adapted the farm’s offerings accordingly. How has the recent economy and the inflation of food prices impacted the farm?

MS: We find that our customers purchase less and are more careful to consume and/or use everything.

RS: We have always tried to stay current by researching prices from local and regional markets. Many of the offerings we have, such as specialty foods including cheeses, meats, blueberries, and raspberries, are available only within a 30-mile radius, so we try to establish price points that recognize more urban values. But we realize that, in our rural demographic, combined with lower overhead, we can adjust to lower pricing. For example, in NYC a retail price for cheese may be $28/lb with a mark-up of 3 times the wholesale price. We can be profitable at 2 times the wholesale price. I do not think that the recent economy and food inflation have significantly affected farm profitability.

HS: I hope we can remain aware of current economic trends and how to connect our farm’s offerings with people across diverse backgrounds and financial means. We are fortunate that our area has some progressive organizations and incredible programs to connect healthy food with people, from fresh food and free produce programs in the library to some food prescription offerings.

In our area and across the nation food prices certainly have changed notably in recent years, and appreciating the challenges families have faced because of this is important in my healthcare work and our efforts at the farm. Interestingly, the percentage of their income that Americans spend on their food is very small compared to that in many other countries, and even within our own country during previous eras. We have undervalued food in terms of cost and its incredible influence on our health. On a national policy level, our country would be wise to appropriately value healthy food and the processes to produce it in sustainable ways. Instead, we have incentivized and subsidized the high production of low-quality and high-risk foods.

KS: In our world of inflation, especially because of significantly higher food prices, the opportunity to visit a pick-your-own farm provides customers an opportunity to purchase beautiful, powerful, and delicious foods at lower prices than can be found in the store if they have the luxury of making the time to put energy into the effort. Being able to join in the harvest also provides the opportunity to see the bees pollinating, smell the flowers, behold the beauty of the land, and, of course, sample before purchase. The labor costs and coordination required to harvest, wash and process, and/or transport the goods are removed from the equation, and prices reflect that. For those not yet able to make that time to enjoy the experience of the harvest, we are also able to offer a bit lower-than-market pricing, because Gardenworks Farm also boasts a beautiful gift shop and market. We call it “Save Money Pricing: You Pick,” or “Save Time Pricing: We Pick.”  For those in tight places, we hold fast to the ancient tradition of gleaning, as well as the biblical encouragement to donate the first fruits of our harvest, picked, processed, and ready to eat.

FPC: When people visit Gardenworks, what do you hope they will take away from their experience? What is one message you would like to teach the public through the farm?

MS: I hope the visitor begins to understand the dynamics of a farm (planting, harvesting, processing, and marketing). The farm is a multi-faceted business that relies on good planning, vision, energetic people, and the ability to embrace change.

RS: I like to think that a visitor, whether a first-timer or a regular customer, will enter the farm and feel they are in a unique and welcoming environment. “All Are Welcome” is the mantra of the farm, and I would like to believe that, when an individual departs, their experience has reflected this. Appreciation of the beauty of the farm landscape and building architecture dating from the 19th century to the 21st century is also of note, as many visitors ask about the history of the farm. Some visitors may recognize the family-like atmosphere exhibited by the owners, family, and staff. College-age interns, retired nurses and teachers, a Hispanic cowboy and bull rider, a horticulturist, and Meg, Rob, Kelsey, Hunter, and their children with their diverse individual backgrounds.

HS: I love when people can develop a deeper appreciation for the connection of agriculture and their health, connecting soil and farming practices to their well-being and the well-being of our land and climate at large. I want visitors to our farm to realize Food is Medicine and find a space where we empower visitors with knowledge and the confidence to bring forth exciting changes in their lifestyle patterns. I hope people feel a greater commitment to supporting local and regenerative-focused farms and attend their next doctor’s visit with the goal of removing a medicine from their list rather than requesting the one advertised during last night’s news.

KS: I hope people walk away having beheld beauty and experienced a true breath of fresh air. I hope that folks will have become aware of the practical power that is in their own hands to impact their life and legacy, their family’s health story, and their community’s story on a daily basis. Ultimately, over time, I hope people leave and come back to the farm desiring to make more time for cooking, eating, and even picking or growing real food (and flowers) from seeds to share with their family and friends. 

FPC: Rob, you are a trained landscape architect, and Kelsey, you have a degree in political science. Did either of you have any formal involvement in agriculture or health before joining the Gardenworks family? How have your experiences with Gardenworks impacted the way you think about food? 

RS:  I am a registered landscape architect with a master’s degree in planning. My thesis involved analyzing planning strategies for conserving agricultural land in the northeast. This work inspired a passion for farming and agriculture. I have also served on a land trust board whose mission is to conserve agricultural and forest lands. This work has provided insight into local farm infrastructure, farm economics, and the goal of growing locally-produced food. My experiences at Gardenworks Farm have helped provide an appreciation for locally-produced food, and, through Kelsey and Hunter’s initiatives, a greater understanding of “food as medicine.” They have been instrumental in eliminating the use of pesticides on our crops and introducing regenerative farm concepts to renew soil health.   

KS: Training in health and growing began on the job for me and involved lots of research as I became a mom to three precious little people, and their health, well-being, and nutrition were in my hands! It moved on to more education-based formal training as I became a student through eCornell’s plant-based nutrition certificate program, which covers evidence-based scientific data taught by physicians, registered dieticians, biologists, and health leaders. After stepping down from my position with a clean energy company upon the birth of our second son, I worked part-time for an organic grower in Texas, largely on the marketing side.

Working on the family farm, both growing and teaching classes, has helped me become more aware of the barriers people encounter when they consider growing, picking, and cooking their own food. These might include being unfamiliar with some of the crops, pressured schedules, and the doubt that just plain food from seeds could be delicious, filling, and have enough protein! Any increase in the daily consumption of whole-food plants will have a significant impact on health, so helping people find their favorite crops and providing approachable/delicious recipes is very important. In a world of food bloggers, sometimes it seems as though there is a ‘right’ way to prepare everything. In our own home, we’ve come to enjoy getting to eat a lot of food fresh from the fields “as is” without any fuss. With fresh-picked peppers, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, cabbage, peas, cucumbers, etc., no more than a quick roast or chop. On the other hand, a few simple magical ingredients such as cashews, nutritional yeast, flax eggs, or pureed beans can make the quickest and most elegant-seeming masterpiece!

FPC: How did you decide to expand the farm’s focus beyond agriculture and art to also include health? Please explain your perspective on the intersection between healthcare and agriculture. 

MS: Under Rob’s and my management, Gardenworks has celebrated agriculture and art for more than 30 years based on the talents of local artisans and our interests and educational background. The plan to incorporate healthcare and agriculture embraces Kelsey and Hunter’s interests and knowledge. This new focus allows the farm to move forward with additional opportunities for programming and the organic production of berries and vegetables.   

RS: The intersection of health and agriculture seems obvious; farms need to produce food in order to sustain the population. What seems different now, compared to the latter part of the 20th century, is a growing emphasis on the relationship between food and healthy living. Certain foods are linked to leading health problems including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. The impetus to use the farm as a vehicle for promoting healthy lifestyles, which I fully support, can be attributed to Hunter and Kelsey.  

HS: Kelsey and I grew passionate about the intersection of healthcare and agriculture during my medical training and our journey into parenthood, and our passion was the  foundation for our own family’s approach to health. Traditional medical education in the United States has long neglected the importance of lifestyle and preventive medicine, and has instead focused almost exclusively on procedural and pharmaceutical approaches to care. Our current national health statistics illuminate the costs of not placing more importance on preventative health. Compared to other countries across the world, we spend by far the most per capita on healthcare, and our life-expectancies have been worse than more than 40 other countries for several years in a row.

Each generation at the farm has had common ground in a sincere appreciation for this land, its beauty and potential bounty, and a responsibility for good stewardship. We all recognize that, inherent to the continued success of our farm is allowing each new generation to follow their interests and contribute their knowledge in the realm of agriculture.

KS: Throughout the long journey of his medical training, Hunter was learning to become a good doctor and I a good mom with the responsibility of caring for the daily health and nutrition of our family. We shared lots of conversations about what he was seeing in the clinic and what health issues were in the hands of his patients (and ours as parents) as opposed to the hard reality of genetics. We took the eCornell MD/PhD-led plant-based nutrition certificate program together, which showed us the hows and whys of the undeniable link between health and what we eat through presentations and intricate teachings based on decades worth of scientific studies. The program’s message is echoed in Netflix’s current hit documentary, “You Are What You Eat,” about twins with different health outcomes based on what they ate, or the many documentaries before it, ranging from Forks Over Knives to Plant Pure Nation. Genetics loads the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger. Growing our own food at home, Hunter’s working in the clinic and observing the connections between nutrition and disease, seeing them manifested in our own extended family, and always looking ahead to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel meant that an end to medical training and moving back to the farm essentially had “Health + Agriculture” written in the sky for us. We were armed with all this knowledge and passion, honored to have the opportunity to steward the family farm into its next generation, and we wanted to use our passion to empower, equip, and provide opportunities for others to learn, experience, and be changed by all that is food as medicine; food from the ground up.

With a background lobbying in Washington, DC, for the clean energy industry, I am familiar with both the importance and the challenge of policy solutions. It takes a lot of people, and a lot of individual policies, not to mention a huge amount of advocacy work, to get anything passed, and  I had the honor of advocating on behalf of pioneers, entrepreneurs, engineers, and inventors in that space. Without decades’ worth of tireless work by these pioneers, I would not have been able to get the policy makers to act. 

We envision non-profit branches of farms partnering with community-based organizations, local health clinics, and health systems to create empowerment and change within their communities. What an incredible difference it makes for families and communities across the country to be given the opportunity to have a doctor help them reduce the number of medications they need and to share the news that everyone has the power to change their health outcomes.  We love the combination of a doctor’s leadership with farm programming providing the opportunity to learn on-the-farm about the awe-inspiring health properties of plants, being encouraged not only to harvest it but also to grow, prepare, taste and heal! Everything we are doing on the farm is done with an eye toward joining with others to replicate it in communities and towns across the country and, thereby, arming future federal lobbyists and advocates with measurable scientific data to promote future food policy. Standby.

FPC: What are some of the greatest healthcare needs in the Salem, NY, area? How does Gardenworks address those needs?

HS: Similar to many rural areas, there are significant challenges around access to care, healthcare provider shortages, and limited health literacy for many. Recent decades have seen rural hospitals close, fewer physicians practicing in rural areas, and significantly increasing rates of chronic lifestyle-associated diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, while also witnessing concurrent challenges in access to healthy food and basic health education. As the poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry said, “People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.” 

In Salem and the surrounding region, we have a tremendous focus on agriculture and production for the food industry, but I want us to increase knowledge about what should be on our plates as well as how to prepare it and fuel our bodies well. Gardenworks hopes to address these needs by helping visitors see how much of their health management takes place outside the clinic and hospital and is embedded in their daily lifestyle patterns. From our Pick Your Own Healthcare fields to our classes and community potlucks, we hope to connect others with the foundational pillars of their health, especially whole-food, plant-based eating, social connection, and healthy movement at all ages.

KS: Whether in Salem or NYC, I think one of the greatest healthcare needs, at least among the middle class, is the permission and conviction to slow down, to try to be and do all things all the time, and instead to take a deep breath and prioritize some of the basics first, like eating real food, drinking enough water, breathing fresh air, and conversing in an unhurried way with those around us, as well as being thoughtful about and paving the way for those who do not have access to this opportunity. Food takes time not only to prepare and to eat but also to grow and to pick, and that “unhurriable” reality has helpful implications for our routines if we can be enticed, empowered, and equipped to ditch the fast [food] life. We are hopeful that in the Pick Your Own Healthcare Fields and through the Food for Life classes as well as our joint Empowered for Health events, we are providing a glimpse into that way of life. 

FPC: What are your goals for the farm in 2024?

MS: My goal in 2024 is to have the best growing season ever for our greenhouse crops, and to offer more diverse horticultural workshops and interesting up-to-date programming.

RS: I would like to focus on farm transition and sustainability. Determining the future of Gardenworks, which has provided financial stability and growth for the farm, is an important part of 2024 planning. 

HS: In the year ahead, I look forward to the four of us working together in our areas of passion and our shared love for the farm and community. I hope our Pick Your Own Healthcare and Berry fields introduce a growing population to healthy foods and that the bounty of our fields will fill Kelsey’s Food For Life classes, the café, and other events with disease-reversing foods that taste amazing. I hope our path toward further regenerative agriculture practices continues to improve our soil health and that we do our part to implement climate-conscious agriculture. And highly important among the above is protecting time to love and have fun with the fifth generation on the farm – who are nine, seven, and five years old – and love the frogs, cold creeks, and delicious berries and produce surrounding them.

KS:  In the Pick Your Own Healthcare Fields, determining a planned five-year crop rotation layout that is best for the soil and for the guests’ experience is a big priority for us, as well as pursuing organic certification. We are also excited to expand the flower fields with more varieties of breathtaking beauty, especially less common dahlias and zinnias, as well as increasing our variety of dried flowers and fillers. On the programming side, I am hopeful to offer a couple of full-day workshops that incorporate multiple Food for Life classes and allow our guests to enjoy a day on the farm. And we look forward to continuing to partner with community organizations like the YMCA to offer joint programming as well as our Empowered for Health Farm to Table Dinner + Lecture Event. Finally, we hope to more consistently offer a delectable plant-based entrée straight from the Healthcare Fields along with the recipe to take home at Papa’s [Rob’s] weekend café. And, of course, we will continue to welcome guests to stay at the farm’s Respite Cabin in the woods. We are constantly trying to remind ourselves that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and to prioritize breathing deeply ourselves, investing in our young family, and growing steadily.

Grew up in: 
MS: On the family farm when it was a poultry and dairy farm.
RS: I grew up in a suburban area in southern Michigan.
HS: Salem, NY
KS: Southlake, Texas

City or town you call home: 
MS: Salem, NY
RS: Salem, NY
HS: Salem, NY
KS: Salem, NY

Job title: 
MS: Co-owner of Gardenworks Farm LLC
RS: Co-owner of Gardenworks Farm LLC, manager of Mac Clan Farm Properties LLC and Mac Clan Farm Rental LLC
HS: Family Medicine and Lifestyle Medicine Board-Certified Physician and Farmer
KS: Homeschool teacher, Homemaker, Food for Life Instructor, Farmer and Purveyor of Tasteandseegardenworks (the tagline we use to describe and promote the health + agriculture specific pieces of Gardenworks: @tasteandseegardenworks)

Background and education:
MS: B.S. from Cornell University in Plant Science and an M.S. from University of Delaware through the Longwood Program
RS: BLA (Bachelor of Landscape Architecture), Michigan State University; MLA (Master of Landscape Architecture), State University of NY, College of Environmental Science and Forestry; MLA Syracuse University
HS: B.S. from United States Military Academy at West Point; 5 years as a U.S. Army Infantry Officer; M.D. from Texas A&M Health Sciences Center of Medicine; In His Image Family Medicine Residency
KS: B.A. from Texas A&M University in Political Science. Previously worked for a political consulting firm, at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Bush Administration, in Texas Governor Rick Perry’s office in Washington D.C., as Director of Government Relations for a clean energy company, and as the customer-facing representative of an organic farm in Texas. 

One word you would use to describe our food system: 
MS: Complex
RS: Unhealthy
HS: Misguided
KS: Incentivized

Food policy hero: 
MS: I really don’t have one hero. I respect all people, from 4-H leaders to teachers to parents and community leaders, who advocate for healthy food choices.
RS: Michelle Obama
HS: Michael Greger and Wendell Berry
KS: Dr. Michael Greger of and Dr. Neal Barnard at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

Your breakfast this morning:
MS: A bowl of honey nut crunch with dried cranberries and 2 percent milk, and coffee
RS: Granola, coffee, muffin
HS: Oatmeal with berries and ground flax-seed, grapefruit, nuts
KS: Tofu “egg” sandwich with avocado on a jalapeño bagel 

Favorite food: 
MS: Vegetables (garden peas, potatoes, sweet corn, beets)
RS: Thai
HS: Blueberries, Pinto Beans, Peanut Butter, Dark Chocolate, Chips and Salsa
KS: Indian cuisine, blueberries and kale from the fields (formerly cheese and more cheese)

Favorite last meal on Earth: 
MS: Mashed potatoes, grilled chicken, and tossed salad, followed by raspberry pie
RS: Thai stir-fry chicken, vegetables, and brown rice
HS: Santa Fe, NM, red chile sauce over a steaming plate of southwest-themed food
KS: Chana masala, dal tadka and palak potato curry, and then coffee, always coffee

Favorite food hangout: 
MS: Pangea’s Restaurant (chef-owned, featuring local produce/meat)
RS: Pangea’s and Thai Basil
HS: Rock Hill Bakehouse Cafe
KS: Karavali’s and Little India, both in Saratoga, NY

Food policy social media must follow:
MS: Cornell Cooperative Extension, Farm Bureau, and NPR
RS: NPR and TED Talks on food policy and issues.
HS: T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, Food Is Medicine Institute at Tufts
KS: @physicianscommittee,

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