Archive for December, 2008

Great Performances: Sally

This (much belated) post is one of a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market. Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th. The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.

We met in Great Performances’ cafe, in the morning, before it was open.  I think Sally was grateful for a quiet, calm place in which to explain the business she so often has to pitch in a few seconds, behind the table at a farmers market or the bar at a large fundraiser.  The catering company, farm, and non-profit organization known as Great Performances is a multi-faceted entity that seeks to employ artists and dancers who are working towards their artistic career.  The task of explaining this particular company in three seconds strikes me too as daunting, though I’ve seen Sally do it.  I was grateful we had a little more time to talk, and she was eager to provide a glowing, more drawn-out description.

rentals_lrgIn 1979, Great Performances was established by the struggling young photographer Liz Neumark.  It began as a staffing company for women in the arts, including Liz, to sustain themselves in New York City.  When the catering industry took off in the 1980s, Great Performances launched full-on catering services, partnering in particular with the city’s cultural institutions.  Their business has only grown.  Today, they cater events images-2in venues throughout New York, from fundraisers in their own space on Hudson Street to events in the ballroom at The Plaza Hotel.  They also run their own staffing company, and manage the food service in several of New York’s arts-related institutions, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Jazz at Lincoln Center.  Their menus draw from “New American cuisine,” and emphasize seasonal products local to the Hudson Valley.

images-1That’s one part of what Great Performances has become.  Part two:  In 2006, Liz bought land in upstate New York, and the catering company became the first in the nation to own and operate a farm.  Katchkie Farm occupies sixty acres in Kinderhook, New York, in Columbia County.  Now only in its second growing season, the farm now includes three greenhouses and a chicken coop.  About twenty-five percent of Great Performances’ catered events include some Katchkie produce.  While the main purpose of the farm is to provide produce for their catering, Great Performances’ catering clients must request the “local” menu to receive Katchkie products.  “A lot more clients now are asking for the ‘local route,’” Sally said.  “It’s a little more expensive, but primarily it requires trust and faith on the part of our client to ask for a whole menu from within 100 miles.”  During eight weeks over the past summer, the farm also services the Rockefeller Center Greenmarket, where, Sally mentioned, “we have to explain what ‘greenmarket’ is.”  Touristy as the market may be, the stand in Rockefeller center has gained Great Performances a growing membership in their “corporate CSA.”  Employees of a nearby corporation either receive weekly CSA shares of Katchkie produce, or coupons for $5-$10 bags of vegetables per week.


The third component of Great Performances is the Sylvia Center, a non-profit organization that works with neighborhoods and children at risk for food-related diseases.  For the past three years, the center has worked with the students at P.S. 180 in Harlem, who help run a farmers market outside the school for community service credit.  Other Sylvia Center programs involve bringing NYC students to local city kitchens and up to the farm, always with a farm-to-table and nutrition focus.  “Some kids who go up [to the farm] have never seen a farm!” Sally mentioned.  “I’ve seen them react the realization that their food is a plant (‘Carrots?! From the ground?!’)  We introduce them to the way their food is grown, teach them about farmers markets, and cook with them using our produce.”

Just as it has from the beginning, Great Performances hires individuals who are particularly involved in the arts.  The employees have particularly flexible hours, allowing for days they need to audition, or nights when they’re performing.  They can leave Great Performances for an extended period of time, with the option of coming back (when the tour ends, or show closes).  Sometimes, they come back to help even after their careers have taken off!  Marcia Gay Harden once worked for Great Performances as a cater waitress, and now, after winning an Oscar for her performance in Pollock, she will be judging the scholarship contest held by the Sylvia Center for the students of P.S. 180.

A dance and Spanish major in college, in her first year at Great Performances, Sally was not the first to tell me that Great Performances is a wonderful place to work, and a gift to many struggling artists, actors, and dancers making their way in New York.  Those who work there are constantly learning more about the food industry while not being forced to abandon their ambitions elsewhere.  The company brilliantly connects the dots, between economic sustainability, human health, and environmental sustainability, in a way we can only hope to see more of in the future.

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Taking Up Toolbelts

This article is cross-posted on Civil Eats, a site that explores the connections between the food system and the environment, the politics of consumer choices, and the actions we can take to change the way we think about food everyday.

There are few moments more powerful and thrilling for a young person than those in which we learn a skill that we want to and will use for the rest of our lives.  Or those first days when we truly realistically consider our futures – just our next five years, if not more – and realize (or think very much) that we know what it is that will make us happy.  Or that last second we have before feeling we are in that future, that brief moment of conviction that we have never in our lives been less prepared nor more determined.

The Young Farmers Conference last weekend, at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, ran the participants on a marathon of such moments.  There were the inspiring speeches and the valuable networking one expects at a conference, and the beautiful meals one expects at Stone Barns, but mainly it was a time to take notes, to ask questions, to observe, and to listen.  Not only were we inspired, we were productive.

We learned how to begin doing many things: raising chickens, breeding swine, growing vegetables in a greenhouse.  We were told how to find land, how to write a business plan for a farm, how to dress up our products so they sell well at market.  Many of us who came to this conference were not farmers.  And most of us have so much to learn about farming that we might have seemed comical to the more experienced.   But the presenters – the farmers, growers, breeders, foresters – brought their skills down to our level, to square one, and shared an immense amount of knowledge in hardly eight hours of workshops.

2796812832_8bc2f155fbFour-Season Growing.  Jack taught us how to calculate the finances of a greenhouse, to know the value of each square foot of soil.  He described the family rotations – six families, each including several varieties of plants – and the number of days it takes for arugula to grow in summer versus winter.  He taught us how he uses the row covers, from what material, at what time of day.  He told us what the temperature should be for certain levels of productivity, what sort of heaters he uses, and how their release of CO2 at dawn catalyzes photosynthesis in that brief, coldest, last moment of the night.  He told us exactly how much money he’d spent on propane, using box heaters vs. air heaters.  He told us how long to wait for the first cut of greens, the babies, and for the second cut, a profitable premium product.  He told us of the compost system and the prop house, the soil and the seeds.  He told us how surely one keeps loyal customers with a 365-day growing season.

147693691_cbxzr-sBeginning Poultry.  Craig told us what to look for in a hatchery, what to expect in the box when the chicks arrive at the post office, not to go grocery shopping and forget that our box of chicks is in the back of our car.  He taught us how to set up the brooding pen, how the chicks slip on newspaper, how to build the space to keep out rats and raccoons.  He told us what to consider when buying meat chickens (taste, consumer demand, growth-time, cost of production), and showed us the advantages of certain pens, fences, and pastures.  He was clear about why he would choose one bird or feed or pen or another, often simply explaining his personal preference.  “I use the term Animal Husbandry intentionally,” he said, “because this IS a marriage, of sorts.  You really have to like your animals – how they look, and act, and treat you.  You have to get to know them, and like living with them.”

2644169534_b7e4b09c4c Slaughterhouse Initiative.  Judy explained her position at the head of Glynwood Center, a conference center and working farm that has identified a problem in the lack of slaughterhouses in and around Putnam County.  She presented the mobile slaughterhouse project, and spoke of the bureaucracy such a project faces, the services it would provide, and the demonstrable demand for these services she has found among her community.  The conversation jockeyed from urban farmer to historian to farmer-educator to friend-of-a-butcher; from accusations of bureaucratic pandering to business plan proposals, from reminders of top-hat butchers in early American markets to a polemic on the seismic shift in mentality that must take place before slaughterhouses and butcher shops are ever expected to produce anything of high quality.  We learned that we have a lot to learn about meat.

My general expectations for the conference were that it would confirm my dislike of the wealthy nature of Stone Barns, that I would meet few true farmers and more farmer wannabes (like myself), and that it would be like most conferences, where energy is high, productivity is low, and the conversations between workshops are the most valuable part of the experience.  Those conversations were valuable, but so were the workshops, and so was the energy, and so was the adjustment of my view of Stone Barns.  However the farm-restaurant handles it’s finances, the people who run the farm are full of a knowledge that young people need, and at least for two days, were wonderfully willing and able to teach it.

I remember first meeting The Greenhorns’ Severine, in Berkeley this Spring, when she (was figuring out how I might be useful to her, and) rather bluntly asked what I knew how to do.  I sheepishly said I could write decently, and I could organize people and run meetings.  She interrupted me within seconds: You have to treat your life like a toolbelt!  Start filling it up with tools!  You have to learn how to do things!  Two days at a conference might not count for much, but for many of us, it was a time to first touch the tools we wish to acquire, and a joyous early step towards making our lives full.

Download the full list of conference workshops and presenters.

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