Six years ago, while his Black Cat restaurant was under construction in Boulder, Eric Skokan and his wife, Jill, planted a garden in their back yard.
"It was one part desire to grow strange, interesting things that I didn't want to have FedExed in to the restaurant," says the chef. "But it was also a passion and a hobby of mine. I've always loved gardening. I was raised in a family of avid gardeners."
Still, Skokan could never have predicted that his farm -- which he doubled in size for three years in a row so that he could provide the majority of his restaurant's summer produce -- would eventually prompt him to take on a much bigger project. "I had no inkling that this would turn into a seventy-acre farm," he says. But four years ago, that's exactly what the chef bought, turning a plot of land near Niwot into the main source for his restaurant.
Initially, the expansion allowed him to supplement the tomatoes, beans and other summer produce on his menu with winter crops, such as potatoes and cabbage. "We started really farming at that point," says Skokan. "And we've evolved into a regular market farm, like any other farm you'd find at the Boulder Farmers' Market." Albeit one that's selling a handful of vegetables no one else in the area has planted, along with prepared foods and pork.
Of the seventy acres that comprise his property, fifteen are devoted to row crops, where the chef says he grows "everything under the sun," from Jerusalem artichokes to dozens of varieties of lettuce and tomatoes to lentils and garbanzo beans to carrots and potatoes. On the rest of the land, he keeps a hot house for microgreens and indoor crops, a root cellar and space for livestock, since he raises ducks, chickens, hogs and sheep, which he slaughters for meat.
The chickens also lay eggs, and Skokan has found a downside to letting them run around freely: "The chickens are always trying to hide eggs. So every day is like an Easter egg hunt, and we have to try to remember where the hens are hiding them. We find them all over the place. I even found a clutch of eggs inside a bike trailer one morning."
Not that he'd have it any other way. The chef is staunchly anti-factory, and he prizes the high-quality eggs that come from his chickens, as well as the variety from the different breeds. "We love when you open a dozen eggs and they're all different colors," he says. "We have hens that lay dark brown eggs, green eggs, salmon-colored, polka-dotted, speckled -- they always look so great."
The Black Cat farm runs like clockwork now, thanks to a team of seasoned farmhands, but the chef says the early days took a lot of willingness to fail. "It requires a lot of bravery," he says. "You have to be willing to fail that first year and get a C- the second year so that hopefully you can land an A+ the third year."
Whenever he hit a problem that he couldn't solve on his own, he got a lot of help from farmers in the area. "Boulder has a group of chefs that are super-supportive of each other, everybody here is pulling for each other's success," he says. "It's the same with the farms. A dozen or so really exceptional, very experienced farmers would come by our booth every week to talk to me and hear about what the latest calamity was. So many farmers have offered up free advice. It's like thousands of dollars of consulting advice doled out over coffee."
As a result, he's still taking risks. "Every year, 20 to 40 percent of what's on the farm is stuff I'd never done before," he says. "Like garbanzos. Before this year, I didn't even know what the plant looked like. We're doing Heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving, too. We're experimenting."
The trial and error continues as Skokan makes some pretty ambitious plans. "In the next two, three, four years, it's going to be really hard to find stuff in the restaurant that doesn't come from the farm, as opposed to the other way around," he vows.
So in the next year or so, the chef will try to add cattle to his fields. "I've touched about two live cattle in my life, so we'll see how that goes," he says.
He'll also try to expand his test plots of lentils, flax, wheat and farro, with the goal of providing all the grains used in the restaurant. And he's experimenting with a crop of sugar beets, hoping to turn them into brown sugar. "It's not possible to buy non-GMO sugar anymore," he explains. "It doesn't exist. So I'm interested in making my own sugar in-house. It's a total experiment, but we'll give it a whirl."
Skokan's also experimenting with oil seed crops. In the immediate future, he'll be using his first batch of pumpkin seed oil, drizzled over ravioli stuffed with pumpkin also coming from the farm.
But the chef knows it won't stop there, so he just tries to follow one rule: "There needs to be joy in everything we do."
And right now, he's certainly getting joy from eating the crops he picks. "Some things give me goosebumps when I eat them off the farm," Skokan says. "Sugar snap peas off the plant are just magical. They're really, really good. Strawberries warm from the sun in the field. There's nothing like them. And carrots harvested after the ground is frozen are sweet like candy. They could take all store-bought carrots out back behind the woodshed."
That's the joy he brings to the market each week, and that's the joy that goes on his menu.
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