By Karen Fredrickson (Recycled from August/September 2017, Edition 22)
Photographed by Jackson Summers
As I drive through the roads of Columbia County, I’m not really sure where I’m going. I have GPS, but this is definitely more rural than what I’m used to. I see a sign that reads “Berry Farm” and pull into the gravel parking lot. It’s a small-looking store that turns out to be deceptively large, and as I walk inside I see an old-fashioned-styled place filled with berries and all sorts of produce, as well as baked goods.
I have an appointment with Ally Baker, who has worked at the farm for over 16 years. Baker is the manager of the greenhouse and cut flowers, as well as head of social media and advertising.
We begin the tour in the store, where Baker tells me about the different produce, which they buy locally from other farms to supplement what they don’t grow themselves. This is a theme that runs throughout the farm—which is very focused on providing for the local community. If a particular type of produce isn’t in season, Chatham Berry Farm will order it from farms in other parts of New York State before they look out of state, making it easier for the community to still shop locally rather than at a big-box grocery store.
Looking around the store, I marvel at the amount of produce they have available. I feel like I walked through a door to Narnia, revealing a wonderland of ingredients available without sprays or chemicals. Baker tells me you don’t even have to wash the berries before you eat them because they haven’t been sprayed or polluted with anything during the growing process. As someone who has been known to eat the occasional berry without washing, this is great news!
We move on to the floral greenhouse, where Baker is working on perennials and annuals, and she tells me about Joe Gilbert, who, in addition to owning the farm, is a mentor. “This entire structure is built by Joe,” she says. “It’s really great [to] have somebody who can do all that. He’s the handyman, the electrician, the plumber, the dad, the business owner; he pays the bills—he does everything. And then he’s out in the fields doing irrigation, running the tractor and putting up a greenhouse. He does everything, which is really cool.” As you can imagine, Gilbert is really busy.
As Baker talks about their relationships with other local farmers, I can tell it’s a close-knit community—though it would mean more if I had a greater familiarity with the northern Columbia County area. I only learned the correct pronunciation of Chatham today. (It’s pronounced chat-ham.)
The farm started in 1982. Gilbert moved to Columbia County from New Jersey, where he bought a cornfield. Baker explains that corn depletes the soil of nutrients, but the soil has since been repaired by cover cropping, green manures, rotating crops and on-site composting.
Gilbert would drive his tractor to Route 203 and sell strawberries under the shade of a tree on the side of the road. That’s when we get to the mythology of Chatham Berry Farm. One year, Gilbert had arugula, a “foreign green” for the area, as Baker jokingly describes it. At that time, the majority of farmers in the area sent the best produce to New York City. Gilbert questioned that logic one day when a customer drove by and was surprised to find him selling arugula—so he started diversifying into greens. “It just blew his mind that somebody was familiar with it and it was sought after,” Baker says. The farm retains the name of the berry farm from the early days when Gilbert grew blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries and currants.
We leave the greenhouse and go outside to the main part of the farm to continue our tour. There is a main path lined with greenhouses on the right, a field with another greenhouse on the left and directly ahead is a berry orchard. Baker starts discussing the workers who pick the berries, and I notice a couple of them in the field as we speak. It’s a hot day, and to emphasize this, my phone, which I’m using to record our conversation, shuts down and says that it will not power up until it gets to a cooler location. And I’m sweating just walking around, so I empathize with how hard this work must be.
Work at the farm continues all year, and at this time, Baker is working on produce and cut flowers. In the fall, there will be gourds, pumpkins and squash, and then turkeys, followed by ordering Christmas trees. And it doesn’t end there…in January, it will be time to propagate new plants in the greenhouse.
If that’s not enough, Chatham Berry Farm has started a hydroponic greenhouse, which was built by Joe Gilbert’s son Jon. This is very impressive and looks much more like a science laboratory than any other greenhouse: the plants grow along white gutters with a solution that provides nutrients to the plants. The hydroponic greenhouse has everything you need for a great salad—Swiss chard, dandelion, endive, basil, green kale, Toscana kale and a few types of lettuce. “They’re incorporated into our mesclun mix, which is what we’re known for,” Baker says. When shopping for leafy plants, you want to choose a red-leaf version if it is available. The bitter greens are rich in antioxidants, flavonoids and phytonutrients.
Finally, we arrive at the farm’s namesake…the berry orchards. Currently, Gilbert does the pruning, though Baker is learning. “Every year the birds get to them before I do,” Baker says. “It’s one of those things—it happens—it’s nature.” To counter this problem, they plant enough to supplement the birds’ diets while still making a profit for the farm. “It’s so frustrating, but that’s why you do it on a larger scale,” Baker says. “That way, when it happens, it’s not as devastating.”
We end the tour by visiting the microbrewery, which Jon Gilbert, the brewer, calls a “nano-brewery” because it is so small in its current iteration, making 40 to 80 gallons of brew a week. Baker explains the brewing process, which involves sugar water, yeast and hops—or what Baker calls “Chemistry: Chemistry you can drink.”
On my way out, I meet with Joe Gilbert again, and we return to the legendary roadside fruit stand. Gilbert says he wasn’t even the one who grew the much-discussed arugula. His next-door neighbor was going on vacation and picked too much arugula and had asked Joe to try to sell it. He figured he could try, though it was unlikely. Only an hour later, a guy came in and was so excited to find arugula that he bought it all. “You gotta listen to what everybody’s saying out there,” Gilbert says. “Not react on it right away, but let it resonate for a while.” And with that, Gilbert is back to work.
Chatham Berry Farm is open every day from 8 a.m.–6 p.m. and has an unofficial, official slogan: “Your everyday farmers market.” They aren’t kidding because the only day they close during the year is Christmas.
For more information, visit their website at www.thechathamberryfarm.com. █