Check out the entire photo album from our visit to Flocktown Farm here!
Somewhere beyond Manhattan tucked under thick clouds, highway roads congested with machinery, and standard fare strip malls we found a New Jersey farm in the suburbs. It is just around the corner from Anytown, USA (complete with clapboard homes set back on long lawns) and sits nested in the woods, metaphorically miles from anywhere. Flocktown Farm very gently announces itself on a white painted sign dangling at the end of the driveway: “Tomatoes, Potatoes, Broccoli.” We turn in.
Quinn is six years old and is dressed in bright pink rain boots, pink shorts, and a t-shirt with a pink and purple butterfly. She is absolutely vivid against the green grass, come to deliver us from Manhattan’s drear. Her parents, Rana and Ben Walmer, are the future owners of Flocktown Farm and Ben is the director of Highlands Dinner Club, a New York based (but traveling) dinner club. We’re visiting Flocktown to talk to Ben about what it takes to run HDC while simultaneously juggling his roles as architect, father, and now soon-to-be landowner. Rana and Ben welcome us by the cob oven, which is smoking in preparation for tonight’s dinner. Later we’ll meet their younger daughter, Lyla, dressed in a gypsy skirt and also blindingly cheerful rain boots while visiting the guinea hens. Tom (who might as well be family) is in the garden. He’s been on this property since 1965 and his family far before that. He’s passing Flocktown on to the Walmers, who hope to turn it into a polycultural operation (in which the land, plants, and animals exist in a non-forced, mutually-beneficial environment) producing flowers, vegetables (including property-cultivated mushrooms), proteins, hops and beer, and more. The growers will be a diverse group of people working in a similar symbiosis.
Ben Walmer is the co-founding principal architect of LiMN ARCHITECTS. He stumbled into running a supper club when two projects coincided: he was renovating a Harlem apartment for a childhood friend at the same time that he and his father started cooking experimental meals based on produce Ben’s dad brought from the farm he managed. When the apartment renovation was completed, Ben and his father decided to take their test kitchen, including “a boatload of local produce” and locally hunted venison, into Manhattan and cook a celebratory meal in the new space. It was a hit; they decided they should have such a gathering every month. Highland Dinner Club has borne the motto “Food Makes Friends” ever since.
HDC is something of a “social experiment,” drawing on the experiences and expertise of a wide range of people in order to bring them together both metaphorically and physically. As Ben describes it, it’s “not really a club, it’s not a business, it’s not directly a moneymaking venture” but more of a “cultural production project.” Anyone is welcome to approach Ben with an idea. Chances are he’ll love it and want to make it happen and then will. “It’s a medium for creative interaction,” he says. Food is the perfect vehicle because it is such a foundational unifier. We all must eat. Why not together?
Flocktown Farm is an extension of HDC—its products will become HDC meals—but is separate from the supper club, which has the ability be mobile. Flocktown will be a larger living space for the Walmers to raise their girls and a joint effort to sustain the land. The Walmers are hiring operators to run daily farm operations and additional partners to bring in special projects, like a local brewer who is looking to grow hops for a microbrewery on the property. Several acres of woods are the home of a future “fungiculture site,” where Flocktown is cultivating mushrooms like shiitake and oyster. In the future they’ll raise livestock (maybe “pigs, because they’re efficient and delicious”) and there’s talk of aquaponics, which Ben has experience in after working on a design project in Nigeria that landed him the title of “New Jersey AIA Service Award for Young Architect of the Year” in 2012. Flocktown will thrive on the combined efforts of many. It’s Ben’s job to imagine and manage its parts, which comes naturally. “Ben has such a visionary mind,” Rana comments. “He’ll throw out an idea and before you know it he’s got a dozen people who want to do it with him. Then he offers to cook dinner and it’s a date. He has such a gift for gathering people.”
Before dusk has a chance to settle we have formed around a table set on the lawn. The cob oven is ready to receive square pans pressed with homemade pizzas, large cut vegetables, and thick blue fish sizzled in local lardons and basted with bleu cheese. There are fresh scallops alongside bright broccoli rabe from the garden and bread for mopping the sauce. Ben shaves a truffle, earthy and visually intriguing, over our dishes. Lyla the four-year-old eats her shavings dipped in the scallop sauce and begs for more. We are sorry to go when it’s finally dark, spending a long time lingering and playing with the girls. But there are promises of future gatherings. We’ve just met Ben and his family for the first time, but the phrase that drives HDC runs true: “Food makes friends!”
All photos credit Zoe Schaeffer for I’m In The Kitchen