"I'll be growing four or five different varieties of blackberries in shipping containers that I picked up at an industrial surplus supply a few weeks ago." —Carl Skalak
Not all farms are created equal. Some (like Langwater Farms in Easton, Massachusetts) are designed by prominent 19th century landscape architects. Others (like this oyster farm in Rhode Island) are below quiet ocean inlets near the Rhode Island coast, while others are tucked away on the wide steppe west of the Rocky Mountains.
Then there are farms like Carl Skalak's Blue Pike Farm, in Cleveland Ohio. Located just blocks away from the city's main arterial road, Skalak raises vegetables and keeps honeybees on a plot of land that formerly housed a five-story manufacturing building. The neighborhood is still dominated by light-industry and warehouses, and Skalak's fields are bordered by the building housing Even-Cut Abrasives.
Despite the urban industrial setting, Blue Pike has been turning out fresh local produce for a loyal band of CSA customers since 2006. The location may be out of the ordinary but the story is still the same.
To be successful, every farmer has to adapt and innovate to navigate the countless challenges that the environment can bring. As Skalak puts it, "You have to learn how to dance." He just happens to dance to a different tune. After an afternoon of putting in blackberries and blueberries, Skalak spoke with me about the challenges he faces raising produce in an urban environment and the community he has built at Blue Pike.
You were putting in some new stuff today? I'm planting blackberries and blueberries this week. We're doing it in containers because one, I don't own the property and if I need to leave it'd be a lot easier to move a bunch of containers on a flatbed truck. Two, I can mix my own soil batches to address the pH requirements of the various plants. And three, I can grow things in places where I otherwise wouldn't be able to grow.
So where are they going? There's a fence line that separates the two parcels and I'm going to use the fence as a trellis for the blackberries. I'll be growing four or five different varieties of blackberries in shipping containers that I picked up at an industrial surplus supply a few weeks ago. I'm trying to take advantage of stuff that's in place. Guy's got a fence? That looks like a trellis to me. I don't think my bushes will know any different.
What else are you growing? If you can find it in the local grocery store I'm probably not interested in growing it. That's not to say I don't grow tomatoes and eggplants, but I grow open-pollinated heirloom tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, purple carrots, purple broccoli, cheddar cauliflower—those kind of things.
And you're keeping bees? I've got three colonies on the farm and we sell honey.
How have you worked to transition the farm from an empty lot to a productive space? I've been adding organic matter from the get-go, but the soil I'm growing on didn't come from this neighborhood. Whoever had the demolition job brought in backfill.
Were you worried about remnants from the building? The first thing I did was soil test, to find out what I was getting into. I wasn't going to spend time or a nickel of my resources if there were any contamination issues.
I read that your CSA members volunteer on the farm? We do some workshops for people if you want to learn stuff. If you've never planted onions before, sometimes it's a huge mystery. So we pull the curtain back a bit. I think everybody should be growing in their backyard, personally.
Wouldn't that cut into your business? Not at all. By encouraging people to grow in their backyards, people start to expanding their interest in fresh local food. Especially when they understand the time, energy, hard work, and the crop failures and bug infestations you deal with. I like to think it gives them a little appreciation for why it costs what it costs. I don't have 1,000 acres and a couple big tractors and lots of anhydrous ammonia that I can spray on the stuff. We do it by hand.
How is the CSA relationship different than other retail arrangements? The first year i sent out the prospectus, I got checks in the mail from complete strangers. People were sending me $500. It's a beautiful thing, but it's a challenge and there's always the pressure to produce vegetables on demand. People are going to show up on June 9 or 10 and expect beaucoup vegetables. They're not going to be happy if they show up and we tell them we have leaves and bark for them.
What are the culinary uses of bark?I don't currently have any recipes for that, but that's my out in case things aren't ready. It adds fiber to your diet.
Meet More Farmers
Perry Raso of Matunuck Oyster Farm in Rhode Island
Rory and Alida of Langwater Farms in Easton, Massachusetts
David Wright and Corey Hinkel, Two Dairymen in Alabama
Don Weed of Schoolyard Sugarbush in New Hope, New York
Jennifer Megyesi of Fat Rooster Farms in Vermont
About the interviewer: Carson Poole calls the Finger Lakes home but is living in New York City trying hard to maintain his farm boy credibility. His first job, at age 10, was in roadside corn sales. He is known to enjoy fresh local food and handcrafted spirits and liqueurs.