The average American meal travels roughly 1,500 miles before reaching your plate, criss-crossing the nation’s innumerable highways and railroads to be processed, packaged, distributed and sold. That means the corn you had for dinner last night could have sprouted in the sunny fields of western Nebraska, the beans for the coffee you rely on to get through that 9 a.m. class might have been harvested on the slopes of Jamaica’s misty Blue Mountains and the cod in your fish and chips pulled, perhaps, from the icy Atlantic waters off the shores of Newfoundland. Now, however, Vassar is endeavoring to source some of its food from closer to home.
In an effort to reduce its carbon footprint and improve food quality, Vassar recently changed dining services providers from Aramark to Bon Appétit, which prides itself on its Farm-to-Fork initiative, an effort to source 20 percent of ingredients from within a 150-mile radius. Last Tuesday, Sept. 26, lunch at the All Campus Dining Center (ACDC) celebrated a Bon Appétit Farm-to-Fork tradition—the Eat Local Challenge, an entire meal made from local ingredients.
“You don’t want a plastic tomato,” said ACDC Executive Chef Carmen Allen. “If you can keep food on the vine [or on the tree or in the ground] until it’s ripened, it’s got much better flavor and more nutritional value.”
“Increasing the use of local food is absolutely a goal. Particularly if we want to be carbon neutral by 2030, we think this is a big piece of the puzzle,” said Dean of the College Chris Roellke. “[Renovating the dining hall and switching food service providers] is the single greatest investment we’ve made to improve college life on campus, and we are really excited about it.”
Though most students agree that the food quality has improved, the changes at the ACDC were not well-regarded by everyone. As The Miscellany News has previously reported, there have been numerous accounts of understaffing and mistreatment of workers. On Sept. 15, Student/Labor Dialogue led hundreds of students in a rally at the ACDC and requested a plan for improving these conditions from the College administration and Bon Appétit managers by Sept. 22—a request that so far has gone unanswered.
“I know we’ve got stuff to work on,” Roellke acknowledged. “But we are really headed toward something special.”
And, at least in terms of the Eat Local Challenge, special it was. Each year, the challenge focuses on a different goal. This year’s was to highlight an ingredient—young ginger, in Vassar’s case—that most people don’t know is grown nearby. Aside from a few non-local staples such as sugar, salt and flour, the meal featured roast turkey with husk cherry chutney, sautéed zucchini and roasted gold and purple potatoes; a patty pan and broccoli rabe sauté with young ginger, field garlic and herbs; sundried-tomato-and-chive and basil-garlic cheese curds; vanilla ice cream and apple crisp; apple cider and apple cider donuts. The 16 local ingredients from 11 different farms travelled an average of 47 miles to reach the kitchen of the ACDC.
For most of human history, the vast majority of food had to be sourced locally. But with the rise of fuel-powered transportation, refrigeration and preservatives, we became distanced from our food’s origins, both physically and mentally. The modern farm-to-fork movement, also known as farm-to-table, began in the 1970s, with legendary Berkeley, CA eatery Chez Panisse becoming one of the first restaurants to champion local ingredients on its menu.
Aside from enjoying better-tasting products and supporting smaller, family-run farms, farm-to-table proponents point out that eating food that’s produced locally helps the environment; conventional food distribution emits five to 17 times the amount of carbon dioxide that local or regional food distribution does (Worldwatch Institute, “Is Local Food Better?,” 06.2009).
But as farm-to-table has become increasingly popular—even ubiquitous—over the last decade, critics have asserted that it’s overblown, now little more than an inauthentic marketing ploy.
“Don’t be fooled by the word ‘local,’” cautioned Martin Stosiek, who co-owns Hillsdale, NY’s Markristo Farm, which supplied the meal’s broccoli rabe. “Know exactly where it’s coming from, because everybody uses ‘local’ now, and they can actually mean 500 miles or 1,000 miles. Don’t just think that the farm’s down the road, because it’s probably not.”
In this case, however, several of the meal’s ingredients, including the young ginger, did come from down the road. They were grown by the Poughkeepsie Farm Project (PFP), to be exact. The PFP is located at the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve just one mile from the ACDC, where food was originally sourced for the dining hall over a century ago.
At the Farm
Vassar has had a farm for the entirety of its existence. It was previously located at the southern end of the main campus, but the College purchased several hundred additional acres and moved the enterprise across Hooker Avenue to its current location at the turn of the 20th century, so the cows’ mooing would not disturb services at the newly constructed Chapel (Vassar College Encyclopedia, “The Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve,” 2008).
For the next half-century, the Farm would produce a good deal of the vegetables and dairy students here ate. During World War I, student “farmerettes” milked cows and plowed fields for 17.5 cents an hour (about $3.34 today). However, in the 1950s, the College ceased its farming operation and started purchasing all food commercially, believing that the Farm was diverting resources from classroom education. The land sat fallow for the next several decades, though 275 acres—today 416—were set aside in 1976 as an ecological preserve (Vassar College Encyclopedia, “The Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve,” 2008).
A CSA Grows
In 1999, the nonprofit Poughkeepsie Farm Project was established, leasing three acres from Vassar to start a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm. A CSA is largely financed by community members who pay a subscription fee for a weekly share of seasonal produce. Since its inception, the PFP CSA has grown from about 70 members to 500, including many Vassar faculty and staff. A century after the farmerettes, many Vassar students still work at the Farm, earning field work credit for their labor. “I do everything from farming to working with [local] schools and teaching the kids about cooking and healthy eating,” said PFP Education Intern Sevine Clarey ’20.
The land the PFP cultivates has grown, as well, now encompassing about 15 acres, with a 25-year lease negotiated in 2015. “A farm our size could be much more profitable if we chose to grow just one or two crops and sell those to a larger distributor,” said PFP Wholesale Coordinator Lauren Kaplan. “But it’s not as healthy for the soil, and it doesn’t involve the community the way a diversified farm and CSA model does.”
Though the PFP considers its CSA members its main responsibility, it hopes to strengthen its partnership with Vassar and is open to growing specific crops that Bon Appétit wants to use.
“We know that Chef Carmen and the team at Bon Appétit are very dedicated to trying to source as much locally as possible,” said Kaplan. “We are optimistic that we’ll be providing a significant amount of produce to Vassar in the coming months.”
In order to provide a variety of products for its members, the PFP grows dozens of crops, including kale, spinach, arugula, lettuce, bok choy, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumber, zucchini, popping corn, potatoes, carrots, beets, watermelon, raspberries, radishes, Swiss chard, turnips and flowers.
Across the street from Vassar’s South Parking Lot, beyond a field of tall grasses and wildflowers ringed by woods, past Casperkill Creek and several old-fashioned red wooden barns, these crops grow, neat rows of golden corn stalks and burgundy and emerald salad greens interspersed with cheerful flower patches. The Farm, along with Vassar’s adjacent rugby field, is surrounded by the untamed forests of the Ecological Preserve.
This is the first year the PFP has grown ginger, which, in New York’s climate, can only be cultivated in the Farm’s greenhouse-like “hoop houses,” which Vassar paid for about a year ago in preparation for the new dining plan. A slow-growing, low-yield root plant that the PFP imported from Hawaii, ginger is an extremely expensive crop and is often only economically feasible with a guaranteed buyer. While mature ginger is fibrous and is usually dried for tea or seasoning, young ginger, which is frequently pickled and served with sushi, has a mild, fresh taste.
Local Farms, Cultivated Flavor
For the Eat Local Challenge, the young ginger was sautéed with broccoli rabe, patty pan squash and field garlic, the latter two of which were grown at Hepworth Farms, 10 miles away on the western banks of the Hudson. Originally founded in 1818, the 400-acre farm has been family-owned for seven generations. For almost 200 years, it grew mostly apples, until current owner Amy Hepworth took over in 1982 and decided to diversify. Today, Hepworth Farms grows over 400 crops and is a favorite of the Brooklyn food co-op scene.
Patty pan is a variety of summer squash. It grows in a range of hues, from ghostly white to bright yellow to deep green, and is round and flat, resembling a saucer with scalloped edges. The squash is harvested when it’s still quite small and so is grown four or five times each season at Hepworth Farms, according to Paul Alward, co-founder of Hudson Valley Harvest, a local food distributor through which Vassar purchases Hepworth produce. Field garlic is a type of wild garlic that grows in small bunches. Like all crops at Hepworth Farms—and the vast majority used in this meal—both the squash and garlic are organic.
The broccoli rabe came from Markristo Farm, about 50 miles northeast, near the New York-Massachusetts border. The farm—actually two plots of land, the nine acre “home farm” and 28 leased acres three miles away—is surrounded by forests, rolling hills, and pasturelands, much of which is used by the many dairy farms in the area. Both tracts of land run along the Roeliff Jansen Kill creek, a major tributary of the Hudson. The farm grows various greens for cooking and salad, which benefit from being cultivated near a natural water source for easy irrigation.
Broccoli rabe, or rapini, is related to the broccoli you’re used to seeing at the supermarket, but doesn’t have many similarities. It’s a slightly bitter cooking green often used in Italian, Portuguese and Spanish cuisine. Rabe is a fairly labor-intensive crop, as it’s frequently attacked by flea beetles in the spring and summer, and so has to be covered with reemay cloth, a polyester fabric used in farming to protect crops from insects, cold and wind. Despite this, Stosiek said, the time from seed to harvest is only about six weeks, fast-growing enough to offset the cost of its labor intensity.
The meal’s main dish, roasted turkey breast, was purchased from Murray’s Chicken, 65 miles west of Vassar in South Fallsburg, NY. But the turkeys were actually raised at one of the family farms Murray’s acts as a distributor for, Koch’s Turkey Farm, located 150 miles southwest of Poughkeepsie, in the Lewistown Valley borough of Tamaqua, PA on the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains.
Three generations ago, in 1939, Roscoe and Emma Koch began raising turkeys on their land, and their son Lowell and daughter-in-law Elizabeth officially founded Koch’s Turkey Farm in 1953. In the ensuing 64 years, the operation has grown from two turkey houses to 45, as well as a hatchery and an all-natural feed mill, and now raises over 800,000 turkeys annually. The farm remains family-run, and is Certified Humane and free range. “We are proud to be the only turkey processor of this size to be Certified Humane,” said Operations Manager Matthew Andescavage.
Soon after the turkeys hatch, they’re moved from the hatchery to the turkey houses, where they grow to adulthood freely roaming the barns and venturing outside when the weather allows. The turkeys are fed an antibiotic- and growth hormone-free vegetarian diet of corn and soybeans.
The husk cherries used in the chutney that accompanied the turkey were grown at Black Horse Farms, about 55 miles upriver from Vassar, in Athens, NY. The farm was started in the early 1970s by the parents of the current owners, Chellie Zimmermann Apa and Lisa Zimmermann Buhrmaster. Off of Route 9W, the farm is centered around two ponds, one for irrigation and one by the elder Zimmermanns’ house, an old cow barn, a warehouse and 38 greenhouses, all surrounded by hundreds of acres of fields.
Like the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, Black Horse Farms is a CSA, and grows a variety of produce. Right now, it’s focusing on fall crops, such as gourds, pumpkins, corn, cucumbers and green beans.
The husk cherries are grown at Zimmermann Buhrmaster’s husband’s farm down the road from the main farm, which produces much of the company’s fruit. Husk cherries are closely related to the tomatillo, also known as the Mexican husk tomato, and are similarly covered by a paper-like husk that must be sloughed off before cooking. They grow on vines like tomatoes, rather than in trees like true cherries, and fall to the ground when ripe, giving the crop its other name, ground cherry. They’re known among farmers and chefs to be a polarizing crop—“It’s one of those things you either love or hate,” Zimmermann Buhrmaster explained—and can thus be difficult to sell if a customer isn’t familiar with them.
The chutney was also made with onions from the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. The dish’s accompanying zucchini came from Hepworth Farms and the purple and gold potatoes from the PFP.
One hundred and thirty miles north of Vassar, in the foothills at the base of the rugged Adirondack Mountains, sits Argyle Cheese Farmer, from which the ACDC procured the Eat Local Challenge’s cheese curds. Co-owner Dave Randles’ family has farmed on the same land—now comprising 225 acres—for four generations, since 1860. For most of that time, the farm produced milk, but about 14 years ago Randles and his wife Marge began looking for ways to make the dairy farm more profitable, and settled on cheese making. With their 60 cows, they now also produce yogurt and buttermilk, but no longer sell regular milk.
“When we started making cheese curds, we discovered that we had a lot of education to do,” said Marge Randles. Though cheese curds have an extensive history in the northeast, and are a staple in Quebec, they’re much better known (and frequently consumed) in the Midwest. The curds are essentially a form of fresh, non-aged cheddar cheese, she explained. They take about 16 hours to make, from milk collection through pasteurization, curdling, salting and seasoning. The Randleses produce curds in five flavors, two of which—basil-garlic and sundried-tomato-and-chive—were featured at the Eat Local meal last Tuesday.
For dessert, the ACDC served vanilla ice cream from Ronnybrook Farm Dairy, a longtime Vassar vendor that has provided much of the dining hall’s milk for the last decade. Situated on 750 acres of rolling hills 30 miles northeast of Poughkeepsie, in Ancramdale, NY, the farm was started by the current owners’ grandfather. After solely producing milk for several decades, in 1991 it began making other dairy products like ice cream, butter and yogurt and selling them at Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket.
“[This] area had changed so much,” said co-owner Ronald “Ronny” Osofsky. “All these people were moving up from the city and buying up the land. Farms were going out of business, so we wanted to do something to take advantage of the nostalgia [for old-fashioned, simple dairy products] and the fact that we’re close enough to New York City to have a good market.”
Twenty-six years later, Ronnybrook continues to sell its wares in Union Square several times a week and at the Chelsea Market store Creamline.
Back at the farm, the rich, smooth Hudson Valley Vanilla ice cream is made in small batches with whole milk, cream and skim milk from Ronnybrook’s 100 cows, as well as vanilla extract and guar gum and carrageenan, thickening and stabilizing agents.
Accompanying the ice cream was warm apple crisp, made with Paula red apples from Yonder Farms, a 600-acre orchard 60 miles north of Vassar in Valatie, NY. Paula reds are an early variety of McIntosh apples that are quite versatile and suitable for cooking, baking or simply eating, according to owner Susan Chiaro.
In the Catskill Mountains, 65 miles northwest of Poughkeepsie, in a valley sandwiched between Slide Mountain Wilderness and Big Indian Wilderness, sits Oliverea Schoolhouse Maple, which produced the syrup baked with the apples in the crisp. Owner Herb Van Baren began selling maple syrup in 1994, originally tapping just 50 or 60 trees, and now tapping over 5,000.
“Every year I keep making more maple syrup and every year I keep selling out,” he said with a laugh. “Which is a fine problem to have.”
Though Van Baren sells his syrup year-round, it’s all produced between January and April. Each January, he walks through the steep wooded terrain of his property—2,000 acres in all, though it’s not all currently in use—with a portable electric drill. He drills a 5/16” hole an inch and a half into the maple trunks and uses a hammer to tap in a plastic spiel. For the next four months—or at least on the 30 or so days during that period that have the right combination of warmer days and freezing nights—maple sap pours out of the spiels and runs through a miles-long system of tubing to central collection points. Most of the days when there’s sap flow, Van Baren collects about a gallon of sap per tree, and maybe two or three on a really good day.
After that, Van Baren drives the sap to his main processing building. During processing, he runs it through a reverse-osmosis machine, in which water can pass through a semi-permeable membrane, but sugar can’t, removing about 80 percent of the sap’s water content. The concentrated sap, which is then 10 percent sugar, is put into an evaporator and boiled until it’s 66 percent sugar—the legal requirement for maple syrup. The evaporator produces about 10 to 15 gallons of syrup each hour, which, once it reaches 218 degrees, is transferred to a 25-gallon stainless steel pot. Diatomaceous earth, a filtering aid, is mixed in, and the syrup is run through a filter press and stored in a 40-gallon steel drum. Throughout the year, Van Baren takes the syrup out of the drums, checks the sugar content and tastes it again, heats it to 180 degrees and finally bottles it for sale.
Tuesday’s main course was augmented by a cider and donut station. The apple cider travelled 50 miles upstate from the Orchards of Concklin in Pomona, NY.
“[This] is one of the oldest continuously family-run orchards in the country,” said Orchards of Concklin farm store manager Deborah Sweet. “It’s been in existence since 1712, and it’s been passed down in the same family since that time.”
She explained that the Concklins emigrated from England 300 years ago, settled in Massachusetts, moved to Long Island and eventually took a king’s grant to settle the land where the Orchards stands today. Now comprising about 100 acres, the Orchards is currently owned by Richard Concklin and his nephew Scott Concklin Hill.
The farm store sits at the corner of Route 45 and South Mountain Road, a narrow, winding country lane. Orchards and cornfields extend a half mile on either side of the store, and the property stretches far back from the road into a valley. From the back of the store the Ramapo Mountains are visible across the valley, in which double rainbows are a frequent sight.
The cider is produced using a mix of apple varieties, usually fruit that is too small to sell on its own. The apples are put through a cider press, then strained to remove the seeds and skin. Next, the cider is run through an ultraviolet light filter, which kills more germs than pasteurization and doesn’t affect flavor the way heat treatment does, according to Sweet. Unlike some other cider recipes, the Orchards uses only apples in its cider, with no additional ingredients.
The accompanying apple cider donuts were baked right here in Poughkeepsie, about five miles from Vassar, at the Barton Orchards Farm Market and Bakery on Noxon Road (the orchard itself is located 15 miles from the College, in Poughquag, NY). Apple cider donuts, an autumn staple in the northeast, are cake donuts flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg and apple cider and rolled in sugar. The donuts, along with other treats, including more than a dozen kinds of pie, are made onsite at the bakery and market, a small storefront reminiscent of a rustic wooden barn, which also carries a selection of produce and groceries.
In the Kitchen
Back at the ACDC, preparation for the meal began on Monday, Sept. 25. Each husk cherry—11 large cardboard flats in all—had to be husked by hand. In between the lunch and dinner rushes, five or six cooks shared the task in the sweltering main kitchen behind the dining hall’s “Home” station. Even the cashiers pitched in, working their way through a container behind the front desk when they weren’t swiping students’ ID cards.
While the cherry’s husks were removed, another cook used a Wedgemaster to slice 150 pounds of purple and gold potatoes and blanched the two varieties in different tubs of water, since purple potatoes’ bright violet interiors can inadvertently dye other foods.
Cooking began shortly after dawn the next day. Not long after 7 a.m., while the rest of the campus was just stirring to life, the ACDC kitchen was already a blur of activity. Though the cooks say it’s small by commercial standards, to an outside observer, the stainless steel-outfitted room can seem daunting and chaotic, a dizzying, cacophonic whirl of hot steam and banging utensils and rushing people. No one moves slowly there.
First, the 250 pounds of turkey breast—50 five-pounders—were removed from the walk-in refrigerator, seasoned and loaded into several industrial combination ovens, which use both steam and heat. The turkey was cooked at 300 degrees for a little over an hour, and then the temperature was cranked up to about 400 degrees for the last 15 to 20 minutes to ensure crispy, golden skin, while the steam kept the meat inside tender and juicy.
The chutney was cooked in a 40-gallon tilt skillet, a large rectangular vat used in commercial cooking for braising, sautéing, broiling, roasting, boiling or frying. The cook, Mike, emptied two bottles of apple cider vinegar into the skillet, followed by diced onions, sugar, water, husk cherries and several handfuls of salt. The mixture was then cooked down for about 15 minutes and crushed with a potato masher. Once the chutney was almost ready, a pan of whole husk cherries was added for garnish.
The vegetables—the potatoes, zucchini, squash, ginger, garlic and broccoli rabe—then took a turn in the tilt skillet to be sautéed, and several cases of the Paula red apples were peeled, cored, sliced, tossed with corn starch and maple syrup and baked with a crisp topping made from flour, sugar, cinnamon and butter.
The cheese curds, ice cream, apple cider and donuts arrived at the ACDC ready made and simply had to be set out with the other food when lunchtime came. One of the dining tables was decorated with crates of apples, zucchini, ginger, tomatoes, leafy greens, empty cherry husks and flowers, as well as green paper cards with information on the ingredients used in the meal. Executive Chef Allen and other ACDC staff members stood by to answer questions.
“I like that there’s a lot of variety and that it’s pretty balanced,” said Merrick Rubinstein ’21, as he dug into the roasted potatoes. “It’s a great initiative and a valiant effort to source more food locally for our meals.”
All around him, students sat eating their lunch, perhaps considering its array of flavors or the general idea of localness, but largely unaware of the exact journey the elements of their meal had undergone. A journey of one mile, or 150, a voyage that may have begun weeks, or months or even years ago, from seed—or turkey egg or newborn calf—to field or barn, to truck, to loading dock, to kitchen, to serving counter and finally, to the plate in front of them.
A visit to the Poughkeepsie Farm Project
Behind the Scenes at the ACDC Kitchen