From print broker to steward, RIT alumnus transforms farm into haven of sustainability and solitude

Taylor Zimmer partners with GIS students for ‘greener’ future at hidden gem in southern Finger Lakes

Taylor Zimmer stands near the gorge at Solitude Farmz, a 125-acre retreat located just outside of Oxford, N.Y., in the southern Finger Lakes.

Solitude Farmz, a 125-acre retreat located just outside of Oxford, N.Y., in the southern Finger Lakes, features a number of secluded walking trails that could serve to symbolize the long and winding path taken by Taylor Zimmer ’85 (printing) to become the steward of the bucolic property.

After working in his family’s small printing business upon graduation from RIT and later becoming a successful print broker for more than two decades, Zimmer is trustee today of what he passionately calls a “retreat experience for all seasons”—a five-star-rated favorite on Airbnb for people seeking to “escape the burdens of daily life, refresh their minds, and renew their souls,” he said.

“It’s a place that allows you to find insight into yourself, to acknowledge the stress caused by sensory overload, and to embrace the healing power of quiet and solitude,” he added.

Zimmer’s cousin John Taylor Gatto, together with his wife, Janet, acquired the farm property in the late 1970s—nearly two centuries after the original settlers discovered the land. The couple, who resided in Manhattan, relished the upstate property as an escape from their hectic city life, recalled Zimmer, who first visited the farm on a trip between his western Pennsylvania home and RIT in the mid-1980s.

“I pulled up to the barn at night and it was virtually dark,” said Zimmer, noting there was no running water or electricity on the property when he visited in 1984. “They cooked on camp stoves and had kerosene lamps. It was pretty primitive at the beginning. Birds were flying around the barn.”

After John Gatto was named New York State Teacher of the Year by the state education department in 1991, he abruptly resigned from his teaching position and became a leading voice in the home-schooling movement. Even while publishing several books and traveling internationally, Gatto and his wife moved forward with their plans to turn their property into a place of solitude.

When the couple’s health began to decline, however, they turned to a hesitant Zimmer to complete the transition of their vision for the property. “John appealed to me to take over the farm, but I was still working as a print broker and wasn’t really in the financial position to buy the place,” Zimmer recalled. “He told me, ‘It will make so much sense to you, when you get there.’”

Zimmer encountered a remodeled barn and a far different property on his subsequent trip to the farm. Inside the same door he was greeted back in 1984, he found a barn enclosing a beautiful home featuring bedrooms with hot tubs, two kitchens, an expansive loft, and a library with tens of thousands of books.

“He dug nine ponds, all spring fed. His goal—and this was before the environmental sustainability movement—was to grow his own plants and food and live here without any outside help,” he said.

Today, Zimmer is advancing the Gattos’ vision by partnering nature with forward-thinking ideas to enable Solitude Farmz to further evolve. A stream that flows through the property now lends itself to micro hydro-electric power generation. The installation of 48 ground-mounted solar panels is helping the property reduce its carbon footprint.

Shortly before the pandemic, Solitude Farmz began a partnership with Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) students in the Master of Architecture program. Through the partnership, students visited the farm and actively participated in site development design planning, sharing their unique perspectives and ideas for enhancing the property.

According to Julius J. Chiavaroli, an architecture professor in GIS, two different cohorts of students took on the challenge of creating a master plan for Solitude Farmz.

“This was an excellent experience for all,” Chiavaroli said. “Taylor was presented with a plethora of fresh, new ideas on what the potential was for the property and the students worked on a real project where a number of their ideas were actually implemented.”

While the pandemic has temporarily curtailed some of those ideas, Zimmer has cleared sites for future cabins and yurts to accommodate additional guests. He also has installed 11 raised garden beds and now captures rain water in barrels to use for gardens to help raise fruits and vegetables and achieve the property’s “garden to table” concept. Rainwater travels through the raised beds and continues on downstream into a natural watershed. Wood from a fallen cherry tree was made into countertops and used for window sills and the lodge’s large dining room table that seats eight.

“Everything has a second life here,” he said. “The sustainability students provided tremendous recommendations. Their forward-thinking minds really changed my perspective. They were incredible.”

Situated quietly adjacent to the McDonough State Forest and a short two miles from Bowman Lake State Park, Solitude Farmz also has become a certified monarch butterfly waystation, conserving and protecting butterfly habitats and enabling the property to host area schools and scouting organizations during the migration.

The farm is also now an exclusive Opus Peace Educator in New York state for medical caregivers, veterans, and soul injury, run primarily by Zimmer’s wife, Nancy, an intensive care nurse certified in hospice and palliative care.

And for those visitors who can’t disconnect, high-speed Internet Wi-Fi access is available anytime.

“It’s a pretty cool workstation,” Zimmer said.

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