Cato Corner Farm
A mother-and-son team take up artisanal cheese-making in the wilds of Connecticut.
In 1999, Mark Gillman joined his mother’s fledgling cheese-making operation after a short stint teaching junior-high-school English. “I only taught for three years, and if you know anyone who’s taught, you know the first couple of years are pretty brutal,” he says. “But I kept all my books—If this doesn’t work out, I thought, I’ll go back to teaching.” So far, so good. That Cato Corner Farm’s gross revenues were around $400,000 last year—70 percent from Greenmarket sales—and should reach half a million this year, which isn’t bad for a small farm with a small staff, might be reason enough for Gillman to put his syllabus into permanent storage. Not that his new life is a breeze. Four days a week are devoted to cheese-making. Gillman’s mother, Elizabeth MacAlister, milks the Jersey cows at 5 A.M. Gillman takes over at 7 A.M. to pump the milk—around 3,000 pounds on a good day, which makes about 300 pounds of cheese. Then there’s the cleanup—the worst part of the job—which takes as long as the cheese-making. But the rewards are abundant. In the best Greenmarket tradition, the cheese is made from the raw milk of 30 contented hormone-and-antibiotic-free cows who spend their days lazing about the farm, nibbling grass and basking in the sunshine. And, needless to say, it’s delicious. “It’s really satisfying to go to the market and get instant feedback from your customers on something you made yourself by hand,” Gillman says. “I obviously spend more time on the farm, but I feel it’s important to come in regularly and get that little affirmation.” There are other everyday perks, too: “I do a lot of tasting,” he says. “I must eat about two pounds of cheese a week.”
WHERE TO FIND
Union Square in the spring and fall
Union Square, Grand Army Plaza, and Fort Greene
Violet Hill Farm
Paul and Alix Dench-Layton pasture-raise everything from chickens to emu on their Sullivan County farm.
Alix Dench-Layton grew up on her family farm in Sullivan County, but she never intended to be a farmer. When her husband, Paul, took ill, though, they decided to make a major lifestyle change. She left her job as a bank teller, and they devoted themselves to raising livestock on their 105-acre property. Now they’re at Union Square Saturdays and the occasional Wednesday selling pasture-raised lamb, goat, guinea hen, pork, and the ever-popular Belle Rouge chickens to retail customers and a coterie of chefs like Colin Alevras of the Tasting Room and Sara Jenkins at Bread Tribeca. Sometimes the chefs cause a stir, but not as much as Bill Buford did the day he famously slung a giant hog carcass over his shoulder and tootled off on his Vespa. “He’s a nut,” says Dench-Layton, who relies on the Saturday market for most of her income, “somewhere between 60 and 75 percent. But now there’s a lot more people who do what we do, and meat is getting a little crowded. We’re not doing as well as we used to.” Factor in the costs of doing business—labor, custom feed, rising gas prices, weekly trips to the city and the Pennsylvania slaughterhouse, not to mention coyotes—and it’s easy to see how an annual gross income of $165,000 is not a lot to live on. Being at the market, though, is helping in more than one respect. “We used to grow vegetables, but it’s so much easier to barter,” says Dench-Layton. “We take a chicken and go trade with Gorzynski Ornery Farm. We eat better than we ever have.” And, thanks in no small part to farms like Violet Hill, so do New Yorkers. It’s gotten to the point, according to Dench-Layton, that “we have a hard time keeping enough goat. It’s very good for you, very nutritious.” Note to customers: Wait until the sample is actually cooked before you grab. “We’ve had people take a toothpick and run off with a whole raw sausage.”
WHERE TO FIND
Blue Moon Fish
When most of us are asleep, Alex Villani is trolling the waters off Long Island—and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Native New Yorker Alex Villani started fishing the east end of Long Island on big commercial boats right out of college in 1972. “We would go way offshore. Basically you’d work for three days and really wouldn’t sleep—a young man’s game,” he says. Fed up with the long hours and the low pay, and no longer young, he eventually bought a smallish 36-foot boat, and with the help of Greenmarket, went into business for himself. Now practically a gentleman of leisure, Villani takes his first sip of coffee at 3 A.M. A half-hour later, he’s down at the dock in red hip-waders, looking a bit like a jaunty spring-break Santa Claus with white hair and whiskers. The fishing day ends around 1 P.M. or whenever he meets his quota, which, thanks to strict regulations, isn’t hard these days. On Saturdays from late March to Christmas, he and his wife, Stephanie, drive into New York to sell at two Greenmarket locations. “Stephanie does Brooklyn, I do Tribeca; she drives the truck in on Wednesday to Union Square when I’m out fishing,” he says. A typical day’s catch this time of year is between 400 and 600 pounds of porgies, bluefish, blackfish, fluke, and squid—“a mixed bag,” he says, and one not always easily identifiable by his otherwise savvy clientele: “Is that edible?” is one of the questions he’s been asked. “Or is that display only?” Eighty-five percent of his revenue comes from Greenmarket sales, but life would be easier if he sold wholesale only. “I’d take my catch, put it in a box on the boat, take the box to the dock, and away it goes. Five days later, I’d get a check in the mail.” Greenmarket, on the other hand, is like having another job. “There’s the preparation, the trip to the fillet houses, and the two-hour drive into the city,” he says. “But I wouldn’t be making as good a living.” And as much as he enjoys interacting with all those slavering Greenmarket customers, being alone at sea is hard to beat. “If I had to go in more than one day a week, I might become cranky.”
WHERE TO FIND
Tribeca; Grand Army Plaza