Build A Team
Q: Can you talk a little bit about Rise & Root Farm and the collective you are a part of?
Coming from New York City, my farm partners and I know how amazing it is to be able to get out of the city and go work on a farm. It's actually really hard to go work on a working farm, because it's like going to somebody's work to work with them when you don't necessarily know what you're doing. How many people would open up their workspace and say, "Yeah, come work with me to learn this thing"?
We formed the farm with a social justice mission, so one of the things that we do — and that we did not do as successfully this past season but have in seasons past — is we have open farm work days, like a community work day on the farm. Usually the last Saturday of the month is when we've typically done it. It's a way for people to come out of the city, to come from around the suburbs where we live, and work with us on the farm and be in a space where ... Jane and I are married; we are queer people. We have queer people, we have straight people, we have older people and younger, we are intergenerational. Lorrie and Karen are both black, so we have people of color and white people working together, and we're all women. So all of these people who are traditionally under-represented in agriculture can feel welcome and comfortable working with us on the farm. It's a gift that we can give, and people are super appreciative of it, and it's also a gift to have people come to the farm and work with us. The community we had in the city is something that we miss, so the fact that we are close enough to the city that people can come up, and that people from our area who are wanting a farm experience in a welcoming environment can come to the farm and work with us and get their hands in the soil and be out in nature and see the bugs and the frogs and hear the birds.
There is a constant balance of running a business that is a social justice-based business. You have to figure out how to make enough money that you can fulfill your mission — and then are you still working toward your mission? It's this constant questioning back and forth. We had fewer community work days this year because we were so busy with everything, but that’s a huge part of our mission. So there's a questioning that all four of us do together to make sure that we're trying to stay in line as much as we can and not swing too far on either side of that pendulum.
We're trying to dial in the business side of it, because if we can't afford to do the farm anymore then we don't have that gift to give of the space, of the place, of us as people working together — so it has to be both. It just has to be both.
The four of us have remained constant: It's me and Jane, and then our friends Lorrie Clevenger and Karen Washington. Jane and I moved up to the farm in April of 2015, and I think Lorrie moved up here in June or July of that year. Karen has a house in the Bronx, so she comes up to stay with us part of the week during the season. This is her second career. She retired from being a physical therapist and is now farming, and she does a lot of public speaking. She's an amazing person in the urban agriculture world. The four of us legally formed the farm as an LLC and we run the farm cooperatively, so no matter who puts in what kind of time or money commitment to the farm, we each have equal voting power. It was a long, long process to develop our operating agreement.
One of the particular challenges that’s a whole other story is that Jane and I started fostering two little kids last October, so this year there has been an incredible shift in our capacity for the farm. We've been trying to figure out how to run the business and work full-time as farmers, and also have other jobs that we do — like food styling for me — and then also be parents and recognize how that affects our capacity. And really we did not even know how it was going to affect our capacity until we were just full on in it... Bringing that into the conversation as well has been a big piece. The end of last year is just a haze really. We had no idea what we were getting into. Being a parent and then also being a foster parent is definitely, without question, the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life, and it has brought its own special set of challenges and joys. Part of our farm vision was to have kids on the farm. We want to share this possibility of a way of life with young people, with younger generations, so that is again a gift that we get to give them. The kids say that they're farmers. They come and help as best they can at the farm when it's a day off or during the summer and they're around.
Q: What is your background in and what led you to working in food and starting a farm?
My background is in graphic design and photography, so at one point I was managing two studios and then also helping produce photos shoots in New York. Both of the photographers I was working with at that time were fashion photographers, and I knew then that I didn't want to be a commercial photographer. The other company we were sharing space with was an architecture and interior design company called AvroKo. They were working on opening a restaurant because they wanted to design restaurants — and so they figured one of the best ways to do that was to design and open their own.
Since I knew I didn't want to be a commercial photographer, that I didn't want to move forward in that way, I was trying to figure out what I did want to do. My explorations ranged dramatically from marine biologist to animal trainer. I was going everywhere. What I realized is that I was going in to work every day much more excited about what they were doing opening this restaurant, than what I was doing working in fashion photography.
So I decided to go to culinary school. I remember being terrified to tell my parents because when I got into art school they were so worried that I was not going to make any money. When I graduated with a degree in graphic design they were so excited because it was the one field in art that they could wrap their minds around me actually making a living. So I was terrified of what their response was going to be when I said, "Hey, I'm going to go to culinary school."
Actually, I was completely surprised, because their response when I told them was, "Oh, that makes so much sense." I guess, from their perspective, I had grown up always being interested in food. I loved baking with my mom, who is a really good baker, and we baked a lot growing up and decorated cakes and made cookies for the holidays and for birthdays. Then, when I was starting in photography in Kansas City, which is where I lived before I moved to New York, I assisted a photographer there and we traveled a lot, and it was almost always about the food wherever we went and exploring different kinds of food. It was always something I had been incredibly interested in. So my parents were super supportive. I went to culinary school in New York City, and while I was in culinary school I started to focus in on what eventually has become my path, which is local-seasonal food and the local food movement.
For my final project in culinary school we had to create a menu that could have been based around anything. And one of the things about me that has influenced my life across the board — and I'm learning this more and more as I get older — is that I was adopted. I have grown up feeling like I have many families and simultaneously no real family, like I belong a lot of places and don't totally belong in any one place. So when I did my menu the theme was heritage, and it was my food influences throughout my life, who ranged from my mom — that was the dessert because she was the baker — to my host mother from the year I lived in Yugoslavia between high school and college.
Once I graduated from culinary school, I worked in one of the massive catering operations in New York City for a while. Then I worked my way from that giant catering house to a small local-seasonal restaurant that was just opening and was small enough that I got to do kind of everything in the restaurant. And then I went to work at Tabla, which is closed now but was one of the restaurants in the USHG family of restaurants, and it was an Indian-inspired restaurant that had both an informal traditional Indian part and then a fine dining restaurant that was Indian-European fusion.
I went there because I wanted to experience that kind of cooking. I wanted to learn that food, to learn all the spices, and it was one of the key educational moments in my culinary career, just learning an entirely different cuisine. There were so many spices — just beautiful, beautiful spices — and that style, a different style of cooking. Sourcing from local farmers was one of the key tenets of the restaurant as well.
So I was there a little over a year before I took a trip to England and worked with the chef that had consulted on opening Public (the restaurant AvroKo opened), named Peter Gordon. Peter is from Australia, and he does this really wonderful blend of Australian-Asian fusion — again a whole other set of flavors for me to learn. When I came back, I started working at Gramercy Tavern and worked there in various positions and capacities for the next three years. Really the two main reasons I went to work at Gramercy were to work with Mike Anthony, who's the chef there, because he is so good at working with local farmers, and also to learn how to cook on that scale while still working with local farmers.
Another thread in this story is that, while I was working in restaurants, I was also starting to learn more about farming. I lived in the South Bronx and was working with some people in the neighborhood to restart this defunct community garden that had been shuttered. We were working to get it re-opened so that people could garden in that space. I also started to work extensively in food preservation and in teaching food preservation.
I left Gramercy in 2010 because my now wife and then sweetheart, Jane, had gotten into an agroecology program at UC Santa Cruz, and we went out to Santa Cruz together. She was going through the agroecology program, and I found a spot on a little horse farm not far from UCSC and was living out there in a 28-foot trailer while she was in a tent cabin on the farm property. While she was going through the agroecology program, I was getting connected with food producers in Santa Cruz, learning the production side of the business. I had all this food experience in restaurants, but I didn't know anything about creating a packaged food product for sale. So I worked with three different food producers, learning three different styles of food production. And when I wasn't doing those things, I was hanging out on the farm at UC Santa Cruz — it's the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems — and just soaking it up, soaking up the farm every little bit that I could.
When Jane and I came back in November of 2010, we sat down with friends of ours whom we had talked about farming with. It was me and Jane, Karen and Lorrie, and, at that point, our friends Chris and Owen, and we started formally planning: How are we going to make this farm happen? What do we each need to do personally in our lives to be ready in five years?
That was our goal: In five years we're going to be farming. And so we worked it backwards, and all of us that are now farming together, which is me, Jane, Karen, and Lorrie, the four of us, we counted backward: In 2015, if we want to be here, we have do this this year, and this this year, and this this year.
Part of my path was to start my food business, Crock & Jar, which was going to be the value-added leg of our farm dream. Most people start the farm first and then do the value-added piece, but we decided to go the reverse route because I was ready to get started on that part before we were ready for the rest of it. Jane came back to New York City and became the Director of Farm School NYC, so she was committed to that for at least three years essentially, and we knew we weren't going to start the farm right away. Lorrie and Karen weren't ready then either. Karen was going to retire in a few years, and Lorrie wanted to get more farming experience. She actually ended up going out to UCSC for that program for an initial season and then staying on as a teaching apprentice for another season, while I started Crock & Jar.
I kind of ramped up and focused more on product sales in 2013, wholesaling to stores, and in 2014 I got into the Greenmarket system with Crock & Jar because we were doing food preservation using local produce. That's one of the things that l felt like differentiated us from other preserved products out there, that we were focusing on using local produce.
Concurrently in 2014, as part of our farm dream, we were looking for land to farm, because 2015 was our goal for beginning to farm. In 2015 Jane and I, and then a couple of months later our farm partner Lorrie, moved out of New York City, up to Chester, New York, and started farming.
Q: Can you talk about the importance of sisterhood that you see within your team?
We're definitely a family, and we have worked our butts off to maintain our relationships the way that we have. We have weekly farm meetings that often go on for hours. We're trying to pare it down a little bit, but sometimes the first hour of the meeting is us talking about the challenges in our life right now. It doesn't make sense to do business if we're not first checking in to see where we're at individually or with each other. It's something that we work really hard at. I'm also part of an online therapy group that I used to meet with in the city, the Possibility Practice, and it's helping me learn how to communicate more effectively, to build together with people to figure out where we're all at, to question our assumptions, and to create more possibilities. It's something that I bring into all of our meetings with the four of us. We really work hard to make sure that we're all communicating, that we're building with each other, that we're staying open with each other, that we're questioning assumptions that we have about what we're thinking — about each other maybe, or what we think people are thinking about us, for example, if we can't be at the farm on a certain day because we just don’t have the capacity to be there for whatever reason. We bring all that to the table, because if we don't bring what we each have, then we can't have a full conversation.
Q: Who has been one of your biggest inspirations or mentors along the way?
I feel like I have, similar to the rest of my life, so many different mentors for different things, so it just depends on the arena, if you will. So much of the work that I do now is group focused or community focused, and I really see how no one exists in a vacuum. Essentially, everyone is connected. I am blessed to have so many.
Q: What advice would you have for other women that you wish you would have known or that you would just give at this point in your life?
I think the biggest thing for me is: Don't try to do it by yourself; build a team. It is super challenging to work with people and do it well, because you have to communicate. On the flip side, it is incredibly liberating to have other people there who are as invested as you are in what you are doing, that you are building something together, and that they can bring so much more to the table. Find a community, make a community, become part of an existing community that is already out there.
People always say, "Don’t start a business with your friends because you'll lose your friends," but I guess I'm going to argue the opposite. Do it: Start something with your friends; just work your butts off to communicate with each other and build together.
Michaela is a co-owner and farmer at Rise & Root Farm, a food stylist, and the founder of Crock & Jar. She believes in helping people heal through food. Rise & Root Farm encourages people to come work on the farm, get their hands in the soil, and reconnect to the land. The farm also provides sustainably grown produce and value-added products. Additionally, Michaela teaches about farming and food production, working to grow a more representative group of farmers maintaining successful businesses. Rise & Root Farm is rooted in social justice, and Michaela believes that having difficult conversations — about race, sex, sexuality, class, age, and more — is vital to dismantling the current food system so that we can build something better. Rise & Root Farm is a three-acre farm, run cooperatively by four owners who are women, intergenerational, multiracial, and LGBTQA. The farmers are all rooted in New York City, and the farm is located in Chester, NY, in the Black Dirt region of Orange County. Michaela founded Crock & Jar as the value-added arm of the farm and has closed that business to wrap all the value-added production under the farm umbrella. Crock & Jar was a food preservation company with the mission to support local farmers by preserving the seasons to eat locally year round. Using classic preservation methods such as canning and fermentation, and incorporating her fine dining expertise, Michaela created bold new flavor combinations in her products, including two Good Food Award finalists. She also taught preservation methods around the country and region for organizations such as The Natural Gourmet Institute, Farm School NYC, and Whole Foods Market. Michaela was classically trained at the French Culinary Institute. She cooked for years in NYC restaurants such as Tabla, Public, and Gramercy Tavern, where she developed the pickling station. She was a Just Food trainer and co-founder of the NYC Ferments Meetup group.
As a food stylist, Michaela works in both print and film. She gets paid to play with her food, creating beautiful, eye-catching dishes. She also develops recipes, writes, and styles the preservation column, “Put A Lid On It,” in Sweet Paul magazine. As a food stylist, Michaela is represented by James Reps in New York City.
Recipe: Caraway Sauerkraut
Words: Michaela Hayes