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Keeping It Local

Liz Neumark, photo by Brandon SchulmanFollow the Hudson River for about 140 miles north of Manhattan and you will arrive at the bucolic town of Kinderhook. The region is rich in history, having once been home to a U.S. president, Martin Van Buren, a U.S. vice president, Aaron Burr, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow author Washington Irving. These days, it is also home to Katchkie Farm, a 60-acre organic farm that is a trailblazer in the local food, farm-to-table movement. Its year-round fresh food is grown specifically to feed clients of Great Performances, one of New York City’s most successful catering companies. The farm is also home to The Sylvia Center, a nonprofit organization that aims to teach children about food and nutrition by providing hands-on farming and cooking experience. The woman driving all three of these operations: their charismatic founder and CEO Liz Neumark ’77.

Great Performances’ motto is “celebrate food,” and Neumark has done just that since she started the company in 1979. She was two years out of Barnard at the time, having graduated with degrees in urban studies and political science, when she had the idea to create a waitress service employing struggling female artists looking to supplement their incomes. Within five years, Great Performances had evolved into a catering company known for its great food as well as its attention to detail. As the parties grew more elaborate, Great Performances kept pace, becoming New York’s largest off-site caterer, operating from a 23,000-square-foot space in Hudson Square, and working with some of the city’s largest institutions, including Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Plaza Hotel.

By the mid-2000s, the booming business found Neumark looking for ways to remain innovative. Catering companies are typically small and nimble, and she wanted her substantial operation to retain the sensibility that fueled its growth. “I thought one way to stay small was to base things on [locally grown] food,” says Neumark. “Maybe it’s from my Russian stock, but I’ve always had this idea in the back of my mind, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a farm?’” A farm could provide local food and seasonal flavors to Great Performances, grown under the same sustainable farming practices gaining popularity among environmentalists. “If we could stick to
the basics, it would be healthy for our clients and healthy for [our business],” she says.

There was another cause of Neumark’s restlessness. After the loss of her 7-year-old daughter, Sylvia, who died from a sudden brain aneurysm, Neumark found it difficult to care about the party planning that once drove her success. “I thought, ‘I don’t know how I can come back to this industry, where people obsess over a color or the length of a tablecloth,’” she says. The company had always been philanthropic, donating to a variety of causes, but Neumark wanted something more. She wanted a legacy for the little girl who had loved helping others, something unique that would teach other children about the celebration of food. “As we created parties and events,” she says, “we would work on the secondary mission of teaching children to eat well.”

In 2006, the company purchased a piece of unfarmed land in upstate New York. The foundation was quickly laid for a year-round working farm operation, including three greenhouses, two with in-ground radiant heat fueled by the catering company’s old cooking oil. The farm was called Katchkie, which is the Yiddish word for duck, after Neumark’s pet name for her son, Sam, now 17. One year later, the farm had its first harvest.

The timing could not have been better. The local food movement has since become the hottest trend in food, and Katchkie Farm is an industry leader. Most of the farm’s yield is served up to clients of Great Performances as part of the caterer’s unique 100-Mile Menus, made up of dishes sourced within a 100-mile radius of New York City. The operation is still too small to completely support the catering giant. “Everything we grow, we use,” Neumark says, “but our need outstrips everything we could possibly grow.”

Where Katchkie Farm can’t provide, neighboring farms can. One nearby farmer specializes in green beans, for example. Fresh produce and artisanal products from Katchkie Farm are also sold at farmers’ markets and in specialty stores across the state. The farm is known for its spicy-sweet Thunder Pickles, and its Katchkie Ketchup is so adored it received a rave in The New York Times (film legend Lauren Bacall was once spotted buying the signature condiment at Zabar’s on the Upper West Side). Katchkie Farm has a Community Supported Agriculture program, or farm share, for New York City residents, and even offers a workplace program to companies interested in providing a unique employee benefit.

The Sylvia Center has made an impact as well. The organization works with about 1,000 children on Katchkie Farm during the growing season. Most are from the Kinderhook area, but some are visitors from New York City. The center sponsors after-school programs and works in community centers in the city; it is currently offering programs in five housing-authority buildings and will soon expand to almost double that. “We also work with teenagers, which is really interesting. First they are tough, they don’t want to be doing this, but then they all want to be chefs,” says Neumark. While the Sylvia Center does not aspire to be a jobs program, she says, leading young people into the hospitality industry is an added benefit.

All of this work has put Neumark and her staff at the forefront of food politics. Having won numerous business awards throughout her career, Neumark is now recognized as a trailblazer for local food, sustainable agriculture, and anti-hunger initiatives. She serves on the governor’s Food Policy Council to help shape the state’s food initiatives, she writes a regular column about food for The Huffington Post, and is working on a cookbook, Sylvia’s Table, due from Knopf next year. She is also on the board of Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies, which aims to nurture the next generation of female trailblazers. “We live in a world where great food is a privilege. [But] there’s really not an awareness of where our food comes from,” Neumark says. Katchkie Farm and the Sylvia Center have given her and her staff an understanding of these issues, and the chance to help shape the debate. Put simply, she says, “It shifted the way we look at food.”

For more information, visit katchkiefarm.com