CHEF & FIRST-TIME FARMER
New York City to Asheville, North Carolina
Just a short 10-minute drive outside of the booming Blue Ridge Mountains city of Asheville, North Carolina you will find The Culinary Gardener, Evan Chender, hard at work tending to his incredibly productive micro farm. Evan found his way to farming through his love of food, first managing gardens for restaurants and then becoming a head chef. In May of 2012, wanting to get away from the chaos and impossible rents of New York City, not to mention the overwhelming schedule of a full-time chef, Evan and his wife relocated to the blossoming foodie Mecca of Asheville. He knew he wanted to farm but started working as a sous-chef when he arrived to be able to save money to build his business. A year and a half later he left his restaurant position and started his farm. Using what he learned as a chef, Evan decided to cater to the restaurant audience and not grow the standard fare that the many other farms in his area were growing. He studied and crunched numbers, eliminating crops that weren’t profitable and sourcing unusual varieties and plants that the restaurants he sold to were interested in. Evan is a meticulous organic farmer, catering to his picky customer base, every turnip and leaf of spinach is clean and free of pests - which requires a lot of work to maintain organically. Farming on less than an acre, he pays rent to the owner of the land in vegetables and, due to his careful and strategic farming, was able to turn a decent profit his first year farming. His Urban Haven is still a work in progress but his plan is to soon save up enough to buy a small plot of land, right outside of the city, to expand his growing operation. By not coloring inside the lines, Evan has been able to build a sustainable four season farm, a lifestyle spent working outdoors and still maintain a foothold in a city rich with natural wonders and cultural offerings. (Click here to jump to his interview)
What inspired you to leave NYC and start farming?
I was farming in New York before my wife, Claire, and I moved to Asheville. I was drawn to farming via my love for cooking, which I have expressed since I can remember. When I was in high school I began to realize that, to cook the best food, you need the best ingredients. This led me to start shopping at farmers markets etc. I began experimenting with growing herbs, tomatoes and a few peppers in pots when I was 16. I created a large garden in the backyard of my childhood home, and this is where my passion for growing food really took off. I did a lot of experimenting in that garden, a lot of learning too.
I was inspired to leave New York because I stopped vibe-ing with the New York City lifestyle (consumption, image based, traffic, people, noise everywhere all the time, expensive, and pretentious). I was born and raised seven miles north of the Bronx and spent lots of time in New York City. Claire and I were ready to live somewhere with scenic beauty, warm and kind people, a slower pace of life, and a lower cost of living.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
Initially, it was difficult to find a job and make friends. We moved without having a place to live, a job, or knowing anyone except a distant cousin's friend. I worked as a cook at a bakery and cafe for a year and a half after we moved. It was challenging to find a job farming that paid money. That is the main reason, coupled with access to my current property, that I began my own farm business.
What surprised you most about farming? Did it meet your expectations?
I have definitely met my expectations and more. I turned a profit my first year and am on track to make a "decent" income this year (my 2nd year). Lots of people are taken aback how much I talk about profitability, but for me, the most important thing is that I can make enough money for this to be my only job. Not that money is the most important thing, because in this instance, money, happiness, well-being, quality of life, and fulfilling my passion go hand-in-hand. If I can be profitable then I can pursue what I love most in life--growing food daily (besides my wife.)
Do you have any advice or secrets to share on small-scale farm profitability?
What I have been able to achieve with my business is creating and filling a niche. I sell only to restaurants, and focus on products I think chefs will want. I steer clear of growing most common produce you will find at farmers markets. When I do grow and sell common crops like beets and tomatoes, I am losing money, but I make up those losses by selling stuff like adzuki bean shoots, lots of edible flowers, and interesting varieties of common veg. For example: lettuce--very common. However, lettuce is one of my most important crops. I grow almost a dozen different varieties throughout the year, none of which you would probably find anywhere else locally. At $2/head and 3-4weeks in the ground, I can sell $300-$400 worth of lettuce every month, sometimes more in favorable weather. Also, I don't want to forget, the adzuki shoots sell for $30/#. So basically in 3-4 weeks off of 30 square feet I can sell more $ worth of adzuki shoots than what I will make off tomatoes in the entire season (this year I had about 100 sq ft of tomatoes and did about $500 in sales). To sum it up, I have been able to become profitable in my endeavor because I'm playing a different game than all the other farms in my area.
Something important to note though, quality is #1. I would not be able to be profitable if the quality of my produce was less than perfect. Of course, sometimes I have issues and the quality lacks slightly, but my average quality is so high that no one seems to take issue with it. I also discount when the quality doesn't meet my expectations. Chefs want the best of the best, and are certainly willing to pay for it, so growing unique and high quality crops pretty much allows you to set whatever price you want, because delicious and beautiful produce is worth a lot of money to chefs.
What are your thoughts on the future of farming and food in America?
I think farmers should be able to afford to eat at the restaurants they sell to. I believe, in our country, people expect food to be cheap. Overall, it seems price is always more important than quality when it comes to the average consumer buying food. Growing food has allowed me to step out of that mindset because I am able to see and feel all the effort that goes into growing high quality organic produce. Educating the general population on what is really involved in getting food from seed to table, I think, will have an impact on how people view the value of food because they will have a context for its production, rather than just seeing it in the store and putting it in their cart. Farming is a noble profession and people are beginning to understand that, again. Chefs are really helping lead the way for this because they are creating a market for people like me and are also highlighting how delicious fresh food grown with care can be.
Why did you choose Asheville?
We chose Asheville because it is a small city in the Blue Ridge Mountains that offers its citizens access to a high level of culture, food, drink, entertainment, unspoiled natural beauty, and great people. Asheville is an incredible place for me because I have the ability to eat good food and experience great culture, but I can go home (I live downtown) and hear crickets and cicadas.
Would you ever consider moving to the country full-time?
Yes, but it would be difficult for Claire to make that move. She says we are like Green Acres :)
What do you appreciate most about the life you have built in Asheville?
Wow, everything. It is the best of all worlds for me. I can farm for a living, eat incredible food and drink delicious wine and craft cocktails that rival those of NYC, I can hike the Blue Ridge and Smokies, I have friends who are artists, chefs, furniture makers, cocktail artists, entrepreneurs....I am so happy with life in Asheville!
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
If you know in your heart that the concrete jungle is not for you and you would be happier in a natural setting with a slower pace of life, you need to make the move even though the concept of starting over, making new friends, and finding a job and place to live is basically the most daunting thing ever.
Do you have any books/authors you would recommend to people thinking about learning to farm?
Anthing by Eliot Coleman and Jean Martin Fortier.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
I draw my inspiration from the kitchen and my passion from nature.
Have you noticed a change in yourself and/or your work since moving away from NYC?
Yes, I am a kinder person.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
Yes, the farm is the place I am most inspired in. I also find inspiration while hiking in the mountains.
What are some common misperceptions about farming that you would like to dispel?
To me, the life of a farmer (my life) is one of hard work and constant challenge with a high-level of fulfillment. These days, people, both young and old, farm because they want to, I would say farming is one of the most fulfilling livelihoods.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
Future goal is to purchase land and create my forever farm. For this coming year, my goal is to learn many things, continue to refine my craft and provide chefs in Asheville with the highest quality, hand-tended produce grown specifically for them in mind.