Sky High Farm: Growing for the Greater Good
Dan Colen has navigated the gutters of New York City to make art from chewing gum, flowers, dirt, confetti, and street trash, to become one of the most renowned artists in the world. After achieving international success, Dan wanted to give back to the community. With help from his childhood friend Joshua Bardfield (a public-health researcher who works for a global HIV/AIDS initiative operating in 15 countries) and farmers Jordy Rosenblum, Joey Piecuch, and Abbey Myrick, Dan created Sky High Farm, a farm just outside of Pine Plains, New York, that grows organic produce and gives it all away to food banks. We recently spoke with Dan and Joshua about the farm’s unique mission and their model of farming.
Dan, how did this project get started?
Dan: It came to be in a very fluid way. I moved onto the property to build a sculpture studio. It sounds corny, but the land started calling me. Quickly after moving onto the property, I felt a need to activate the landscape. I started talking to farmers. Jordy was the farmer who helped focus my early ideas around the project. He helped me get a better grasp of how great a need there was to get fresh, local food into underserved communities. Joey and Abbey came onto the property and worked tirelessly to help me build this up from nothing. They really had a tremendous impact on helping me create a focused plan for how the farm operates, what it grows, and the philosophies we use to develop our methods. We're working to slowly refine the vision, bring more food to the communities, and hopefully bring more of the communities to the farm.
Joshua, how did you meet Dan?
Joshua: Dan and I grew up together. We've known each other since five- or six-years old, so when he purchased the farm, we started talking. He had dreams, a very rough concept of what he wanted to do in the broader sense of using the land for the greater good. When he bought it, the fields were all shale. You dig a few inches down in the dirt and it's basically stone. There were a couple of decrepit goats that were living on the property. Slowly this idea crystallized. He could turn what was pretty inhospitable land into a working farm.
So you had to transform the property?
Joshua: Dan had this idea of transforming the property into a farm and then using the food that's produced on the farm as a means of giving back to the community, and that's where I came into the conversation. I set up meetings with the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York and The Food Bank for New York City. They came out to the farm before it was a farm. We did quite a bit of research, talked to people, and got a better understanding of where the gaps were in the food system. With food banking, in particular, there’s an excess of packaged food (cereal, canned goods, and cookies) but a shortage of fresh vegetables. We realized that there was a real gap in access to fresh, high-quality produce and meat. So that's where we started and things have sort of evolved from there.
How big is the property?
Joshua: It's a small farm. The property itself is forty acres so I would say, the animals are pastured on twenty-five acres or so then the garden is two acres and then there's the farm buildings. There's a barn, but also Dan’s studio, his house, and a metal shop on the property.
How long did it take for Sky High to start donating food?
Joshua: This is the fifth season. 2013 is when we really started making donations to the food banks.
What’s your approach of farming and agriculture?
Joshua: All vegetables and produce are grown without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Livestock are raised in an organic model and grazed using an intensive rotational management system, where the animals are routinely moved between pastures to allow other sections to ‘rest’ between grazing.
Sky High Farm delivers 35,000 meals per season.
What do you deliver to food banks?
Joshua: We grow a very wide variety of vegetables, so beans, beets, peppers, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, cucumber, eggplant, lettuce, kale, onion, peas, potatoes, radish, spinach, tomatoes... the list goes on and on! And there are fruit trees, which has been a learning curve for us because the first year there was a beetle infestation and since we don't use any chemical pesticides, they basically destroyed the fruit crop. This year we've been lucky. Every farm in the region is doing really well because of the rain and weather that we've been experiencing. In addition to the produce, the farm raises cattle, chickens, pigs, and lamb, and also has eggs from chickens that are donated as well. We have bees and produce our own honey.
Wow, that's a lot. How many people do you think Sky High feeds every year?
Joshua: In 2015, we provided about 21,000 meals to people and that's a formula that the food banks use based on the weight of the food that's donated. That number has grown substantially. I want to say, at this point, it's over 35,000 meals per season.
It must be great to see these numbers growing.
Joshua: Early on, it was really sort of unclear how the farm was going to evolve. Even for experienced farmers, farming on a new piece of land, one that hadn't been farmed, there are certain geographic challenges in terms of not only access to water but the shale in the soil. Seeing how each year the farm has grown has been incredibly rewarding for everyone involved.
And the more food you grow, the more you can give away…
Joshua: That's really the ultimate goal. I should stress that it's not only quantity, it's also the quality of the food that's produced, and I don't want to diminish the work that anyone else does because I think anyone who's working in this space is putting their heart into it. But often the fresh produce and meat donated to food banks and pantries is either near or at its expiration date. Our idea is that food equity means everyone should have access to the highest quality product. So the tomato shouldn't be a damaged tomato or a partially rotten tomato. It should be a fresh tomato that tastes great. And the same for the meat. It shouldn't be meat that's about to expire. It should be meat that's fresh. We have the opportunity to say this is local and pasture-raised. Those things are important to us, it plays into how we feel in terms of the accomplishments of the farm.
“It's really about claiming some responsibility for the world we live in and the people in it.” – Dan Colen.
Dan, what's the most rewarding part of this project for you?
Dan: The dialogues I've had with the various farmers I've worked with have been very fulfilling and so inspiring for me. The relationships I've made with the food banks and hearing how big an impact we're having so quickly has been amazing. Being drawn closer towards the landscape and the seasons, the animals. What I think is uniquely special about the project is that while its allows me to give back and share my gratitude and help others, it's also allowed me to build my own personal paradise that gives me so much at the same time. There's nothing like living on a farm, picking the veggies for dinner, witnessing the birth of piglets, or watching the young cows go for an afternoon jog.
How many people work at Sky High?
Joshua: There is one farm manager (Sam) who basically oversees the whole operation. There's a farm hand (Jeff) who works under the farm manager and then, in the summer months, basically from May until late August, early September, there are four to five interns who live and work on the farm. So, in the summer, there's six or seven people there. But outside of those summer months, it's just Sam and Jeff. In the fall and winter months, it's basically just taking care of the animals. In the spring, before the interns arrive, they get a lot of the vegetables started in the greenhouse, take care of a lot of the maintenance issues related to the farm. And then, you know, in the busiest months of the year there are more hands available.
It's unique to be dependent on the art market as a source of income. It can be so unpredictable. How do you sustain that?
Joshua: Right. So I guess there's a few ways to answer that question. Part of the goal of the farm is to be sustainable. That is a major component of our work and part of the reason why we applied and successfully received non-profit status from the IRS. As a non-profit, we have the ability to raise money to support the farm. We are pursuing funding to help to keep this mission moving forward and to take some of the pressure off of Dan. Of course that's a relatively recent development, so Dan continues to support the activities of the farm. I can only say that the expenses of the farm have basically remained the same since we started and that is intentional. We don't want to grow the farm so large where there is any concern about us not being able to maintain what we've developed. We want to see the farm thrive into the future without necessarily worrying about the pressures of the art market. So it's intentionally been kept small and grown slowly as a function of what our goals are and less to do with the art market, I guess.
Have you explored sponsorships with food companies or do you want to stay away from that?
Joshua: At first we were reluctant to get involved in any kinds of collaborations. People had come to us about events and dinners and things like that, and we were just trying to get our bearings to get a sense of what we were doing to see whether or not we would succeed. It's only been about five years and farming is totally unpredictable. Trying to build a non-profit is also unpredictable, and those two things have resulted in us growing the farm very cautiously. But I think we're at the point now where we're open to collaboration. It just has to be the right fit. I don't think there's a sort of black and white answer to the question. If the mission is aligned with our goals and objectives then we would certainly consider it. I wouldn't say no, but I would also say that we're in a unique position where we can be selective about the types of partnerships that we enter into.
What are the risks and the challenges of the kind of farming you do?
Joshua: Farming is unpredictable. There are so many unknowns: the weather, the rain, infestation from invasive plant species and insects. There are all of these things that aren’t unique to us, but that farms anywhere have to deal with. It's a challenge to be a small farm and deal with those things. And to Sam's credit, he spends a lot of time talking to other local farmers who have been working in the region for generations, picking their brains, hearing strategies that they use to address some of those issues. He participates in workshops and is learning as much as he can about the region. He has farming experience in New York State, but the last 10 or 12 years he's been living in Mexico and farming there, where the conditions are very different.
“Our idea is that food equity means everyone should have access to the highest quality product.” – Joshua Bardfield.
Are there other, similar endeavors in New York, other farms that donate to food banks?
Joshua: As far as I'm aware, Sky High is the only farm in New York, and possibly nationally, that donates absolutely everything that's produced to food banks. I saw something about a farm in North Carolina that is doing something similar, although I don't know if they sell any of their produce to offset their expenses. There's another farm in Liberty, New York that donates part of their output to the food bank, but not all of it. So in New York State, Sky High might be the only one.
What is your dream for this farm?
Dan: I think the farm can continue to grow as it has. We're able to produce more each season. We learn a lot from the food banks about what and which veggies and meats seem to work best for their clientele. Over time I'd like to crystallize this project into a blueprint we can share with others interested in sustainable local agriculture, the environment, and helping underserved communities. It's really about claiming some responsibility for the world we live in and the people in it.
Words by Dan Colen, Joshua Bardfield, and The Editors. Opening photo: Rush Jagoe.