Farmer Profile: Dan Sullivan of Black Locust Farm
If you’ve eaten at Arden, you’ve tasted the handiwork of farmer Dan Sullivan of Black Locust Farm. We’ve been working with Dan since opening, featuring his delicious greens, tomatoes, specialty herbs and more on our seasonal menus.
As a restaurant that values quality ingredients, we love Dan’s “better, not bigger” farming philosophy that produces some of the best sustainably raised vegetables we’ve had the joy of working with. Dan is a pillar to the Portland dining community, serving many most-loved restaurants in the area that keep him so busy with word-of-mouth business that he doesn’t even need a website. It’s a testament to his work ethic and amazing produce, and we’re so glad that this Vermont native is making the most of our west coast soil.
Get to know a little more about Dan, his farm, and how he likes to play with the seasons:
Arden: How did you get into farming?
Dan Sullivan: I grew up in a rural town in Vermont, and I always had a big garden. My grandmother’s really into food and cooking, and I ended up getting a job at a vegetable farm right outside of high school. I didn’t know if that was the direction I wanted to go, but I knew I wanted to do something physical. And 17 years later, I’m still farming.
Arden: What’s the story behind Black Locust Farm’s name?
DS: The Black locust is a tree that is very prominent in the east coast, in the Appalachians and southern Vermont, especially on the Connecticut. The black locust tree is the largest legume, and those are a nitrogen fixer, meaning those plants make nitrogen available for other plants through their root connections with bacterium, which takes air nitrogen and fixes it into plant-available nitrogen. We wouldn’t have any life at all without nitrogen fixers. They’re very important to agriculture in my opinion, especially in more sustainable farming practices. They’re good for fuel wood, they have a pretty flower, and I have them tattooed on my arm. They’re just a good representation of my values, and they’re a reminder of home.
Arden: Is there anything unique about the farm?
DS: It’s a unique situation/property in that it’s an incubator farm. There’s a bunch of other businesses that are run out here. It’s not like a community garden – this is a 40-acre property, and there are 12 other businesses out here. Three of them are about my size, maybe a little smaller, and we all serve the Portland restaurant community.
The soil is not like Willamette Valley soil, but it’s fine. Oregon has a really amazing climate for growing vegetables. It’s very mild, and we get a lot of precipitation. We get the Gorge winds to help grow some summer crops even though we’re a little farther north than the better growing regions in Oregon. Generally I’ve had a lot of success. It was an abused nursery for a really long time, so I’ve been having to rehab it a bit. But it’s potentially a really wonderful farm in the long-run. I can see the results of that in just after five years.
Arden: What challenges does each season bring?
DS: Weather and climate change is definitely real in my eyes. I’ve been farming for 17 years, and I just see things getting more unpredictable. I’m only 34 – I can’t say that I’ve seen it all in any way – but the general consensus in the agricultural community is that it’s getting more challenging. Despite that and trying to plan and have things available all the time, it’s a lot harder than it looks. It’s always disappointing to me when I can’t have things keep rolling through the season. I grow a wide range of crops, so something’s always going to do well.
Arden: What do you like about early autumn?
DS: It feels really good to be done with our planting season. We plant from March until early Autumn, and we’ve been bringing in our winter squash and onions. It’s nice to have these larger things ready. The plants look amazing right now. I love the feeling of fall a lot. I love mixing root crops into the schedule again. The pressure of the heat has dissipated, so even the harvesting is easy.
Arden: What do you like about Jimmy Nardello peppers?
DS: The Jimmy Nardellos are a very, very infamous heirloom pepper variety from the west coast that originated in Italy. The story I’ve heard is that it was somebody’s Italian grandfather’s backyard secret, and the secret got out.
When I first moved to Portland, I first noticed when Jimmy Nardellos showed up at farmers’ markets. I picked them and thought, “Oh they look cool, but they look like cayennes.” But everybody wanted them. I knew there was a lot of hype around them, and I knew I wanted to grow them when I got my own farm. They’re super sweet, a very special pepper that’s very unique to the west coast. I’d never heard of them when I was farming on the east coast.
Arden: Tell me about your approach to farming?
DS: I try to mix farming efficiencies with keeping soil health and a whole systems approach. I do use tractors, but some of that is to keep our own health in mind. If you’re trying to do all of it by hand, which I did try to do for a couple of years, it really takes a toll on your body.
I have a biology and soil sciences background, so I try to be conscientious of the situation I’m in and not do something just because those are all the steps we do. I try to not use any heavy duty rodent killer, I use a lot of conservation machines that are lower-powered, and I use conservation practices.
Arden: What practices did you feel like you had to unlearn?
DS: It used to be “more is more,” like with fertilizer. At other farms, we spread cow manure every spring pretty heavily, and when it was time to fertilize crops, we never did soil analysis. You can get away with that a little bit more in Vermont because there’s six months of frozen grounds, but it rains all the time here, so you’d basically be leaching all those nutrients into the ocean. I also changed my planting schedule – I don’t try to overplant. I try to read the land a lot more.
Arden: What’s your favorite thing to grow?
DS: I love growing lettuce and radicchio. I like growing herbs, I love basil, and I love growing fennel. I like growing almost everything. A better question is what I don’t like to grow is chard and beets. It’s not that I don’t like them, I just don’t like to grow them for some reason.
Arden: What’s your favorite thing about farming?
DS: I like the independence of being a farmer. I really enjoy working with my hands, I like being outside, I like long summer hours, and I like taking time off in the winter. It allows me to tune into the lack of daylight in the winter and the abundance of it in the summer.
I also love eating. I like eating vegetables, but I love eating in general and working a lot allows you to eat a lot more. It’s allowed me to tune into my body a lot more. I do yoga practice and tie that into my work.
I also like how many academic areas it’s drawn from for me, from physics and biology. I had to learn about plumbing and carpentry. There’s a lot of different skill sets you have to have. I had to learn how to run a business and do Quickbooks. It’s never dull. Even if farming seems monotonous, it’s never dull.