Friday, July 30, 2010

Black Cat Farm and Restaurant: A Comprehensive Organic Farm Tour Providing a Wealth of Information on Organic Farming Methods

Entrance arch to Black Cat Farm

The innovative Chef Eric Skokan graciously gave a two-hour guided and information filled tour of his organic farm which supplies his eat-local restaurant "Black Cat Bistro" in Boulder, Colorado to the "Boulder Culinary Gardeners" group on July 25, 2010. Eric, a 41 year old native of California with a degree in history from the University of Virginia, seems to have found his niche in this world as a Chef who oversees his own restaurant's food production on rented open space land from Boulder County.

His objective is to grow everything he can for the restaurant on his farm and sell produce at the farmer's market and to his 30 CSA member families.

I sensed he was channeling a little bit of Thomas Jefferson and a little bit of Masanobu Fukuoka. Jefferson, for his desire to learn what works best through experimentation, and Fukuoka, for some of his attitude towards weeds.

Eric describes himself as a "research fanatic". He believes in running many experiments to find out what works best for this location and then custom building accordingly. He read the book, Market Farming Success by Lynn Byczynski which suggests never buying a "kit" to accomplish a project because something in the kit probably won't work well in your own location.

An instinctive teacher and voracious reader about his passion of eating local in the most efficient ways possible, he rattled off details with enthusiasm to our group of a dozen, or so, about soil components, crop disease characteristics, pests, farming methods, and their farm experiments in progress. The tour took place mid-day in hot, sunny July, but Eric's narrative was so interesting that hardly anyone noticed the time or the strong sun. We all got way more than we bargained for, including some sunburn.

Eric, Owner of Black Cat Farm and Restaurant in Boulder, Colorado

When asked what the restaurant has to buy from sources other than the farm a stubbornness surfaced. He rattled off lemons, limes, bayleafs, supplemental strawberries, pineapples, toilet paper and guest checks. "I loathe food service companies," he said, "but they have a thick skin." After rejecting them, they gladly come back when you really need something. He does buy from other local producers.

Altogether, Eric is farming on 42 acres. The tour was on ten of those acres, leased from Boulder County Open Space for $1000 per year, using three-year rolling contracts. The contract requires that the land to be used to grow food, noxious weeds must be controlled, and the soil must be cared for.

These ten acres include 28 shares of water rights from Left Hand Ditch. The water the farm required was free until a week ago, when he needed 80 extra feet. The goal is to utilize all of the water allotted. In 24 hours they can use 1 million gallons, and the gates open at 8AM. A pump provides 136 gallons per minute and hoses and drip tape lines are arranged as necessary requiring a couple hours of labor by several people each day. One problem is that wind braids the drip tape. Stakes can be used to keep it in place.

Vines with irrigation tape

Eric's chosen source for row covers and drip tape is Robert Marvel Plastic Mulch.

As an aside, I will add that ten acres with water rights might be worth a million dollars here in Boulder County at this location which backs up to a business office park. Without the county encouraging land use by local farmers, it would not otherwise be possible to start out or make a living doing this. These challenges exist in other areas near cities, too.

A part of the ditch irrigation system

When asked why square foot gardening techniques aren't used on the farm, Eric answered that he uses that intensive method at his home garden in town, but it's "not worth it on this scale."

Hired Help
There are approximately fifteen workers who help with the farming operation, most of them full-time. One-half or more are individuals who are interested in learning farming methods by working to acquire knowledge, and some are would-be chefs looking for the hands-on growing experience. They lose some less-serious workers during the heat of the summer, as the reality of the hard work sets in. Several Colorado State University agronomy students are involved and do soil studies, entomology and other experimental method studies on the farm.

A university soil fertility intern also works at this farm.

In Boulder County the soil is alkaline. Soil nutrients are not bioavailable to the plants with basic soil conditions. This farm's soil has a pH of 7.3, whereas the goal would be a pH of 6.5. A high pH makes nitrogen unavailable. A nitrogen deficiency is indicated by yellow leaves. Organic matter above five percent helps solve the problem, as does sulfur treatment and compost tea.

A lack of potassium causes leaf curl with a purple tinge. Flooding experienced in an area of this farm caused a potassium deficiency. Sulfur fertilizer pellets can be used to treat soil potassium deficiency. Micro organisms help turn the granules into sulfuric acid to lower the pH. Bone meal also works.

There is a service in the area named "The Lone Cowboy" run by an individual who picks up any type of animal manure from farms and then distributes it to whoever wants it for free.

Black Cat farm obtains manure from him and composts it, spreading it the following year. It can be safely spread earlier if it has reached 140 degrees three separate times.

Cinder block compost bin

The Root Cellars
The farm's first root cellar has been in use for over a year. At six feet below grade, it keeps a winter temperature of 39.5F and a summer temperature of 62F. A wooden door, split in half, serves as the entrance to the cave.

Root Cellar #1 is in use.
Eric is opening it for our tour.

A second, larger root cellar is under construction. A small tractor with a backhoe was used to dig the hole. The dimensions of the new cellar are 12x28 feet. Earthen shelves are included in the design of each cellar. The posts are set in concrete and then backfilling is done. Fairly crude wooden pine tree slats, supported by these posts, are constructed for roofs over the holes. A tarp goes over that to keep it dry inside. This is covered with fifteen tons of earth.

A larger Root Cellar #2 is under construction.

In summer, lettuces and other greens are harvested and temporarily stored in the caves until ready to transport for washing and use. In winter potatoes and squash and other vegetables are stored there.

Beware of your water table before you pick your location. This property has a water reservoir, which ruled out some areas for the cave location.

These cellars are extremely simple, low tech, and useful. The earth does all of the work for you.

Hoop House
Eric is a scavenger and hates to throw useful materials away. The hoop house is put together with duct tape, plastic pipe, salvaged wood, and tied with old irrigation ribbon, and the tomato plants are suspended with string and upholstery ribbon.

The hoophouse filled with tomatoes in July in Colorado
"strung together with duct tape, irrigation tape, and upholstery ribbon"

In October, under the tomatoes, lettuce seed is planted for a December harvest.

The house is empty by April for cucumber and tomato starts.

Last winter it never froze in this hoop house. The two 75-gallon plastic water tanks were moved inside of the house and they were warmed with an inexpensive horse trough heater to eighty degrees periodically and that was enough to heat the house passively. This next winter they will use three tanks for heat instead of two.

Another experimental plan in the works is to build a windrow compost pile with dimensions of 4'high x 8'wide x 90'long. It will contain a pipe through which water will be pumped to be heated. It will be further piped through the greenhouse in a closed loop to heat it in winter.

Compost Tea
This year an intern working on the farm from Colorado State University is researching and setting up a compost tea system which the farm hopes to have in use for next year. The tea will be housed in 75 gallon plastic containers which fit on the tractor. Material from the compost bin containing livestock manure will be put into the tanks with water and aeration. The pH will be monitored. The plan is to make four batches of 150 gallons from two tanks.

Beginnings of compost tea project.
The same containers are used to heat the hoop house in winter.

The source of the large plastic water tanks was Budget Home Center in Longmont, Colorado.

A study by Ecocycle of Boulder is underway on the farm this summer testing the use of their compost tea on cabbage for pest control.


Mule Foot Hogs

Black Cat Farm raises heritage hogs. They have five female American Mule foot Pigs, or approximately 1.5% of the existing population. This is a large forager, docile, black skinned and black haired breed, native of the Ozarks, which came close to extinction this century. The breed has won taste test competitions, including the best in the Slow Food competition of 14 breeds tasted. It is well marbled meat, "pork that doesn't taste like chicken".

Because this breed grows slowly, they were unmarketable since today's commercial pork operation is all about fast growth rates. These pigs gain 1.2 pounds per day with an end weight of 450-500 pounds in two to two-and-a-half years. These days the commercial hog raisers never let pigs fully mature because the growth rate falls off the last months. Commercial growth rates are expected to be 1.8 pounds per day.

Five males will arrive soon and then the farm will be in the pig breeding business. The goal is to have 45 piglets per year. Fencing is a 15,000 volt plastic mesh electric fence.

Eric explained that unproven sows are a "crapshoot". Some are unfit moms because the don't nurse their piglets. Some eat their young, some eat other pig's young, and some smother their own. Approximately 40% may be unfit.

Eric with his Mule foot Hogs

The animals are kept locked up at night. The only predator mentioned by Eric was the coyote. He stated that there are fewer predators in this open countryside location than would be found within Boulder city limits. In Boulder you might have mountain lions seeking meat and black bears seeking grapes, for example.

When it comes time to butcher, there is a small operation in neighboring Kersey, Colorado by the name of Steving Meat Processing, which processes 10-12 animals per day. They are USDA approved and sensitive to the treatment of the animals, requiring them to be delivered for processing in a minimum number of two, which is less stressful to the animal.

Also Ducks, Turkeys, Guineas, Goats, Sheep, and Lamas
This week this farm awaits the arrival of 300 Pekin-Muscovy cross ducklings, 20 wild turkeys, and 20 guineas, all a day old from McMurray's. Goats will also be added to the mix. The existing water pond reservoir will be available to the ducks.

Root Cellar #2 with poultry grain storage bins in background

Grain for the fowl will be stored in the two (above) bins. For the ducks, the diet will consist of 18 ground grains high in protein. The mix includes minerals, barley, millet, field peas, and corn.

The ducks, turkey, guineas and goats will be fielded together with the existing flock of 24 chickens. The chickens are egg layers for the farm workers and for family use, and a few are sold at the farmer's market. They produce about 15-20 eggs per day. They are not USDA approved so they cannot be used in the restaurant.

Eric will experiment with six of the ducks to make Foie gras. He wants to answer the philosophical questions involved in the process through firsthand experience.

In addition to these soon to be acquired fowl and pigs, the farms also raise sheep and lamas.

The egg layers on a hot July day (83F degrees)


One-hundred grapevines were planted this spring with a 97% success rate. Three grave varieties were carefully chosen which are known to taste good and do well in this location. 1) The Baco noir is a seeded table grape or red wine grape. 2) The white Himrod grape does well in Boulder County and will be used to make golden raisins. 3) The white Lakemont grape is delicious eaten fresh.

The grapes will be supported by posts spaced 20 feet apart and a wire fence. They will cover with netting only if they find it necessary.

A young grapevine

Eric's chosen source for grapes was Concord Nurseries, Inc. out of New York.

German butterballs and Russets are grown on this farm. Plants can be harvested for baby potatoes at the time the potato flower dies.

Eric gave us a little lesson about potato diseases. Late blight can originate from planting infected potato seeds or tomato plants. In 2009 a wide swath of the Eastern U.S. was infected, caused, in part by infected starter tomatoes transported from the southern U.S. and sold in well-known garden centers. This is the disease that caused the Irish potato famine of the 1840's.

Be careful where you buy your potato seeds. Don't buy them in the grocery store.

A less common disease is a windblown mold named basil downy mildew, which was also present in the Northeastern U.S. in 2009. It causes a circular lesion, black on top, white on the bottom, which may appear on the stem. It is asexual, and nonviable off the plant for more than three days. The remedy is to rogue out the plant and remove all plants from a 15-foot radius of the infected plant and burn them. Other possible remedies are copper sulfate spray and spraying with compost tea seven days a week.

Early blight is another fungal disease which infects potatoes and tomatoes. Potassium bicarbonate works well to stop it.

This Year's Potato Crop

Harvest potatoes two weeks after the plant tops start to die off. The potatoes will be full-sized and pathogens should be gone by then. Then, they go into the 62F root cellar. After the potatoes are harvested they will use a green manure cover crop.

The shallot crop was just harvested and drying at the time of our tour. The smallest shallots are stored in the root cellar until planting time, October 15th. (This is the same planting time as garlic and Jerusalem artichokes.)

Shallots drying

When asked about cooking with shallots, Eric prefers to place them in the oven whole, squeezing the cooked shallot out, and eliminating the labor intensive peeling process. The taste is a combination of onion and garlic flavors. He likes to fry them until crispy dry, too.

He doesn't advocate storing them in oil because of the risk of botulism. Botulism causes 100 deaths in the U.S. per year and 90% of those are from home canning.

Four varieties of asparagus are grown including white and purple. A trench was dug for the white asparagus which will be filled in next spring as the shoots grow.

Trenched Young Asparagus

The farm has a large strawberry patch, having planted 2,300 starter plants.

The Brassicaceae Field
The planting date for this family of vegetables is March 15th. A second set of starts is done in June or July. Direct seeding cannot be done because of flea beetle pests. The only ways to overcome the flea beetles is with BT and by exclusion with row covers or start them in the greenhouse and set out later. Wasps are a natural enemy of the flea. If a pest destroys more than 20% of the leaf area, the plant doesn't survive. Trap crops are another organic solution which can work in some cases.
"Trap Crops" work in some situations. Plant a highly favored crop to attract flea beetles away from the main crop. Radish or daikon can protect other seedling crucifers (e.g., broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) that are more sensitive to western cabbage flea beetle. The trap crop may then be harvested or destroyed after the main crop has established itself sufficiently to outgrow flea beetle injury.

Brussel sprouts crop

Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel's sprouts, and turnips require spraying with BT, if necessary. Compost tea control is being used as an experiment against the white "cabbage" moth and caterpillar for pest control in this crop area this summer.

Eric chose Fedco as his source for his broccoli seeds.

Other vegetables
Eric likes Masai Bush Beans which are small and delicious. Other crops grown on this farm are popcorn, horseradish, Fava beans, peas, soybeans, purple beans, mache, dill, endive, corn and tomatoes. He grows Soldier and white Flageolet beans for dry beans.

This year the farm provided its own greens through February. January 17th was the last spinach harvest, and by storing it in the root cellar it lasted until February. After that, some greens were purchased from California. This coming year, he is hopeful that 100% of all greens used in the restaurant will come from this farm.

Fall Planting
Some of the fall plantings on this farm include spinach, chervil, mache, turnips for greens, zucchini, lettuse, shallots, garlic, and Jerusalem artichokes.

Fall crops need to be planted from August 1st through 15th to be ready by October, November, and December. Tricks need to be played on both ends to extend the season. On the front end, warm soil needs cooled for proper germination. To lower the soil temperature, both water and rota-tilling are methods which work.

Eric is a huge fan of germinating fall seeds in straw which keeps the sun off the soil better than row cover and also retains water. Recycled netting from a nearby baseball field is used to keep the straw in place. The straw greatly enhances the soil's water absorption, thus cooling the soil. The fall crop seeded areas are watered twice a day. The straw is, however, a nuisance at harvest time as it gets in the greens.

One more trick being used at this farm is that of sun shielding. The fall crops are planted in North-South rows at a four inch furrow depth so that the sunlight doesn't hit the seeded soil area except at mid-day, again keeping the soil cooler for germination.

Row covers were used until January 17th last season. Three-fourths of what was planted came back in March under the row covers.

The farm is currently treeless and the sun is unrelenting in the summer. The farm is working with the Colorado State University which provides saplings of evergreens. They have started 1600 small trees which are first planted in rows to "heel in" for ease of care and will later be moved. They want to eventually have a grove for the pigs to live in.

Fruit Trees
Many fruit trees have been started. As an example of a problem encountered, this spring they planted fifteen pear trees and all got fire blight and died.


The farm is just getting started growing mushrooms. A morel fire-ring has been planted. Shiitakes and a variety of others are also being attempted.

Bees are raised here, too, but we ran out of time to discuss them. Since there are many flowering native weeds here, the bees should be happy.


Black Cat farm tractor, "Buttercup"

Small cultivator for the tractor

An old lawn-mower was obtained off of Craig's List. The engine was removed and they fit a propane tank with torch to it which is used to burn weeds as it is pushed down row crops. They call it a "flame-weeder".

The Flame-weeder!

The Jang Machine Seed Planter

Machine seed planter

This South Korean produced Jang double seeder which attaches to the farm tractor was purchased for $2700. A push by hand version is available for $300. Internal wheels are used depending upon the size of the seed to be planted. It is used for planting carrots, lettuce, beets, endives, Swiss chard, etc. but does not work for beans.

After planting 1,800 feet of carrots by hand and then hand thinning them, costing 90 man-hours, they are very grateful for this tool which works especially great for small seeds.

Eric is explaining how the Clean Seeder apparatus works.

Using this tractor with this Jang double-seeder results in a 5.5 foot wide bed. Twenty-eight inches are seeded with a six-inch walkway in between.

And last, but not least, the farm could not operate without Bessie's help.

Bessie, the pick-up


Setting up this operation so far has cost $80,000. Eric is very conservative about how he does things and seems to prefer human labor methods over buying equipment. He says, "labor or $300 for a tractor tire?"


Eric spends seven days a week at the farm and four days a week from 5:30PM until Midnight at the restaurant. He has a family with four young children.


Preparing for the July 29, 2010 evening meal at the Black Cat Bistro
located just off the popular Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado

I noted that two bicycles were parked inside the restaurant by
the front door when I took this photo.

The late July 2010 day that I took the above photo, the following items were included in the evening menu, just to give you an example:

Carrot Chèvre Terrine with roasted greens, Chilled sunshine squash soup, Eric's Beet Salad (Shaved speck, Blue Cheese mousse, roasted pine nuts), House Charcuterie plate (duck Pâté, house made bresaola, smoked duck breast), and Oven Roasted Ono (olive oil poached potatoes, balsamic roasted vegetables, cerignola olives) .... just to name a few.

Years ago this University of Virginia history major discovered his love for cooking by working at Nora's Restaurant in Washington D.C. That was followed by a series of other national restaurant-related work experiences and entrepreneurships. Now, the success stories are coming. This past November 2009 WSJ article did a nice review of Boulder hip restaurants and featured a photo of Chef Eric plus a description of the Black Cat Restaurant with a humorous take on the town, as well. But wait, there's even more. In October of 2009 Eric was invited to cook a Colorado farm-to-table meal at the James Beard House.

As an ending note to wrap up this lengthy report of this eat-local farm and restaurant operation, while giving the farm tour of the bean area, Eric related the story about a dish served at his restaurant called...

The Reunion Dish
Across the road from Black Cat Farm is a farm called Spring Tree Farm. The "joke" is that the rabbits raised over at Spring Tree Farm come over to eat the young bean plants at Black Cat Farm. (Last year all of the 18,000 dry bean plants were eaten by rabbits.) He now serves a dish at the restaurant called "A Reunion Dish" which is rabbit with beans.

I do hope to dine at the Black Cat Bistro VERY soon.


Black Cat Restaurant
Black Cat Farm

Eric Skokan Q & A

Rocky Mountain Haute Cousine (WSJ)
Chef Eric Skokan
Black Cat: Farm - Table - Bistro
Chef Eric Skokan to cook at James Beard House
In My Kitchen (pdf)
Eric Skokan scores again with new bistro
5280 Magazine: Black Cat Bistro (pdf)
Boulder Chef adds agriculture to the menu
From the garden into the kitchen (pdf)

For Reference:
Colorado Gardening Resource Links

Here is an earlier 19-minute VIDEO interview of Eric done by Louise, a member of the Boulder Culinary Gardens, on Channel 22:

The Culinary Gardens - Black Cat Farm to Table Bistro from BVMA on Vimeo.