"Locusts on Hudson" Offers Taste of the Range Life to NYC
The Gentleman's Farm
“Locusts on Hudson” is an estate inconspicuously located in Staatsburg, where the railroad line veers inland from the river and creates a uniquely private haven of waterfront land. With tennis courts and stables and a guest register that surely reads like a Who’s Who of tycoons, artists, celebrities and politicians, this would seem an unlikely place to find a vital and authentic working farm.
Set aside those assumptions and meet Zach Wolf and Olivia Kirby. They answer to many titles, but “head farmers” will suffice, and they’d be prime candidates for the cover of Modern Farmer or Kinfolk magazine. Kirby in a her mottled wool vest, and Wolf in his Carhartt jacket, they have humor and style as they laugh and agree that farming is “very trendy.” Both exude a vibrance that’s infectious. They are mindful in what they say and what they do and how they live. Together with a handful of apprentices, they farm 40 acres of the estate, growing produce and livestock with passion, vision and innovation.
It’s an unusual situation, not just because these two are certainly younger than the average farmer but because the farm itself was started at the behest of the owner of the estate, world-renowned hotelier Andre Balazs. In 2004 he added “The Locusts” to his vast portfolio of properties that includes the chic and luxurious Standard Hotels (two of which are in New York City, with other outposts in Miami and Los Angeles). Without question, the Hudson Valley is replete with successful, wealthy Manhattanites who own “country retreats” upriver from their urban digs. So the fact that Balazs purchased the estate isn’t terribly surprising, even though the property is quite a rustic departure from his other upscale, exclusive investments. What he’s done with the place, however, is fairly unique. Balazs has connected the dots between country farm and contemporary urban life. The Locusts farm is a direct supplier to Narcissa and the Standard Grill (restaurants at the Standard East and West hotels, respectively.)
The farm’s influence permeates Narcissa’s menu, from the rotisserie beets (a texture treat of crunchy on the outside and meaty soft on the inside), carrot fries and twice-baked celery root to the Farmer’s Tea, one of Kirby’s special blends, made from lemon balm, milky oat, hop and rose. Wolf and Kirby work with chef John Fraser of Narcissa as they plan their seed orders and harvests. The desires and demands of the respective Standard kitchens greatly influence what goes in, and comes out of, the ground on the Locust estate. Wolf and Kirby, by design, choose which crops to grow with direct input from the chefs [see sidebar]. In return, virtually everything they produce is sold to the restaurants, freeing them from the difficult small-farm challenge of finding markets for their goods. This is the epitome of farming luxury. Gentleman farmers have owned this land dating back to Henry Brockholst Livingston in the late 1700s. (The same Livingston who served alongside generals in the Continental Army and was appointed to the Supreme Court by Thomas Jefferson.) He named the estate after its legion of locust trees. The land has passed through the hands of Astors and Huntingtons and has been visited by the likes of Beekmans and Roosevelts. It’s fair to say this estate has a prestigious history.
Balazs is surely upping the prestige ante. He has a reputation as a man who brings style, luxury and sexy perfection to everything he touches. At Locusts, Balazs has renovated the estate with attention to exquisite detail while preserving the charm of the rustic farm buildings. Even a recently built chicken coop has panache; its cloverleaf windows echo those in the historic barns from the early days of the estate.
The actual practice of farming was revitalized when Kirby was hired part-time in 2010. “It was a chance to start a farm from scratch and to be involved in all parts of the farm, from the budget to design to delivery, with markets already in place,” she explains. That first year she focused on vegetables. “We planted a beautiful intensive market garden…a wide spectrum of vegetables interplanted with beneficial herbs and flowers.” Her very description underscores the balance and interchange evident at the estate.
Farming at the Locusts encompasses more than tilling soil, planting seeds and harvesting crops. It’s an intricate dance of ecosystems and economics, conservation and productivity, function and aesthetics. At Locusts, science meets intuition. It’s all wrapped up in a rustic yet aesthetically pleasing package and nestled on the banks of the Hudson River under a majestic nest of bald eagles.
Wolf was the field manager at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills before he joined Kirby, who was previously a farmer’s apprentice at Stone Barns as well, at the Locusts. With a background in farm education and a scientific understanding of ecosystems, Wolf has a specialized skill set and desire to explore innovative farming techniques that encourage sustainable land conservation. He’s eager to share that knowledge with other prospective farmers, which is one of the reasons the apprentice program at Locusts is so important to him. Apprentices hold paid positions and work the farm. But beyond that, they benefit from learning some of the science involved in their work. And maybe, as they take what they’ve learned and begin farms of their own, they will help perpetuate a different kind of land management. Wolf prizes farmer initiatives that are merging conservation and agriculture and maintains the conviction that this is the new direction the rural landscape needs to embrace in order to be sustainable. “That’s why I became involved in agriculture,” he says. So he’s taking this opportunity at Locusts to redefine conservation in whatever ways he can.
Contrary to the notion that conserved land must be isolated from cultivated, or farmed, land, Wolf ’s philosophy advocates a more integrated approach. At Locusts, the vegetable fields are cultivated on land that is rented from part of a state bird sanctuary. The vegetable plants attract different bird species and provide food for them, while the nesting areas are carefully left undisturbed. This integration is a far cry from more typical agriculture or conservation that’s dominated by massive fields of soybeans lining the roadside or pristine protected land that’s inaccessible and untouched. As it turns out, these two “opposites” actually can coexist.
At Locusts, the pigs don’t fit an Old MacDonald’s farm profile either. The “pens” aren’t pens at all. Even to call them pastures feels like a disservice. They’re more like nature retreats—meandering wooded land with a simple perimeter of a low electric wire that almost blends into the landscape. And even this fencing looks like a cool, chic cable you might see used in interior design more than a traditional barbed wire or electric fence.
When you get a load of these black Berkshires with their little white snouts rooting around under the trees, in what is actually their more natural habitat, exhibiting innate “pig” behavior, it’s kind of an “aha” moment. I’ll admit, I’d always pictured pigs as fairly lumbering sedate creatures lolling in muddy pens, without aspiration, with nowhere to go. But these pigs have turned my stereotype on its ear. They are busy. They have things to do. They have trees to root and leaves to snort and bugs and goodies to unearth. And like a group of preschoolers at snack time, they come scooting through the forest to their feed station at the first sight of farmer Zach. Well, most of them do. One little fella had some trouble finding his way. Maybe not the brightest of the bunch, he gets points for personality. Yes, personality. These are happy little piggies, doing what they’re meant to do.
These pigs are part of a carefully coordinated rotation designed to preserve the ecosystem of the pastures. If the pigs are left in any one place too long, they will root up the trees and damage the soil. So they are moved from one private retreat to another. The vacated land is reseeded after them with old vegetable seed, legumes and grasses. The chickens move in next and kindly produce plenty of fertilizer that encourages the new seeds to grow. Plus they help curtail invasive Japanese stiltgrass. Finally, the ruminants rotate in. Narcissa maintains a place of honor as a very favorite cow. (How many cows share their name with a New York City restaurant?) She does the heavy lifting on this leg of the rotation chewing cud and adding bonus fertilizer, making the land ready for the pigs to return. This is a fairly innovative approach to raising pigs. The rotation improves the quality of the pastures, and it comes from understanding the demands of the ecosystem.
Kirby and Wolf each talk about it as a cycle of nourishment that begins and ends with soil health. It applies to everything they grow on the farm. They say the soil is like the digestive system for the plant. And, just like our bodies benefit from a balance of healthy bacteria in our intestines, plants benefit from a similar relationship with bacteria and fungi in the soil. Wolf is working on a project in the vegetable gardens with mycorrhizal fungi to create that favorable balance for the plants. The fungi grow on the roots of the vegetables and help them absorb more nutrients from the soil. (More nutrients equal healthier plants and higher yields.) He chooses a rotation of crops designed to encourage more complexity in the fungi growth. This approach has a scientific bent to be sure, but just take a look at the big picture. In the winter, the farmers plant a cover crop specifically to feed the fungi.
(A cover crop is designed to return nutrients to the soil, prevent erosion and limit weeds. It’s not part of the harvested crops.) In the spring the fungi help feed the food-producing plants. And those plants? Yeah, they feed you and me. So these visionary farmers rotate the livestock and feed the fungi and teach the apprentices and build inventive pastures and artful chicken coops, all while fulfilling their continued commitment to supply the restaurants year-round. This necessitates some creative late-fall and winter growing techniques using “low tunnels.” These long, white “Who houses” (Wolf ’s description) stretch across the hillside and house hardy crops like winter greens and root vegetables. Kirby’s eyes shine as she raves about Claytonia, a delicious and abundant winter green. And as she coos over the seedlings of spinach, her fervor for her work is palpable. But it’s certainly not easy. In early spring the cellars are nearly empty and the fields aren’t yet covered in harvestable crops. They dance as fast as they can using a labyrinth of greenhouses to start seedlings early in spring and grow plants later into the fall. One greenhouse has long wooden tables down the middle, and strings of charming, clear lights overhead. Kirby mentions that Thanksgiving dinner had been held there. A splendid marriage of function and form. Even the eggs, available for purchase at the restaurants, are boxed in plain yet sleek 3-by-4 boxes, not the old-school 2-by-6 egg crates. It’s subtle. And yet, it’s Locusts in a nutshell (or egg carton). It’s sturdy, it has a simplistic beauty, and the eggs are so good.
It seems this work feeds both Kirby and Wolf in ways well beyond the scope of dietary consumption. Wolf believes there’s an innate desire to work with the land. And Kirby calls it humbling, noting that Mother Nature is in charge.
“There’s something so powerful about getting out there and observing the hierarchy,” she says. So what does the future hold? They hope to build an education center for community outreach and classes and maybe even a farm store…all with an eye on inspiring and revitalizing farming. “It’s not for everyone, but it needs more conscious eaters. People with different skill sets coming to the table,” Wolf says. He’s passionate that a local food system has ripples through the local economy. It creates jobs in rural communities. And agriculture done conscientiously, thoughtfully, can contribute to filtering water and even mitigating climate change. They have an amazing gig. It’s an opportunity to follow their many passions: education, conservation, science and food, all while being mindful and present, in one of the most gorgeous settings in the Hudson Valley. Acknowledging the prime real estate, Wolf says “we didn’t get into it because we wanted to live in crummy surroundings. That’s the romance of it.”
It’s rare for farmers and a chef to work so directly hand in hand as is the case with the Locusts and Narcissa’s chef John Fraser. The chef embraces the relationship for his Manhattan establishment. “We’re able to have this satellite out there that’s doing creative things with the product before it even gets to us.” He says it’s all part of a Rubik’s Cube, when all the colors come together. “How do we highlight the farm…and make sure that it matters to our guests? Also how do we use 500 pounds of butternut squash before it goes bad?” But he says, “It becomes a fun problem to have.”
It was this very unique relationship with the farm that attracted Fraser to this “hotel” restaurant. “I respect the Standard Hotel…but it is a hotel. It wasn’t high on my list of next projects, personally.” But he says conversations with Balazs and the people involved made Narcissa an increasingly appealing opportunity. “It’s really the next level where we get to have another experience within the experience,” Fraser says of the relationship between restaurant and farm, “a connection to get what we want instead of what we get.” Now he measures how much he loves a vegetable depending on how much land it’s going to take up. “How much do you like rhubarb? Do you love it one acre or 10 acres?” he laughs.
There’s a lot of give and take. It’s messy, Fraser insists, as the kitchen picks and staggers what’s available and sometimes has to drop things from the menu if the farm product just isn’t in supply. But he seems to embrace the relative chaos as well as the entire dance of the interchange. “Andre’s mind is really about concept and aesthetic. He’s so incredible at it. He sets the new relationships up and lets them go,” says Fraser.