Artist Dan Colen had always been a hardcore New Yorker, the kind that parties non-stop and finds beauty in bird poop, even using the poop as a medium for his art at one point. But that all changed when he had a moment of clarity and decided he needed a bit more space and some distance from the claustrophobic city. He decided to buy a 40-acre plot of land in Columbia County, New York, which is two hours north of NYC, in 2011.
Colen originally intended to simply convert the barn into a sculpture studio, which he did, but he soon felt guilty about wasting the potential of the land surrounding him. One conversation with a friend of his, Joshua Bardfield, who has a background in public health, transformed his entire perspective about what he could do with the land. Bardfield told Colen about the food deserts in New York City, which are areas that don’t have nearby grocery stores, meaning residents aren’t able to shop for fresh produce, meat, or other perishable items.
“He suggested I set up a non-profit that supplied these communities with fresh food,” Colen told Modern Farmer. “I grew up in and around the city, so this idea of being able to give back excited me immediately.”
The sculptor went to work in developing the layout and functionality of his farm, even bringing in Berman Horn Studio to design beautiful but productive barns, and he named the farm Sky High Farm. Colen said that he “had no clue” what he was doing but that building this idea “without a doubt one of the more fulfilling challenges” he’s ever taken on. Colen serves on the board of directors, which is a required unit for non-profits, and he admitted that it’s been tough to not have control of the reins for every decision made.
“I had a very particular vision for how I saw it coming together. Being confronted both by certain issues, which are basic to farming, as well as the more nuanced needs of the farm was a huge learning experience,” he said. “But understanding I wasn’t really in charge and eventually seeing my vision entwine with the farm’s needs was amazing. And watching the farm blossom more and more from season to season is truly thrilling.”
While actually growing fruits, vegetables, and livestock is obviously essential, Bardfield recognized the importance of building relationships with the non-profits that connect the food with their recipients. He worked on setting up an agreement with the Food Bank for New York City and the Regional Food Bank For Northeast New York. The former works with 1,000 charities and schools across the city and provides 64 million meals to residents in need each year while the latter also works with 1,000 charities spread out over 23 counties in the state.
During their first harvest year, which was in 2013, the farm produced a little less than 2,000 pounds of produce and had virtually no meat from livestock to donate. In their second year, they tripled their output with 6,000 pounds of produce and 4,000 pounds of beef. Since then, they have consistently produced double what they did in 2014 with 12,000 pounds of produce, 5,000 pounds of beef, and 3,000 pounds of pork thanks to the direction of farm manager Sam Rose.
The farm has been met with the typical problems that plague farmers, such as pest infestations, a lack of rain, or other weather problems, but they also deal with the issue of how to deliver their goods to the agencies they deal with. Fortunately, the two non-profits typically come to the farm to pick up the produce and go directly to the slaughterhouses to pick up the meat, which they are happy to do because of the scarcity of fresh items.
“For both New York City and the regional food bank, I know this is one of the only sources of fresh, local produce and protein in terms of the chicken beef and pork that’s raised in New York state,” said Bardfield.
For this reason, the items from Sky High Farms typically get snatched up very quickly. Food banks often have many non-perishable items, like canned goods and packaged foods, so when fresh food comes through it’s truly a treat.
Colen has truly found purpose in this work and he is developing a blueprint of sorts so that other farms can accomplish the same thing by donating to food banks. The work has also influenced his art, as he often finds himself drawn to the life cycles of the plants or the animals on the farm. What Colen, Bardfield, and Rose are doing together is truly inspirational and the people of New York are thankful for their contributions to the community.