New York Spirit
Once a nation of farmers, most of us today are far removed from
our agricultural roots and have scant grasp of what it takes to put the
food we've come to expect on our tables. —Keith Stewart
by Jessica Henderson
In 1986, Keith Stewart found himself in a job he didn't care about in a city that never sleeps. This from a man, as you'll find out, whom highly values his afternoon nap. Like so many of us, as Stewart—a project manager at a Manhattan consulting firm—approached mid-life, felt that there was something more for him than computer mapping day-in and day-out while stuck in a bleak skyscraper. More to give back to the community, but also to the natural world and land that he grew up respecting as a child in untamed New Zealand. He did something about it.
Twenty years later, life is considerably richer. And in some circles, Stewart is as famous, as well, that other Stewart. Sure, she may rule the Southampton set and instruct us as to what fork to use with which course, but it's this Stewart whose fresh organic produce from his farm in Orange County, New York that winds up on the end of the most discriminating fork. A green grocer legend as one of the longest-standing vendors at the Union Square Greenmarket, Stewart never could have predicted back in '86 how his basic yearning for a plot of land would eventually land him on the front page of The New York Times Food Section and multiple television spots for his famed Rocamble garlic; that chefs from the city's finest restaurants—including the Angelica Kitchen and Savoy—would plan their seasonal menus around his fresh produce; and that health-conscious customers would clamor three days a week from all five boroughs to stuff his mesclun mix and fresh cut herbs into their bags. Even his lovage has found a devoted following with Romanian immigrants. And those naps? Well, they're just a necessary part of the day-to-day business when you transform a former small dairy farm into a prosperous, diversified organic vegetable farm.
This summer, the former project manager, cabbie, mover and professional poker player, will add one more credit to his resume—author—with the publication of It's a Long Road to a Tomato; Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life (Marlowe & Company, $16.95) a collection of nearly 40 personal essays about life on his upstate farm, ruminating on everything from the simple joys of watching a blue heron in flight, to sustainable agriculture and the plight of the small American farm. "I like writing," says Stewart, "I like reading good writing—I'm certainly word oriented," trying to explain why he decided to add writing to his already extensive list of chores. "I just hadn't managed to put all that effort that is needed to seriously write things before." But when The Valley Table, a quarterly magazine dedicated to local food and cuisine in the Hudson Valley, asked him to pen a column for their debut issue eight years ago, Stewart's clear concise language found a welcome home in his now regular column, Locally Grown, most of which are included in this book, and he's been typing away whenever he has the rare spare moment ever since. "Luckily for me, four times a year isn't too bad."
And lucky for readers, winding a path through It's a Long Road, with Stewart's musings and his wife Flavia Bacarella's striking, rustic woodcut illustrations, a reader feels as instantly included in part of the circle of life on the pastoral farm. Over the course of your visit, you'll become acquainted with surprisingly junior high-like social interactions of his chickens and grow particularly attached to a proud white rooster, Lazarus; each of his three dogs with their distinct personalities; the rafters on which the swallows that return each April (one of 73 species of birds that call Stewart's land home) sit upon; a family of rabbits that live, hide and endlessly multiply in the long front driveway that sets the farm well off the road; how the natural beauty of the surrounding woods juts up against the carefully planned, plowed and planted fields of over 100 varieties of vegetables and herbs; and which way to weave your path through those precious fields of 50,000 garlic plants complete with their curly blooms. I regard it more than ever as the plant that defines the essence of our farm… and would give up the ninety-nine others before I would give up my garlic.
In addition, you'll find yourself under the hot sun, toiling away with the steady stream of interns who apprentice at the farm every summer, and meet the neighbors. The old Italian man, Andy Burigo who gave Stewart his first clove of garlic and urged him to plant it with a twinkle in his eye, thus setting up Stewart's greatest triumph. And the endearing Eddie Bennett, the gentle, shy dairy farmer from next door who graciously gave his novice neighbor advice that saved the farm more than once in those early years of farming ignorance. Stewart even goes so far as to invite you inside the walls of his old farmhouse, down narrow hallways and into rooms where previous generations of families have slowly left their mark through the decades—a door jam stenciled with a long-departed child's growth spurts; and proudly shows off his own addition to the manse: an upstairs office where the 62-year old will plot out future crops and write next season's essays while peering out its windows.
While farm life and it's constant upkeep—the equipment, the business side where you suddenly find yourself a marketer, retailer and manager all at once, the rising expenses of the modern farm—all equate to something quite far from the quiet, idyllic life that so many of us imagine farming to be, but it's not without it's rewards either. "Life's not all roses no matter what you do," says Stewart, a rather ironic statement coming from a farmer famous for his particular variety of the stinking rose, "I'm still the same asshole I ever was, but I feel that what I'm doing is a decent thing. Because I like the natural world, and I don't like seeing the planet get trashed, I'm on the right side of that equation in my mind." Despite its own set of hardships, "This is a much more engaging life. Plus, it gave me back a bit of my youth—it made me fitter and stronger." If not always accident proof: "Of course, I fell off a tractor yesterday so I'm limping! But this endeavor gave me a new lease on life—physically, mentally, emotionally and intellectually Farming is challenging on every level."
And readers meet the realities of many of those challenges head on with him in chapters such as "Small Farm Economics—Watching the Bottom Line" and "Sustainable Versus Organic—Who Loses?" Along with the natural elements you'd expect—deer munching on valuable crops, trying to treat insect infestation without the help of chemicals, taking a wallop from whatever extreme weather pattern hits during the relentless era of global warming—Stewart also passionately and thoughtfully outlines the man-made mess society and lawmakers have yet to clean up in order to achieve a healthier food supply, and warns of a land-hungry capitalist world that gobbles up prime farm real estate sold to the highest bidder, only to be divvied up into subdivisions and McMansions. What will become of the land if land sanctions aren't made to save such wide open spaces? "We're all enriched by land, even if we don't have a lot of contact with it in the city," he says. "It's similar to endangered cheetahs or leopards. When it's all gone, we're impoverished—even if one doesn't encounter one. Just to know these things still exist is important. When you lose all your farms in one area, you're impoverished in a very profound way. You can't turn a subdivision back into a farm. We need to find a way to save it." Stewart also forces a reader to ask why most consumers are willing to pay double for a bottle of soda—factory-made, sugar-laced water—than what we pay for a quart of milk, thereby putting hardworking dairy farmers like Eddy Bennett out of work. And most importantly, he things it's imperative for those of us that want to do our part to help regional farmers to buy local. "You want to get local in there, not just organic—most people don't realize that the food in Whole Foods could be organic as defined by some new federal standard, but that vegetable could come from Guatemala or Chile. Local is always better."
As enlightening and imperative as those issues are, it's at the farmer's market where Stewart's writing captures any New Yorker's imagination. In a tent nestled in the heart of Union Square, Stewart brings your senses alive with the colors of the harvest; perfumes the air thick with the scent of rosemary, basil and other fresh cut herbs; the tactile pleasures of picking out your bumpy squash and the brightly-colored flesh of an heirloom tomato; all while conveying the energy, the pace, the excitement of his bustling customers—and the physical toll of the 17 hour market days. "The customers that come to my stand are really wonderful people, very supportive of local organic food. They really want you to be there and prosper. It's always such a wonderful cross-section of New Yorkers—people who have a lot of money and people who don't have much at all, all colors and ethnicities. Union Square is a real melting pot in a market. And after many years, you get to know them—my wife and I went to dinner a few weeks ago when one of our customers invited us down, so it spills over into our social circle too. My customers make me feel that what I'm doing is worthwhile and appreciated."
Not bad for someone who has never saw a future in farming for himself, "In 1967, I left New Zealand to see the world, with no intention of staying away forever. By chance, I came to New York to visit a friend—it was a pretty exciting place, all the counterculture activities, I was seduced." After several jobs, a marriage, and various studies at the likes of Yale, Stewart landed in the corporate world simply as a means to pay back his student loans, but after several years, "I realized I was getting older and crankier and didn't care about what I was doing. Then the idea of getting a piece of land occurred to me—I was visiting friends in Orange County on the weekends, and finally said, 'The hell with it. I'm going to get a piece of land.' I wasn't thinking about farming—it always seemed to be a bit of a bore. I like the more natural, more primal world. Actual farming was too civilized, too much of man's imprint on nature." But when he and his then-girlfriend-now-wife Flavia stumbled upon a quaint dairy farm, "It just touched a nerve. Soon I thought, 'It wouldn't hurt to throw down some vegetables.'" And as a former city resident familiar with Greenmarket, Stewart knew exactly where to take those veggies. "It was just a lot of fun. I didn't know what I was doing yet, but I grew some stuff, carried it down in a pick-up truck and people were tremendously enthusiastic and supportive. Suddenly it seemed like I could roll with this. There was no great master plan for becoming a farmer. It just happened. Timing was good—land prices weren't what they are today and interest in local and organic food was really catching."
For a man who once thought that his life had stalled in a Manhattan skyscraper, his newly acquired land was the perfect setting to witness the circle of life take shape from the soil up. "On a farm, you're in touch with life on many different levels—not the least of which is nature. You take plenty of knocks. You don't succeed in everything, so there's a little tragedy and triumph in there. There's a fuller representation in life than being an insurance claims adjuster. We grow so many different things, have so many animals, and have stuff going on in many fronts that it's enlivening. Farming is not always secure, and in that sense it's a great metaphor for life. I want people that read this book to enjoy these stories but also sense that there's a life that is closer to nature in our hyper-civilized world, and as we move more and more away from it, realize that we're losing something of great value. I wanted to educate people on issues related to health and food and sustainability—not just on an individual level, but global. That's where I come to organic farming from."
And for the fate that led him to the Long Road to a Tomato, it seems Stewart has arrived exactly where he belongs—so don't forget to swing by Keith's Farm stand in Union Square this summer for some sugar snap peas. They're fresh. We promise.