Living the green life!

Organic farming is a way of life for Jon Harkness and family.

Author: By Deborah J. Botti
Posted: Monday, December 29, 2008

Jonathan M. Harkness first began dabbling in energy-efficient old homes when he was just 11. “I built a replica of an old post-and-beam salt-box house,” he says, onto which he wired on solar cells from one of his Radio Shack kits.

He didn’t know then that he was destined to live a life – and run a business – that reflect the principles that define him. Jonathan is not “green” because it’s trendy. He’s disappointed by the greed and waste resulting from wanton consumerism, and begs people to conserve energy and to think about their carbon footprints and landfill contributions.

He and his wife, Vicki, and son Joshua live in a 1740s farmhouse – an ongoing renovation project that is the heart of Perry Hill Farm – in Amenia in Dutchess County. “Restoring old homes – rather than demolishing and hauling those pieces saturated with humanity and cultured history off to a landfill – is probably one of the ‘greenest’ things you can do,” he says.

Not only do their lives mirror the simpler days of yesteryear, but their farm is a thriving lesson in sustainable living. Neither Jonathan nor Vicki realized then that their corporate ladders would ultimately lead them home.

“I grew up in a lot of places,” says this 47-year-old minister’s son, who considers Cornwall his “hometown” because the family spent more time there than anywhere else in the Northeast. He spent some time at Massa-chusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he was first accepted, while still a high-school student in Leominster, MA. It was there he sharpened his interest in architecture.

Once he headed off to college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, he decided to pursue a dual major – electrical and mechanical engineering – even though he remained intrigued by the structure and space of buildings. During his senior year an advisor urged him to take advantage of a self-directed course of study in England.

Jonathan, who had no problem with self-motivation, used the opportunity to study science and English history at Cambridge University – helping to hone the Renaissance man that he is today. He returned to his last semester at RPI and a co-op position with Johnson Controls.

“They started me in energy work,” he says. “It evolved into examining the energy efficiency of fairly large buildings. I had an edge because of my earlier introduction into architecture – I understood the flow of people and their interaction with the structure’s space.” He had several employment offers upon graduation. However, it was Johnson’s offer that he accepted, as it meshed well with his interest in buildings, technology and energy.

He rented a room in a house-share in Granite Springs, near Yorktown Heights, in Westchester County.
It was there he met Vicki, who graduated from West Virginia Institute of Technology with a degree in printing management. Vicki grew up in suburban Charleston and was the daughter of parents who were big lovers of the outdoors.

She received an offer from Readers Digest, an offer that prompted her to pack her bags and head north. She had landed in the same house-share for professionals that Jonathan did. Vicki and Jonathan quickly became good friends. Johnson kept Jonathan busy with energy-management projects throughout the Northeast.

He improved the energy efficiency of hospitals and schools – even the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan – offering money-saving and environmentally-conscious solutions. Having proved himself, he was relocated to a position with more responsibility in Rhode Island. He was the youngest branch manager Johnson Controls ever had.

Shortly after taking this new position in 1988, Jonathan and Vicki were married. After being relocated to Massachusetts later that year, the couple purchased an 18th century home that they began renovating – skills that they would learn and employ again with their current home.

Seven years after they were married, Jonathan was made an offer he couldn’t refuse by a subsidiary of Kansas City Power and Light – although its CEO knew that he wouldn’t have Jonathan in his employ for more than a year or two before he ventured out on his own.

Jonathan knew this was an important transitional step, but before he took the leap, he went on a solo coast-to-coast bicycling trip first. “I left in 1995, after Thanksgiving. Vicki and my parents plotted my progress on a big map,” Jonathan says. “For me, this was about living in a ‘ride-west-young-man’ moment.”

Forty-one days later, this romantic realized his dream. Proving to himself that he was not caught in some corporate machinery, he was ready to accept his next, and as predicted short-term, challenge.

Using his skills to start a new business
In 1997, armed with all he was and all he had learned, Jonathan was ready to move out onto his own, and EBM Consulting Services, Inc., based in Millbrook, was born. “Our mission has evolved,” says Jonathan of EBM’s role as a performance contractor, whose original role it was to help save companies’ energy dollars.

EBM – named for the Harknesses’ first three dogs, Edgar, Beau and Missy – is contracted to do an energy audit for its commercial customers and make recommendations – be it cogeneration, boiler replacements, HVAC upgrades, windows, lighting, insulation or something far more technical, such as outsourced utility procurement contracts.

“We look for ways to maximize energy savings, as well as environmental benefits whenever possible,” says Jonathan. “We replace motors and pumps with high-efficiency units. We have energy management systems that anticipate building occupancy and weather conditions.

“Many of the technologies that we implement have well-established track records,” he continues. “For instance, everyone thinks geothermal technology [where the higher temperatures below the Earth’s surface are used to heat buildings] is new technology,” he says. “We’ve been involved with that
for 20 years.”

As Jonathan was immersed in getting EBM up and running, Vicki was running back and forth to Manhattan. She left her position with Readers Digest and quickly began multi-tasking her way up
the American Lung Association’s corporate ladder.

Then the events Sept. 11, 2001 unfolded. “I realized that there was more to life. I started thinking about if Jonathan was taken away,” she says. “I would have many regrets.” If there were any doubts, hesitations or misgivings, their son Joshua’s birth in 2003 changed everything for both of them. “There’s so much more to life,” Vicki says.

At the core of their life is their family – including the rescued farm animals, cats and dogs. Having resigned from her job in Manhattan in late 2001, Vicki now holds the title of president and CEO of EBM, with much of her involvement there behind the scenes so she is up front and center at home. Jonathan is vice president and chief operating officer.

Jonathan and Vicki take turns in the barn at 6am, feeding the animals while Joshua sleeps. “We consume the eggs from our chickens, the raw milk from our cow. We harvest the wool from our sheep, but have it spun commercially,” says Jonathan. “Vicki is knitting wool from our own animals. … Last year, a friend knitted a hat and sweater for Joshua. He ran to the barn and yelled, ‘Thank you, sheep, for my Christmas present!’”

Today, 15 of their farm’s 59 acres are set aside for pasture and growing food. The other acreage offers plenty of opportunity for hiking and horseback riding. “Our animals eat local organic grain. We use their poop and bedding in the garden,” she says. “I go to farmers’ markets, co-ops and buy organic items such as kidneys beans and coffee in bulk from the United Foods Buying Club. I’m making my own vanilla from vanilla beans. I use a supermarket rarely … I get anxious around all that ‘stuff.’ Where is it going and where did it come from?”

Perhaps the intense focus on home and hearth has subliminally affected EBM’s mission, too. Jonathan was drawn to commercial work. He liked the black-and-white decisions that boards of directors would make. But many folks that came through their farm on the National Green Building Tour that the Harknesses hosted asked for help.

“Initially, I thought that homeowners could present a new set of issues, with which we did not need to deal in light of our large institutional customers. However, their insistence that residential owners really needed help of our caliber convinced me to offer services to homeowners as well,” says Jonathan. “I could understand their concerns, as I wouldn’t want somebody putting solar panels on my 1700s farmhouse, either. … But because homes use 20 percent of the energy, the carbon footprints of homeowners will have to be part of the solution.”

Deborah Botti is a freelance writer living in Orange County. She is a regular contributor to Hudson Valley Life magazine.

Categories: Feature Stories,Going Green

Tags: Farming,Organic,going green,energy,EBM,waste,conserving energy

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