By Ed Staskus
“It starts with the cows,” said Marla Gilman, her hand tracing an arc across shelves of cheese. “They make good, good milk.”
At the top of a big slate board behind her was written in chalk: “All dairy comes from our farm and creamery.” The creamery is North Country and the farm is Clover Mead. The counter where Marla was standing was the Clover Mead Café and Farm Store.
When asked where the cows were she pointed to a dirt path across the street.
“Just up there” she said, “where there’s a bunch of poop and some electric fences.”
The farm-to-table eatery in Keeseville, NY, which had been shuttered after its owners retired, re-opened in May 2014. Ashlee Kleinhammer and Steven Googin, co-owners of the farm and creamery since 2013, worked with Ms. Gilman to bring the café back to life, expanding and refreshing it.
“They decided to amp it up,” Marla said. “We busted our butts to get this place in shape.” She became the cook and manager.
“Great flavors,” said Jean-Audouin Duval of Keeseville, by way of 40 years living in New York City. “After eating there I take home some insane cheeses and yogurt to die for. I’m in heaven!”
The 25-year-old Marla Gilman, a New Jersey native and University of Vermont graduate of the Department of Agriculture, whose kitchen work includes NYC’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Lake Placid’s Liquids and Solids, moved to Keeseville in the spring.
“All my friends and boyfriend were here,” she said. “I wanted to live here.”
Her boyfriend, Dylan Badger, who opened the Ausable Brewing Company with his brother Dan in September, described their malted grain wares as “unfiltered beers from unfiltered brewers.”
“They re-built a barn that was falling to the ground and turned it into their brew space and tasting room,” said Marla.
The café, farm, creamery, and brewery are all on Mace Chasm Road, as is Mace Chasm Farm, whose chickens, pigs, and cows are rotationally grazed on 60 acres of pasture. Just down the street is Fledging Crow Vegetables, a Certified Naturally Grown farm.
The nascent resurgence of farming up and down Mace Chasm Road is reminiscent of Vermont’s ecologically minded “Back to the Land” movement of the 1970s. Just across Lake Champlain from Keeseville, Vermont today ranks first on the Locavore Index for its commitment to local food, which is part of the state’s economic growth strategy.
“There’s a food scene happening here,” Marla said. “It’s not big, but it’s definitely starting. I don’t think Mace Chasm Farm has ever seen as much action before. They even did a taco night this summer.”
Dylan Badger of Ausable Brewing agreed. “On this road alone there are four farms. We want people to enjoy what we have to offer, just this whole incredible scene here.”
Ms. Gilman is emblematic of Millennials taking up farm work. “I felt this thing going on here, super cool young farmers and motivated entrepreneurs starting something, and I totally wanted to be a part of it.”
Farm internships have skyrocketed in the last five years, according to the National Agriculture Information Service.
“If you talk to any really good farmer they’ll tell you that they’ve had a doubling and tripling of the applicant pool over the last few years,” said Severine von Tscharner Fleming, an upstate New York farmer activist who founded the National Young Farmers Coalition.
Even though farming can be notoriously dogged work, working one to the bone, and midsized farms, which account for most people who try to make a living off the land, have been increasingly marginalized by agribusinesses, many young people are taking up the mantle of farming, often specializing in the local, organic market.
“New England is now home to young kids becoming farmers – not the old back-to-the-landers type with political or religious missions, but focusing entirely on food,” said Helena Worthen, a retired professor from Berkeley, California.
After eating at the Clover Mead Cafe she praised the food, especially the “Cheeseville” cheese, but explained that outdoor seating meant the picnic table. “If there’s room,” she added.
Clover Mead features all things locally grown on the area’s farmlands. “It’s elevated comfort food,” said Stephanie Fishes of nearby Au Sable Forks. “It’s totally worth a menu detour.”
The café’s coolers brim with cheeses, yogurts, and milk, and the menu features Marla’s homemade breads, breakfast, and lunch foods. The egg sandwiches are a favorite, as are the Camembert Panini’s. The Camembert is theirs and the apples come from a neighboring orchard.
“Our chicken salad sandwich is definitely number one for lunch,” she said. “I roast whole, organic chickens, pick all the meat off, chop it up, and all the goodness in the pan goes back in. The moisture comes from that and then I add a bunch of spices.”
It isn’t plain Jane chicken mixed with mayonnaise. It’s chicken salad spreading its wings.
“I’m surrounded by really awesome farms, so the point is to create really good food,” Marla explained.
Off the beaten path, even in the off the beaten path town of Keeseville, re-opening the café was a risk. “It was scary at first,” said Marla. “It’s so unassuming here. But, this is a really cool place.”
People will go far and wide for good food. “We haven’t met our goal business-wise just yet,” said Ashlee Kleinhammer. “But, we’re close.”
Ms. Gilman has been buoyed by the community’s support.
“Keeseville has been great,” she said.
“They could have been, what are those young idiots doing? But, I think they’re happy to see it coming back. It used to be a booming, fun town back in the day. And then it plummeted. I think they’re happy to see something happening again with the town they grew up in.”
When asked what her plans were for the North Country winter she explained the café would be closed for a month in January.
“I’m going to San Francisco and eat a bunch of food. That’s what I like to do when I’m not working, try new things, and develop my palette.”
She pointed to the bottom of the slate board, which said: “We proudly source organically, locally, from scratch, and always with love.”
“We’ll figure out our plan from there,” she said. “Five years from now this is going to be a totally happening place.”
Photograph by Vanessa Staskus
Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.