Zach Wolf of Locusts on Hudson Talks Hudson Valley Farming and Collaborations
Ninety miles north of Manhattan at a nineteenth century Dutchess County Estate, Zach Wolf, head farmer at Locusts on Hudson, is wrapping up his most bountiful harvest yet.
The estate’s first owner, United States Supreme Court Justice Henry Brockholst Livingston, named “The Locusts” for the farm’s eponymous black trees. U.S. presidents as well as Astors, Roosevelts, and Penthouse playmates subsequently traversed the grounds. (Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse and the lesser-known healthy living publication Longevity, owned the property in the ‘90s.)
Hotelier Andre Balazs acquired the property in 2004, and under Wolf’s watch, more than half of the 76-acres have been converted into working farmland. From peas to poultry, nearly everything the farm produces lands on Balazs’ New York City restaurant tables.
As American farmers face burgeoning economic obstacles, Wolf represents a new breed of “custom growers”—a type of farmer who minimizes risk by collaborating closely with culinary customers. His partner, Olivia Kirby, oversees the farm’s restaurant relationships, maintaining close contact with Balazs’ acclaimed chefs at Narcissa and The Standard Grill. “This is not speculative growing,” Wolf reiterates.
As fall foliage peaked, Garden Collage founder Daisy Helman and I hopped a slumbering Amtrak train to check out Wolf’s work in Staatsburg. Here are highlights:
GC: How long have you been at The Locusts?
ZW: I started in 2011. This is our fifth year in production and we have a footprint that feels right. We have seven acres in vegetable production and 40 acres as pasture for livestock, including cattle, pigs and laying hens.
GC: I understand you also are connected to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. How do you manage both?
ZW: Last year I worked at both concurrently but now I am at Locusts full time. I stepped away from my role as director of Stone Barns’ farmer-training program because I needed more time in the field. But I have a long-standing relationship with the Center’s Growing Farmer’s Initiative. This year I will do a consulting session on soil fertility management.
GC: What is the Growing Farmer’s Initiative?
ZW: The foundation is an apprentice program at Stone Barns. People can learn the ins and outs of vegetable or livestock farming, perennials, greenhouse… My role was to oversee the training aspect, almost like a guidance counselor, and to design the curriculum. It was a way of pulling my science academic background into agriculture and getting really nerdy.
We also run The Virtual Grange, a website for young farmers, with information on workshops, conferences, communities. And the national conference is awesome, really well attended and we get way more applicants than we can enroll. The next one is in December.
GC: Who attends these gatherings?
ZW: There are two demographics, folks just out of college looking for something less conventional to do, and career-changers, people who are looking for something new.
GC: Getting back to Locusts, what’s growing in the greenhouse?
ZW: The greenhouse is mostly for transplants; there are hops in the crop house. Olivia oversees the greenhouse and herbs. She has her own herbal health consulting business, Olivia Clementine.
GC: What are you harvesting right now?
ZW: Lettuce, radishes, kale, dandelion greens, pea shoots and spinach.
GC: How is produce distributed?
ZW: It’s really simple. We harvest, wash and pack here, load into a truck and drive it in to Andre’s restaurants.
GC: You mentioned a project with veterans; will you tell me more?
ZW: Yes, I’ve been working with a start up called Heroic Food.
The thrust is to teach agriculture as a vocational skill and also as a way to heal. For me, it’s a way to connect mindfulness into agriculture, or to find the overlap. People are outside, using their hands.
Working with soil opens something up and is a gateway. The veteran community has tapped into this as a healing process.
GC: So veterans make good farmers.
ZW: Veterans make great farmers. They’re fit, disciplined, hardworking, and focused.
This country is in trouble in terms of how many farmers are retiring or approaching retirement age; the number of farmers under 35 is around 7%.
“Working with soil opens something up and is a gateway. The veteran community has tapped into this as a healing process.”
This older generation is getting out but if new generation doesn’t have a background in family farming it is a lot of skills to pick up quickly. Veterans as a population are great for helping figure out how to grow food.
GC: How do veterans acquire agricultural skills?
ZW: I co-facilitate Hawthorne Valley’s “Farm Beginnings” program in Hudson, which has been around for several years. Heroic Food’s farm is nearby and will feed into Hawthorne Valley’s program.
Most of the people I work with at Hawthorne and Stone Barns are young, liberal arts educated, and super smart; but the question is always ‘Are these people really going to pursue a lifetime career in farming?’ With the veterans, I can really see them sticking with it.
GC: You referred to projects in Tennessee and Kentucky, is this long-distance farming?
ZW: I consult for Nelson Byrd Woltz, a landscape architecture firm. They do projects all over the country. I assist with large scale conservation and agriculture plans, as a sort of visiting, on-call farmer adviser/mentor.
GC: You have a lot on your plate.
ZW: There’s so much good work to do.