Ivor Chodkowski is not your typical restaurateur. He is a farmer by trade and grew up working on farms in New Hampshire during his summer breaks from school. Later, while pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in poetry at the University of Oregon, he often found himself at the farmers market, asking if the farmers needed any extra help.
“I loved food, from an early age,” he said, “and being around producers of any kind.” So his plan for pursuing an academic career was scratched. Chodkowski moved back to Kentucky, where he had spent much of his childhood, and established Field Day Family Farm in 1997.
At first, the farm mainly sold its goods at local farmers markets or to families enrolled in its CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. Not many people in Kentucky understood the value of small-scale, environmentally conscious farming practices back then. “The market we went to, it was maybe 3 years old. The farmer or two who came to the market sat on the tailgate of their trucks, and took home everything they brought,” Chodkowski said.
But over the years, people grew more aware of how unhealthy diets contribute to diseases like diabetes and obesity. Community advocates, including Chodkowski himself, established farmers markets in underprivileged areas of Louisville that had little access to fresh produce.
“The critical mass came together,” Chodkowski said. Today, his farm also hosts a program called the Food Literacy Project that teaches children about where their food comes from. Children plant crops and learn to cook the food they grow.
The farm also provides ingredients for Chodkowski’s James Beard-nominated Louisville restaurant, Harvest. The idea for the restaurant stemmed from Chodkowski serving omelettes at the farmers market, which soon drew long lines. He envisioned a restaurant that would feature local Kentucky produce—a novel idea back when it opened six years ago.
Chodkowski keeps high sustainability standards for his restaurant: 80 percent of all ingredients are sourced from within 100 miles. To achieve this, vegetables and fruits are pickled and canned to preserve them for the barren winter season.
But his efforts go beyond just sourcing locally. Chodkowski is involved in multiple projects to create a sustainable food production system in Kentucky. He recently converted about 20 acres of land that was once used for growing corn and soybeans—commodity crops for making high-fructose corn syrup and ethanol—into land for growing dry beans such as black beans and kidney beans. The land had to lay fallow for several years, due to the previous tenants’ heavy use of pesticides, before it was ready to grow food again.
Last fall, Chodkowski signed onto a project to convert vacant land once slated for a housing project into an urban farm. It will grow vegetables for the food served to patients in one of Kentucky’s largest hospital systems, KentuckyOne Health. “There’s so many producers that folks had to think about, where is their product going to go? We had to think ahead and try to expand the opportunities that are available,” he said.
Meanwhile, to help local small farms increase their revenue, his food processing company, Grasshoppers, creates products out of the most widely available and easy-to-grow produce. Products such as cilantro pesto, dill pesto, black bean hummus, pickles, and kimchi are on the shelves of local shops, but Chodkowski hopes to eventually sell them at larger grocery chains so that more farmers can benefit.
Can big cities like New York City also do more to support small farms? Chodkowski says yes. “Any commitment on the part of restaurants, like potentially a CSA style of commitment, where a restaurant will say, we’re going to work with X number of farmers to grow these particular things, so that a farmer has some level of certainty about what they’re able to produce and sell, [helps farms],” he said.
With a farmer’s sensibility, Chodkowski’s ideas may help inspire the restaurant industry to do more good.