Upon stepping out of a car at many a farm, a field-starved Brooklynite might find their gaze fixed to the green of a plain rich with crops, glistening with dew perhaps, or swaying in a gentle breeze, or sparkling just a bit as they drink in the sun.
What grabs the eye first at W. Rogowski Farm in Pine Island, New York, is the dirt. It is black and heavy, almost glinting with moisture and minerals. Its redolence fills the air, instantly recognizable as the intoxicating smell of the profound fertility of this tiny planet, hurtling through space, that we call home.
Cheryl Rogowski honors this dirt. After growing up on the farm, cultivating onions, she began to gradually transform it into something…else. Today, it’s a veritable garden of eden, brimming with a diverse symphony of vegetables, noted for their startlingly intense flavors, all grown without the touch of chemical herbicides or pesticides. This is not an easy pursuit – Cheryl’s work earned her a MacArthur Genius award, the first ever awarded to a farmer.
In search of a closer look at this dirt, we travel north to Cheryl’s farm, where the potato harvest is in full swing. We then follow some of those potatoes back to Seersucker in Carroll Gardens, where chef Rob Newton, an avid admirer of Cheryl’s work, shows them off in a simple dish designed to let those black dirt flavors shine.
From the Field – a potato field to be exact, with farmer Cheryl Rogowski…
So Cheryl, tell us about potatoes. How do you grow them? What makes them good?
Potato planting has not changed much since I was a kid. It’s a little more mechanized now. When we were little we would save a bunch of potatoes for seed. When it was time to plant, we’d sit down with paring knives and look at each potato. The new growth from a potato comes out of the little sprouts called eyes. You want to have three or four eyes on each piece of potato that goes into the ground. So a big potato might be cut into four or five pieces, a smaller one might be cut in two, and a really small one might be left whole.
We’d fill up a whole bunch of five gallon pails with potato cuttings, and walk the field, just tossing them at somewhat even intervals into the ground in rows. What’s different now is that we have a machine for planting. It’s got a hopper in front that we fill with organic chicken manure, and a hopper in back that spreads out the cuttings in rows. So it fertilizes and plants all at the same time. It takes some of the labor out of it for us, but there’s no less work, because now we just take that time saved and use it to plant more. Back then we probably only planted five acres of potatoes. Now we do fifteen, because we can.
Since we don’t use any chemicals here, the work you have to do during the growing season to keep the potatoes healthy is particularly intense. The two main concerns are weeds and pests. Keeping the weeds down is tough, since we don’t use herbicides. You have to really stay on top of them. You’ll see us out here on our hands and knees with hoes doing weed removal in all the fields to make sure everything stays clean, to give the vegetables the best chance we possibly can to thrive.
With potatoes particularly, the pest control is an enormous amount of work. The Colorado potato beetle is the biggest threat. The guys have to check the underside of every single leaf of every single potato plant in the field for egg masses and grubs. When you find eggs or a grub on a leaf, you snip that leaf and remove it from the plant. We stuff the infested leaves into old water bottles and carry them out of the field.
So you have to check every leaf of every plant, and we have fifteen acres of potatoes. Typically I would have seven or eight people working on that project and it would take about two full weeks to complete.
With potatoes, it’s also important to keep hilling the dirt up against the plants as they grow. That’s very important. It’s how you get the best yields and the best quality. We still use the same tractors and equipment my dad used when I was a kid – the same tillivators, multivators, cultivators. We use them all as much as we can, and everything else is done by hand.
When it’s time to harvest, we use a different machine – the potato digger. We drop it down off the back of the tractor and pull it through the field and it lifts the potatoes up out of the ground. We walk behind the tractor and pick up the potatoes and put them in baskets. When a basket is full, we take it over to the trailer and empty it out into a crate. When the crates are all full, we take them to market.
We grow a lot of different varieties of potatoes. They really vary in flavor and color and texture and mouthfeel. Some are better for baking, some are better for boiling, and some are better for sautéing. Some are white, some are blue, some are pink. Some are floury, some are waxy. There are a lot of variations, which is nice.
If you go back in time and look at South American, where the potato originated, the sheer number of varieties of potatoes that were cultivated there is absolutely incredible. The shapes, the colors, the textures – it’s like a jellybean jar. [laughter.] What we’re seeing today is just a small fragment of what’s out there, just a hint of the potential of what we could tap into.
Hopefully, we’ll be able to preserve the legacy of what’s out there and not lose too many varieties. We’re doing much better now, both as farmers and consumers. We’ve all come to realize and appreciate that there aren’t just a couple of types of potatoes out there, there’s so much more, and they’re all different. And that’s not just true of potatoes – it’s true of every type of thing we grow. It’s a beautiful thing.
I think that what makes our potatoes here, and all of our vegetables, really special is the soil, and the fact that we don’t use any chemicals. This area is called the black dirt region for the incredibly rich, black soil that covers the valley floors. It’s a tremendous gift of nature to us, this soil.
We’re farming the bottom of a glacial lake here. In this region there are over ten thousand acres of black dirt. It covers five townships in parts of two states, and it varies in depth from eighteen inches to three hundred plus feet. It’s basically a giant bowl of compost from all the vegetation that was alive in this region ten thousand plus years ago. As the vegetal matter fell from the hillsides down into the bottom of the lake that was once here, it decomposed and decayed and created this incredibly special rich, organic matter that we’re fortunate enough to be able to farm today to grow all kinds of things.
The soil is silky and soft. They call it muck in other places. We call it black dirt. There are no rocks, so root crops really thrive. It’s extremely rich in nutrients and in carbon and sulphur because of all the decomposed wood material in there, so our vegetables are very, very flavorful. A lot of things have a noticeable peppery quality that’s quite rare. You get a kind of vibrancy of flavor in a lot of things that you just don’t get in the same plants growing in other soils, because of the mineral content. It’s really a tremendous gift.
How did you end up farming here?
I was born out here. My mom used to get mad at me because I used to say, “I was born in the dirt.” [laughter.] She’d say, “You were not born in the dirt!” My mom’s grandfather was one of the first settlers here. He came here to grow onions. My dad’s parents came over here from Poland. They were farmers too. My dad’s side of the family traced their farming history in Poland back to the 1300s, which is pretty cool.
A lot of Polish people came to this region, and just about all of them grew onions. This was the onion producing capital of the world. My family was no different. Dad had seven brothers and sisters. They all grew up in a one room shack. The kids slept in the hayloft. They cleared the ditches and the land by hand. Dad always told stories about seeing the boys out there on the land with two man saws and horse drawn ploughs, clearing fields, when he was a kid.
So a lot of the land around here is relatively new to farming. My dad was born in 1922, and he passed in 1999. The land was being cleared when he was a boy, so you’re not talking all that long ago.
Like I said, when I was young we were no different than anyone else. Everyone was growing onions then, and we grew onions too. These fields all around us were filled with onions. You would walk outside or take a drive in the springtime and the whole valley would smell like spring onions. In autumn, the whole place would smell like autumn onions – the sweet perfume of ripe onions. I recently walked into the barn of a friend who still grows onions and I just stood there for a good while breathing it in because it smelled so good. It just took me right back to those days as a kid.
It was all about the onions. This region was the onion producing capital of the world. I was even the princess of the 1983 onion harvest festival. [laughter.]
Of course, back then we were farming conventionally. Everyone was. We were planting modern hybrid varieties of onion and we were spraying the fields with herbicides and pesticides. That’s how it was done.
Back in the eighties, we started having issues with the land. Dad would plant the onions, and they would come up picture perfect, row upon row upon row. And then they started just vanishing, disappearing, melting away into the soil. It was pretty devastating. When you’re farming one crop and you lose it, you’re losing a whole year’s income along with everything you’ve invested in planting.
We found that we had gotten a bad chemical from a chemical corporation. We had a lawsuit over that. We won some money, but nothing that can compensate for that kind of loss.
The onions just wouldn’t grow. One option someone suggested was fumigating the soil. It would have cost over six figures, and there was no guarantee that it was even going to work. We didn’t have that kind of money anyway. Another option was to quit farming. As you can see from where we are today, that actually wasn’t a real option for us. The third option we had was to change what we were doing, to start growing more things, different things.
At that time, the bars were the places where all the business around here happened. That’s where everyone went to have discussions about the market, set the prices, and get bragging rights for the earliest, best onions. One day at the bar one of our neighbors started telling my dad about the Greenmarkets down in the city. He was like, “You gotta get down to the city.”
That’s what we did. We started at the City Hall Greenmarket downtown and at the St. Marks Church Greenmarket in the East Village. That was the turning point. It allowed us to survive financially by diversifying away from just growing onions. We started growing things like beets and carrots and tomatoes, and just kept going from there – potatoes, sweet corn, cabbage…all kinds of things.
I remember it so well. On the night before going to market, we’d all be right out there by the house at ten o’clock at night washing vegetables and getting everything packed. Mom and I would jump in the white Chevy pickup before dawn and head down to the city to set up the tents and the produce.
The city Greenmarkets have become absolutely vital to us and to farmers like us. Without the markets we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.
What led to the decision transition away from the conventional approach, and toward farming without any chemical pesticides or herbicides?
It was a gradual transition. There were a lot of conversations over time, and a number of things contributed to it. There were pieces to it, and it evolved.
When I was a kid, I kept driving my father crazy because I wanted to grow all these different things. A lot of the guys who worked on the farm would come up here from Latin America, and they’d grow things like jalapenos and tomatillos to eat, since we didn’t have anything like that around here. I noticed it and I wanted to grow those things too. Everybody kept telling me, “You can’t grow jalapenos in the northeast.” People hadn’t even heard of them back then. It was always, “You can’t grow this, you can’t grow that.” I’d say, “What do you mean? The guys are growing them in their garden right over there!”
So I just stopped listening. Dad finally said, “Here, just take that field over there and go do what you want.” So I grew jalapenos and tomatillos and white pumpkins and blue pumpkins and all kinds of unusual things and everyone thought I was crazy. But I did it and I wasn’t using any chemicals, and everything did just great. That was one seed of the eventual realization that we just didn’t need to spray, that there were other ways of doing things.
There was another seed that was planted when I was a kid. At some point, my dad started taking my younger brother, who was six years younger than me, out on all the tractors with him. That made me really mad. I was the oldest and I thought I should have been the one on all the tractors. So my mom put me on her lap on one of the old tractors in front of the onion harvester and taught me to drive. After a while, my dad realized I was better on the tractors than the guys. I had the patience to go hour upon hour up and down the rows and to do it right and not take out the vegetables or onions. So I ended up being the one on the tractors all the time.
Then I started doing the granular chemicals. It was an herbicide, and you had to be careful because it burned. So I was out on the tractor with the rig, spreading that stuff around. After a while, my dad was going to put me on the spray rigs with the liquid chemicals. My mom absolutely flipped. She said, “No way, no how is my sixteen year old daughter going to be spraying those chemicals. She might want to have kids some day and I just won’t have it.”
I was furious because I wanted to be out on the tractors, doing what the guys were doing. It had never occurred to me to even think about health concerns or anything like that with spraying. I just thought, “Why in the world wouldn’t I spray?” So I think that interaction was another place in which that seed was planted. I give my mom credit for that.
So that started the conversation. My dad was both open to doing things differently and resistant to it. He’d always say, “I just don’t want the kids to have to work as hard as I did.” He grew up in a time without chemicals. The bulk of his life was spent without it. When the chemicals came along, it offered a new kind of freedom. There was a liberty in knowing you could go out there once with a tractor and spray the field rather than having to spend endless days and hours on your hands and knees weeding.
Over time I became more and more interested in trying things without the chemicals. I found it really fascinating to learn about these other ways of doing things. As my dad got older, he was happy to see someone taking things on and doing the work, even if it was being done in a different way than he had been doing them. It got easier for him with time. We’ve been completely chemical free for about twenty years now. For the last few years of his life he was able to see it working. The last thing he said to me in the hospital before he died was, “Farming’s a tough life, but you’re going to make it. You’re going to do all right.” That stays with me every day.
The conversation still never ends, either. One of my farmers, Benito, just the other day said, “Cheryl, you should really spray the ditches. The weeds are starting to cave in the banks.” I’m like, “Agggghhh! Benito!” [laughter.] I said, “No, we’ll plant grass instead. I know a couple of guys who are doing it that way. I’ll talk to them. They use a grass that only grows so high and we won’t have to worry about it and it’ll hold the banks of the ditch.” He’s like, “OK.” [laughter.]
So how does it all work? Tell us a little about how you approach farming here, and how it’s different today than it was when you were a kid.
Well, it is complicated. [laughter.] We grow a pretty big variety of things here, so it’s constant improvisation. There are many, many variables that have to be managed, and they’re always changing. It’s a natural environment, so there are a lot of things you just can’t control, like the weather. You have to work with those elements.
We do a lot of our own seed saving. Instead of buying new seeds each year, we save the seeds from the plants in the field that thrive the most to use again the following year. You’re always trying to improve the health of the crops by selecting the seeds from the healthiest plants each year. We’ve been saving our black bean seeds for nine years now. We’ve selected seeds from the plants that do best, and we now have a great seed stock that’s acclimatized to our soil, our environment. And we get a phenomenally high quality black bean crop now as a result of that.
We’re always looking at crop rotations, and being careful not to put the same family of plants in the same area year after year. Good crop rotation decreases the risk of disease and insect infestation. We’re playing hide and seek with the vegetables and the insects. We plant potatoes here in this field this year and we’ll put them on the other side of the farm the next year and hope the potato beetles don’t find them. And you also rotate crops to keep the soil healthy. Certain plants remove certain nutrients from the soil, and others replenish those nutrients, so you have to move things around to keep the soil in balance.
Companion planting is very important. There are whole charts tracking which plants do well planted next to each other and which don’t. People often speak of the Native American tradition of the three sisters approach to farming – they grew corn, beans and squash together. The corn acted as the trellis for the beans. The big, broad, low hanging squash leaves sheltered and cooled the roots of the corn. Corn requires a lot of nitrogen to grow. It takes a lot of nitrogen from the soil. The bean plant is what they call a nitrogen fixer – it adds and holds nitrogen in the soil. So by planting the right crops together, you can really improve yields, quality and soil health all at the same time.
Timing is important – picking the right time to plant and the right time to harvest. You want to plant when there’s a heavy dew, so the seeds pick up moisture to help them germinate. With harvesting, you might get up one morning and look at a field and say, “Well, it’s close, we’ll have to see what happens with the heat, sun, rain today.” By that night you make a decision, and with a lot of things, when something’s ready to be harvested, it needs to be harvested fast. The farm looks different every morning, noon and night. It’s constantly growing and changing. It’s like a wheel constantly rolling and moving and pushing forward, all driven by the land and the soil and the weather.
Then there’s the deer. We face tremendous pressure from deer here. I started looking at different methods for keeping deer out of the fields. One line of research led me to biodynamics and Rudolph Steiner. What they do is they use certain mixes of burning hides and horns. I didn’t have ready access to that sort of thing, so I tried using organic bloodmeal as a deterrent. We experimented with putting it around the carrot field. It’s something unfamiliar to the deer, so they stay away. It absolutely worked, and it’s all nitrogen, so you had the added bonus of fertilizing the soil.
It worked perfectly, until it rained. [laughter.] The rain came and pushed it all down into the soil. You can’t keep putting it more of it down because it’s expensive, and you’ll end up over-fertilizing the soil and the plants will go crazy and grow to monstrous sizes and things will start bursting on the vine. That’s what happens if you put too much nitrogen in the soil.
There’s always the weather – it might be drier one year and you’ll have to worry about irrigation, and it might be wetter the next and you’ll have a whole different set of problems.
And there’s the market. You have to be really in touch with what people want, and tastes are always changing, developing, evolving, which is a great thing. Way back when the farmers market in Warwick first started, it was on Sundays. Martha Stewart had a show on Sunday mornings on CBS. People would watch it and then come down to the farmers market looking for whatever Martha had made that morning. Now it might be Mark Bittman or someone from the Times that has the same effect.
I always used to be five years ahead of the curve. A few years ago we planted all this Rosa Bianca eggplant. It’s exquisite. They’re white with these blushed streaks on them. They’re beautiful. The flavor is stunning. I was sure they’d be a hit, but no one wanted them. So we started growing a lot less of them. This year, of course, it was the one eggplant everybody wanted! [laughter.] I missed that one but I was right on the curve with kale. So you win some and you lose some. [laughter.]
You’re always learning and always encountering new challenges. You never figure it all out, because there are so many moving parts, so many variables. You’re just always adjusting and improvising, as quickly as you can. There’s always a new discovery. You’ll have one small accomplishment and you’ll think, “Yes!” But then there are always five hundred more things that you have to figure out. It’s both overwhelming and exciting at the same time. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing than this.
… To the Fork – with chef Rob Newton at Seersucker
So Rob, how and why did you start buying produce from Cheryl?
I first found out about Cheryl’s farm a few years ago when I was cooking at Tabla and shopping at the Union Square market. I was walking by their stand one day and I noticed that incredible black dirt coating all of her potatoes and root vegetables. It was striking. I was mesmerized by the stuff.
I remember asking one of the guys working the stand about it, and he started telling me about this black dirt region where the farm is located, and how the soil there is the way it is because it’s basically ten thousand year old compost from the bottom of a prehistoric lake, and I was just amazed. I had no idea.
When I started buying produce from Cheryl what I found was that that black dirt has a pretty stunning effect on the flavor of the things that grow in it – in particular with things that have a natural sweetness, like potatoes or carrots or anything like that. It’s pretty profound on the palate to me. The flavor of a lot of her produce is very noticeably concentrated and powerful. It’s outstanding. I absolutely love it. You can taste the difference in a heartbeat.
Luckily for me, I ended up opening this place right across the street from Cheryl’s stand at the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket. I stopped by when we were getting ready to open and I started talking to her. I said, “I’m going to be opening a restaurant very soon and I’d like to buy a lot of stuff from you.” She was like, “Sure, great.” She probably hears that a hundred times a day. [laughter.] A few weeks later I showed up and was like, “OK, I’m here. Let’s do this.”
I buy a lot of things from Cheryl – potatoes, black beans, all kinds of stuff. She’s got some really cool, more unusual things too, like coriander seeds. Coriander is basically the seed of a cilantro plant. It’s one of my favorite spices, from back when I was cooking at Tabla. It’s a pretty amazing thing to be able to buy fresh coriander grown in upstate New York. Ginger too – most people don’t think about growing those sorts of things around here, but Cheryl does and she does it really well.
My point is, I love her stuff, I love her vibe. She’s a MacArthur Foundation fellow for god’s sake! She’s officially a genius! And I love what she does for the community. She grows a huge variety of things completely naturally, and she does it in a way that results in very flavorful produce of a very high quality. She holds English classes for her Latin American farmers. She has a special CSA for low income families. She’s very invested in her community and those are all reasons why I love her.
I’ll go over to the farmers market on Sunday and she’ll be sitting in the front of her truck sleeping because she’s exhausted from doing what she does so well. I want to support somebody like that. I want to be a part of something like that. We can talk sustainability until we’re blue in the face. You know how you make sustainability work? You find someone like Cheryl and you buy her stuff and you support her every which way you can.
She grows food the right way. She takes care of her workers. Her stuff is beautiful. You make all of that sustainable by buying her food. Everybody should support a farmer like her. Everybody should be a part of something like that. Cheryl’s doing really good work. It’s important work. To me, it’s an honor to be able to work with her.
So what are we making today with Cheryl’s stuff?
We’re going to do a really simple side. We’ve got some beautiful potatoes and sunchokes from the farm. Cheryl really likes dishes that combine potatoes and sunchokes together. They grow together. There’s a theory that what grows well together eats well together, and that’s something I believe. So that’s what I ‘m doing – potatoes and sunchokes.
When I first thought about what I wanted to do, my impulse was to slow cook everything in lard and fry them or something, because I’m always thinking like that. [laughter.] But these potatoes and sunchokes that grow in that black dirt are so full of flavor that I decided to do something a little simpler and cleaner to let those special qualities and flavors shine through.
So what we’re going to do is just braise them in veggie stock with garlic and thyme and chili flakes, then finish them with some butter and chives.
We’re going to use some sweet potato, some purple potatoes, rose fingerlings and sunchokes. So you’re starting with a few different flavors – the sweetness of the sweet potato, the kind of more soulful flavors of the purple potatoes and the rose fingerlings, and that little bit more green, nutty taste of the sunchoke.
We just braise all those in this nice homemade vegetable stock to let those earthy flavors come through. The garlic adds some depth. A little chili flake brings some heat, to wake your palate up to those earthy flavors from the potatoes. A little thyme, because it’s my favorite herb and it adds a little brightness. Then we add some butter and that kind of rounds everything together. I’m going to finish it with chives because it’s a really oniony thing that’s bright and sharp and herbal and earthy all at the same time and those flavors work nicely with the dish, and because Cheryl’s farm started out as an onion farm, so it makes sense in a couple different ways.
You could say it’s just a bowl of stuff from the earth, but I think it’s a nice representation of her farm right now, at this time of this season of this year. It’s a glimpse of what she’s harvesting now. It’s really, really simple, but it’s pretty damn tasty and I think it lets the flavor of those black dirt root vegetables shine through like we want them to.
Photography by Heather Phelps Lipton. All rights reserved.