Churchview Farm: A Vision for the Future
Since 2007, Tara Rockacy has built Churchview Farm one season at a time. What does a global pandemic mean for season number 13?
Farmers plan. As soon as a killing frost ends the growing season, they build the framework for the next one. What worked and what didn’t work? What did people get excited about buying? And just like that, they’re growing food again. In western Pennsylvania, items such as the heirloom tomatoes on our late-summer plates must be selected for variety and started from seed in a greenhouse or basement in the dead of winter.
Farmers also need to be flexible. An unexpected heat wave with no rain in May can wither an otherwise reliable bounty of salad greens. A ravenous groundhog or deer can mow a row of crops overnight. But restaurants are depending on a delivery for their evening menu, and those CSA boxes still need to get to subscribers.
And then a global pandemic that has the entire region sheltering in place can cause you to rethink your whole business model, especially when that model relies on people coming to your farm to eat the food that you grow. That’s what’s happening with Tara Rockacy’s Churchview Farm.
It’s a good thing the former librarian excels at both planning and flexibility.
“As farmers, we have the ability to be a little creative with what we are doing and how we get our product out there. I’m the kind of person that always has to be moving forward. I have to be adjusting and adapting. That’s how I thrive, and that’s how Churchview Farm thrives,” Rockacy says.
In 2007, Rockacy was an experienced gardener who adored sharing what she grew with her friends. She moved from Squirrel Hill back to her family’s land in Baldwin Borough in part to pay homage to her farmer grandfather, Emil, but mostly to save the nearly 10-acre allotment from potential development.
There wasn’t much there except for a few raspberry brambles when she broke ground. By 2009, she had 14 raised beds, a 20-person CSA subscription and a mentor in the esteemed urban farmer Barb Kline, one of the founders of Grow Pittsburgh.
Early on, Rockacy, who has a deep fondness bordering on obsession for flavorful heirloom tomatoes and peppers, decided she was going to focus on specialty crops for chefs rather than grow for the general market. And she made a long-term investment in growing fruit, which is a rarity in the region. She even has a fig mentor. “From a farmer’s perspective, fruit is the ultimate investment. You have to have a lot of patience with fruits,” she says.
It takes multiple years for a decent yield, even in best-case circumstances. Different fruits have very different needs as far as soil; blueberries, for example, thrive in a highly acidic environment. Fruit trees need yearly pruning and pest management. But Rockacy’s persistence is paying off, as raspberries, yellow raspberries, figs, gooseberries, honeyberries, Italian plum trees, blueberries and serviceberries begin to blossom on the farm. Now, she is adding a tree that’s been grown in this region for millennia — the American persimmon.
Year by year, Rockacy built the farm to become a destination. “I saw this community developing,” she says. “People who wanted to come to this space and step out of their lives for a few hours, whether it was for a work-share or to come to a dinner, that’s what I wanted to foster.”
As the business grew, it made sense for her to scale back on restaurant deliveries (you can still find her crops at a few establishments, such as Superior Motors) in favor of a series of farm dinners that span the growing season. Chefs such as Jamilka Borges, Kevin Sousa and Roger Li are regulars. Every year meant a new project to make the experience more engaging for guests and visiting chefs. A roofless pergola on uneven ground now is level and weather-tight; guests can see the sky on a beautiful summer night but dine comfortably even on the rainiest night. Early on, chefs cooked on propane burners. Now, they prepare Rockacy’s specialty produce in a fully equipped outdoor kitchen.
There’s a composting toilet with running water and electricity. There’s a tribe of goats that is both productive and photogenic. “We’re feeding people with ways to engage each other and engage people,” Rockacy says.
Rockacy planned on engaging a new audience by introducing an international dinner series featuring Wei Zhu of Chengdu Gourmet and Feng Gao of Sakura this summer. It meant starting seeds for vegetables in the Chinese culinary canon.
Now, the fate of those vegetables, and the rest of Churchview Farm’s produce, is uncertain. It’s hard to plan for a summer of culinary parties when it’s unclear how physically distant we must be from one another. But the farm must go on. One of the first things Rockacy did was reach out to existing and former workshares to let them know she was opening the spacious farm to a few people per day to come and be in the soil and the sun, work a little bit and take home food.
“I refuse to do anything but keep moving forward. For my sanity, it’s the only way I can operate in this age of uncertainty,” she says.
Update: In May, Rockacy decided to introduce a “Pickup Pop-Up” series as a way to maintain a connection in the wake of COVID-19 social distancing measures. Here’s how it works: Guests are assigned a pick-up time. Upon arrival at the assigned time, they will walk up the farm’s driveway where they’ll be greeted with a glass of sparkling wine. Guest will have half-hour or so to hang out at the farm during which they’ll be able to talk, from a safe distance, with the evening’s chef, visit the goats or just take in the open-air space. Churchview Farm staff will be on hand to make sure that everyone is maintaining an appropriate distance, and prior to the next group’s arrival, they’ll sanitize the public areas of the farm.
Guests will depart the farm with tote bag filled a three-course meal for two, a bottle of wine, seating cards with the guests’ names and a bouquet of flowers. Each experience will also include a virtual tour of the farm and playlist to enjoy with dinner. “People will be able to have a Churchview Farm pop-up dinner in their backyards or in their homes. And we’ll be able to support the farm, our staff and Pittsburgh chefs,” Rockacy says.
The series starts on May 25 with DiAnoia’s Eatery. Among the lineup of chefs are Brian Pekarcik (Spoon) with Jamilka Borges, Kate Romane (Black Radish Kitchen), Csilla Thackray (Butterjoint All Day) and Brian Little (Superior Motors). A list of chefs, as well as Churchview Farm’s safety guidelines, is on the farm’s website.