Abra Berens, 31, divides her time between professional Chicago kitchens like those at Floriole Cafe & Bakery and her Bare Knuckle Farm, 350 miles away on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula. —Mike Sula
I grew up near Hamilton, Michigan. My father grew up in that area. He grew up on an industrial pickle farm. We had, when I was growing up, just under 400 acres that was mostly to pickles. So I grew up witnessing the farm because my dad was farming part-time. Both my parents were anesthesiologists.
I went to the University of Michigan, and I started working at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor my sophomore year. It was there I started being more exposed to the local food culture. I saw there was this other way of farming that sort of walked the line between the cutesy farms and also a real farm that can be sustainable and growing a lot of different things.
I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 16 and there’s a freneticness that I’ve always really loved. I started having these ideas about wanting to have a food business but really wanting to make it a snapshot of a particular piece of land. That was what I wanted my food to be.
I had been in Chicago working for about a year and a half before I started the farm. And it was sort of a poorly planned adventure in the sense that I just quit my jobs and moved to northern Michigan and the plan was that I would commute—six months on, six months off.
It’s worked entirely [because of] the support that I’ve found in the Chicago food community. People are willing to buy our produce and support us, and then support me personally when I come back and am able to kind of cobble together several jobs working a couple days a week. That’s how my last several winters have been, and it’s been good. I would leave again in the spring, and everybody sort of knew that that was the deal.
When [Bare Knuckle Farm co-owner] Jess [Piskor] and I put together our original vision, we said that we would farm together for three years, and then we would reevaluate where we were, with a goal to have a food business in five years from the original start date of 2009.
One of the biggest things is I want to be an employer. I really think that there’s so much value in providing good work for people where they have autonomy and they feel that they’re working on something important or special, and that they feel needed and appreciated and that they’re compensated well, and just sort of creating that environment can also come from knowing how to guide people, or how to clear the path for them a little bit.
I think people have lost some contact with how their food is grown, and I think [Bare Knuckle Farm] is a really positive and sustainable way to grow food. It’s not the only way that food will be grown in the future, but I think it makes people sort of reconnect with that idea that when you see a carrot in the store, someone grew that. And that’s the idea that I find really inspiring.
Zain Curtis, aka Teen Witch, the DJ →