It feels like five minutes ago that I first started planning and thinking about owning and operating a farm; in reality, it was 50 years ago.
In My Young Adulthood
As a young, green, chef in my early 20s, I just finished my associate’s degree and apprenticeship in culinary arts. I started to think and wonder about what my life would look like living in the country on a small farm… Actually, that’s not completely true…. let’s go back even further into my early teens.
In my early teens we were living in West Amherst, New York; a small new sub-development right on the very edge of Niagara County, a community focused on farming and agriculture. I would spend my weekend’s hunting, fishing, dirt biking or hiking. Basically, anything outside that I could do, I was doing. On my street, it was neat rows of similar houses but in the woods behind my house and a short 10th of a mile away to the next road was true farm country. Many of my friends from school were raising chickens, pigeons, pigs, and cows and most were involved in 4H. It was a weird mix. Suburbs on one side and tractors and cornfields on the other.
We were never a farming family, but most of my childhood was spent working on farms. I did everything from bailing hay to raising and slaughtering chickens and helping out with the chores that my country friends were tasked out on a daily basis.
The combination of my father‘s rigid work ethic that was continuously drilled into me with constant chores, and helping my friends with the endless farm work is what made me the man I am today. This was a major factor in building my career as a professional chef for the past 35 years.
Now we’re back to my early 20s, finishing my apprenticeship. I was ready to make my way in the world. After working only for a few years in various restaurants I started my own catering company when I was 25. I never looked back. I was fortunate to meet my wife, Kristie, around the same time. She has been my rock and my foundation ever since. We came to an understanding almost immediately in our relationship that I would do whatever it took to feed the family, and she would take care of the family. Even though running my catering businesses, restaurants, and banquet facilities consumed 100 to 120 hours a week for almost 20 years, I still feel like she worked harder. Taking care of the kids, getting them educated, and turning them into the men they have become.
10 Years Later
Ten years into my career and after having our first child we decided to move out of the city and find someplace a little bit quieter. But food service is not easy on a family, and it doesn’t generate a lot of financial resources either. We were on a very small budget when looking for a home.
After looking for months we found a small, pre-antediluvian, 1300 square-foot farmhouse. Rundown. The same fixtures and décor from the 50s but the price and setting were perfect. A creek ran right through the property surrounded by woods or farmland I could see what it could become one day if applied the work ethic instilled in me all of those years ago.
Establishing Our Homestead
The next 20 years was hard, all of our budget was dedicated to improving the Homestead. First, the pond, then the waterfall, then the 3,000 square-foot professional kitchen, the recreation building, adding 40 acres of land to the property, then landscaping, additions to the house… upgrade, upgrade, upgrade, no vacations, no time off, just constant work and evolution of the homestead.
I always knew that I would find a way to work from the Homestead. First, I used the kitchen on the property to train the chefs that worked for me in my various restaurants and food service establishments. Then I converted the building and used it to do deer processing for almost 10 years. Then it evolved again and I did home meal preparations for people trying to eat healthier. It just kept evolving.
Starting the Farm: Binksberry Hollow
About three years ago, when we were finally able to add the additional 40 acres behind the homestead, I knew I could begin building the farm proper. But what do you do when you are a first generation farmer with no experience? Study, study, study.
I worked with Cornell Cooperative extension, took endless online training and read countless books trying to decide the path the farm and Homestead would take.
After three years, we decided that there is no better way to get started then jumping in with both feet. For the past year we’ve been testing different varieties of egg laying chickens, three different systems for pastured poultry, and testing different varieties of hogs.
So many mistakes, such a steep learning curve.
One thing that I found while going through this entire process of evolving the Homestead and caring for the animals and the land is that we view things just a little bit differently than our neighbors and friends that are traditional farmers. I view everything from a chef’s perspective. Every decision for the animals is based on what the end product will become, certain hogs are raised for sausage and hams others for lard, charcuterie and butcher cuts. Chickens are no different. What will these animals become and what do I need to give them to have a comfortable life in our time together, while ending up with the best food possible.
It’s not the most cost-effective way to farm; it’s not the most efficient either, but I’m proud of the results that we are achieving. All natural, grass fed, grain finished, beef that’s dry-aged. Truly otherworldly delicious.
Chickens that are raised on locally sourced grains and minerals and fresh grass do not taste like any chicken that I’ve ever used in my food-service career or bought in any grocery store.
The different varieties of hogs are night and day different from each other and make some of the best Charcuterie and sausage I’ve ever created.
About two months before COVID-19 hit in early 2020, we added an Ag markets, USDA food processing license to our already existing Niagara County Health Dept. permit for our on farm facility. Allowing us to operate not only as a prepared food facility but also an on farm butcher shop.
Although we are at the very beginning of a new path that I hope takes me through till the end of my days, it feels like I started 50 years ago. We look forward to seeing you at the hollow.