Katchkie Farms is a year-round Northeast Organic Farming Association-certified, organic, community-supported agriculture farm in Kinderhook, New York, that supports a catering company, Great Performances, and the Sylvia Center, which teaches children to cook and eat healthy foods at the farm and in New York City.
Founder Liz Neumark spoke to the World Tomato Society about how she grew the farm, how it benefits future generations, why green is the new black, and her very healthy tomato obsession.
World Tomato Society: Tell me about your farm in Kinderhook, New York, and the community there.
Liz Neumark: We have a farm where we welcome the community and have community programs, and we are a community CSA (community-supported agriculture).
I like to say we didn’t buy a farm—we grew a farm.
How many times do you say “OK” in a day? The genesis of “OK” is actually from Old Kinderhook, home to Martin Van Buren, our president, and the name is from the Dutch, which means “children’s corner.” It’s a stone’s throw from Hudson, the real center of commerce, and 30 minutes south of Albany. It’s not a bedroom community, but [there’s] a lot of synergy. When I purchased the land in 2004, it hadn’t been farmed in decades or maybe a century ago, as opposed to other farmland that had been used for orchards or agriculture. It was really clean—no chemicals—so we were able to get certified immediately. I like to say we didn’t buy a farm—we grew a farm.
WTS: Why did you want to buy a farm in Old Kinderhook?
LN: I’m of Russian descent, and I’ve been in the food business and hospitality all of my adult life. As we grew as a company, it’s easy to get disconnected, and I really had this notion that we should stay connected to the land and to ingredients. This was before “green was the new black” and before the whole farm and local food movement. We need to stay rooted—no pun intended. I was dreaming about it and had a personal tragedy in my life. It just made me look at the superficiality of what I do in my day job. How do I make it more meaningful? I decided to take this thing I’ve been dreaming about and make it come true.
WTS: Why do you think “green is the new black”? How did we arrive here? Is there any particular incident that you think tipped the scale and had us all questioning where our food came from and what was in it?
LN: That is a great question. The food movement has been around for several decades and perhaps was precipitated by thought leaders on the nutrition side of the food world aisle. They realized that with the dismantling of our traditional food system and the rise of powerful corporate food forces, our health was suffering. Leaders include Joan Gussow and Marion Nestle. Popular writers included Adelle Davis. They articulated the connection between what we eat and how we feel.
At the same time, food justice issues—access to affordable and healthy food—were impacting vulnerable communities. This was another stream in the emerging movement. Organizations like Just Food came on the scene in NYC, very concerned about food justice and access. Community-based organizations sprang up, getting involved in local community gardens, a true grassroots attempt to connect with local and healthy food for neighborhoods that were underserved by markets.
This movement was paralleled by the growth of the environmental movement and all its organizations and national voice. What I believe happened was that the two movements became intertwined. A large component of the environmental movement was agriculturally focused, so the preservation of farmland and the impact of agriculture on the land and water (factory farming of animals and the impact, the use of pesticides, etc.) [was significant]. Think Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, an indictment of the rise of corporate takeover of our natural resources—land, air, and water, all the building blocks of agriculture.
The joining of these movements is what brought these small movements into a truly national movement, and we can see their influence growing mainstream over the past 15 or so years.
The joining of these movements (look at NRDC—Natural Resources Defense Council—as an example of environment and food politics) is what brought these small movements into a truly national movement, and we can see their influence growing mainstream over the past 15 or so years. Think Michael Pollen and his influence in the past decade.
The more recent foodie trend has been fed by the internet. Food porn, bloggers, the ubiquitous camera at the dinner table, the obsession with chefs and food fashion—all powered by social media and the new connectivity. In this enormous food-focused population are legions of individuals who connect their love of all things food (now including farms and farmers’ markets) to the social justice element of food access.
I think the joining of the first two movements, the obsession with food and all its related categories, powered by our internet culture and the insatiable demand for new news, and the legitimate need for focusing attention on agriculture and the environment made “green is the new black” an engaging, socially conscious, newsworthy, trendsetting space.
WTS: Tell me about how the Sylvia Center plays a role.
LN: I bought the farm that I dreamed of, and it would be home to the Sylvia Center. Sylvia was my youngest child, of four, who died of a brain aneurysm in 2004. It was all very sudden. And that redirected the way that I thought about everything. I wanted to create a legacy for her. It all came together. I could bring all parts of my life together: food, education, getting involved in the community. We work with 1,500 kids a year and another 1,500 in public housing in New York. I think about the food world and this 360-degree way that we look at the community—the privileged and underprivileged. So we have this program that teaches kids how to cook.
WTS: Where does the name “Katchkie” come from?
LN: A Yiddish word for “duck” and a term of endearment. When my son was born, it just popped out of my mouth.
I promised him that I’d name a project for him.
WTS: What types of events do you produce through the Great Performances catering company?
LN: There are three main verticals: social business (weddings, lifestyle celebrations), nonprofit and fundraising work, and corporate business. From 12 people in your home to 12,000 people at an event site. So we are very diverse. We have a great staff.
WTS: What types of tomatoes do you grow?
LN: Every year, we have 10–12 varieties (e.g., Cherokee Purple, Striped German, Sunrise Bumble Bee, Celebrity Chef’s Choice) because we never really know what is going to work. In the greenhouses, we will start to have tomatoes in early June. They are all cherry tomatoes, four or five varieties, anywhere from black to yellow and pear-shaped. I’m always traveling and bringing back seeds so we can experiment with something crazy and new. Then, in the fields, we do from big beefsteak to heirlooms and cherry.
WTS: What types of products do you produce with the tomatoes that you grow?
LN: Tomato jam is the best seller. You have to find the right balance, a little sweet and savory, the right amount of ginger, allspice, sugar, organic onions, cider vinegar, tomatoes. We reformulated with about 12 different flavor profiles to come up with what was still tomato but would have a little bit of that umami, a savory and wonderful taste. It goes with eggs, vegetables, sandwiches with meat, cheese, and it’s so versatile. My favorite food is tomatoes. We also make pasta sauce, BBQ sauce, and salsa.
WTS: Are you selling to restaurants as well?
LN: Our first tomatoes will go to our CSA and then to our cafés—we supply to a dozen cafés in cultural institutions in New York City. We like to get the best fresh product out and onto people’s plates. [Those include] the Apollo, Asia Society, Hauser + Wirth, the Brooklyn Museum, and Dizzy’s Club. It’s a great outlet, and then we use them in our catering. Wonderful summer events and tomatoes should be on every single menu.
We won’t make tomato jam in the summer because it’s just too busy—a lot of our plum and excess we will freeze, and then we start the production of next year’s jam. When we know that green tomatoes aren’t going to ripen, this year we fermented them and worked them into one of the menus at the jazz club, Dizzy’s. It’s so fun to think of different ways to utilize. I personally put up 12 cases of tomatoes this year. Maybe more—there is never enough time.
One year, when we had extra, we made ketchup, and we were the first artisanal New York State ketchup. Now there are 50 of them, but we really moved away from it because the concentration and cost of organic tomatoes is so high that we had to sell it at $12 a jar to not lose money—we don’t do giant runs. I couldn’t do it. I know people do. At the end of the day, my kids just want to know, “Where is the Heinz?”
WTS: What are the ages of children you are teaching at the Sylvia Center, and what exactly is on the curriculum?
LN: The youngest group is five-year-olds through the teens. We trust them and teach them how to hold a knife properly. We want to impart skills that they can take with them, so we start with the bear claw and the tunnel.
The first thing we do is walk them through the farm. We have a two-acre children’s garden with 250 varieties of fruits, veggies, and flowers—some are edible. We show them where food comes from. Some of the kids live within five miles from a farm and have never been to one, not unlike New Yorkers who have never been to the Statue of Liberty, so we can’t judge them.
WTS: Can you share with us some of the dishes the kids are making with tomatoes?
LN: They will harvest, and we have a great open-air field house with a pizza oven and a field stove, and they start to prepare a meal. Some things they will eat raw, like salads; some they will cook; and they make soups, pasta dishes, and pizzas. It’s varying levels of complexity. Every time you think that these teenagers are so fantastic, then you work with these little kids and it’s such magic. It’s the only word that I can use. They tell you exactly what they are thinking and how they are feeling. And you hear all the stories about food in the households. Who cooks, who doesn’t. It’s so delightful and inspiring. You see which kids are afraid of bugs and who will try stuff and who won’t. Some love the nasturtium, and some freak out.
WTS: What is your favorite use for a tomato?
LN: A tomato is best eaten like an apple, if you ask me. Sometimes I feel like I just want to keep them all and not sell a single tomato and just immerse myself in a pile of tomatoes. This is how I got myself into trouble before I had the farm. I would stop at roadside stands and buy a box of seconds for $4 until I ran out of freezer space. That is how I learned how to can. The best gift that I can give anyone is a jar of tomatoes. Just take off the skin and can them. One year we had so many yellow tomatoes, I peeled and jarred them and created a new cocktail called the Sunny Mary. It’s a Bloody Mary with yellow tomato juice. The other thing I do is infuse vodka with horseradish root. So easy to do, and I use that in my Sunny Mary. When life gives you a surplus of yellow tomatoes . . .
To donate or find additional information about the Sylvia Center, please visit its website at http://sylviacenter.org/.
For additional information on New York City programming, please contact Samantha Pagan at email@example.com or 212-337-6057.
For additional information on Katchkie Farm programming, please contact Julie Cerny at Julie.firstname.lastname@example.org or 518-758-2170.