Honoring the Land with Good Food and Good Practice at Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow, NY
989 Broome Center Rd | Preston Hollow, NY
From the outdoor dining area of the Bee’s Knees café, you can see clear across the Catskill Mountains. Summer afternoons bring guests to the café for live music, workshops, and lunch sourced from the 160 acres that surround the 1820s farmhouse. Together with a thoughtfully stocked farm store, the Bee’s Knees serves as the face and home base of Heather Ridge Farm, a mixed livestock farm in Preston Hollow, NY, just two and a half hours north of Manhattan.
When co-owner Carol Clement moved from New York City to Preston Hollow in 1979, she didn’t envision herself as a farmer. “I wanted to live in an agricultural community,” she says, plain and simply, “I wanted to have a few animals, a big garden, and avoid processed foods.” A graphic designer and animator by trade, Carol bought a house sandwiched between two dairy farms and spent the next ten years growing her new homestead and running a successful marketing firm.
In the late 1980s, when the region’s dairy industry was collapsing, Carol‘s firm was hired to work with the Catskill Center on an agricultural grant designed to help dairy farmers plan for the future of their land. Through this process, she was introduced to the concept of rotational grazing, a management system that involves moving different species to fresh pasture in a rotation that maximizes the health of each animal and the land. Though the dairy industry continued to decline, Carol was hooked on the idea of a farm that lets the animals do the work. Around the same time, the neighboring dairy farm became available and Carol decided she was ready to pivot. “I’d never thought of myself as a farmer because in my mind, farmers were big, strong guys with tractors and big barns and a huge amount of capital invested in the farm,” says Carol, “but suddenly I realized you don’t need all that.”
With a small crew, Carol and her husband John Harrison (who likes to say he married into the estate) have been growing the farm for the better part of two decades — each step forward a thoughtful reaction to the last. The couple opened the Bee’s Knees in 2008 and for the past four years, it has been under the watch of chef Rob Handel, a Catskills native who grew up cooking alongside his grandmother in the kitchen of their family resort. Maintaining an open dialogue about farming practices has always been a priority at Heather Ridge, and the café allows that transparency to reach new heights. Guests are invited into the kitchen to talk to Rob about what he foraged that morning or to pick his brain on how to prepare a specific cut of meat that they are interested in purchasing. John offers weekly farm tours for those interested in connecting further to the land from which their lunch came, and Carol circulates between the fields, the café, and the store. “One of the things that distinguishes us is that this is a real collaboration between chef and farmer,” Carol says of the blurred lines that exist between the farm and the Bee’s Knees, “you can talk to the chef, you can talk to the farmer, it’s both.”
Originally from the Bronx, John grew up visiting family on the Irish countryside and always imagined that he might someday run a farm. He was working for the phone company in Albany when he met Carol in 1994. “She already had the ideas in her head,” he says, “she just needed somebody crazy enough to help flesh them out.” John and Carol married in 1999 and settled on the name Heather Ridge Farm that same year. The name pays homage to the heather they plant for their bees, a perennial pollinator plant that lends itself to the farm’s distinctive honey and serves as a mascot for their overall regenerative farming philosophy.
An inventory that started with 10 chickens now includes cattle, sheep, goats, heritage pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, llamas, alpacas, and donkeys. Each animal plays a role on the farm and most are involved in the rotational grazing system.
Late spring and early summer bring new life to the farm when lambing and kidding season is fully underway. The latest lamb additions are a cross between Icelandic and Dorset sheep and will eventually provide meat and wool for the café and farm store.
The sheep are protected by Fiona and Rua, two llamas who will take down a coyote to save their flock. “They herd them into the hut and one will stand guard while the other one comes outside,” says John, “it’s really wild to see.” A farm tour with John is as informative as it is good-natured, his agricultural knowledge second only to his ability to remember the names of every animal on the farm.
In addition to the eggs and meat they provide for the café and farm store, laying hens and meat birds are integral players in the rotation at Heather Ridge. The cattle start the rotation by breaking up the soil and mowing the grass; sheep and goats follow to cut the grass down even further, and the chickens bring up the rear by digging through the manure, eliminating larvae and leaving their own fertilizer behind. The cattle come back through and eat the parasites that would make the sheep sick and the cycle continues. One result of this process is that Carol and John have never owned a tractor.
When Carol and John first started farming the land, the Catskills were in the midst of an agricultural renaissance. Nationally, farmers like Joel Salatin were starting to get recognition for their holistic management practices, and new farmers in the Catskills were taking over the farms that had been abandoned by the departure of the dairy industry. “We were all learning the basics,” Carol says of their meetings and book swaps during that period. “It was a very exciting time because there was so much sharing and growing — there was an acceleration.”
Today, Heather Ridge is at the forefront of another agricultural revival in upstate New York, one that involves a new level of consciousness around food in the general public. Preston Hollow’s central location between Albany, the Hudson Valley, and the Catskills makes the farm a natural gathering place for people interested in expanding their understanding of where food comes from. Carol often partners with the local cooperative extension to host workshops on grazing and she also teaches animal birthing classes. Rob offers classes on everything from fermentation to breaking down a whole chicken to foraging for wild edibles.
As the farm grew, Carol and John quickly realized that animal proportions don’t always add up to meet customer demand. The Bee’s Knees started organically as an effort to educate customers on lesser known cuts of meat that they seemed hesitant to buy. “I would cook a dish and put out the recipe and have people sample it,” Carol says of her attempt to introduce new products. “That helped, but what I really saw were people standing around and talking for an hour.” The café now provides locals and visitors alike a place to congregate over coffee and housemade pastries, skillets made from the farm’s chorizo and eggs, and bread pudding french toast made with local milk from Cowbella Creamery and topped with strawberries from Story Farms in Catskill.
Rob and Carol had been running in the same agricultural circles for years when their professional paths finally crossed in 2013 and Rob took over the kitchen at the Bee’s Knees. Rob’s understanding and appreciation of the land on which he cooks is apparent and humbling. The hops that dress the entrance to the Bee’s Knees are also used for herbal broths and beers; the black locust flowers that hang from tall branches across the property are steeped into ice creams and syrups. Rob knows when to start looking for fiddleheads and chanterelles; he knows where to find the best ramps.
Rob sources dairy, fruit, and vegetables from local farms when the season allows and will effortlessly tell you where every item on your plate came from. (All of the meat and poultry comes from Heather Ridge, a practice that they are unwilling to compromise on.) The elevated transparency available at the café has made them a destination for vegetarians looking to add meat to their diet in a clean and responsible way. Carol has even been known to offer a beginner carnivore kit for vegetarians who will make an exception for the meat from Heather Ridge.
A monthly supper club gives Rob a chance to experiment with new techniques and ingredients and gives diners the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone under the protection of twinkling fairy lights and good company. “The five courses illustrate what’s going on at that point in time on the farm and in the forest,” Rob says. “It’s hyper seasonal — sometimes I’m not able to come out with the menu until the week before because there are parts of the season where everything is really volatile.” Supper club dinners are available to the public and the menu is accompanied by non-alcoholic aperitifs like locust blossom soda and Rob’s “Patent” Root Beer that he makes from foraged birch.
Other events at the Bee’s Knees include a monthly fried chicken picnic and the Second Sunday Sessions when traditional Irish music can be heard over lunch. Rob can occasionally be found playing the tin whistle from the kitchen window in between orders.
John and Carol continue to grow their business in a way that feels both thoughtful and practical. “As you get into this, you start making a lot of mistakes, big and small,” John says reflecting on the last twenty years, “and you realize that you learn by making mistakes and then it’s common sense in a lot of ways.” The newest chapter at Heather Ridge involves two rental cottages on the property that will be available for weekend stays. Guests will find refrigerators stocked with eggs, bacon, and Rob’s English muffins, and John plans to build a dock along the swimming pond so that hot afternoons can end with a dip.
When asked if the area has changed a lot, Carol, John, and Rob all offer similar answers. “The area is always changing but the basic structure and the roots tend to remain the same,” Rob offers. As a whole, the area’s identity feels deeply grounded in its rich past, both agricultural and otherwise. A short drive from the farm will land you at the Greenville Drive-In where classics like Jaws and the Princess Bride play throughout the summer. At I.U. Tripp & Co., an antique and collectibles shop, Catskills homegoods share shelf space with vintage playing cards and salt water taffy. They also carry a variety of local provisions, including Rob’s root beer syrup. On Sundays, the Creekside Flea Market pops up in Livingstonville where treasures and bargains abound. In their quest to honor a bygone era, local businesses have found an eager audience in a new generation. But nowhere is the idea of paying tribute to the land more apparent than at Heather Ridge Farm, where it is not hard to see that the business was built and continues to thrive first and foremost as a tenant of the soil that it sits on.