Author Archive | Abby Luby

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Spice, the Final Frontier

Nirmala Narine’s global perspective

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PHOTOGRAPHS BY PHIL MANSFIELD

Sniffi ng the golden turmeric from the large elliptical glass bottle makes your pores tingle. And it’s not the only spice in Nirmala’s Kitchen Spice Shop, a one-room, well-appointed spice emporium on her Highland farm property, that elicits a physiological response. There is the subtle sweetness from a furled cinnamon bark, the blissful scent from dried lavender—all bringing on a heady moment, exactly what spice is all about.

Tasting deepens that moment, and to Nirmala Narine, an astute and worldly epicurean, taste can be a multidimensional experience measured not just on the palate but in our bodies as a curative force, in our minds referencing a geographical point or stirring the sediment of memory. Each exotic spice in the Spice Shop has age-old healing properties still used in the far reaches of the globe, countries Narine travels to in her passionate wanderlust to trace indigenous foods to the very essence of their cultivation. She has visited over 156 countries, and these journeys often include a visit to her childhood home in Guyana, a small South American nation with strong Caribbean roots. This is where she grew up with her extended family, whose grandparents emigrated from India in the 19th century as British indentured servants. It was a childhood that taught her the bare basics of how to survive on what you could grow and how to make food more flavorful. She expands on those fundamentals in her cookbooks In Nirmala’s Kitchen: Everyday World Cuisine (Lake Isle Press; 2006) and Nirmala’s Edible Diaries (Chronicle Books; 2009), both of which read like travelogues. She has been in the food enthusiast spotlight featured in The New York Times, Bon Appétit, O: The Oprah Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, Food & Wine and making appearances on Martha Stewart, The Today Show, CNN and The CBS Early Show. Her recently published YA novel for children is Ellishiva Cinnamon and the Sixth Element.

Narine teaches the act of tasting as a springboard
from which to expand and elaborate on, gauging
subtle changes with our palates, honing in on
what’s sweet or savory, bitter or hot, like taking
apart a puzzle to study each piece.

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Nirmala Narine in her kitchen, which serves as a
staging ground for entertaining as well as instruction.

Narine speaks with a spirited energy when weaving memorable tales of her childhood into her raison d’être. Growing up in the basic, small family cottage on stilts in Guyana to becoming a known expert on global foods and spices has patterned Narine’s life in a steady stream of contrasts. “There was no electricity and the tiny kitchen had no running water,” she recalls, comparing it to her present home, a remodeled farmhouse with a spacious, sleek, state-of-the art kitchen that doubles as a cooking classroom. The adjoining dining room is where she serves her exclusive spice suppers on a long hewn table. She bought the farmhouse eight years ago; the 15-acre former dairy and rodeo farm now serves as her base for cooking classes, spice suppers and the recently opened spice shop housed in a two-story outbuilding. The farm is replete with goats, chickens (who Narine calls “my girls”) and horses, which are boarded there a few times a year. The road sign says “Nirmala’s Kitchen” and, beyond the split rail fence, the grounds are pleasantly anchored by a large horse barn at the far end and the farmhouse in the front. Framed beehive boxes sit near rows of lavender and large, elongated, raised beds, which were constructed to replace a dilapidated garage, now growing various lettuces, including callaloo, a type of Caribbean spinach. The grounds are deceptively informal for someone with such an erudite history.

“People expect to see a state-of-the-art garden, but it doesn’t work that way,” she explains. “When I was a child, we knew exactly what to grow. If we had tons and tons of rain in the previous season, we knew at a certain time of year we couldn’t start planting rice because it would oversaturate the field. Same with sugarcane, watermelon, coconuts.” In Guyana, Narine’s mother and grandmother grew rice and vegetables. “They never wanted their children to become farmers, but here I am. Farming is in my blood.”

Seeding Her Future

Newly purposed visions and ideas often tap into old childhood memories, which play like a background pedal point. When the young Narine was hungry, she knew how to grow plants like shallots to flavor her food, which took only a week or two with the proper soil and watering. Knowing that plants grew fast in the tropical climate actually helped steer the young, eight-year-old Narine toward her entrepreneurial future.

“I used to walk barefoot to school and the other girls would make fun of me, but I would never ask my parents to buy me shoes.” She knew pepper seeds sprouted quickly and the fruit would soon follow, so she planted a bunch of seeds, nurtured them, and a few weeks later she filled a large, cracked white bowl with chili peppers and walked to several villages and sold them all. With her earnings she bought a pair of flip-flops for herself and for her younger brother.

The girl had moxie, she ran with it and is running with it still.

Today, she teaches that same lesson of self-reliance to impoverished children all over the world, a goal of her nonprofit group, Nirmala Global Village Foundation. Because her regular excursions take her anywhere from India to Southeast Asia to Africa, she connects with numerous disadvantaged youngsters and teaches them how to survive. Narine went to a Nepal compound that housed girls rescued from sex trafficking and who, because of their past, were shunned by the rest of Nepalese society. “I showed these young girls how to grow marigolds in just a few weeks,” Narine explains. “They laid out a growing plan, learned when to water and kept diaries of how to do everything. They had responsibilities.” When the flowers bloomed, Narine taught the girls how to wrap the marigolds in burlap because, as she told them, “We are going to sell them.” She had the girls dress as businesswomen and took them to one of Nepal’s more famous hotels, introduced them to the manager and told him she was teaching the girls how to start a business. A deal was struck. “All of a sudden, when I looked at these girls who have been terribly abused, here they were and their faces were lit up; it was their moment to shine. They now knew how to negotiate and felt proud and empowered.” That night, brightly colored marigolds appeared on hotel guests’ pillows with notes that read: “Grown by Sita, age 10.”

Helping those less fortunate is compassion Narine learned as a youngster helping her grandfather, a sought-after Ayurvedic healer in Guyana. “We used to have sick villagers from all over coming to my grandfather, and he would prepare poultices and tonics using spices from ancient India. I would pound up the barks, leaves and roots on the masala brick. I tasted everything.” He was, as she called him, her “Payo,” and he took her under his wing, teaching her yoga when she was three and how to speak and read Sanskrit and learn the Vedic Sanskrit hymns in the Rig Veda, one of the four sacred Hindu texts or Vedas.… Read More

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A Little Empire Thinks Big

Mount Kisco plays host to
an outgrowth of concept eateries

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Salmon-Lentil Crepe, from Little Crepe Street in Mount Kisco

PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRISTINE ASHBURN

Intuition tells us to start small before going big, especially in the food business. The adage is one held by restaurant owner Bonnie Saran, who opened a string of Westchester eateries in the last six years, collectively known as the “Little Empire” of restaurants. This empire includes Little Spice Bazaar, Little Crepe Street, Little Kabab Station and Little Drunken Chef, all of which are within a stone’s throw from each other on East Main Street in Mount Kisco. There’s also the Little Mumbai Market in Pleasantville.

How Saran ended up owning all the “Littles” is a story in and of itself. She hails from a town near Mumbai, India, where her dad was in the Indian army (she often refers to herself as an army brat) and her mother cooked for various regional concession stands and local movie theaters. “We helped her every morning,” Saran recalls, “starting early around 4 a.m., preparing sandwiches and burgers to be distributed. By 10:30 we were done.” Although her college major was stage and set design, Saran had a strong entrepreneurial streak coupled with a business sense, and while still in India, she successfully promoted brands for such multinationals as General Motors, Coca- Cola, Yamaha, Pepsi and Corona. When she came to this country, she never envisioned owning a small chain of restaurants, but a serendipitous series of events led her to opening her first place, Little Kabab, in February of 2011.

“It was a fluke,” Saran says, remembering how she stopped for lunch at a small, rather dingy deli on East Main Street in Mount Kisco and noticed it was poorly run. When she learned that the place was for sale, a rush of ideas she had about the local cuisine became a flood of possibilities. “I wanted a place that would meet my own personal tastes particularly since all the takeout places around were either Chinese food or pizza. I asked myself, ‘Why not Indian food, too?’”

“There is one basic rule:
no one gets preferential treatment.
Bill Clinton gets the same chipped dish as a kid.
Everyone is welcome from the
youngest to the oldest person.”

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Owner Bonnie Saran overlooking her mini-empire

Small Wonders

Saran sold her apartment in India, purchased the deli and, with the help of two friends, began to transform what was a mere hole in the wall to a jaunty, energized space with an east-west decor, an artsy theme (possibly informed by her turn in set design) that would later replay in her other restaurants. Three months after Saran bought the deli, Little Kabab opened, seating about 14 customers.

It was early 2011 and the great recession saw folks curbing what they spent on dining out. Key to Little Kabab’s success was a low-priced takeout menu replicating the fare of food trucks in India; street food that was good and affordable. “I was always impressed by how street vendors appealed to everyone, rich and poor,” Saran says. “We have a great income disparity here, but on the street that disparity is removed by the food trucks.”

Saran knew that she had to promote a catchy brand that would reflect her new venture. The “Little” concept is reflected on the menu with “Little Bites” but also includes “Medium Bites,” “Kabab Platters” and “Station Curries.” It’s food that caters to nibblers as well as the ravenous. The $5 to $6 Bombay Frankie Roll, a longtime favorite street food in India, uses hot grilled broad wraps with an array of meats and vegan fillings topped with scrambled free-range eggs, lemon, spiced onions and mint chutney.

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A platter including Jamon + Manchego Croquetas, Smoked Salmon Open-Faced Sandwich,
Moroccan Harissa Wings, Gambas Al Ajillo (all available at Little Drunken Chef in Mount
Kisco), and an assortment of loose spices (available at Little Spice Bazaar in Mount Kisco)

“I wanted a place that would meet my
own personal tastes particularly since
all the takeout places around were either
Chinese food or pizza. I asked myself
‘Why not Indian food, too?’”

Opportunity Knocks

Just 10 months later, a photo shop two doors down from Little Kabab became vacant; Saran, needing more space to store her spices, moved in and called it the Little Spice Bazaar. “It was a really good deal,” Saran says. “But I couldn’t just use it for storage without making it profitable. It had to sustain itself.” She created a mini-marketplace selling loose teas and spices under the sign “Loose Spices with Good Character,” a nuanced nod to discerning palates. Also sold are products from India: rice, dried pulses, teas, soaps and incense. But selling these imported items alone still wasn’t going to make Little Spice Bazaar totally profitable, so Saran installed what has become a very popular juice bar whose biggest seller is the lassi, an Indian smoothie made with yogurt (made fresh on the premises), fresh fruit and spices, among other ingredients—a refreshing drink staple in India, as well as here.

By then Saran realized that something else was happening. The restaurant and juice bar was a hub resonating an easy, symbiotic relationship between her and what was becoming a very supportive Mount Kisco community. “I am very loyal to this town and find many people here are loyal to me as well.” Her style of ‘give-back’ comes every year on Thanksgiving and Memorial Day when she invites veterans and those in need to enjoy a free plate of food at her restaurants. “I do it with my heart because it’s a two-way street,” she says. “For the last five years, volunteers have showed up to help out.”

About a year after she opened Little Spice Bazaar, another small space right next door became vacant. Within 24 hours, Saran signed a lease. At that time, Viktor Solarik, a local architect, became Saran’s partner and helped open the new venue. “The place had been a cigar store and reeked of smoke, so we had to gut it completely,” says Solarik. Saran and Solarik decided the main fare would be crepes, the popular street food in France.

“I never made a crepe before in my life,” admits Saran. “But I easily tapped into this community, talked about it with my Little Kabab customers and asked for their favorite crepe recipes. The feedback was great and many sent or brought in their recipes.” After experimenting with numerous recipes for a few weeks, she felt she had arrived at the perfect batter and invited customers to try the crepes for free so she could hear what they had to say. Meanwhile the space was being reconstructed and Solarik used pictures of France for inspiration. “We came up with festive colors and natural materials like the wood floor, exposed brick, exposed beams. It’s another small space with an open kitchen and seats about 20.” Saran wanted to create a mixed bill for the menu, offering crepes that are either savory or sweet. The savory crepes range from traditional fillings to more cross-cultural crepes like chicken tikka masala and a Middle Eastern version, while sweet crepes range from butter and sugar to chocolate grilled cheese with strawberry prosecco.… Read More

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A Castle for the Cows

A Rockefeller Center for dairy

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PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRISTINE ASHBURN

Graceful stone arches and gothic traversing vaults conjure up ideas of medieval royalty. When those same architectural bastions are used in a modern dairy barn, there is a dramatic shift in perception about farming, from what it was to what it has become and to what it could be.

The new Churchtown Dairy in Claverack has one such barn, a great vaulted dome built as a stunning accent on a vast, pastoral landscape. From afar, this white spherical structure with its variegated, subdued gray roof arching up to its modest cupola holds a graceful simplicity that redefines the allure of the American farm.

“I wanted the Churchtown Dairy to be spectacular, to be beautiful,” says Abby Rockefeller, who owns the land and built the dairy. Rockefeller, part of a long line of philanthropic Rockefellers in the State of New York, is a longtime champion of sustainable agriculture and unprocessed food. “I wanted a place that would feel good for everyone, a place for people to come together and talk about the issues facing agriculture today, the good and the bad.”

Rockefeller often cites an inspiring quote from A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity, by William Coperthwaite, author and yurt-building enthusiast, which says, “Where there is no beauty there is great danger.”

FORTUNATELY THE MILK

The Churchtown Dairy is on 250 acres of what was, for years, vacant farmland, purchased by Rockefeller’s mother, Peggy, also a strong advocate for the return to tried-and-true farming methods. That purchase included another 2,500 acres of abandoned dairy farms in Columbia County. That New York dairy farmers were forced from their livelihood strongly resonated with Abby Rockefeller and, in the family tradition of preserving farmland and supporting sustainable agriculture, she established the Foundation for Agricultural Integrity in 2010, a small nonprofit group that manages and revives farmland.

“There is a different economy today that has driven milk farmers out because they can no longer afford to produce milk, and that’s not okay,” Rockefeller says. “Farms went under because deliberate pricing became a governmental policy [this is referring to the policy of government regulation setting the price of milk, rather than the competitive market]. There’s something wrong here and it goes very deep.”

The concept for the Churchtown Dairy was on the drawing board years before the first shovel hit the ground in 2012. Rockefeller hired architect and close friend Rick Anderson to help her design the farm. “Abby contacted me and said, ‘I want to build this farm. And it has to be beautiful,’” Anderson recalls. The directive was right up Anderson’s alley, who for years has traveled around the country dismantling and collecting old barns of faded beauty, especially the rare round ones. For Anderson, the opportunity to create a structure on a 250-acre parcel of open meadows was like having a large blank canvas where his imagination could take off.

Finally the vision for Churchtown Dairy was realized in 2014. Its circular barn with a main floor and a loft is the center point of the milking barn and farmhouse, the major components of the complex. Every structure was built to support biodynamic dairy farming, whose sustainable methods limit the number of cows on a farm to how many can be fed from what is grown on the farm.

“There’s always the question of scale when it comes to dairy farming,” Rockefeller explains. “If you have too many cows it throws off the whole pricing system because you need more people to run the farm. It’s that piece of the economy that has driven human beings away from farming. There has to be a balance.”

A synergistic wave seemed to ripple out from the round barn’s aura reaching the nearby Triform Camphill Community less than a mile down the road. Triform would supply the first few cows of what would become a 28-cow herd at Churchtown. There are 100 Camphill communities worldwide and 11 throughout the U.S., all practice biodynamic farming as part of their program to train adults with developmental disabilities. Triform Camphill was founded in 1979 and has about 90 residents living on its 450-acre campus that runs a working dairy farm, a bakery and has a community center, an auditorium and classrooms.

“Abby’s vision for the Churchtown Dairy was very close to what we are trying to do with our farm,” says Ben Davis, director of operations at Triform and who ran a biodynamic raw milk dairy farm for 12 years in England. “She was interested in a small, raw milk dairy with a real emphasis on the quality and health of the animals.”

When Churchtown Dairy was ready to receive cows from Triform early last spring, Davis says it was a day he will never forget. Escorting six horned bovines down the road required a portable, roped pen held by several people as they walked the cows to their new home. “I laugh when I think about it,” says Davis. “It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. Folks were singing as we walked and it was truly amazing. It was a stellar moment of how the community came together and could celebrate the simple things.”

Since last June, the herd has grown to about 28 cows with 18 new calves. In the winter, the cows reside inside the round barn where a clean layer of straw is spread on the circular floor to absorb the waste and then collected into what’s known as a bedded pack, a biodynamic practice known as the “deep litter system.” Eventually the composted straw becomes a rich fertilizer for the farmland, completing the cycle of the many sustainable practices. In the spring the cows are released to the pastures outside to graze in a rotational pattern. With the cows outside, the round barn is magically transformed into a space for human use. Placed eight inches over the hoofed turf are 70 concrete slabs weighing 300 pounds each, supported by a flat platform attached to special pipes. This transformative floor converts the round barn into a place where people can come together. Last year Rockefeller held an open house at Churchtown Dairy in May where a large crowd attended to celebrate the dairy’s official opening with food and drink, wagon rides and a performance by a bell choir. A few months later Scenic Hudson, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and protecting the Hudson Valley, held its fundraising gala there, and in September, four regional Camphill communities came to celebrate Michaelmas, a Christian feast and celebration held in late September, by performing a play in a barn that doubled as a theater in the round.

“When you have this unique and beautiful building, why would you let it sit there all summer?” says Anderson. “We have a great space for farm-related educational talks, cultural events, musical and theatrical performances.”

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“Farms went under because
deliberate pricing became
a governmental policy.

There’s something wrong here
and it goes very deep.”

ANIMAL WELFARE

Key to the Churchtown Dairy is how the cows are cared for and nurtured. In the cold month of November, Triform residents ushered the cows into the round barn, newly carpeted with hay to bed down in their wintertime home.… Read More

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Evolve or Die

Rustic intelligence at Little Ghent Farm

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Little Ghent Farm owners Mimi and Richard Beaven with two of their flock

PHOTOGRAPHS BY MEREDITH HEUER

The brown paper packaging stamped in stippled black ink says “Bread & EGGS.” Beneath that are the words “Laid in Ghent, NY.” The simple, homespun parcel is emblematic of what Little Ghent Farm owners Richard and Mimi Beaven are all about: forward-thinking 21st-century farming that embraces the old and new.

Located in Columbia County, on Snyder Road just off County Route 22, the farm’s pastoral fields stretch between wetlands and a creek before sloping up into verdant hills forested with old stone walls and long-standing hickory and oak trees. Climbing higher are points where, on a clear day, you can see the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains.

When the Beavens purchased the long-neglected, 75-acre farm in the winter of 2012, they realized that the old barns and farmhouse were beyond salvaging. “We had to imagine what a farm in 2015 and beyond looks like and what the activities might be that would make it a viable proposition,” says Richard. They began clearing large swaths of young forests and overgrown fields riddled with invasive plants. As they got a feel for the property, their philosophy on the farm’s purpose evolved. Honing in on the meadows, logging roads and hills, they envisioned raising chickens, pigs and a few beehives.

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“Our purpose here is to get the farm back to being productive again after nearly 40 years of not being so,” explains Richard. A new barn was built using reclaimed barn siding topped by a steel-gray corrugated metal roof. The barn has two sides separated by a wide drive-through, a portal to another dimension of the farm where there is a new, solidly built chicken coop.

The barn looks angular and modern, with one section built directly into the side of the hill, an old tried and true practice that provides structural support and added insulation. Their new farmhouse is perched on a nearby hill and was constructed with structural insulated panels (SIPs), known for their energy efficiency. Where the old farmhouse once stood is a high-end commercial kitchen and farm store.

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“We had to imagine what a farm
in 2015 and beyond looks like and
what the activities might be that
would make it a viable proposition.”

STORE BOUGHT

Richard and Mimi’s store, Made In Ghent, one part farm stand and one part culinary outpost, has put the Beavens’ farm on the map. They opened the store around Thanksgiving 2014 after reviving the old farm and raising a diverse population of hens, chickens, ducks and pigs. The spacious entrance way bisects the structure; one side houses the kitchen replete with stainless-steel appliances and dining area with a garage-size door that opens out onto a field and nearby stream. On the other side is the farm store lined with product-filled refrigerators and freezers; a few large blackboards with white-chalked writing lean against the wall, one lists names of people picking up bread that day. A personal touch on a smaller blackboard is Richard and Mimi’s cell phone numbers for customers to contact them, in case they are not around.

Initially they sold fresh eggs, pork and chicken, but the list has grown to include ice cream, jam, relish, granola, roasted plum sorbet, cookies, chicken liver pâté, among other seasonal items. The real crowd pleaser is Mimi’s freshly baked breads.

The store has become the Beavens’ commercial expression of their growing community. “We’re new at this but we see that part of the key is to develop new markets, find new customers,” says Richard. “Some of our customers are new to buying direct from farms, which is great.”

Of the 200 laying hens are heritage breeds with imaginative names including Speckled Sussex, Cuckoo Maran, Dark Cornish, Rhode Island Red and Silver Leghorn (to name a few). Eight months out of the year there are at least 200 hens. However, during the summer there could be as many as 400 chickens at varying stages of maturity. Depending on the time of year, the daily output is six dozen eggs, which are collected two to three times a day. In the box, the eggs are a colorful assortment of pastel blues, light khaki and creamy white. The Indian Runner ducks lay large, blue-gray eggs that Mimi says are particularly rich in antioxidants.

Beyond their main chicken coop are mobile coops. “These coops are moved every day so the chickens can get fresh grass to eat,” explains Mimi. Meat chickens are black Freedom Rangers and are raised in batches of 100. The first group is sold in August, the second in September. In warm weather the chickens roam freely outside where there is a nearby garden of sunflowers for shade. Little Ghent Farm eggs have found their way to restaurants who champion farm-to-table cuisine such as the Grazin’ restaurants in TriBeCa and Hudson and Foragers restaurant in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn.

A fenced-off wooded area is where a dozen pigs forage for shagbark hickory nuts, their hooves creating muddy pathways between trees and bushes. A feeding trough is next to a metal lean-to for shelter if the weather is bad. “This is our third year of raising free-range pigs and we raise about a dozen a year,” says Mimi. “After we slaughter them, we buy 12 more piglets and do it all over again.”

They slaughter the pigs at Eagle Bridge Custom Meat, located in Washington County. The Beavens had to get on a waiting list at Eagle Bridge, a slaughterhouse highly sought-after by small and midsize farmers that’s known for its high-quality products and Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) status.

The animals on Little Ghent Farm freely range in the fields and woods and they eat certified organic feed. Richard admits the organic feed pushes up their costs “but at the same time provides our customers with a clear picture of what our practices are and how their food is produced.” The Beavens follow AWA standards for all their laying hens, meat chickens and pigs. The AWA stamp means farm animals are sourced, raised and slaughtered according to rigorous standards, which are based on the quality of environment where animals are raised and their physical and psychological well-being, as well as consistent access to pasture for all animals.

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Mimi in the kitchen

MENTORSHIP

Although the Beavens work hard, they are relaxed and easygoing. Both Mimi and Richard are 49 and were born and raised in England. Mimi is half French and her father and grandfather were French chefs in restaurants where she worked when she was younger. “I guess that’s where I got my food thing,” she says. Mimi’s expertise in raising farm animals comes from her training in agriculture school. When she and Richard moved to Westchester County over 10 years ago, she volunteered at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

They have two teenage daughters, Martha and Meg, and a lively, two-year-old dog, Bumble, an integral part of the farm. From spring to fall, the Beavens’ 14-hour day starts at 6:30 a.m. when they release their livestock into the fields. On the weekends Mimi bakes bread and her day starts at 5 a.m.… Read More

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Fear of a Black Currant

Uber agrarian Greg Quinn

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PHOTOGRAPHS BY MEREDITH HEUER

In the small clapboard office building at Walnut Grove Farm in Staatsburg, there is a handsomely framed 2003 document brandishing a gold seal and a vintage fountain pen. The New York State Executive Chamber emblem arches over a few erudite words validated by the signature of then Governor George Pataki.

The document represents a seminal moment in the life of Greg Quinn, a black currant grower and enthusiast, because it ended a century-long ban on cultivating black currants in New York. Quinn had long crusaded to change the archaic law to give Hudson Valley growers, as well as farmers throughout the state, a much-needed economic boost. Quinn believed currants had the potential to be a $20 million business, and he thought he could grow a highly sought after fruit.

But why was this small ebony berry banned in the first place?

BAN REVERSAL

At the beginning of the 20th century, black currant bushes were plagued with a fungal disease called white pine blister rust, which killed native white pine trees. The logging industry pressured Congress to ban black currant cultivation in 1911, allowing states on the Eastern Seaboard to tailor their own version of the law.

It took 55 years to overturn the federal ban, but New York State kept its law for another 40 years until 2002, when Quinn called attention to a fungal-resistant bush newly developed by Steve McCay, expert horticulturist and agricultural educator at Cornell University. With a $200,000 state grant, Quinn and McCay confirmed there was a market demand for black currants. His dogged pursuit to get the law off the books earned him the moniker “nutty currant guy.”

“Changing laws is tricky and it involves a lot of legislators who otherwise have their own agendas,” Quinn says, recalling how the culture in Albany 13 years ago was much like it is today. “They are reluctant to put their necks out there for something that’s unproven and untried.”

However, Quinn finally caught the ear of State Senator William J. Larkin, Jr. (R.) of Cornwall-on-Hudson. He penned the bill that ended the ban—one of the rare times a bill passed unanimously in both houses. It was a triumph that catapulted Quinn into the limelight as an agrarian celebrity of sorts, lauded in major news outlets, 400 national and international newspapers, the front page of the Wall Street Journal, marketing shows and a feature in Reader’s Digest.

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Greg Quinn considers how far his currant crop has come.

TART BEGINNINGS

Quinn, 65, sports a solid physique, white hair and a close-cropped beard that frames a sanguine expression and blue eyes. He is a cross between a gentleman farmer and renaissance man compelled by literature, language and science. His numerous stories are a charmed brand of oral history. He is also a passionate devotee of growing his own food and living off the land.

Quinn calls himself a “foodie” even though his childhood bears no influence on his palate. He grew up in Connecticut in a house that doubled as a day care center where he shared his home with about 25 children. “My folks were blue collar and food was something that came out of a can. Eating was strictly for sustenance,” he explains. But that changed when he was a young military man (seemingly involved in some aspect of espionage) in the 1970s stationed near the Bavarian border in Germany as a translator.

In Europe, Quinn tasted fresh ingredients for the first time. “It was the start of my love affair with and quest to learn about food.” After his stint in the military, Quinn went on to open a restaurant in the German village of Rimbach, and black currant bushes grew in the backyard. Naturally, he experimented with black currants in his cooking. After three years overseas, Quinn sold his restaurant and returned to New York, energized to pursue a career in both cuisine and horticulture.

During the next 25 years he delved into food and gardening, taught botanical classes at the New York Botanical Gardens and assumed the television persona of the “Garden Guy” on the WNYW Fox News channel. He had three children, and since storytelling was a big part of his own childhood, he not only made it a daily regimen for his own kids, he wrote eight children’s books about nature; the first one was scooped up and published by Scholastic (The Garden in our Yard, 1995).

When he learned that half of all children in this country grow up in an urban environment, he wrote about trees in A Gift of a Tree (Scholastic, 1994), which at the time of its publication, included tree seeds and a folded cup, enabling kids to grow a plant no matter where they lived.

“I love the written word,” he says, recalling his books as well as the garden column he once wrote for local newspapers. His voice is a prominent one, not only in the botanical world but also in the farmto- table movement. In September of 2014, he gave a compelling TEDx talk about his experience as a black currant advocate at the Hudson Opera House to a packed audience.

Immediately after the New York law changed, Quinn was anxious to start his own business of growing and selling black currants. He and his partner, film producer Carolyn Blackwood, had purchased a farm in 1999. Based in Clinton, New York, Walnut Grove Farm is 145 acres anchored by an 1835 farmhouse with accompanying barns and outbuildings. Quinn got to work, as did other Hudson Valley farmers.

He purchased currant seedlings from Canada for his first harvest, knowing the crop would thrive in spite of lackluster Hudson Valley soil, which is full of clay and rocky with a lot of shale. “Currants are hardy and can grow in gravel,” says Quinn. “They need about 1,000 hours of cold each season.” In other words, they’re ideal for this region.

There are roughly 18 acres of black currant bushes flourishing at Walnut Grove Farm today, and 60,000 seedlings as well, some of which Quinn sells to other farmers. Quinn’s farm is the first commercial currant farm in the state, and he is always looking for new varieties. He is about to obtain an exclusive patent for six varieties of currants usually grown in Poland. “I’ll try them out, propagate them, watch for disease and see how they grow,” says Quinn.

fearBlkCurrant3

In his dogged pursuit to change the law, Quinn’s
frequent treks to Albany to comb the capital hallways
for any elected official who would listen, earned
him the moniker “nutty currant guy.”

THE NEW BLACK

Black currants have been popular in Europe for centuries, most notably in the British juice product Ribena, because currants are extremely rich in antioxidants and high in vitamin C. “While black currants were virtually nonexistent here, it has always been a huge industry throughout Europe, where there are about 193 different products using currants,” Quinn asserts. “In England, Halls makes a popular, black currant cough drop and Sara Lee sells a black currant cheesecake, and curiously, the box shows an American flag,” Quinn says.

Quinn labels his black currant products “CurrantC,” and the product line’s number one seller is the ready-to-drink beverage Black Currant Nectar.… Read More

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farmOn3

Farm On!

and the pursuit of young farmers

Photography by Jennifer May

“Along with farming basics, we want to be
able to teach entrepreneurial strategies
so that students can identify a market niche
for a business idea and have the tools to
grow that idea into something big.”

farmOn
Tessa Edick (center) with her next generation of young farmers

If you want to become a farmer in the 21st century, how would you do it? Reviving and maintaining the world’s oldest means of subsistence today isn’t so easy. But there are a few takers. In this era ruled by invisible, teeming micro-circuitry, taking plough to soil is a practice seeing a tangible resurgence.

The allure of small-scale farming has attracted gentlemen farmers who romanticize turning back the clock and being one with the earth, the select few making little difference to the farmer population. The serious challenge is introducing a new generation of young women and men to the life of agriculture, generating excitement and a sense of industriousness and teaching them how to stay economically viable in their farming endeavor. And there is, of course, the independent farmers’ main competition: Big Ag. America’s vast sprawl of industrial farm factories has monopolized the food industry since the end of World War II, stacking mass-produced food on supermarket shelves that is overly processed and laden with chemicals, but deceptively cheap and always in season.

Enter the local food movement. In the last few decades people have seen the importance of eating locally grown organic food and drinking milk from the dairy farm down the road. Overall, making regional produce accessible has been a boon to Hudson Valley farmers. But these farmers are a fast dwindling breed. Surveys reveal the average age today of the American farmer is 58. In 1982 it was 50. Additionally, according to a Glynwood report published in 2010, only 17% of Hudson Valley land is farmland, 10% less than it was in 2007. High school and college students are less than inspired to pursue careers in agricultural; enticing young people to farming is like wooing a sculptor to a cookie-cutter assembly line.

EMPIRE BUILDER

Stepping up to the challenge is the nonprofit foundation FarmOn! and its founder and executive director, Tessa Edick. Since its inception in 2012, FarmOn! has pledged to educate and motivate prospective young farmers, sometimes as young as school-aged students. Edick has also blazed a trail into the regional public schools, brandishing the foundation’s credo: Teach youngsters the importance of eating local to secure Hudson Valley farmers’ future economic stability.

“Agriculture hasn’t been lifted up to the noble profession it really is,” declares Edick. As the prime mover and shaker of FarmOn!, Edick is tireless and seems to contain reserves of energy that reach deep. Last year, it took her only five months to raise $1.5 million to purchase the 220-acre Empire Farm in Copake, 100 of whose acres are farmable land. The property is now being used as an educational incubator to allow students exposure to a functioning farm, solidifying the foundation’s base of operations. “Now everyone can have a direct experience of what a farm actually is,” says Edick, who last fall authored Hudson Valley Food & Farming (American Palate, 2014), a book that praises regional farmers for growing and producing fresh, nutrient-rich food that directly impacts our physical health and the health of the local economy.

Empire Farm is a 200-year-old farm formerly owned by Henry Astor, a 19th-century equine enthusiast who raised horses on the property. Of the eight structures on the farm, the main buildings are now being renovated and remodeled and the barns are being refurbished. A huge, organic victory garden will redefine the former oval-shape horse track. “The soil here has never been treated with chemicals and is like black gold,” Edick says. But the 90 acres on the adjacent hillside is a different story and requires a three-year program to cleanse the soil of residual pesticides to eventually grow certified organic produce.

“We’re now seeding with organic alfalfa seed,” says Jeremy Peele of Herondale Farm, a neighboring farm. Peele’s farm, one of the 20 regional farms that Edick has befriended, is known for its organic, grass-fed livestock. Peele has helped Edick lease out the 90 acres to a local farmer who, as part of the deal, will pay for the seed, till the land, plant and harvest the alfalfa to feed to his cows.

Edick’s office is in the roadside farm house, but major construction is in a larger building that boasts a 3,000-square-foot community room reserved for talks and special dinners, two professionally customized kitchens—one for residential use, the other an industrial kitchen for teaching—both connected by a prep room. Upstairs, the four bedrooms and four bathrooms will house students, visiting chefs and their families. “When chefs come and cook or speakers visit, we will invite them to stay for several days,” Edick explains. “This building will be particularly useful for fund-raisers, where chefs can meet the farmers and where we will bridge the urban to rural.”

JR. AG.

Casting a wide net and connecting anybody and everybody who is a part of the local food chain (we all eat so that means all of us) is Edick’s driving modus operandi. From Hudson Valley farmers and business owners to culinary celebs like chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Burke, Edick has created a widening, social latticework forming a tight weave of group support. “Community and food means building local connections that fortify the region,” she says. Contributing with “at cost” materials to renovate Empire Farm are companies such as John Deere and Benjamin Moore; local, organic seeds to plant Empire Farm’s victory garden are from Turtle Tree Seed Company of Camphill Village in Copake and the Hudson Valley Seed Library in Accord. Local wood is being used for farm renovations, large iron hinges in the main building were purchased from the local farrier Peter Buckabee of Ghent.

The vibes at Empire Farm glow with promise for a new generation of farmers. “We want to use agriculture to get kids a little more dialed in,” says Ted Hennessy, a career development specialist who has been guiding local high school students for 27 years and who advises the FarmOn! Foundation Farm Academy, a new incubator/apprenticeship program starting this summer that will offer 16- to 20-year-olds a chance to live on Empire Farm for a semester and receive a direct hands-on experience they can relate to in the classroom.

“We’d like to engage young people in productive pathways in the local food system. We have a niche business here in Columbia County, a robust market where there’s a demand for fresh produce from restaurants in New York City,” adds Hennessy. He believes that teens can learn how to develop a proven business model through their exposure to farming at the academy, even if they don’t want to plunge headlong into an agricultural pursuit. “Along with farming basics, we want to be able to teach entrepreneurial strategies so that students can identify a market niche for a business idea and have the tools to grow that idea into something big. At the very least, they will learn how to start a business that could have countless benefits for the local economy.”

FarmOn!… Read More

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