Artful Living Profile: Duane Smith

Duane Smith grows fig trees in his own backyard, he has been growing them for years and he liked to incorporate them in his art and in his cooking.

BY: Kari Robertson

A philosopher artist who has been called “a fig whisperer.” A relentless observer of life forms searching for pieces of knowledge from which to grow a dream. A citizen scientist who brings far flung times and cultures to Northern New York through agriculture. An art educator who markets to his students with a sign in big bubble letters “COMING SOON…THE ROMAN EMPIRE!” and later seduces them, their teachers and families into creating dreams and solving problems of their own. A businessman, plant seller, relationship builder. In Duane Smith, check the following box: All of the above.

                 “It’s stone soup. I’m just throwing in my stone,” says Duane, “Only my stone’s really polished. It might attract a little attention, but ultimately that soup is going to be built by everybody…”

                When people become excited about a topic, Duane calls it “vibrating.”  That’s what he does, and wants it for others, “to get motivated, to find whatever it is in them to bring, in their lifetime, to humanity.”  The setting of art in education is uniquely positioned to help individuals to find their own problems and solutions. He watches as his students choose to work harder, ask questions, to get emotionally connected to their work. In Bloom’s Taxonomy, “synthesis” is the highest order of thinking. Duane says that is where all education should be aiming, toward combining curiosity with knowledge and vision.

                Duane Smith’s curiosity about the natural world goes back to his childhood. He grew up in the Sicilian section of Syracuse. “Dominic lived to the left and Tulio to the right and they both had big, beautiful gardens. You could see all this problem-solving going on. Tulio was really proud of his little irrigation channels. He would water it in one spot, and proudly say, ‘See, I’m done for the week!’ Neighbors handed you food and that was kind of the glue of the community. They shared their produce, Sunday homemade pasta meals.”

                Originally a biology student, Duane switched to art. “The reason that I loved art was the energy and dedication of the professors I worked with.”  Professor Mike Fox’s message was personal, that you have to fight for your freedom. People might not always like what you do (or what you draw) but you must do it! You must create from your own vision.

                In the early 2000’s, Duane was getting curious about cold weather viticulture (grape growing and wine making) here in Northern New York. This brought a new thesis question, a problem.

“Facts were not adding up in my own state. Why was there not more research into fruit growing in Northern New York? And then, I get this epiphany. Further north, in Quebec, they have dairy and they’ve got wine. And professors at Cornell are not even aware of it. So, that really pushed me forward.”

                `He began to study the microclimate and cool weather viticulture successes in Quebec and at the University of Minnesota. He also saw patterns of commonality between our area and China and Russia. No one here was thinking this way. He began to test, defining his problem, and realized it was bigger than he even imagined. He was seeing something that “apparently no one else was seeing.”

                The tiny pebble that Duane threw into the vat, around 2001, was to place an advertisement in the Pennysaver. He was looking for local people who might want to explore cold hardy viticulture. It brought only two responses. They were from Nick Surdo and Steve Conaway, who eventually began their own successful wineries in the north country. As the locals and tourists know, the winery trail has grown exponentially since then.

                Also in about 2000, Duane ran across an article about a fig grower in Connecticut, Aldo Biogiatti, who was pushing the limits of cool weather fig tree growing. Relatively exclusive to the warm climate of the Mediterranean, figs are the oldest known cultivated fruit and have been with mankind for 3,000 years. They are revered for their legendary flavors. Duane called Aldo to ask him a few questions about it. He was delighted when Aldo actually sent him an Abruzzi fig tree, which he still has. “That personal contact amped it up,” said Duane.

                Seventeen years later, Duane has two large greenhouses full of all kinds of figs named after generations of families and places of origin. “Pretty soon I’m growing a fig forest of everyone’s favorites,” he says with a laugh. The collection is the result of connections he has made with other growers and his ability to propagate new plants. Another part of his solution is three large metal tanks that are sunk underground. They keep a steady temperature. He will soon be tucking his fig library into these cozy tanks for the winter.

                “Greek nobility would open the temple walls to allow all to enjoy the feast. Sharing the Vasilica Sica kept the peace”. That the fig tree is culturally and historically significant suits Duane’s philosophy that we must study other cultures to help us to find our way.

                Often, Duane gets new samples by bartering. If you have something rare, you have bartering power. “I am like a librarian, collecting things. In this case it happens to be the fig. And then you taste them! So sweet!”  Smith is beginning to explore potential outlets for his crop. “It’s taken me this long to get them to produce on a larger scale…. And chefs want them.”

                Sono deliziosi! (They are delicious)

                Smith calls the fig growing, “An oddity, a little sliver of all the other stuff.” While he does offer fig trees to serious collectors only, his everyday business is selling other plants. They include various grapes, blueberries, currants, raspberries, rhubarb, honeyberries/haskap apple trees.

                In his quest to deal with the cold, Duane has become connected with agricultural scientists around the world. He gets emails from growers in Russia, China, Canada, looking to purchase from him–which he cannot do because of quarantine laws. However, “the very fact that Russians and Chinese correspond with me lets me know that this is pretty powerful stuff. We have valuable germ plants and there is a market for them.”

                Duane’s advice for others who want to live an artful life:

                “Be patient with yourself. Drive your own life. Other people might try to solve your problem, and by doing so, can prevent you from doing it. The solution is the way that YOU solve it, not the way someone else solves it. Stay excited about the world. Look at other cultures which are closer than we think. Go outside of your own paradigm for a while. Let yourself be delighted by experiences and discoveries that feed your soul.

Learn more at:

Visit the farm at 29250 Route 11

Evans Mills, NY  13617

The equation for this series on Artful Living in NNY: Curiosity + Passion + New Perspectives + Action = Artful Living