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Since Henry Hudson took his journey from New York Harbor up the mighty river (then the North River) to present day Albany, there has been a strong connection between New York City and the Hudson Valley. The bounty of the Hudson has fed, watered and defended New York for over two hundred years. In exchange, New York City has given patronage, jobs and a consistent demand to the resources of the region.
This symbiotic relationship of supply and demand continues today, becoming more personal and more direct. We all know of the farm-to-table concept. Now the bro-mance between HV and NYC has resurrected the farm-to-city relationship that makes New York one of the food capitols of the world.
Having been raised on microwave meals, individually packaged dessert cakes and blue sports drinks, I, like many others, have grown curious about where my food comes from. As a population, the idea has spread pretty uniformly as a constant hunt to read ingredients in the grocery store, talk the butchers ear off and google what fruits and vegetables are actually in season despite their availability.
Turns out, it is a two way street. Farmers equally value where their food is going, as Georgia, a farmer at Kinderhook Farm in Columbia county, says “It’s everything to me.” Kinderhook Farm focuses on livestock, including cows, sheep and chickens. They don’t go in for the Organic certification, but focus more on pasture-raised grass-fed practices. After visiting I observed that the cattle are treated more like family pets than income. One of Kinderhook’s biggest customers are Marlow & Sons and their restaurants. This has been a long standing relationship that goes beyond buying and selling, “The chefs come up often, stay here at our Farm Stay and we share dinners together.”
Hearing about Kinderhooks’ relationship inspired me to reach out to some of the best farm-to-city restaurants in New York, where I found an unexpected trend; a lot of them have their own farms in the Hudson Valley! Blue Hill of course has its farm at Stone Barns, while the owners of Egg and Parish Hall in Brooklyn own and operate Goatfell Farm in Oak Hill, NY. Smorgas Chef owns and operates Blendheim Hill Farm and, finally, the progressive, sustainable catering company Great Performances owns Katchkie Farm in Kinderhook, NY.
I decided I must visit a few of these farms and restaurants to investigate the importance of this relationship. What I discovered was that the farmer values the relationship with the chef as much as the chef values the farmer. The chefs are able to provide valuable feedback on the quality of the food, but also inspiration and motivation to grow different and interesting varieties. Bob Walker of Katchkie Farm really enjoys seeing his food go to the end user. “Farmers markets are really fun…interacting with people. Of course having the chefs visit gets you excited and gives you direction as well.”
Katchkie Farm is small, about ten acres of useable land, so everything is done by hand including the planting and harvest. Walker has had to get creative and invent some interesting tools to help lighten the load and improve their success, including customizing his tractor to help lay the ingenious Japanese honeycomb planters they use to germinate their seeds in.
The relationship between the kitchen and the farm even seems to extend on a practical level. Great Performances delivers all of its used vegetable oil from its friers to Katchkie farm to reuse as fuel, which heats the soil beds in their greenhouse (another one of Walker’s innovations). At Blue Hill they create homemade biochar (opposed to charcoal) by compressing bones and other non-compostable organic material into usable charcoal to cook with. They then took it a step further and began curating how they grouped the material they made into char to create an added flavor when smoking foods.
As much as I try to know my farmer, Katchkie Farm tries to know who is eating their food. They do this by direct delivery to their kitchen, but also to CSAs and through their educational outreach- The Sylvia Center. The Sylvia Center was founded in 2006 by Liz Neumark, the CEO of Great Performances. This is a non-profit effort to bring children to visit the Farm, touch the soil, lean about food & where it comes from and even cook. This is an incredible way to bring people to the source at a young age and connect them with the producers that feed them.
In the end I realized that a farmer working for a large scale corporate food organization does not receive the same satisfaction as a farmer growing for someone they know and care about. How could you? I imagine its as satisfying as playing a song you wrote for an empty auditorium. I would encourage all chefs to visit the farms of their producers, all eaters to visit their farmers markets and remember to proclaim the value in this so that it becomes common place and not the novelty.