Secret of a New York Farm Stand’s Success: An Eye for the Next Big Thing
“Growing better food with technology and farmers from one of the world’s oldest, most advanced agricultural nations: Egypt.
NOTE: this article was originally published to NYTimes.com on July 30, 2019. It was written by Priya Krishna. Photographs were taken by Shane Lavalette.
The Greenmarket go-to for high-end chefs is run by an upstate couple who custom-grow new varieties, using labor and techniques from Egypt
NORWICH, N.Y. — At first glance, the Norwich Meadows Farm stand at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan looks like any other, with its rows of onions and lettuce, and a banner with the words “fresh” and “organic” in big green letters.
But there’s something the chefs who regularly crowd the stand know that other customers may not: Its owners, Zaid and Haifa Kurdieh, have an uncanny ability to spot the next big thing in produce and grow it in bulk.
Their farm here in Norwich, a former manufacturing town about 60 miles southeast of Syracuse, is a prime reason that Jimmy Nardello peppers and Persian cucumbers have become ubiquitous in New York City restaurants.
The Kurdiehs provide Michael Anthony, the chef of Gramercy Tavern, with habanada peppers, a mild variant of the habanero. They sell sweet Kyoto red carrots to the chef Derek Wilcox of the Japanese restaurant Shoji at 69 Leonard Street, and tomatillo-like husk cherries to the chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske Valtierra of Wildair and Contra. Their produce also pops up at Eleven Madison Park, Blue Hill and Momofuku Ko.
“There are certain varietals of vegetables that become hot because one farmer grows them and chefs love them,” said Lena Ciardullo, the executive chef of Marta, Caffe Marchio and Vini e Fritti. Norwich Meadows Farm “is always early on that bandwagon. They tend to source awesome varietals that catch a chef’s eye,” like the Rosa Bianca eggplant, a fleshy varietal with few seeds that she has used on a pizza inspired by pasta alla Norma.
If the Kurdiehs’ produce is uncommon, so is the way they grow it — with technology and farmers from one of the world’s oldest, most advanced agricultural nations: Egypt.
Each year, they enlist about 25 farmers from that country to work for six to 10 months. They use high tunnels, unheated greenhouses developed in the 1950s and still not widely used in the United States, and even adapt some varieties that are popular in the Middle East.
“The entire world has been affected by Egyptian farming practices,” Mr. Kurdieh said. “The Nile River has been farmed forever. These folks are the cradle of Arabic cultural civilization. It’s in their blood.”
Mr. Kurdieh, 55, was born in Los Angeles, but grew up all over the Middle East as his father worked as an engineer in the oil industry. He knew he wanted to farm at a young age, even though his relatives didn’t see it as a respectable occupation.
“The mothers would tell their daughters, ‘If you misbehave, I am going to marry you to a farmer,’” he recalled.
Still, he returned to the United States to attend agricultural school, and earned a master’s degree in business administration at the University of South Dakota. He worked at the United States Department of Agriculture and at Cornell University, helping farms with financing and business management; but he always wanted to open a farm with his wife, whom he had met during high school in Jordan.
“We had gardens all the time because we just couldn’t find good vegetables in the United States, and we grew up with such quality,” he said.
In 1998, the couple bought a small house in Norwich, where real estate was inexpensive. In the backyard, they cultivated the types of vegetables they had enjoyed in the Middle East. A few years later, they bought some land nearby, and installed high tunnels. Mr. Kurdieh said he prefers them to standard greenhouses because they tend to require less equipment and are therefore more cost efficient. They also don’t need heating because, unlike with greenhouses, most farmers don’t use them to grow warm-weather crops out of season.”
But it was hard to find farmers to operate the tunnels, which require some experience and intuition to operate, Mr. Kurdieh said. Farmers have to know how to spot the pests that the hot, humid climate invites, particularly in an organic operation like his, where chemical pesticides aren’t used. They also have to be more mindful of soil management, as there is no rain to moisten and cleanse the ground.
So in 2002, Mr. Kurdieh flew to Egypt, an early adopter of the high-tunnel system, and found a group of farmers to work for him. Before they arrived in Norwich, Mr. Kurdieh was cultivating 200 varieties; he now grows more than 1,300 on the 250-acre farm.
It seems unlikely that the use of Egyptian labor will catch on in the United States anytime soon. Mr. Kurdieh spends a lot of time filling out lengthy visa applications, and is well versed in Middle Eastern culture. “If you put these Egyptians on an American farm, they will have a hard time,” he said. Many speak only Arabic, and pause for prayer several times a day.
Khaled Abdelrahman, 50, one of the Egyptian farmers, agreed. “I like it here because 90 percent of people are from Egypt,” he said. “Zaid speaks Arabic, and same religion.”
It’s easy to tell when you’ve arrived at the farm: Miles of half-cylindrical greenhouses become visible from the road. Look closer, and you might spot some Japanese negi onions, whose noodlelike sprouts look like creatures from “Star Wars,” or the hairy, purple heads of bronze fennel.
At the house on a recent Monday afternoon, Ms. Kurdieh, 56, was scolding someone for tracking in mud, as she furiously chopped onions and squash for a tagine. (The Kurdiehs have two adult children who live elsewhere.)
“When my husband first started the farm, I thought it would just be here” in Norwich, Ms. Kurdieh said. “But he goes to New York City. I was told about how people get killed and mugged in New York City.”
Now, she eagerly joins him for the four-hour drive back and forth once a week for most of the year. She and Mr. Kurdieh often eat at New York restaurants, and even helped create an off-menu salad at Gramercy Tavern, a generous pile of whatever vegetables are in season.
Mr. Kurdieh’s love of dining out, his obsession with reading seed catalogs and his ability to talk to chefs about flavors have all helped Norwich Meadows Farm stand out.
“I am always thinking about the marketing of the crops,” he said. When chefs come looking for a fruit or vegetable with a particular taste or texture, he offers a suggestion, and often grows it for them.
“Zaid is like the best kind of chef,” Dan Barber, the chef and co-owner of the two Blue Hill restaurants, wrote in an email. “He’s willing to take a bet on unknown varieties with no known market just to experiment with what he believes will yield better flavor. His farmers’ market stand is like a supermarket of future possibilities.”
Mr. Kurdieh grows produce for Mr. Barber’s restaurants, and also test-grows seeds for the chef’s company, Row 7.
When Norwich Meadows Farm introduced Persian cucumbers, which are thin-skinned with minimal bitterness, back in 1998, “there was a fistfight in the market, and we only had 10 pounds,” Mr. Kurdieh said.
“It’s the celebrity effect,” he added. “If chef XYZ says it’s good, someone is going to buy it. That is what makes the new things move.”
He is aware that his success is precarious. As visa restrictions have grown tighter, “my business is at the mercy of the political system,” Mr. Kurdieh said. “Every year we have to prove that it is in the United States’ interest to bring these guys over. If someone says it is no longer in the United States’ interest, that means we are up a creek.”
“We are the crux of every political issue: immigration, borders, G.M.O. crops,” Mr. Kurdieh said with a sigh. “But all we want is for people to eat good food.”