By Jamie Larson
It's worth writing this piece just to tell you that The Berry Farm
in Chatham, New York, is a great place to shop whether you are local or from far afield. The market offers an expanding variety of fresh local produce and meats, seafood, premade foods, baked goods and preserves from the farm kitchen; plants and flowers; and all manner of top-quality groceries, all in a bucolic agrarian setting. But the 35-year-old, year-round farmstand is much more than even all that.
The Berry Farm is, at its core, a representation of a man and his family’s values and ambition. Every positive attribute of The Berry Farm is a direct result of Joseph Gilbert’s seemingly tireless work ethic and his ability to make the most of every drop of opportunity.
“Four years ago some agriculture students from Cornell visited,” said Gilbert, Berry Farm owner, head farmer, patriarch, handyman, et al. “It was a busy day and (their department head) asked me to say what I owe my success to. I don’t think they were expecting my answer. I said, ‘I was born white, I was born male and I was born straight. I was born to a middle class family in Northern New Jersey, where the schools were excellent. That's what I owe my success to. That and hard work, determination and a bit of luck.’”
Gilbert opened the Berry Farm in the summer of 1982 with a small cart full of berries pulled behind his tractor. His parents bought the land for him. He paid them back in full long ago but he said everything he’s built here is a continuation of that familial support, which he’s now passing forward to his three kids, Jon, Michael and Lilly. The sons have come home to make their own mark on the family business; Lilly is in veterinary college.
“We have privilege,” Gilbert said, standing out in the bitter cold, where he’d been sawing wood to frame up what will be yet another expansion of the store (a seating area and tasting room for family’s forthcoming hard cider-making operation.) “Could some poor kid from Detroit do what I’ve done? Maybe, but they’d have to work a lot harder for it than I did. My parents believed in me and I pass that on to my kids. They work hard. I support their ideas. It’s just support.”
Through the decades that followed that first year in '82, the cart became a stand and the stand grew and grew as Gilbert made improvements each offseason while working construction, or as a janitor, for extra income. Each year the variety of what they offered expanded, too. In 2000 they became a year-round operation and last winter they undertook the biggest project so far, renovating and expanding the whole store while managing to retain a humble, homey feel.
“Everything grows organically as we listen to what customers want. We are flexible,” Gilbert said. “Before, if a farmer grew apples, you sold apples. There are more of us out there now. You have to be flexible.”
Though the appearance of The Berry Farm is classic, the operation has become decidedly modern, and that’s largely due to Gilbert’s sons. They farm 18 of their 24 acres (14 of which is all berries) but this time of year the best produce on the shelf is the variety of greens coming out of the farm’s state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse, managed by Jon. It produces as much as the farm's four old traditional greenhouses did, with less waste, rot, bugs and product loss. And the crop rotations are much quicker.
The efficiency of the greenhouse operation allows The Berry Farm to sell bags of fresh cut greens every day of the year at the fixed and reasonable price of $3.99 a bag.
Jon also helms the hard cider operation, which had been a planned beer brewery until a few weeks ago, when they changed their minds. In some ways it’s a big shift but the family’s trust in each other’s abilities to pull off big changes over the years has been a key to their success.
Mike is in charge of the impressively stocked butcher shop. We found him breaking down some exquisitely marbled short ribs. For discerning carnivores, the meat case is a dream. And it isn’t just red meat, either. The chicken is some of the best and the price per pound on some cuts rivals (and sometimes beats) the supermarket. Even an untrained eye can see the freshness of the seafood and the freezer cases are packed with options from the best regional farms. Joe said he never would have had a butcher shop if Mike hadn’t decided to come back to the family business three years ago. The son showed an interest in and a knack for butchery and the father, as is his way, supported him.
“If you told me in 1982 that I’d be selling meat and fish I’d say, ‘you’re crazy,’” Joe Gilbert said. “Now, everything we sell is higher end. With a market like this, you have to go with quality.”
The rest of the friendly staff is treated like family, too. Whether working in the kitchen, cutting Christmas trees, or ringing you up, there’s a relaxed but attentive atmosphere that’s built on keeping employees on the team for years and years. Customers become family, too, mostly because Gilbert has become a great frontman for the store, joking around with kids and turning every customer's question into a welcome little conversation.
“We have a great local clientele,” Gilbert said. “We're busy every day of the week. That feels good. People shop differently now. They know how to eat better and they see the value in quality."
For Joe Gilbert and his family, it’s all about support. When you shop at The Berry Farm, not only does it feel rewarding to purchase some of the best quality local products but you feel like you, too, are being supported and are, in turn, giving back to the farm the support they deserve.
The Berry Farm
2309 State Route 203, Chatham, NY
Open every day, 8 a.m.–6 p.m.