The Upstate Farm Growing Specialty Produce for NYC Restaurants

harvested lemongrass in boxes

In the Hudson River Valley, there lives a farm loved by New York City chefs, growing produce not typically considered local. Heermance Farm cultivates crops like galangal, Thai ginger, Tulsi basil and salsify, working with chefs to continually add new produce to their repertoire.

“Because we grow for chefs, we’re able to sort of be daring, and together we wanted to challenge ourselves to discover what was being overlooked,” says Farm Manager Kevin Ferry. “We’re very good at coloring outside of the lines, so we invite chef collaborators to the canvas. Every year or season these chefs are defining new trends in culinary expression, and we are always willing to explore.”

Edible Manhattan caught up with Ferry to discuss what’s they’re currently cultivating, hydroponic farming and where you can try Heermance’s produce in NYC.

What specialty vegetables are you growing right now? 

Right now, our greenhouses are full of specialty crops, from Malabar spinach and galangal to turmeric and lemongrass. But I’m really excited this year about a new set of epicurean rarities we’re growing that fell out of standard growing practices over many generations—crops like crosnes (pronounced croans), skirret and salsify, which were once medieval staples or even traveled on the old exploring trade routes from east Asia and adopted into French country gardens. We’re planning to save those seeds and propagate them, too.

We’re on the heels of the warmer summer months, so while we’re distributing the last of our winter storage crops, we’re seeding constantly. We’re really looking forward to seeing the results of this one squash trial seed we ordered from Dan Barber’s seed company Row 7. His seeds have been a real pleasure to grow because, as a chef, he’s looking for a squash that can be consumed at different stages of its growth, prepared with skin on, etc. 

Has Heermance always supplied produce to NYC restaurants? Did you notice more demand when you began offering specialty produce?

It’s sort of the other way around; we’ve always considered the specialty crops to be our main focus. The nice thing is that chefs are shopping for their staples, too, so they might come to Heermance for edible flowers or shiso, but they also wind up wanting our fingerling potatoes and other essentials. 

What are the top veggies Heermance sells to NYC chefs? 

It depends on the time of year. Heirloom tomatoes are the queens of summer. But in the spring, everyone loves carrots‑little, tender baby carrots are vibrant and versatile. Also, broccoli and an array of Asian cabbages and greens. We actually grow all year long in our greenhouses, so in February, chefs want anything green because it’s hard to come by anything green locally in this region during those frigid weeks. This past winter the demand for fresh baby lettuce heads was higher than we’ve ever seen. 

In terms of flavor or the quality of restaurant dishes, how does buying specialty vegetables locally impact dishes versus getting that produce imported from their countries of origin? 

There’s no comparison. All it takes is one bite into a flavorless, watery beefsteak tomato that lost half its vitamins traveling across the country to know the value in ripe, local produce. Of course, there are things chefs can do to improve the taste, like roasting tomatoes to bring out the sugar, but it’s not the same.

I would say the difference starts with the smell and then the feel. When you walk into our greenhouses and really take a full deep breath and pick fresh, aromatic Tulsi basil in March, it’s like seeing in color for the first time, like that scene in the Wizard of Oz. It’s like entering paradise, and we’re able to send part of that special place to our restaurants. I love it. 

How many pounds of veggies do you guys sell to NYC chefs on a weekly basis?

That changes per season. In the winter, we’re selling a lot of kale, winter squash, heirloom potatoes, bok choy, lettuce and things that are just lighter. Most of our produce are in fresh pick units like pieces, cases or bunches or even edible flowers and microgreens in small boxes. 

What about the Hudson River Valley is good for growing these exotic vegetables?

Growing vegetables in general is something that the beautifully rich soils of the Hudson River Valley accommodate so well. But when I think of exotic vegetables, I think of ones that are grown in warmer climates. We’re USDA Zone 5b, and that’s only going to get warmer, but our outdoor growing season isn’t long enough to support something like a field of artichokes (although we do grow a few every year). So we grow our “exotic” vegetables in our greenhouses all year long, but our fields are always full of heirloom vegetables during the warmer months.

Heermance Farm practices hydroponic farming. What does that mean, and what effect does it have on your produce?

One of our greenhouses is hydroponic, and a lot of people have this idea that hydroponics occurs in a sci-fi lab, but it’s actually a very natural environment full of life, the roots just don’t touch soil. We blend nutritious tea out of compost where our wriggler worms are thriving, we’ve used seaweed and molasses, which are rich in trace minerals and macro nutrients, respectively. We take hydroponics at its literal Greek translation which is “working water.” Based on the cultivar, we add a specific mixture of fertilizer nutrients. 

Right now, we’re harvesting hydroponic zucchini, broccoli, Romanesco, bok choy and lots of other things. We’re able to control the levels of nutrition the plants are receiving, so instead of undergoing a rainy period in the field where the plant is taking up a lot of water and not necessarily a ton of nutrients because they’re being lost in the runoff, we’re able to maintain a steady supply of nutrition that creates a more consistently nourished, and therefore more flavorful, vegetable.  

In what restaurants in NYC can our readers taste your produce? 

We’ve been really lucky to have developed a nice relationship with Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Restaurant Group, so you can find our produce at Daniel Restaurant, as well as Le Pavillon near Grand Central Station. We recently started selling to the Russian Tea Room, which is such an iconic place. We also sell frequently to Gotham on 12th Street and Frevo in Greenwich Village. 

Feature photo courtesy of Heermance Farms.