Fresh foods from small farms is the praiseworthy tagline for Field Goods, a direct-to-consumer, food distributor in upstate NY’s rural Greene County. On a late January day, in a remarkably mild upstate New York winter, this locally grown business (supported by an Empire State Development grant through the Capital Region Economic Development Council) celebrated its new 18,000 square foot home in a renovated warehouse. The new space, which includes 4,000 square feet of refrigerator and freezer storage, ensures the continued growth of Field Goods, which delivers food grown by small farms to consumers in a service area that “spans 13 eastern New York State counties from Queensbury (Warren County) in the north to the Bronx, as well as Connecticut’s Fairfield County, in the south.”
Field Goods founder and president, Donna Williams (a former investment banker and business development consultant with an MBA from Columbia University and family roots in Greene County), in her opening comments at the ribbon-cutting for the new facility, noted that the business just had its biggest sales week ever, delivering 2200 bags of produce from small farms to its subscribers. The business offers weekly deliveries of fresh local produce to consumers at two types of delivery locations, private sites (generally workplaces) and open-to-the-public sites (such as gyms or libraries, where anyone can stop by to pick up a bag).
Group deliveries help the operation keeps prices low. Four sizes of fruit and vegetable subscriptions are available, at a cost of $15, $20, $25 and $30 per week for (1) fruit and vegetable subscription, designed for one person; (2) fruit and vegetable subscription, designed for 1 to 2 people; (3) fruit and vegetable subscription, designed for 2-3 people; and (4) fruit and vegetable subscription, designed for 3-5 people, respectively.
Field Goods has been successful in marketing its delivery of fresh food to employers as “a valuable wellness program and employee benefit.” A creative 10-week program, priced as little as $50 per employee, includes the weekly delivery of 6-8 local produce items, a weekly educational newsletter, and an introductory group presentation. Also of value (in addition to encouraging employees to improve their diets) is the support demonstrated for small farms and sustainable agriculture by participation in the program.
During the week of January 25th in the darkness and cold of winter (when Field Goods had its biggest week ever), the following small farm, local products were delivered to subscribers (in all bag sizes): frozen broccoli and fresh brussel sprouts from Shaul Farm, frozen sweet corn from Dustry Lane Farm, carrots and fingerling sweet potatoes from Juniper Hill Farm, and fuji apples from Yonder Farm. In small, standard and family bags, these additional items were included: greenhouse grown mix of crisp red and green romaine lettuce, kale, spinach, tatsoi and komatsuna from Radicle Farm and red onions from Minkus Farm. Subscribers had the option to include in their food bags for the late January week, at an additional cost, the following items: rosemary, leeks, Asian pears, mozzarella cheese from R & G Cheesemakers, bread from Bread Alone, fresh pasta from Knoll Krest Farm and yogurt from North Country Creamery.
On its website, Field Goods notes that “our farmers use a variety of farming methods, all of which are designed to produce the most nutritious, delicious and sustainable products possible.” Specific information is provided to consumers showing whether the particular product in the weekly bag are either certified organic, organically grown but not certified, IPM (Integrated Pest Management), or conventional small farm methods. For example, in the bags delivered during the week of January 25th, the fingerling sweet potatoes and greenhouse mix were noted as certified organic, the frozen sweet corn was IPM, and the other products were grown with conventional small farm methods. Special mention should be made concerning how Radicle Farm, in the upstate city of Utica, by growing greens, on 16 acres under glass, has helped to create a substantial economic presence in a post-industrial, small rust-belt city.
Present at the ribbon cutting were state and local lawmakers, as well as writer Molly O’Neil, a former New York Times food columnist who shared information on the Long House Food Revival (known as the Woodstock of Food), cooknscribble (an online teaching platform for food media professionals), and her current involvement in the revitalization of the small, rural village of Rensselaerville (Albany County, NY), as well as Modern Farmer editor Sarah Grey Miller. O’Neil made introductory remarks for a roundtable discussion by a panel of farmers, which was moderated by editor Miller and Todd Erling, the Executive Director of Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corporation based in Hudson (Columbia County, NY). Topics ranged widely and included (i) food safety, (ii) utilizing the CSA model to support the economic sustainability of farms, (iii) the need of more traditional farms for migrant labor and (iv) GMOs.
The outpouring of support for Field Goods from Greene County and neighboring Hudson Valley communities demonstrates the appeal of an enterprise that has the potential to stimulate economic activity in a geographic area (as well as improve the diets of consumers). According to an insightful report prepared by Dr. Rebecca Dunning, the Project and Research Coordinator for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at North Carolina State, numerous studies indicate that fruits and vegetables produced and consumed locally create more economic activity in an area than does comparable food produced and imported from a non-local source. Perhaps this is obvious, but the reach of the increased economic activity may not be so simple: in addition to income generated directly by farm sales or at nearby farmers markets (or in the case of Field Goods by a creative entrepreneurial business providing a consumer market for 50 small, local farms), income is also generated locally from “induced income that results when money that is retained in the local system is re-spent locally.” Further, the resulting increases in employment, from the local production and consumption of food, supports and sustains “small family businesses engaged in building the entrepreneurial culture of a community” as noted in Dr. Dunning’s report.
(Frank W. Barrie, 2/1/16)
Food co-operatives have a long tradition of in-store member labor, perhaps best represented by one of the most successful food co-operatives in the United States: Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Coop. The Park Slope Food Coop, which was founded in 1973, and operated first in space rented from a community center, eventually purchased a building in 1980 in the heart of its Brooklyn neighborhood. In later years, it expanded into two adjoining buildings, and by 2001 had completed renovations. The coop continues to thrive at its location on Park Slope’s Union Street, and as of 2010, the mortgage for all three buildings had been paid off.
In order to shop at the Park Slope Food Coop, every one of its 16,000 members has to work, with each adult member required to contribute 2 hours and 45 minutes of work every four weeks, and no member of the food coop may share a household with a non-member. Its Mission Statement is succinct and to the point, in valuing in-store member labor:
The Park Slope Food Coop is a member-owned and operated food store–an alternative to commercial profit-oriented business. As members, we contribute our labor: working together builds trust through cooperation and teamwork and enables us to keep prices as low as possible within the context of our values and principles. Only members may shop, and we share responsibilities and benefits equally.
This work requirement has not impeded the ability of the Brooklyn food coop to attract members, and in the recent past, to become a member of the Park Slope Food Coop required some perseverance and good timing in finding an available spot in the required new member orientation.
Upstate New York’s Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany has also been a part of the food co-operative tradition of in-store member labor, but unlike the Park Slope Food Coop, the Honest Weight has always been open to the public, and members have worked for a discount on their food purchases, alongside staff or paid employees of the co-op. This arrangement has been a model shared by other food co-operatives, but in recent years, food co-operatives have been eliminating in-store member labor on the advice of legal counsel, concerned about violating state minimum wage laws and the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act. The National Cooperative Grocers Association, a business services cooperative for retail food co-ops (which currently represents 148 food co-ops operating over 200 stores in 38 states with combined annual sales of over $1.8 billion and over 1.5 million consumer-owners), has furthered this trend with its network of “natural foods co-ops,” which operate without in-store member labor.
The City Market, Onion River Co-op, a food co-op in Burlington, Vermont recently ended its in-store member labor program. In the description of its member worker program on its website, City Market notes that it moved “our in-store Member Work, where it duplicates the work of paid staff, out into the community with our Outreach partners.” Last year, the Vermont co-op stopped offering in-store “Member Worker shifts” in produce, the front end (cashing out and bagging purchases), grocery and bulk.
Similarly, after 35 years of letting members pitch in on tasks such as stocking shelves, Pittsburgh’s East End Food Co-op eliminated “in-store volunteering” at the store in September, 2014. Justin Pizzella, the general manager of the Pittsburgh co-op (in an article by Diana Nelson Jones in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Legal Concerns End East End Food Co-op Volunteer System, 8/29/14) suggests that the current $90 billion “natural organic” industry is no longer “a crazy little thing a few people were doing,” as in 1980 when the Pittsburgh co-op was founded. He notes that in the “last three years membership has jumped 15 percent and sales have grown from $7.5 million to $10.5 million. . . [and] staff has grown from 55 to over 90.” Sadly, a long time working member of the co-op in Pittsburgh put it succinctly, describing the reaction of many to the ending of the in-store member worker program: ‘”It’s kind of like a culture being yanked out of our hands.” General manager Pizzella, considering the appeal of that culture, noted that he wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few co-ops that are willing to take the risk to test whether discounts earned by member workers meet wage minimums and whether volunteers should be considered employees under fair labor standards.
This past fall, Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op Board of Directors voted to end its member worker in-store labor program. The Albany Times Union reported (in an article by Tim O’Brien, Honest Weight Food Co-op to end members working in store, 10/24/15) that “leaders of the co-op . . . were concerned they could be vulnerable to allegations they are violating the minimum wage law. . . and the number of members looking to work for the discounts [members who work four hours a week get a 24 percent discount] exceeded the number of slots available.” But unlike the similar situation in Pittsburgh, co-op members in Albany did not go quietly along with this decision. Rather at a special meeting called by co-op members disenchanted by the board’s decision, 87% of the 600 members who attended, as reported by Mr. O’Brien in a follow-up story, voted against the board determination to end member labor, 68 percent voted to study and consider new management structure and 67 percent voted to have the board re-evaluate the current leadership team.
Votes were also taken whether to remove members of the board who voted to end the member worker in-store labor program. Six incumbents “survived a recall vote,” which required 75% of the cast votes. Bill Frye, the one board member voted off the board, was quoted in the Times Union story: “They can kick me off the board, but it doesn’t change the truth. It is a very, very competitive atmosphere.” Mr. Frye emphasized that the member worker discounts “are not affordable,” and that the Honest Weight co-op is “no longer the only grocery selling organic, locally grown food.” Still, like many, if not all, food cooperatives, the Honest Weight focuses intensely and takes pride in sourcing food from local farms and local producers. In the case of the Albany food co-op, the reported numbers are praiseworthy: food sourced from 285 local and regional farms and 319 local producers, allowing the store to carry over 4,200 local products.
In recent days, the struggle at the Albany co-op has intensified. Four members of the Honest Weight’s board of directors, who had voted this past fall to end the member worker in-store program but who survived the recall vote in late November, “abruptly resigned” as noted by Albany Times Union reporter Tim O’Brien in his latest story, Four quit at Honest Weight, 1/7/16. The four, according to the newspaper’s story, “were especially concerned the new board majority wants to freeze the number of full-time staff and increase member labor.” They contend that the discounts earned by member workers represent “prohibitive costs that the Co-op cannot sustain.”
The “very, very competitive atmosphere” noted by Mr. Frye also sharpened in the Albany area with the recent news, reported in the Albany Times Union by reporter Tim O’Brien (Group eyes co-op for Schenectady, 1/12/16), that a group of volunteers is looking to create a new community-owned natural food store to be known as The Electric City Food Cooperative in downtown Schenectady, a few miles down Interstate 90 from the Honest Weight in Albany. According to Kat Wolfram, the president of its board of directors, The Electric City Food Cooperative would not follow the model of the Honest Weight where member owners are given discounts for hours worked in the store: “All the new co-op startups, none of them are working member models . . .You hate to give away your earnings before you make them.” Rather, the Schenectady co-op’s aim will be “to create jobs at the store” and at year’s end, “profits would be shared based on how much each member spent in the store.”
The future nature of the food cooperative movement is playing out in upstate New York. Whether the members of the Honest Weight Food Co-op will be successful in maintaining an in-store member labor program won’t be easily resolved or settled quickly.
(Frank W. Barrie, 1/19/16)
Vermont may be a small state size-wise, both in area and population (sixth smallest in area with less than 10,000 square miles, and 49th in population with 626,042), but it looms large in the local, farm-to-table, good food movement. This year, Vermont topped the Locavore Index (a measure of the strength of a state local food economy) for the fourth straight year in a row. [Editor’s note: Our Vermont dining directory lists an extraordinary 63 farm to table dining options; the Vermont directory of CSA farms, community supported agriculture farms, has listings of nearly 60 farms, worthy of a hallelujah!; and the listing of farmers markets on this website lists a dozen markets and includes a link to NOFA Vermont, the Northeast Organic Farming Association Vermont, with its directory of over 60 farmers markets. FWB]
Capturing the essence of this state’s good food movement in a book is a tall order, but one that Tracey Medeiros tackles again with gusto in The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook, 150 Home-Grown Recipes from the Green Mountain State (The Countryman Press, Woodstock, VT, Distributed by W.W.Norton & Co., New York, NY, 2013). The cookbook’s table of contents organizes the recipes under a dozen, well-chosen headings at the very start of the book: Breakfast; Breads; Soups & Salads; Vegetables; Sandwiches, Pizza & Savory Pies; Pasta & Polenta; Poultry; Fish & Seafood; Meat; Condiments & Sauces; Drinks & Desserts. In Tracey Medeiros’s earlier cookbook Dishing Up Vermont, 145 Authentic Recipes from the Green Mountain State (Storey Publishing, North Adams, MA, 2008), the recipes were organized in eleven categories appearing at the end of the book, and simply moving the categorization of recipes to the front of the book makes it easier to plan a meal of farm to table dishes. The earlier book did not have a separate category of recipes for Fish & Seafood, and it should be noted that the later book does not duplicate the earlier Vermont inspired recipes.
In her earlier cookbook, Dishing Up Vermont, emphasizing Vermont grown ingredients, Medeiros sung the praises of the Vermont Fresh Network, the first statewide farm-to-restaurant program and included the introductory words of Vermont Fresh Network’s Molly Stevens in a Foreword, A Taste of Place, at the start of the cookbook. Ms. Stevens summed up the history of her inspirational organization: “In the mid-1990s, a number of dedicated Vermont citizens recognized that the best way to counteract the devastating effects of the modern commodity-driven food system on small-scale farming was to develop local markets for Vermont-grown goods. These visionary individuals coordinated a series of events to bring together Vermont farmers, producers, and growers with their neighboring chefs to explore how the two groups could work in partnership to support local agriculture. The result of these dynamic conversations was the creation of the Vermont Fresh network. . ..” And as noted in the Editor’s Note above, the extraordinary farm to table dining options in the small state of Vermont were another consequence of this creative networking of farmers and chefs.
The later Vermont Farm Table Cookbook is a collection of 150 carefully curated recipes from some of the best farmers, restauranteurs, chefs, and purveyors in the state. It features a wide range of styles, ingredients, and influences that give the reader a deep sense of what makes Vermont such a wonderful food state. Vignettes generously sprinkled throughout the book add texture and insight into the people behind the food. As Ms. Medeiros states in the introduction, each recipe is “an edible story.” The recipes are illustrated with beautiful photos by Oliver Parini, who is based in Burlington in the green state of Vermont.
Beyond being delicious in concept, the recipes are perfectly written. The consistency across recipes from the numerous different kitchens is a credit to Ms. Medeiros’ recipe testers. I followed each recipe I made exactingly, and the dishes came out perfectly, a rare thing, particularly when multiple recipe authors are involved. Cooks using this book can cook confidently without the need to modify or interpret the recipes.
Choosing a few test recipes from the long list of appetizing dishes was not easy. I selected three: the Harvest Hash; Caramelized Onion and Bayley Hazen Blue Galette; and the Seared Day Boat Scallops, Braised Endive, Confit Potato, and Shaved Prosciutto with Orange Beurre Blanc.
Harvest Hash was an obvious choice for a cold weather meal. Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, red potatoes, apples, cheddar cheese, and bacon…how could this not be delicious? This recipe is listed in the Breakfast chapter, but, as the recipe notes, this dish would be equally at home on the dinner table. Like many recipes in the book, Harvest Hash can easily become vegetarian, without losing its character, by simply omitting the meat. Backed up with shallot, garlic, fresh thyme, and apple cider, this recipe is a wonderful addition to my repertoire of hearty dishes and is extremely versatile. This would go nicely inside an omelet, a wonderful side dish to any dinner, and I even bet that if it was puréed it would make a sublime dip for your next party.
After a late fall apple picking trip (which means it is apple galette time), the Caramelized Onion and Bayley Hazen Blue Galette was also a no-brainer. I wasn’t able to source the Bayley Hazen Blue from the award-winning Jasper Hill Farm, but any great blue cheese can be substituted (all the better if it is local). The dough came out beautifully and with added richness thanks to the crème fraiche, something I plan on using in galette doughs in the future, including a sweet apple galette with some of my remaining fall apples. It was hard to stop myself from eating the cheesy, onion galette from this wonderful cookbook in one sitting.
Finally, I prepared the Seared Day Boat Scallops, Braised Endive, Confit Potato, and Shaved Prosciutto with Orange Beurre Blanc. At first glance, this dish sounds intimidating, but it is not difficult and the results are superb. Using dayboat scallops shows a praiseworthy mindfulness about food ingredients. As noted by Ms. Medeiros, “Day boat scallops are harvested by hand and are untreated, or ‘dry.’ They are strongly preferred over ‘wet’ scallops, or those treated with a chemical preservative.” The recipe is so well-written that all the elements came together at the same time, a difficult task given the different cooking methods. Breaking down the components reveals why I found this dish to be outstanding. Braised endive is an ethereal addition to any dish and it paired perfectly with the citrus in the beurre blanc twisted with orange. Seared scallops made it easy to create a beautiful presentation and an amazing plate. Add duck fat and potatoes and…need I say more?
I was so impressed by the dishes I prepared that they have entered my go-to repertoire of recipes…and I am still at the beginning of what this cookbook has to offer! Ms. Medeiros undertook the challenging task of cataloging the bounty of Vermont, and did so with great finesse.
(Mark von Topel, 1/6/16)
With 62,000,000 visitors annually, Orlando, Florida is the most visited tourist destination in the United States. But while its theme parks beckon millions, our listings of farm to table dining options in Florida are not many in number. But there is one particular dining destination in the Orlando metro area that deserves kudos for its commitment to local food sources and the good food movement: K restaurant, located just north of downtown Orlando, in the heart of the College Park neighborhood.
K restaurant (named for its chef/owner Kevin Fonzo, who trained at the renown Culinary Institute of America [C.I.A.] in Hyde Park in the Hudson Valley of upstate New York) is worthy of a special trip for the visitor as well as a destination for an Orlando area resident. A farm to table restaurant, located in a freestanding house with a wrap around porch and space on the grounds for a sizable vegetable and herb garden, this Florida restaurant is an inviting destination for diners who desire delicious food prepared with ingredients that are carefully sourced. The restaurant’s website includes information on the farms which provide ingredients used for the dishes on the restaurant’s menus, which change daily.
On entering, a shelf of unwrapped soaps, which look like miniature Jackson Pollock paintings, attract close attention. “Those are hand-made by one of our servers,” chimes the hostess who noticed our interest. If it weren’t for the bar and tables, the warm greeting, hospitable homey environment, and hand-made soaps made me think I was stepping into a creative friend’s home for a family dinner.
Chef/owner Kevin Fonzo has created a dining atmosphere that reflects a generous spirit, which extends to his home community. Notably, he volunteers at the Orlando Junior Academy, a small school in the College Park neighborhood, as a committed participant in the Chefs Move to School program, an initiative started by First Lady Michelle Obama to enlist chefs in the fight against childhood obesity. [Editor’s note: One of our favorite books in recent years is Michelle Obama’s American Grown, The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America (Crown Publishers, a Division of Random House, Inc., New York, New York 2012). A beautifully designed book, full of wonderful photographs (many by photographer Quentin Bacon), provides a lively history about the White House gardens and landscape, much insight on how to grow your own food, and a positive plan for addressing our nation’s obesity epidemic, and was previously reviewed on this website (FWB).]
The Chefs Move to School program assists chefs in adopting a school and working with teachers, parents, school nutrition professionals and administration to help educate children about food and to show them that healthy eating can be fun. One school year, chef Fonzo worked in the Orlando school’s cafeteria every day, preparing fresh, healthy lunches utilizing ingredients from the school’s garden. He continues to share his knowledge and skills at the school, and now every Thursday volunteers for a full teaching schedule for the day. He uses cooking instruction as an integrated education method, where the students learn about nutrition, biology, chemistry, practice math skills and the cleanliness and discipline necessary for a culinary career.
Freshly chopped garlic and herbs tease the nose as we’re led through the gently lit dining room to our table. Our server continues the familial treatment, suggesting his favorite dishes and informing us that the seasonings we smell are from the bountiful backyard garden. His favorite phrase to describe the food is “on point,” and he’ll get no debate. The dishes served at K restaurant will perfectly satisfy our search for excellent, “spot on” farm to table dining in the Orlando, Florida area.
My dining companion and I start with three appetizers. A delicious seafood appetizer of green tomatoes fried in a cornmeal crust and layered with sweet crab salad is lightly sweet, with a touch of savory grain mustard. The crab is divine and uncompromisingly fresh. Our server notes that K restaurant doesn’t have a walk-in cooler or large freezer system like most restaurants and most ingredients arrive at the beginning of the day. Arancini (fried rice balls) stuffed with Palmetto Creek (a family owned and operated farm, which “started as a family 4H project that totally changed our lives for the better”) pork sausage follows. These delicious treats burst with flavor. Kale and roast garlic accentuate the risotto in perfect proportion. A third appetizer of bone marrow tartare, made with beef from Lake Meadow Farm, is a truly inspiring dish consisting of a colossal beef bone sliced in half and roasted. The buttery marrow is topped with gorgeous ruby tartare, diced tomatoes and herbs. We slather the accompanying crostini with the beef bounty and finish off every morsel. These appetizers could have easily been enough for two as dinner, given the generous size of the servings.
We refresh our palate by sharing the kale caesar. Sourced from the backyard garden, the salad is dressed lightly in a sumptuous, classic Caesar dressing. It’s the perfect respite between our rich first courses and the main events, wild Pacific Northwest salmon and duck breast.
The salmon prepared medium-rare upon recommendation by our server, rests atop buttery parsnip purée. A bacon salad, featuring Frog Song Organics’ radish, garnishes the fish. An impeccable dish! I debated between it and the snapper, the local day boat catch. Though inclined to try the east coast Florida fish, our server’s enthusiasm and the promise of bacon salad tempted me otherwise. I will have to try the snapper on my next visit. The duck breast from Maple Leaf Farm (based in Indiana) accompanied by a mushroom bread pudding, red cabbage, and cranberry, was cooked to perfection and its cranberry tartness especially pleased my dining companion.
For dessert, the pecan pie and creme brulée were delicious sweet endings to the meal.
After dinner, we take a stroll to the garden out back (a wonderful setting for the restaurant’s wine tastings, pig roasts, oyster roasts, and even weddings). Serendipitously, chef/owner Kevin Fonzo, watering the garden, graciously offers us a quick tour, pointing out lemon verbena and rosemary, the sweet potatoes he has just dug up this week, recently harvested grape vines, bushy kale plants, and plump pumpkins. Offering us a glass of white wine, we sit at a patio table and this remarkable man shares the history of K, from its conception 15 years ago to its expansion and its eventual move to its current location. His volunteer work at the local school will soon expand to include beehives, a second garden plot, compost pile, and a worm farm; how awesome, like our meal! With its impressive food and the congenial, laid-back atmosphere, K restaurant is a destination restaurant worthy of return visits.
[K Restaurant, 1710 Edgewater Drive (across from the post office), Orlando, 407.872.2332 Lunch: Tues-Fri 11:30AM-2:00PM, Dinner: Mon & Tues 6:00PM-9:00PM, Weds-Sat 6:00PM-10:00PM]
(Lucas Knapp, 12/21/15)
Farmer artist Lavern Kelley (1928-1995) and his brother Roger, neither of whom married, lived their entire lives on a 230 acre dairy and livestock farm, in the village of Laurens just outside Oneonta (Otsego County) in upstate New York, which had been their family’s farm since the late 19th century. Twenty years after his death, Lavern Kelley’s art is now on display (until 12/31/15) in a retrospective exhibit, Lavern Kelley: The Art of the Farm, at the Fenimore Museum in Cooperstown (Otsego County, NY).
Patterson Sims, the Guest Curator, in his essay accompanying the exhibit, notes that Kelley “never had any formal artistic training, nor wanted it.” Kelley’s art, according to Mr. Sims, is rooted in his “deep conviction in the fundamental verities, values, and historic centrality of farming and rural small town and community life.” It wasn’t until the 1980s when Kelley was in his 50s, that he began to understand he was “an artist,” and in 1989, his art was the subject of a solo exhibition at Hamilton College’s Emerson Gallery (now the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art). Nearly three decades later, the art of Lavern Kelley has earned this second museum show. Farmer artist Lavern Kelley also received recognition in the late 1980s when he was invited to demonstrate his woodcarving techniques at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. To do so, Kelley took his first and only train ride, traveling between Albany (a long hour’s car-drive from his Oneonta area farm) and New York City, where he flew on to Santa Fe.
Lavern Kelley was a teenager when farming in the 1940s in upstate New York changed from horse to mechanical power, and he was fascinated, if not obsessed, with John Deere tractors. In his words: “Plowing with one of these tractors was actually an event to look forward to, whereas doing so with horses was usually, at least by me, dreaded.” Little surprise that his artistic accomplishment would include (by the mid 1970s) over 450 painted carved trucks and tractors, which he displayed in a special shed near the family farmhouse. The hundreds of trucks and tractors “in tight formation,” according to Patterson Sims, “looks like a folk art, sculptural version of an Andy Warhol Pop-Art painting with massed Coca-Cola bottles or Campbell’s soup cans.”
By the mid 1980s, Kelley’s subjects for his skillful wood carving had expanded from trucks and tractors to include animals (cows, pigs, horses, dogs, cats and birds) and human figures as well as farming vignettes. Although plowing with horses was “dreaded” by Kelley, one of his farming vignettes on display, A Drink Before Going to Work (1990) is a throw-back to earlier days on the Kelley farm. [In fact, horse-powered farming has become appealing of late for “small-scale, resilient farming with a closed-loop system” in the words of Stephen Leslie of Cedar Mountain Farm, the author of The New Horse-Powered Farm (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2013).]
Kelley also began to make formal photographic portraits in the late 1970s, and more extensively through the final years of his life, of his carvings positioned out of doors on the farm with hand-written commentaries beneath the enlarged prints. Curator Sims observes in his essay that Kelley’s staging of photographs demonstrates a “formidable intellect, clarity, and idiosyncratic artistic talent.” Sims compares Kelley’s photography to that of William Wegman, Duane Michals, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons and Gregory Crewdson, who employed “photography to stage images using real and make-believe surrogates and backdrops.”
For this visitor, of particular interest were Kelley’s color pencil and crayon drawings from the late 1940s of the mindful harvesting of wood from the family farm’s woodlot. They brought to mind Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow where a treasured woodlot of 75 acres of very good timber, known as the Nest Egg, was greedily clear-cut for a few fast dollars. Kelley’s drawings show no such wrongheadedness on his family farm. His words, displayed near these appealing folk art drawings, echo appealingly in this modern era of maximizing quick profits: To a farmer, a good woodlot was alway an emergency source of income when hard times hit home. The farm woodlots were loaded with lumber. My brother and I would cut it, skid it out, and sell it in the log. We cut only the trees we wanted to cut, leaving the others to grow. Whenever we sold it on the stump, they took everything.
And in this era of human snow birds flying south, the words of Lavern Kelley (rooted in his rural, upstate New York farm) on his love of winter are valued by anyone who also appreciates the changing of seasons: Winter used to be my favorite season. . . We cut wood every winter, and I loved that, then we burned wood for fuel, both for heat and to cook, so it was essential to cut forty to fifty cords each year. In the wintertime, with all the livestock we had, it took most of the day to do just the barn and hens and hog chores, so if [we] managed to cut wood for two or three hours a day, that was about all the time [we] had. The long evenings were always pleasant for me. After chores, we would have our supper, then I usually would draw pictures till bedtime.
As a closing note, in the gift shop at the Fenimore Museum, hand-cut wooden trucks by Sharon and Joseph Benesch honor the memory of Lavern Kelley. Joseph Benesch, who has been working with wood all of his life, using oak, black walnut, ash, and cherry, hand cuts, laminates and hand fits trucks together while Sharon Benesch stains and paints.
[Lavern Kelley: The Art of the Farm, September 19-December 31, 2015; Fenimore Art Museum, 5798 State Route 80, Cooperstown, NY]
(Frank W. Barrie, 12/14/15)