Four Empire State farms have been selected as finalists for New York’s Agricultural Environmental Management – Leopold Conservation Award (AEM-LCA). Named for noted naturalist and conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes farmers and forestland owners for their environmental protection efforts of land, water and wildlife habitats.
Country Folks spoke with Dillon Klepetar, owner and operator of Echo Farm – Farmstead Catering in Essex, NY, about his operation being named a finalist for the award.
Klepetar explained the property was deeded to Colonel Aaron North by New York State in the early 19th century as payment for his service in the Revolutionary War. North built a farmstead for his family, and the property changed hands a number of times over the years. In the mid-20th century, the Clark family took over the property and erected a number of barns and began a 13-cow dairy. They named it Echo Farm due to the reverberating sounds on the farm coming down the Crooked Brook valley between Whipple and Sprig mountains.
In the late 1970s the farm became fallow after the Clarks reached retirement age with no living heirs. From 1985 and 2014 the property was leased by local dairy farmers. “I purchased the farm in 2014 in partnership with several conservation organizations,” Klepetar said. “We kept the name and expanded the operation into an organic and diversified farm.”
The farm encompasses about 100 acres of leased and owned land, of which 60 acres are currently utilized. The Farmstead Catering operation maintains a commercial kitchen on site. The kitchen, perimeter fencing, a dairy barn, a garage, a farm store, two greenhouses, spring-fed irrigation and farmworker housing were all recently installed. The farm is powered by a 25kW solar array on two buildings and has a biodiesel micro-refinery to produce fuel for the ag equipment used.
“Our business began as a response to a farm-to-table movement that has lost much of its authenticity,” Klepetar said. “Instead of using a symbolic amount of local food in our catering, we grow roughly 95% of the ingredients we use. We now cater weddings, on-farm picnics and special events that showcase the rich terroir of the Adirondack region. We focus on the flavor and sustainability of our products by feeding the soil with on-farm fertility, rotational grazing, using cover crops, raising heritage breeds of livestock and using no-till methods.” The business has grown each year by expanding the range of products and services offered, including this year’s advent of raw milk cheeses.
Echo Farm has five full-time equivalent positions between the farm and catering operation. A number of other employees are seasonal. They operate and work year-round. When the catering season dies down in winter, they shift their focus to servicing equipment, processing storage crops and making maple syrup – as well as the usual chores required for their year-round livestock.
In maintaining their true farm-to-table ethic, the farm’s products are available in raw form or as value-added foodservice. Klepetar said they raise eggers, broilers, pork, beef and trout. Their annual and perennial production includes a wide variety of vegetables, seasonings, fruits and cut flowers.
“We do not amend or fertilize our land with supplemental nutrients. Instead, we attempt to deepen the definition of ‘local food’ to mean that the inputs to produce the food itself are created on-farm,” he said.
In addition to their catering services, they operate a small retail store, which was made from the old converted milk house, and they organize a CSA for their neighbors.
Their customers are primarily local, although Klepetar said their wedding and event clients come from across the U.S. “They decide to host events in our area so they can experience an authentic meal that’s been locally grown, raised and served from the ground up,” he explained.
As for being a contender for the 2022 AEM-LCA in New York, Klepetar said Echo Farm was nominated in conjunction with the Essex County Soil & Water District for the award based on its commitment to land and aquatic stewardship. “In every management decision we make and every system we develop, we think of the future condition of the soil, the agricultural runoff and erosion, its capacity to hold moisture and store atmospheric carbon,” he stated. “These efforts have been made possible by the unwavering support of our county’s Soil & Water technicians and field agents.”
He added that they avoid the use of any synthetic chemicals and that they plant diverse seed mixes and re-establish native plants. They have restored pastureland and protected nearby watercourses by fencing out livestock and planting riparian buffers. They farm with the wild landscapes that intersect with their domesticated farmscapes so that wildlife habitats are protected.
“We are enrolled in various conservation programs for both crop and forest lands including the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Conservation Reserve Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program,” he said. “Finally, we have sought to build a climate-resilient farm with gravity-fed water systems, renewable energy production and rehabilitating the microbial life in soils previously compacted.”
The winner of the New York AEM-LCA will be announced later this summer. “New York State is a leader in the fight against climate change nationwide, and our farmers are key in helping us to progress toward our climate goals while protecting our land and water and growing food for families to put on the table,” said Ag & Markets Commissioner Richard Ball. “The four finalists selected for this year’s AEM-Leopold Conservation Award exemplify the best of what we see across our state, who are leading the way in implementing conservation practices on their farms and in their communities. I congratulate our finalists and thank them for inspiring others in the agricultural community in New York to follow their lead.”
by Enrico Villamaino