Eating – and drinking – with your farmer
It was dark when I stepped onto a porch, two bottles of local wine in hand, and knocked on a door in the village of Florida. From the porch, you could smell the aroma of hot food in the oven on a cold winter night.
This potluck was part of the Farmer to Table series dreamt up by Sustainable Warwick. Everyone brings a dish except the farmer being honored that night, which tonight was Sonny Bialas and his daughter Kasha Bialas.
“No one has gotten sick from anything we’ve grown in 80 years,” quips Sonny, who’s in his seventies and has been farming seven days a week since he was 16.
Though they haven’t cooked, the Bialases are responsible for a good portion of the feast on the table set for 12. There’s harissa seasoned mixed roast potatoes (regular and sweet), and a parsnip purée with vegan chorizo sausage and kale. The host tonight is Kelly Collins, a Minisink public school teacher and permaculture designer. Collins is part of the Bialas CSA, whence come the parsnips and potatoes, which she’s pulling out of the oven when I walk in.
A toast goes up to the Bialases for “80 years of dedication to our community,” and I realize that my wine is probably superfluous. There’s a giant bottle of red already open on the table, and a bottle of some fancy gin being passed around along with fresh squeezed orange juice, local honey and grapefruit seltzer, a “Bialas cocktail.”
“I used to be a bartender so I kind of just made that one up,” said Collins.
Sonny and Kasha Bialas farm 55 acres on Celery Avenue in New Hampton – Celery Avenue, named for the crop that Sonny’s dad used to grow on a wholesale scale, Sonny explains. The Bialas family, which now has many branches locally, has been farming the black dirt for generations. Kasha is the fourth; her teenage son, who’s grown up on the farm, could be the fifth generation.
It was around 1972 that labor-intensive celery, which requires 15 to 20 people to harvest, ceased to be profitable, and black dirt farmers turned to onions, Sonny said. Nowadays Bialas Farms has diversified, growing a few acres of onions alongside about a dozen other crops.
You can see the demands of farm life in the missing fingertips of Sonny’s hand, his deeply lined face. Kasha, who went to SUNY New Paltz and majored in education, has a sense of humor about it: “He forced me into this life,” she jokes, nodding toward her dad. But she makes no attempt to sugarcoat the reality. Chances are, her son won’t be able to take over the family business, she has written in a piece on the Bialas Farms website.
“It was such a terrible season,” she said over dinner. “We had to stop growing two months early.” Drought, she said, would be preferable to the weirdly wet and sunless season we had. “It’s easier to water than to sop it up.”
Still, Kasha says, she’d known she wanted to raise her kid on the farm. “The work ethic, the freedom, the ability to slow down and appreciate the beauty, and sometimes the horror, of what’s around.”
After the dinner, Kasha sent a handwritten thank you note saying: “We are honored that our humble profession is valued by such a diverse group. It makes me very hopeful that a resurgence in the popularity of eating local + seasonal will trigger the economic stability that agriculture so desperately needs. Thank you all for being stewards of such a movement.”