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Life Happens Around Food: 10 Years at Katchkie Farm | Great Performances

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JUN
29
2017
Life Happens Around Food:  10 Years at Katchkie Farm
Katchkie Farm
by Liz Neumark


It’s hard to believe that June 2007 was the opening season for Katchkie Farm. Where to begin to frame an overview of the 10 years that have zoomed by? Does it begin with the expression, ‘Ignorance is bliss’? Indeed.

I had been dreaming about farms for years. A CSA junkie since the mid-‘90s, I could never get my fix of tomatoes. I fell in love with organic produce after tasting the depth of flavor in organic garlic and potatoes grown at Ryder Farm by Fuad Aziz. By 2000, I had spent 20 years professionally feeding countless New Yorkers untold numbers of hors d’oeuvres and participated in innumerable lifecycle celebrations - all measured by a jillion pigs in a blanket. Connecting to local agriculture – the core of our culinary soul – seemed like an imperative. Real food and the land it’s grown on are what builds a meal. Learning this keeps us grounded. 

In 2004 my youngest child, Sylvia, died suddenly of a brain aneurism. I thought I wouldn’t be able to return to the catering world until one morning I woke up with a vision: Find and buy the farm which would be home to The Sylvia Center, an organization that would teach children who were disconnected from healthy food how to cook. Change lives.  Give my beautiful daughter the legacy she would have created had she lived.  A yearlong search brought us to a 60-acre parcel in Kinderhook, NY. 

Why these 60 acres? The property had beautiful old woods, a great big pond, open fields, sloping lawns, a house for a farmer and best of all, it was affordable. The commute down the Taconic was perfect for returning to NYC at weekend’s end. The neighboring farmer introduced me to the man who would make this dream come true.

Bob Walker came into my life in October of 2006 and together, with support from my colleagues at Great Performances and my family, we grew a farm. Bob will be the first to recall the high-water table, the challenging soil, the complete lack of infrastructure and my naiveté. I will always remember his complete willingness to go on an adventure with a novice dreamer city girl, his embrace of the dual mission nature of the project and his candor. “The land is a piece of s***,” he told me. Nonetheless, he made it work. 

Now that things were growing, what came next? The big idea was that everything we grew would go to straight to the GP Kitchen and onto the plates of our clients. Reality hit hard. Peak growing season was August, a dead time in the catering world. Customers planned menus months out – how could we guarantee that our harvest would match the menus? Also, this was before the demand for local produce was fashionable. Exotic produce, no matter how far away it came from, was favored over great tasting local veggies. Kale had yet to be discovered and we needed a Plan B.

We started Year 2 with a small 25 person CSA at a TriBeCa community center. It doubled the following year, again the following year and the year after that. We pioneered the Workplace CSA in NYC, building on our GP relationships and cultivating the demand for delivery of weekly vegetable shares to office workers all over town. Today, we have over 750 members. The CSA was the key to financial sustainability for the farm.

Today, the GP culinary team has completely embraced Katchkie Farm. They love what Bob grows for them, and the produce is on the GP menu and at our cafes around town. The chefs come up to the farm to help out, connect to the land, refresh and get inspired. And they are fairly resourceful. One year, we had a long row of mature dandelion greens which weren’t appropriate for our CSA members. The GP kitchen took it and made amazing Dandelion Pesto that was spread on sandwiches for months, to critical acclaim.

As far as infrastructure, each year had its list of projects conceptualized and executed by Bob. From laying thousands of feet of underground drainage pipes and then irrigation; to the construction of three greenhouses with radiant heat and a sophisticated system (running on GP’s recycled cooking oil), the barn, washroom, walk in fridges, office, crew room, wells for water and a workshop (to rival Santa’s); fencing the property, building the open air fieldhouse kitchen for the Sylvia Center, laying out farm roads and amassing the wide range of equipment required for farming, not to mention fighting back the decades old brambles that had established itself in the fields (and winning) and the never-ending harvest of rocks --- it has been 10 years of nonstop work for Bob and the Katchkie crew. 

In ten years of Katchkie, we have welcomed close to 10,000 children into the learning garden and prepared meals together. We will have hosted 10 years of dinner in our field as of this July and remember how in the early years, it was a completely novel idea. We have lived through drought and pouring rains, hail the size of golf balls, bugs of multiple varieties, delightful bumper crops, assorted livestock (llamas, pigs, sheep, goats and chicken), brilliant sunflowers, several farm crew babies, chicken-loving fox families and relentless groundhogs, sunburns and tick bites, Bob’s eternal lists and incredible inventions – more fun, challenges, successes, hard work and emotions than I ever imagined. 

No doubt, the years ahead will be a blend of new experiences and familiar patterns. We will be ready – or as ready as one can be juggling Mother Nature and human folly. 


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