November 2012 — For a decade, Ivor Chodkowski has been running Field Day Family Farm, a 10-acre operation squeezed between a golf course and an interstate highway a 20-minute drive from downtown Louisville, Kentucky. As if that venture weren’t iffy enough, he recently opened a farm-to-table restaurant, the latest in his portfolio of local agriculture-related enterprises that includes Grasshoppers Distribution, a produce company connecting small-scale local farmers with large-scale buyers including the city school district. He was also instrumental in starting the Bardstown Road farmers market, one of Louisville’s largest farmers markets.
The restaurant, Harvest, which opened in April 2011, with Coby Lee Ming running the kitchen, soon won an ardent local following and national critical acclaim. In 2012, Harvest was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s best new restaurant award, and was named by Bon Appetit magazine as one of the nation’s 50 best new restaurants.
‘I had a friend who said, “Ivor, there are easier ways to lose money.” ’
I recently talked to Chodkowski about his career as a farmer/restaurateur.
Q: How did you end up on a farm in the midst of a city?
A: It is one of the last large tracts of undeveloped acreage in Louisville, and it was also one of the first farms in this area. It was granted to folks way back in the 1780s and has been in the same family ever since. It has been a working farm throughout its history and still is at this point. We are just trying to figure out how to hold onto it. Some of it has been sold off for development, but there are still around 240 acres planted in row crops – basically GMO corn and soybeans. Interstate 64 bisects the farm. We have a 10-acre piece ourselves for vegetables on the other side of the freeway, and we arranged with the conventional farmer to plant 10 acres of black beans and 10 acres of non-GMO heirloom field corn for us. It is our second year to do that. We have had a productive, interesting relationship with him. He has all the equipment and can plant it quickly and can cultivate it and combine it, and I have a local, market-ready product at the end. All we have to do is some packaging. The piece of the farm that we have leased wasn’t really in production before we came along. It was just brush cut every year. So the trust beneficiaries in particular were pretty interested and were pretty open to what we wanted to do. They kind of recruited us. Things have been great for eight years now.
Q: How did you get into farming?
A: I was raised in Louisville, but my dad was a college professor. So we had summers off and we would go to New Hampshire. I was actually born in New Hampshire. It was rural everywhere up there, so I ended up at the farm down the road playing with the farmer’s son, which meant shoveling out barns, collecting eggs, picking up hay. I ended up with an master of fine arts degree at Oregon , but even there, I kept finding myself at the farmer’s market, asking people if they needed help. So it wasn’t a surprise that I ended up in agriculture back here in Louisville .
Q: Don’t you have enough aggravations in farming? Why take on the additional stress of running a restaurant?
A: When I was working with my partners to raise capital to open the restaurant, I had a friend who said, ‘Ivor, there are easier ways to lose money.’ I have two other partners and one junior partner. We were actually able to raise one-third of the capital just by putting a chalkboard out at the farmer’s market. There was enough interest and people cared enough to believe in the mission of supporting local agriculture, which is at the bottom what I did it for. That is the mission of the restaurant and is also partly why I farm. That makes making money somewhat problematic, but I think my partners and I all thought the concept was solid. I was well known enough in the community, and we could use the farmer’s market as a vehicle for marketing and advertising. Nobody had done it to that degree before. We picked a great spot for the restaurant in a neighborhood that was up-and-coming, called NuLu, that most people now think has always been a restaurant row. A lot of things seemed to click.
Finding a Chef Who Got It
Q: How did you recruit your chef?
A: We found a great chef, Coby Lee Ming, out of a pool of four really strong candidates. I have known her for years. She worked at another restaurant in Louisville and for a caterer. She was a buyer of produce from our farm, and a really good buyer. She didn’t have trouble with different sizes of offerings, and she was familiar with everything. She was willing to try new things. She wasn’t someone who I would have to sort of nurse through understanding seasonality. She already got that. She knew local sources that I didn’t know about. We were really lucky on a number of counts, including the James Beard nomination and the Bon Appetit nomination and all of those things.
Q: What are some of the distinctive Kentucky dishes that have been on the menu at Harvest?
A: We think we do a really good fried chicken. It’s kind of funny to say that, being from the state that has the global Kentucky fried chicken company. But it is not the easiest thing to do. Folks come in and they rave about the chicken and the gravy that it comes with. It usually comes with a hoe cake and bread pudding. And we do great with salads and greens. We have a seasonal board that changes throughout the year. In the winter, it is usually a charcuterie board with all local meats. Our chef does a great job with those. We also have a local cheese board with all local cheeses. And we pickle things, so we have a pickled vegetable board. We use our local food wall map to show what we do, which is to procure 80 percent of what we use within 100 miles. We do that in terms of volume of product and dollars spent. More importantly, we won’t serve any main dish, and usually the side dishes as well, that have a main ingredient that is from somewhere else. Therefore, it is fairly rare that we have seafood on the menu. Although we have access to Kentucky aquaculture products, which are good and high quality, that is sometimes a little too expensive for our price point.
Q: Have you successfully introduced any new local items to your clientele?
A: I don’t know if you can say this about a farm product, but some are still in development. For example, we did salsify last fall. That is something that is pretty obscure, but maybe Coby can make a go of it. A lot of people have never heard of it, and in the market, nobody knows what it is. She roasted the salsify. At some point, she also had it in burgoo, which is a traditional Kentucky stew with a variety of different meats. In that dish, the salsify ended up being a little okra-like in terms of its sliminess. So she was thinking it wasn’t a good ingredient for that and decided not to put it in the burgoo anymore. Almost every other vegetable I grow, she has used in some way. Some of the things that I like and am happy to see being used in multiple different ways are radishes, and the greens in the chicory family. I love radicchio and escarole and endive. I think radicchio is one of the most beautiful things to pair with a pork belly or with grilled pork, and she has done that, which is fantastic. But a regular old radish that comes in early in the fall when there aren’t a lot of other things to be had, and also early in the spring, she butter roasts those. They are really delicious and kind of surprising.
Q: Is Harvest’s clientele adventurous enough to try new things?
A: I think so. I don’t think there has really been anything that the folks who come in haven’t been delighted with. The farmers market is fairly sophisticated, but even there, people aren’t as daring as they think they are. For example, regular red beets sell better than either golden or bull’s eye beets. Orange carrots sell better than purple or white carrots, for sure. And green beans sell better than wax or Roma beans. So some of those things do better at the restaurant, when our chefs do great things with them.
Financed by Crowd at Farmers Market
A: How did you get visitors to the farmers market to invest in the restaurant?
Q: Before the idea of crowd financing became popular with services like Kickstarter, we did it in a low-tech way. We put a chalkboard out at the farmers market asking people if they might be interested in being a part of the investor pool. Around 20 of those folks signed up and bought a share, at $5,000 per share. That provided about a third of the capital that we needed. My partners and I also went into debt to fund it. There are a total of 100 shares. If the restaurant becomes successful and profitable and we can be sure that we have three months operating expenses in the bank, we will start to disperse dividends. I think owning a part of a restaurant that is local and exciting is a big reason a lot of folks decided to take the plunge. A lot of those folks are also farmers, which is a neat story.
Q: What are the prospects of ever paying dividends?
A: We feel pretty good about it. We have been learning, and it has taken some time to figure things out. We are working on a couple of things in sequence. One of them is more refrigeration and stovetop, so that we can do catering, as well. And we hope that as we do that and establish that track record, that we can also finish the upstairs for private dining, and maybe do a patio out back. I think between catering and private dining, we will be in a better position to make a profit.
Kicking the Tobacco Habit
Q: Kentucky is known for having lots of small farms that remain viable, thanks to the way allotments for tobacco acreage were divvied up historically. But since the system of tobacco production quotas ended, can the state’s many small farmers survive?
A: Essentially, the tobacco quota system created a price floor by telling farmers how much they could grow based on how much acreage they had in the beginning, so production was spread out. It was very egalitarian, but it recently ended. So tobacco production is now much larger and more reliant on migrant labor. It has become basically another commodity-type crop, like corn and soy and wheat. Although the tobacco program went away, there are still 82,000 small farms in Kentucky, which is second per capita after Iowa and the most east of the Mississippi. There are quite a number of people still in agriculture in this state.
Q: But can they survive in the 21st century?
A: In the year 2000, Kentucky did something with its tobacco settlement funds that has helped. That is the settlement between states’ attorney’s general and the tobacco companies. Kentucky decided to allocate half of its share for the transition of tobacco farmers and tobacco dependent communities. That means $1.7 billion is available over 25 years for programs and projects. We are not quite halfway into that, and surprisingly, a lot of that has really gone to places other than big business. A group of us at an organization called Community Farm Alliance have rallied and put together a long-term plan for agriculture that is mainly about helping smaller farmers. While not everything has been perfect, I think a fair evaluation of how the money has been spent would say that at least half has gone to small farm-type organizations on small farm-type projects. Some has gone to promote Kentucky wineries. And Kentucky is one of the biggest producers of grass-fed cattle, probably the biggest east of the Mississippi , so it was a smart move for there to be a program about forage improvement. I think cattle farmers have been helped by that. There have also been investments in diversification of markets. Grasshoppers got money for help with that, and farmers markets have gotten help. Also agri-tourism, although people both on the alliance board, and maybe some regular farmers are not as enchanted with that anymore. But there is a confluence of developments that is very exciting.
Q: Is the farm-to-table trend among restaurants like Harvest making a noticeable difference for small farmers in Kentucky ?
A: I think farm-to-table restaurants have been a part of the equation for a lot of small farmers for some time already. Louisville is a thriving local food city these days. We were rated number three on Zagat, which is surprising to me. What is the criteria for being third best in the world? I don’t know. But we have a mayor who cares substantially about local food, and there is significant local business and corporate support for those efforts, as well. Kentucky is one of the most exciting places to be in the country, agriculturally, for all of those reasons.