Conversation: Klaas Martens

Klaas Martens is doing something unconventional for an American farmer: he’s growing food. A third generation farmer, he’s working huge swathes of land near Penn Yan with his wife Mary-Howell, their son Peter, and a small team of farmhands. They are growing a mix of food, grains, and animal feed on over 1,400 acres. And they are doing it organically: no spraying, no chemicals, no GMOs. This makes Klaas a very unconventional big farm farmer.

Klaas used to grow monolithic fields of corn. He used to spray. For twenty years, he applied all the “right” chemicals. Then in 2000 he and Mary-Howell decided to stop and go completely organic. They saw a market demand for real organic food. And Klaas was poisoned by the “right” chemicals he was using.

Klaas is an amazing man to talk with about farming, food, the future… and pretty much anything else. For the launch of Boomtown Table – a new online publication about the life of local food in the Finger Lakes – I wrote a story about how and why Klaas is running a big farm unconventionally. Here are some pieces from the various conversations we’ve had; thoughts and information that didn’t necessarily make it into the story.

How easy was the transition to organic once you decided to make it?
We actually began transitioning to organic in 1993 beginning with just a few acres at first and intending to convert more land each year. My bout with poisoning accelerated that schedule to converting all of the remaining land cold turkey. That was the only decision we could morally make but it was quite risky and scary at the time. It just would have been wrong to hire others to do work that I couldn’t do because it made me sick.

It might seem like a small distinction, but the few years we had to get some experience first made the jump to going all organic possible. Today, with the vast collective experience of organic farmers in the region over the past 30 years plus the advances Cornell University has made in organic farming, converting a farm to organic would be much less difficult or risky than it was 20 years ago. Looking back, our initial practices with only three or four different crops and no idea what to expect seem very naive.

How much food are you actually growing?
These figures are rough but they are pretty close. You’ll get a picture of the diversity of our cropping system and the type of diet that it can support.

Last year we grew over 1,000 tons of cabbage and 120 tons of tofu-grade soybeans. We grew more than 100 tons of edible dry beans, 500 tons of spelt for flour, 11 tons of einkorn berries, 9 tons of emmer berries, 7 tons of freekeh, 5 tons of buckwheat, 3.5 tons of flax, and 30 tons of edamame seed that would yield over 100 tons of fresh edamame. We also grew 100 tons of soybeans for seed that could make more than 175 tons of tempeh.

We grew over 5,000 bushels of malting barley – enough to make more than 240,000 gallons of beer plus a lot of brewers grains for livestock feed – 6,000 bushels of oats, 3,800 bushels of wheat, and 3,000 bushels of rye.

We double cropped much of our land with cover crops that were also harvested. Most of this was harvested for animal feed but some could have been used for human consumption: pea shoots from our winter pea covers, daikon radishes, clover blossoms, field peas, mustard greens, chickweed, mustard seed, milky oats from immature oat heads, etc. There are many tasty ways to eat our cover crops without reducing their benefits to our soil.

Add to all that about 50 hogs fed on screenings, cover crops, and spoiled grains from our mill that we sent to Stone Barns, and over 100 head of milk cows and 100 head of heifers fed largely on cover crops that were harvested as forage without reducing our production of other crops. The dairy cows we feed from our land, produce about 1.5 million pounds of milk per year and the calves plus cull cows add an additional 30 tons of beef per year to the total food we produce.

This year, we added squash and sweet corn to the mix. We also work with a local beekeeper who produces honey from our fields.

Do you grow any grain corn?
Yes, we grew over 1,000 tons of grain corn last year. We have grown a fair amount of sweet corn in the past but don’t currently have a market for it. Unfortunately, most of our grain corn ends up going into livestock. We do plant some food grade OP corn that is used for corn meal, craft distilling, etc., but it is only a small percentage. This is due to lack of markets not for lack of wanting to sell it as food. A couple of distilleries use the hybrid grain corn too but, again, a very low percentage. While our barley was all malting varieties, much of it ended up going into livestock feed because there was not enough demand for the food grade this summer. Likewise with oats. We also grow a lot of grains for seed here; we planted the best variety of malting barley on all of our acres this fall hoping to sell more of it for malting next year. Markets and infrastructure still dictate some decisions.

I’ve had many discussions with Dan Barber about why we can’t sell all of our crops for food purposes. From those discussions came the concept he expands on in The Third Plate of needing to create a balance between peoples’ diets and the agronomic realities involved in managing healthy soils.

Talk a little about the soil.
Each species of crop changes the soil in many ways and makes it better suited to a different successive species. Legumes, including clovers, produce large amounts of nitrogen and build stable aggregates in the soil. Grasses, including annual grain crops, consume large quantities of nitrogen and leave carbon rich residues that further build soil structure, water holding capacity, and organic matter. Brassicas produce gasses when incorporated that destroy pathogenic nematodes and kill fungal pathogens.

I learned some things that made a lot of sense to me when I was out in the field. When you completely abandon a field, take it out of production, the first year you have all these annual type weeds that cover the ground with millions of seeds. But the second year almost none of those same weeds grow; a different group of grasses comes up. And if we waited a third year, we’d see more perennials and goldenrod. And if we waited even a little longer, we’d start seeing brambles and woody plants and the beginnings of trees.

We need to have such a high level of diversity for agronomic reasons. If we didn’t grow such a wide variety of crops on our farm, we would have much more pest pressure and need more off-farm inputs.

Do you spray or provide any sort of additional inputs at all to your fields and crops?
We do use inputs. The details are complex and I want to convey them accurately.

We are not a truly closed system but moving more in that direction as we figure out better ways to close the mineral cycles. As long as our farm sells food that leaves the premises, we will have a net loss of minerals unless we purchase nutrients to replace those we remove.

We can easily generate all of our farm’s nitrogen needs with legumes. We buy poultry manure to replace some of the minerals we export in our grains. We also buy sulphur, boron, potassium, and some minor trace elements based on soil and tissue tests.

We do spray some Bt products on our cabbage to help control worms. But our pest pressure is very low even in crops that are heavily sprayed by other farmers.

We still have a lot to learn and there is always plenty of room for improvement. We have, however, stopped seeing economically significant damage from many of the pest species we once had to deal with and reduced pressure from the ones that are still causing problems. All of the serious pest problems we have had to deal with can be reduced by increasing our biodiversity. The important qualifier is that it must be increased with the right species.

Do you think organic farming can feed the world?
I tell a lot of groups that I speak at that organic farming could easily feed the world today. I say that with one very important caveat: It would not be with a diet based on high fructose corn sweetener and hydrogenated soy oil. It also couldn’t be based on factory farmed animal products. It would however be a far more diverse, interesting, healthy, and delicious diet than most people currently have. It would also build the future productivity of the soil instead of destroying it like many of the world’s farming systems are currently doing.

I really take issue with the line so many American farmers regularly repeat about feeding the world. I always want to ask Cornbelt farmers who say that whether they or anybody they know has ever eaten anything that they grow on their farm. The corn they grow goes into animal feed or into ethanol. The answer is almost invariably NO.

Food 2016

“They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing their problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people but I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting.”
~ Donald Trump, comments about Mexicans in announcing his 2016 presidential run

But Mexicans are bringing us the labor force, the skills, and work ethic that keeps our farms operating and producing food. I wonder if anyone has told Trump that?

According to the USDA, there were 1.1 million hired farmworkers in the US in 2009; sixty seven percent of the crop workers were from Mexico. And according to the National Milk Producers Federation, 40% of dairy laborers in the United States are from Mexico. Since the 1990s, Mexicans have been – and continue to be – the backbone of the farm system that keeps food on most Americans’ plates.

Since this reality never seems to come up in the rhetoric surrounding immigration, these must be the good Mexicans Trump assumes are out there.

Actually, the same USDA data shows that 48% of these Mexican farmworkers are not “legally authorized” to be in the United States. This is an overall number; the specific percentage of legal and unauthorized workers varies significantly by the type of farm work. The percentage can be higher. Much, much higher.

Now consider another reality: the 1.1 million farmworkers in this country make up less than 1% of our total workforce. America depends on a tiny, tiny group of people to feed us all. And a significant number of the farm laborers that keep food on Americans’ tables – and in Mr. Trump’s casino buffets – are Mexicans. Illegal Mexicans, even.

Are these Mexicans stealing jobs from hardworking Americans seeking employment? If they were kept out of our country with new laws, better enforcement, and a wall, would Americans be racing to fill these farm positions?

“In the mid-’90s, I saw dairy managers who were afraid to expand their businesses because they couldn’t find dependable help. Then, some dairies began to hire Latino immigrants, and found they were reliable and had a tremendous work ethic,” says Tom Maloney, who studies agricultural labor at Cornell University.
~ “Got Workers? Dairy Farms Run Low on Labor.” Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2009.

With current labor shortages, wages may need to be raised in order to attract additional labor, yet many farmers state they are unable to do so. However, even at higher wages, many Americans are unwilling or unable to commit to the time consuming, time sensitive, remote, and physically demanding work of a dairy farmworker. The aging population of many rural dairy communities can make this issue even more challenging… In order to meet current labor demands, immigrant labor is critical to NYS agriculture…
~ “The Importance of Farm Labor in the NYS Yogurt Boom.” Cornell Farmworker Program, Research & Policy Brief Series, issue number 62/October 2014.

The real issue here is about more than Mr. Trump and the random, shocking things he says to grab your attention like some huckster on the carnival fairway. It’s about more than immigration reform and border security, both of which deserve genuine and meaningful discussion.

The real issue is about how well any of the presidential hopefuls understand the food system and how well they can steward the system from the Oval Office. Overly simplistic “solutions” to our immigration “problem” are a clear indication that a candidate doesn’t have a clue about how America currently gets fed.

So where do each of the presidential contenders stand on supporting our farms and feeding our nation? In a perfect world, campaign web sites would be helpful for getting answers. Sadly, there’s little – if any – substantive information to be found on the topic.

Looking at the top three contenders on the Republican side, only Marco Rubio has an agricultural plank in his platform; neither Donald Trump nor Ben Carson have any stated position. But Rubio’s position is an interesting one because he focuses exclusively on federal regulations and taxes:

Marco wants to get government out of the way of agriculture so that American farmers and ranchers can build their businesses, compete as exporters, and create jobs…

Marco will undo the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Rule, that will dramatically expand federal control over ponds, ditches and streams. Further, he will fight EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and excessive application of the Endangered Species Act…

Marco’s comprehensive pro-growth, pro-family tax reform will permanently end the death tax and allow for immediate expensing of new machinery and equipment.

As President, Marco would fight the establishment of a cap-and-trade program or carbon tax, which would act as a new national energy tax on agriculture producers.

Farmers and ranchers deal with huge costs imposed by the federal regulations, which interfere in labeling procedures, impose new permitting requirements, land use, and more. Marco has proposed a National Regulatory Budget that would cap the costs federal regulations can impose on the economy, including a limit for each individual agency.

Rubio never once mentions “food”. Which seems extraordinarily weird. He “wants to get government out of the way of agriculture so that American farmers and ranchers can build their businesses, compete as exporters, and create jobs.” But, apparently, he could care less about whether or not these farmers are actually feeding the people of this country.

As for the Democrats, only Hillary Clinton states a position on agriculture; neither Bernie Sanders nor Martin O’Malley do. But in contrast to Rubio, Hillary makes a direct connection between farming and eating: “Farmers and ranchers supply food for America’s dinner tables.” She mentions the “Farm to Fork” program she created in New York to help Upstate farms more effectively sell their produce to the population Downstate. She even acknowledges the need to get more Americans into the farming game:

Hillary will increase funding to support the next generation of farmers and ranchers, invest in expanding local food markets and regional food systems, and provide a focused safety net to assist family operations that truly need support during challenging times.

It’s not much from Hillary, but it is something. And at least she’s talking about food, because here’s the thing…

Fewer Americans are farming than ever before. Farmland is being paved over or otherwise destroyed. Investors are buying farms and expecting them to operate like commodity widget factories instead of complex systems that are here to serve the common good. A changing climate is impacting how we grow food, where we grow it, and how much we can produce. And forty percent of the food we do produce is currently wasted while twenty-five percent of American families experience limited or uncertain access to adequate food on a regular basis.

Clearly it’s time to start asking the presidential candidates to explain in no uncertain terms how they plan to put healthy food on the tables of all Americans, not just now, but for generations to come.

Conversation: Nathaniel Mich

Food insecurity is a very real problem. In the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier, 238,090 individuals are experiencing limited or uncertain access to adequate food on a regular basis. One in five children. Mothers, seniors, and veterans. White, Black, and Latino. In both urban and rural areas. Food insecurity is open to everyone.

It takes a very special effort by a dedicated network of individuals to ensure everyone has a full plate when they need it most.

Nathaniel Mich is the coordinator of Foodlink’s Garden Project, which links community gardens to the larger emergency food network. For an upcoming story in Edible Finger Lakes, Nathaniel shared some of his thoughts about food insecurity and the work he’s doing with Foodlink:

Photo Credit: Copyright Erich Camping 2015

Photo Credit: Copyright Erich Camping 2015

What kind of change are you hoping to create in the world by making sure people have a full plate of food? Why do food pantries and food banks – and community gardens – matter?
Foodlink’s mission is “to end hunger and to leverage the power of food to build a healthier community,” and our vision is “a healthy, hunger-free community.” With regards to the gardens and Food Access Programs, we seek to build communities where access to fresh, healthy, local, and affordable food – especially fruits and vegetables – is the norm, not a luxury.

Simply put, food banks and food pantries matter because our food system has failed. It’s failed people who are low-income, disabled, or elderly. It’s failed communities – urban, suburban and rural – where people understand the importance of cooking and eating healthy, balanced, plant-centric meals, but have little to no access to stores that sell fresh, healthy produce and far too much access to highly processed, high-sugar, high fat starchy foods. It’s failed to the extent that diabetes, obesity and other diet-related illnesses are now the major public health concerns of our time. Foodlink now sees itself as a public health organization, not just an emergency food provider, and we’re able to build on an infrastructure once devoted to pushing out dented cans to attack the root causes of hunger.

In our gardens, we help low-income people gain – or regain – the skills to grow their own food, reduce their reliance on emergency food, and use vouchers to build healthy habits around buying local produce. But the impact of community gardens more generally goes way beyond the actual food they grow. It’s not realistic to think that we could satisfy all of our own food needs through urban agriculture. And why would we, when we are surrounded by some of the best farmland in the world? But in a community garden, people learn that they don’t have to be passive consumers of the products of a food system that ultimately doesn’t have their best interests at heart. As a member of a community garden myself, I’ve found no better place to make deep friendships with people who don’t look like me, aren’t my age, and aren’t of the same economic class. In a community garden, we learn that we can create our own health: physical, social and environmental. And that is a deeper, more important outcome than any amount of pounds.

What are the reasons why people are unable to put food on their own tables?
Lack of jobs. The Great Recession. Highly concentrated, generational poverty. Racism. Generational skills gaps. A highly individualistic culture. Agricultural subsidies for corn/soy/wheat (i.e. processed foods), while all fruits and vegetables are considered “specialty crops.”

How is the Garden Project helping people achieve this?
We’re operating under a Special Nutrition Initiatives grant from the New York State Department of Health Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program that allows us to work with partner emergency agencies (pantries, kitchens, shelters) to install and maintain vegetable gardens. The produce from those gardens is meant to go back into their emergency food programming or directly to food-insecure clients that are recruited to volunteer in the gardens.

Each garden host site must provide the land, water and a garden site manager (usually a staff person, deacon, or dedicated volunteer) who recruits volunteers and manages the day-to-day work of tending the garden. My role is to be the Garden Ikea and Library: I provide all of the materials for the garden (bed materials, soil, compost, plants, seeds, tools, shed, scale, etc.) and all of the training and information necessary to succeed. In return, the gardens report their harvests, participation, and voucher distribution back to me. We also provide Nutrition Education workshops to participating gardens where people can learn to use what they are growing.

How many people do the gardens serve?
In the 2014 growing season, the 19 gardens in our program raised food that impacted over 4,000 people and the program has only grown this season.

What are the demographics of the people who get food from the gardens?
Almost all of the food raised by these gardens goes back into the programming of the emergency food agency that hosts it, so most of the people who benefit from the program are low-income. Otherwise, it covers the whole range of race, age and gender. Our largest garden – the Lexington Avenue Urban Farm (LAUF) – serves over 50 families from the local Nepalese and Burmese refugee communities.

What types of food typically come from a Project garden?
It’s mostly the vegetables you’d expect, the typical farmers market basket. Our most popular crops are tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, collards and other greens, squash and beans. We also try to introduce people to less familiar vegetables: bok choy, kale, sunchokes and radishes for example.

At LAUF, mustard greens, cilantro, beans, radishes, tomatoes, chilis, eggplant, okra and squash predominate, but they also cultivate perennials that we’d dismiss as weeds (like lamb’s quarters and pigweed) as well as plants that I’ve never seen before (roselle hibiscus was a new one, for example).

Conversation: Ruth Blackwell

Food waste has been on my radar for a while now. If we’re going to talk about food, we need to talk about the tragic amount that never makes it to someone’s plate.

The recent announcement by the USDA and EPA to reduce American food waste by 50% by 2030 is definitely welcome. But the devil is always in the details – or lack thereof. This new goal for the United States is based on a 2014 report that’s broad in scope and, in terms of farm-level food waste, sorely lacking in concrete numbers:

“Food losses begin on the farm even before a commodity moves into the marketing system. Although ERS was not able to quantify food losses that occur on the farm or between the farm and retail levels, anecdotal evidence suggests that such losses can be significant for some commodities.”

Other oft-quoted studies from the NRDC and the FAO are similarly limited in the detail they give us about the problem at a local level.

If we’re currently relying on anecdotal evidence to understand the amount of waste occurring on farms, then we need to get as much first-person input as possible. We need to talk to lots of different farmers.

Ruth Blackwell is the owner and farmer of Mudcreek Farm in Victor, NY. Here’s what she had to say during a recent conversation:

Does food waste occur on your farm? What are the sources?
One of the reasons why I want to farm in the CSA model as opposed to selling at market is to drastically reduce food waste. I don’t have to worry about market conditions, since my members have already purchased their share ahead of time. The cost of a share is based more on variety and quality than specific vegetables’ market costs.

I do lose a small amount of veggies to quality standards… I have pretty high standards in terms of health of my vegetables. But I don’t have to adhere to the ridiculous standards your typical grocery store would employ. I’m right there to explain to members that a carrot with two legs tastes just as good as a carrot with one. And the things I do discard either go to feeding our pigs and poultry, or gets turned into compost. Nothing is really “waste”.

Labor shortage isn’t a problem on my scale. And food safety scares don’t affect me, since everything is clean, organic, and transparent to my members. Food safety scares might actually help my business: sketchy bagged spinach from California might chase those scared customers right to me.

The only thing I have to worry about is weather and disease, and that’s a real worry. Especially with climate change rearing its ugly head. This June it rained 26 days out of 30, and we had about 75-80% crop loss in all our spring brassicas; they were essentially sitting in standing water and the roots just rotted away. I then lost a lot of direct seeded things that were planted in May and June – onions, carrots, beets, parsnips, etc. – because I couldn’t cultivate the wet soil and they got lost in weeds. Other transplanted crops couldn’t get planted on schedule and were late or stunted as a result.

A CSA relies on pretty specific timing to work properly, so an entire month of not getting on the ground can really screw you. This spring has made me adjust my plans for the future; I’m going to buy some equipment and change my practices around (raised beds with plastic mulch) to try and help protect future crops from the ravages of another rain event like this June. Raised beds can drain more easily and plastic mulch suppresses weeds when I can’t hand weed or cultivate. But climate change brings more drastic, unpredictable weather, including too hot or too cold weather for specific crops; an increase of diseases like late blight earlier in the season than usual; late and early frosts, etc. It’s impossible to plan around, so it makes my business more risky, and also puts the burden on me to explain to my members why the shares aren’t what was promised.

Any general thoughts about this food waste discussion?
The main thing that really bothers me about the food waste problem is the unrealistic standards that are placed on food. Every zucchini, every tomato, every cucumber going to the store has to look “perfect” and results in copious amounts of perfectly edible food getting tossed, while millions of people are starving or living in “food deserts” where they can’t get fresh produce. It’s insane. The standards for what’s salable have way more to do with looks than taste. The tomatoes you get in the store look perfect and taste like cardboard. I don’t give a shit what it looks like. I’m eating it, not putting it up on the wall.

I’m not sure where these decisions get made, and I’m sure it’s a slow, collective slide into the insane, not one higher-up’s decision. But people have become completely ignorant about food. Priorities are completely skewed. And to me, it seems like the most obvious and easily corrected reason for food waste, because there’s no good reason for it. It’s just a marketing problem.

Being a CSA is a good way to combat this attitude; I introduce members to ugly heirloom tomatoes, strange eggplant, weird carrots that taste way better than anything they can get in the store. But my resources to address the problem are way smaller than Wegman’s or the FDA.

Old Seed Photos: a Glimpse and a Vision

While doing research for an upcoming article in 585 Magazine, I had the opportunity to look through stacks of original photos from the Joseph Harris Seed Company. Thank you to Richard Chamberlin, current president of Harris Seed Company, for making this possible.

Matt Kelly,

In front of me are two cardboard boxes. Small boxes. Neatly filled with papers, pamphlets, and large envelopes. They sit waiting for me on the long table of a conference room, beneath the glare of fluorescent lights. There is nothing about these boxes to suggest they are special in any way.

Until I begin lifting out the envelopes.

They’re thick and heavy; they feel distinctly like glass. Photographic plates. I’m instantly attentive to my every movement as I set them on the table. Sandwiched between envelopes are photos. Black and white. Original images made from these plates. A photo of strawberries has a faded, hand-written note: “Superb (Everbearing) Oct 10, 1914.”

Along with the strawberries are images of tomatoes, cantaloupe, and beets. Images of crops growing, crops harvested, and seeds being processed. Farm fields, farmhouses and farm hands. Faces and people.

There is something very special here: a window into Rochester’s little-known but once-great history as the seed capital of the United States from 1870 until 1920.


The two boxes of photos in front of me are from the Harris Seed Company archives. In fact, they’re the entire archive. Which is a sad reminder of how few physical connections remain to this part of our local history.

Fortunately there are collections of various original catalogs and publications from Vick, Harris and other local seedsmen stored away in the libraries at the Rochester Museum and Science Center, the Rochester Civic Garden Center, and the University of Rochester. They contain a wealth of farming wisdom and advice from a time before heavy mechanization and chemical inputs became the standard for growing food.

As I carefully place the photos and plates back into the cardboard boxes, it occurs to me that these materials offer more than just a glimpse into the history of what Rochester once was. They also provide a vision for what we can become once again.

Photo credit: My watermark is on these photos because I shot them for use here. But full credit – along with immense gratitude – goes to the photographer who created the original images. Whoever you are, thank you.

Matt Kelly,

Matt Kelly,

Matt Kelly,

Conversation: Siggi Hilmarsson

For an upcoming story about yogurt in Edible Finger Lakes magazine, I had the opportunity to talk with Siggi Hilmarsson, the founder and CEO of siggi’s dairy. He had a lot of great things to say about skyr and yogurt, but only a small portion made it into the actual story. Here’s the complete interview:

Photo provided by siggi's dairy

Photo provided by siggi’s dairy

How do you explain the difference between skyr and yogurt?
Skyr is a type of yogurt that has been made in Iceland for over 1,000 years. The main difference is that skyr is strained. A strained yogurt begins with making some type of regular yogurt and then straining out the water (the whey) to make it thick and creamy. The Greek yogurt that is very well known in the United States is a strained yogurt like skyr. But there are also textural and other differences between strained yogurts. For example, Icelandic skyr is usually a bit thicker than Greek and therefore has a bit higher protein content.

What is “good” skyr? What is “good” yogurt?
I think any good fresh dairy product – whether it be skyr, regular yogurt or filmjölk – has to start with great milk. If you start with great milk and then culture it right, you will end up with a good product. After that some level of preference comes in.

Some people like their products more tart or less tart which then determines how long you incubate and what type of cultures you use. Also texture is important. I like a bit of “curdy” texture, which dictates a bit how we incubate and subsequently stir our yogurt during the process. I dislike the use of starches as thickeners of the actual yogurt.

If you are looking at flavored yogurt, then I think a good yogurt is about balancing the flavor of the fruit or the spice with that of the natural flavor of the yogurt. You want to know that you are eating yogurt while at the same time feel and savor the essence of the fruit. It also goes without saying that great flavored yogurt should be very lightly sweetened and include no artificial sweeteners or flavorings.

How important is the use of local milk?
For us it is very important. I made my first batch of yogurt in my New York City apartment, worked on test batches in Morrisville College NY, and began selling in downtown Manhattan. Our first manufacturing facility was in Chenango County. So our story is very much tied to New York State and we are very proud of it. I still live in New York. Currently the majority of our milk and manufacturing takes place in the Finger Lakes and we plan on keeping it that way as we grow.

How has customer interest changed since you started making and selling skyr?
The interest has definitely increased. When I started selling our skyr at an outdoor green market in downtown Manhattan in 2006, not a lot of people knew what thick or strained yogurt was, let alone what Icelandic style skyr yogurt was. With the growth of yogurt in general – and Greek yogurt in particular – consumers are much more into new types of yogurt and are seeking us out.

There is also a general trend towards eating less sugar. We had good interest in our product from the start since it was not very sweet. In some cases, our skyr had less than half the sugar of mainstream yogurts on the market. Even though the interest was strong there were also some consumers who weren’t used to the taste of yogurt that didn’t have over 20g of sugar in it. In the last two to three years, however, there has been a total breakthrough in the public understanding of the importance of reducing sugar in the diet; how sugar consumption is connected to obesity and the diseases related to obesity. This awareness has resulted in an unbelievable surge in the demand and interest for our product.

What are current customer preferences like regarding yogurt? Sweet vs. savory? Stand-alone snack vs. ingredient?
I would love to do more savory products. However I still think consumer preferences in general are more for fruit-type flavors, and we see that with our products too. Although I do think preferences are changing: we see consumers being very willing to try the more savory options. Our orange and ginger yogurt – although not hardcore savory – has been one of our bestsellers from the beginning.

I think both historically and for us, yogurt was first and foremost a stand-alone snack. But that has also changed dramatically in the past few years: people are using it as an ingredient – cooking with it – in increasingly creative ways. We see at least one new smoothie recipe a day from our consumers via social media or email, each one smarter than anything I could come up with.

Do customer preferences vary based on the different regions you sell in? Is there a particular “NY yogurt eater” profile?
They do vary and it is interesting to try to figure out why. New York has some clear trends: our coconut, orange and ginger, and plain do much better in New York than elsewhere. In the South, peach does better.

Is there a “busy season” for yogurt?
The busiest season is definitely the New Year when people want to refocus on their healthy eating habits after holiday indulgences. Back to school is also pretty big.

What’s your favorite way to eat skyr?
I go through phases and moods where some concoction or the other is my favorite. But I truly always come back to one: plain skyr with fresh blueberries and walnuts, and maybe a splash of heavy cream if it has been a long day.

Harvestmen in the Garden

Matt Kelly,

This was not a stellar year in the garden. Keeping things simple, I focused on just two crops: tomatoes and cucumbers. But in the past several weeks, the tomatoes got hammered with blight and the cucumbers finally succumbed to powdery mildew. By mid-August, any remaining hopes of even a minimal harvest were completely gone. When the syrphid flies that had filled the air finally moved on from the garden, I decided I should too; I began pulling dead plants from the ground and bagging them for destruction.

Which is when I saw the daddy long legs making a meal of a fly among the dead leaves. A pretty cool sight: how often do you get to see one of the world’s most poisonous spiders – whose fangs aren’t big enough to penetrate human skin – capturing and consuming prey?

Answer: you never get to see it. Harvestmen – aka “daddy long legs” – aren’t poisonous and don’t have fangs like other spiders. In fact, Harvestmen aren’t even spiders; same class of arthropods, completely different orders. They capture prey by ambush – not by web – and have been known to scavenge, feeding on small insects, plant matter, fungi, and the occasional bird poo. Harvestmen use their mouth parts to nibble little bits from their meal and consume it bite by bite; spiders use fangs to inject digestive fluids into their prey, tenderize it, and then ingest it like a milkshake through a straw.

What I saw in the garden detritus was most likely some opportunistic scavenging. The fly wasn’t moving at all; the Harvestmen had probably found the carcass and was figuring out the best way to start nibbling.

At least someone got a decent meal from the garden this year.

Matt Kelly,

Additional Info:
Bug Guide. Order Opiliones – Harvestmen, retrieved from

Cranshaw, W. (2004). Garden Insects of North America.

Wikipedia. Opiliones, retrieved from