By Mitchell Clute
Sky High Farm is a unique endeavor. Situated in the Hudson Valley in New York, the forty-acre nonprofit farm specializes in organic produce and pasture-raised beef, pork, lamb and chicken, all of which is donated to regional food banks. The farm’s mission is unique—and so is the story of how it came to be.
Owner Dan Colen is an artist who appeared on the New York scene in the early 2000s, earning critical acclaim and notoriety for paintings made with chewing gum and bird poop and sculptures of graffiti-emblazoned stones. But after losing close friend and fellow artist Dash Snow to a heroin overdose in 2009, Colen resolved to find a new direction for his art and his life.
It was in response to that anxiety that I was
inspired to give the land a greater purpose.
“The farm's conception is definitely tied to my personal struggles, which are connected to my art making,” Colen says. “I started building the farm at a time when I was confronted by my own dark tendencies. The farm and the Sky High project as a whole helped counter that with lightness and positivity and helped me adjust my focus from an internal gaze toward trying to look out and around me more.”
This outward focus led Colen to recognize the need for greater environmental sensitivity, and recognize the growing population of underserved people in the community. Colen’s original vision was simply to renovate the existing barn into a studio, but he quickly realized that there was more to be done. “I had a fantasy that having all that space would have felt wild, rugged and free,” Colen offers. “But after I settled into the bourgeois reality of being a property owner, it actually became unsettling. It was in response to that anxiety that I was inspired to give the land a greater purpose; I guess in effect this gave me a greater feeling of purpose. And then of course having a farm created the second dilemma of what I wanted to do with the product.”
The farm quickly expanded, and Colen brought in experts who had the skills to help bring his evolving vision to fruition. One key addition was Josh Bardfield, who holds a master’s degree in public health and chairs the farm’s board of directors. He is intimately involved in deciding what to grow and how best to serve the farm’s consumers through a network of food banks.
“Sky High Farm is unique because we have eliminated the barrier of cost in access to fresh, local produce and meat of the highest quality,” Bardfield explains. “Respect for the land and our local environment is paramount. We are dedicated to maintaining an operational model of sustainable agriculture, and as part of this model we are constantly learning and challenging ourselves to use the land in the smartest, most efficient and most conscientious way.”
Along the way, Colen says, he’s had to separate his original vision for the farm from the realities of getting what’s most needed to the people who need it. But the encouragement the farm has received from food banks and their clients—who through Sky High’s efforts are receiving meat and produce of unprecedented freshness and quality—has been tremendously fulfilling.
A journey that began as a way to find more
spaciousness and calm in the face of personal
pain has become, over time, a way of connecting to
and caring for the world.
A journey that began as a way to find more spaciousness and calm in the face of personal pain has become, over time, a way of connecting to and caring for the world. “It’s become so real to me that I need to be part of an engaged dialogue about the environmental issues we are facing,” says Colen, “and that can’t be a passive participation.”
In the process, Colen has grown into a new perspective that has transformed his sense of himself and his art. “The farm has helped me realize how intimately connected we can be with others,” he explains. “Our lives don’t have to be isolationist. In fact, fulfillment comes more readily when you realize that sense of interconnectedness.”
Visit the farm