(Portraits by Francesco Mastalia)
Francesco Mastalia’s new book Organic: Farmers and Chefs of the Hudson Valley is first and foremost an art book of photographs printed on museum-quality paper and bound in cloth. The subject matter – the production and consumption of good, health-giving food – is boldly announced on the cover with one of Mastalia’s photos: A local farmer leans on a crate and holds a bunch of fresh-picked garlic. His shirt is rumpled and smudged with soil. His face expresses honest pride in what he has to offer.
Secondly, Organic is a treasure trove, documenting just a few of the 36,000 farmers now active in the state of New York and a handful of master chefs using their products to feed us. As Mastalia hangs a half-dozen prints from the book on the walls at Bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy in Rhinebeck, he talks about experimenting with a 150-year-old photographic technique to make pictures of farmers that accentuate that weathered, out-in-the-sun-all-day look. To achieve the effect, he uses a replica of an antique camera outfitted with an actual 19th-century lens, with which a positive image is made on glass by a wet-plate collodion process.
The resulting pictures look as though they too might have been taken 150 years ago. Slightly ambered rather than black-and-white, each of the more than 100 portraits depicts a man or woman who has just paused from his or her work: farmers, growers of vegetables, mushrooms and grains, beekeepers, makers of vinegar and other fermented foods – and local chefs as well, who procure and prepare all these excellent foods in regional restaurants.
Mastalia explains that he was looking for a project to experiment with the ambrotype technique and began shooting farmers living and working in the region. “I’ve always been an advocate of eating healthy. When I moved to the Hudson Valley, I was so excited there was a farmers’ market in my town. I’d walk around and talk to the farmers, and found that when you speak with those who are growing organically or sustainably, they’re very open. You’ll get an education; you can just tell they’re so proud of what they do. You touch a string bean, and they’ll say, ‘Here, taste it.’’’
“At the same time ‘organic’ is the word in food. The organic aspect of the project came as I started to interview people. Early on, when I asked a farmer about ‘organic’, he replied, ‘I’m not used to saying that.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘Well, the government owns that word.’ Driving home that day, I realized there is a much larger story to be told here.”
Learning more about the definition of the word “organic” as it applies to food production, Mastalia discovered that many smaller independent farmers had given up on being certified according to USDA standards, because they felt like it didn’t meet their own higher standards. “People don’t realize that there’s a list of allowables [in USDA standards] of over 150 chemicals you can use and still call it organic,” he points out. “People trust the word and are willing to spend more money on something labeled as such. But as one farmer, Jay Armour of Four Winds Farm in Gardiner, said, ‘There’s organic, and there’s organic.’” He contrasts the concepts of “certified organically grown” with the holistic practices used by farmers more concerned with the integrity of the whole system of producing foods as stewards of the land.
Each of the subjects in the book wrote a brief bio highlighting his or her own methods and philosophies. “Organic is a natural way of being; everything in nature’s order…If a customer asks how I farm, ‘organic’ wouldn’t be the first word I would say. I’d say ‘holistic management,’ or ‘sustainable,’” writes Jerry Peele of Herondale Farm in Ancramdale.
“‘Organic’ is about good stewardship of the land; using what comes from the land to vitalize it and always putting back.” This comes from Mimi Edelman at I & M Farm in Bedford; and from Craig Haney at Stone Barns Center in Pocantico Hills, “We raise our animals with respect to their biological hard-wiring.” Every photo filling a page is accompanied by the subject’s commentary.
Mastalia remarks on the “locavore” trend here in upstate New York, saying, “One farmer, Guy Jones from Bloominghill Farm in Blooming Grove, says it best: ‘Don’t buy food from strangers.’ We have that luxury in the Hudson Valley to have this direct contact at farmers’ markets. I spent three years and logged in over 17,000 miles of driving. I photographed 136 farmers and chefs. My goal was to hit 100. I could have kept going. The fun was being out in the field and meeting these people. Every person I met, I was inspired in some way – by their passion and commitment and how they chose to do their work.”
Sean B. Nutley and Gregory Triana at Bluecashew will host a reception, book-signing, and silent auction for Organic on Sunday, March 1. Following the book-signing, a special “Meet Your Farmer & Chef for a Farm-to-Table Sunday Supper” will take place at Terrapin restaurant across the street. Terrapin chef Josh Kroner will team up with other local chefs featured in Organic to serve a four-course meal of locally produced foods: Agnes Devereaux from the Village Tea Room in New Paltz, Ric Orlando from New World Home Cooking in Saugerties, Giani Scappin from Cucina (Woodstock) and Market St. in Rhinebeck, with mixology by Paul Maloney of the Stockade Tavern in Kingston. A special performance by songwriter Tai Burnette and the classic sounds of Soulia and the Sultans will set the atmosphere.
The Sunday Supper will benefit FarmOn! a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization committed to funding youth programs in agriculture, and to fostering food education and farm preservation. Executive director and founder of the FarmOn! Foundation Tessa Edick (author of Hudson Valley Food and Farming: Why Didn’t Anyone Ever Tell Me That?) says, “We’ve put local milk into school lunch programs in five districts so far. It’s Hudson Valley Fresh, cow-to-kid within 36 hours. Not only has milk consumption gone up 300 percent in the schools, it has also gone up equally in the local communities, which has helped Hudson Valley Fresh put more product into the markets.
“FarmOn! Foundation also brings programming, like building gardens, to the schools. And we have a farm where the kids come and learn the business of food on a farm. They have to have a business understanding to realize their maximum production. There are a lot of jobs around agriculture in our community. Our focus is succession: How do we keep family farms in business? For the Sunday Supper, we’re utilizing food from farms featured in the book and the local product that’s available seasonally. This event encapsulates that passion we all have for good ingredients.”
Kroner says, “I’ve also been involved in many similar types of events for charities where several chefs from different restaurants come together. It’s so much fun for the chefs. It will be a great treat, I think. Roughly what we have planned: a beet salad, squash risotto, duck cooked two ways with red Russian kale from Continental Organics in Newburgh, and potato gratin with cheeses from Sprout Creek Farm. And for dessert, a Chatham Brewing black stout chocolate cake!”
A strong supporter of the FarmOn! Foundation, Nutley says, “It’s important to keep farming going in the Hudson Valley.” Mastalia notes that since the 1940s, when New York had approximately 150,000 farms, we’ve lost an average of 1,600 farms per year. “Despite that,” he says, “the Hudson Valley is flourishing. Years ago, when chefs graduated from the CIA, they wanted to leave. Now they want to stay because of the bounty we enjoy.”
Organic photo reception/book-signing, Sunday, March 1, 2-4 p.m., Bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy, 6423 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-1117, www.bluecashewkitchen.com.
Chefs’ Farm-to-Table Sunday Supper/Cocktail Reception, same day, Sunday, March 1, 4-6 p.m., $150/$75, Terrapin, 6426 Montgomery Street; (518) 329-FARM, https://farmonfoundation.org.