Eric Skokan's seventy-acre Black Cat Farm began as a backyard garden
Six years ago, while his Black Cat restaurant was under construction in Boulder, Eric Skokan and his wife, Jill, planted a garden in their back yard.
Kirsten Boyer Eric Skokan in his root cellar.
"It was one part desire to grow strange, interesting things that I didn't want to have FedExed in to the restaurant," says the chef. "But it was also a passion and a hobby of mine. I've always loved gardening. I was raised in a family of avid gardeners."
Still, Skokan could never have predicted that his farm -- which he doubled in size for three years in a row so that he could provide the majority of his restaurant's summer produce -- would eventually prompt him to take on a much bigger project. "I had no inkling that this would turn into a seventy-acre farm," he says. But four years ago, that's exactly what the chef bought, turning a plot of land near Niwot into the main source for his restaurant.
Initially, the expansion allowed him to supplement the tomatoes, beans and other summer produce on his menu with winter crops, such as potatoes and cabbage. "We started really farming at that point," says Skokan. "And we've evolved into a regular market farm, like any other farm you'd find at the Boulder Farmers' Market." Albeit one that's selling a handful of vegetables no one else in the area has planted, along with prepared foods and pork.
Of the seventy acres that comprise his property, fifteen are devoted to row crops, where the chef says he grows "everything under the sun," from Jerusalem artichokes to dozens of varieties of lettuce and tomatoes to lentils and garbanzo beans to carrots and potatoes. On the rest of the land, he keeps a hot house for microgreens and indoor crops, a root cellar and space for livestock, since he raises ducks, chickens, hogs and sheep, which he slaughters for meat.
The chickens also lay eggs, and Skokan has found a downside to letting them run around freely: "The chickens are always trying to hide eggs. So every day is like an Easter egg hunt, and we have to try to remember where the hens are hiding them. We find them all over the place. I even found a clutch of eggs inside a bike trailer one morning."
Not that he'd have it any other way. The chef is staunchly anti-factory, and he prizes the high-quality eggs that come from his chickens, as well as the variety from the different breeds. "We love when you open a dozen eggs and they're all different colors," he says. "We have hens that lay dark brown eggs, green eggs, salmon-colored, polka-dotted, speckled -- they always look so great."
The Black Cat farm runs like clockwork now, thanks to a team of seasoned farmhands, but the chef says the early days took a lot of willingness to fail. "It requires a lot of bravery," he says. "You have to be willing to fail that first year and get a C- the second year so that hopefully you can land an A+ the third year."
Whenever he hit a problem that he couldn't solve on his own, he got a lot of help from farmers in the area. "Boulder has a group of chefs that are super-supportive of each other, everybody here is pulling for each other's success," he says. "It's the same with the farms. A dozen or so really exceptional, very experienced farmers would come by our booth every week to talk to me and hear about what the latest calamity was. So many farmers have offered up free advice. It's like thousands of dollars of consulting advice doled out over coffee."
As a result, he's still taking risks. "Every year, 20 to 40 percent of what's on the farm is stuff I'd never done before," he says. "Like garbanzos. Before this year, I didn't even know what the plant looked like. We're doing Heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving, too. We're experimenting."