Chefs’ whisperer farmer in constant search of the best flavors by using sustainable farming practices to experiment new varieties.
Photo: Courtesy by Zaid Kurdieh
Zaid Kurdieh was born in LA but grew up in the Middle East. Passionate about agriculture, Zaid always knew he wanted to become a farmer. He came back to the US to attend an agricultural school where he graduated in business administration. After finishing school, Kurdieh was caught up in his attraction to farming. In 1998, Zaid and his wife Haifa opened Norwich Meadow farm, located in Upstate NY. It is an organic farm that doesn’t use chemical pesticides at all, and it now encompasses 250 acres and grows over 1,300 varieties of produce.
Quickly spotted by the greatest chefs in New York City for the quality, diversity, and taste of its produce, Zaid’s farm has been very popular with the city’s finest restaurants such as Blue hill or Eleven Madison. What makes it stand out is its Egyptian technology and farmers, one of the world’s oldest agricultural nations. Zaid’s curiosity and ability to take risks in the quest for better taste led him to become, undoubtedly, a very special player in his field.
Much like the restaurant industry, Covid has a significant impact on farmers. The fact that Norwich Meadow farm's primary source of revenue came from supplying restaurants, Covid-19 put them in an extremely difficult situation. If everything is now called into question, Zaid is trying everything to explore avenues to diversify while remaining hopeful. This optimism is largely due to the ties he has forged with chefs and restaurateurs and the inspiring solidarity initiatives he saw the past 6 months.
Welcome Zaid to Chefs for Impact!
By Zaid Kurdieh as told to Chefs for Impact
How, as a farm owner, did you navigate these unprecedented times?
“Just like everybody else, the pandemic got us by surprise. When it all happened, last march, we were in the execution phase of our crop plan for the year. We were not able to counter the effects of the pandemic so we are still operating based on what we normally have. Luckily, most of my crew, was able to come from Egypt to help at the farm prior to the airport shutting down and borders closed.
In the last 7 years we have become very dependent on restaurants which represent about 60% of our sales. All of the sudden the restaurants shut down, and nobody was going to the farmers market… so, we have had to come up with alternatives. We immediately started to do home delivery. It became an immediate success in terms of sales - 1200 to 1500 boxes per day - but the margins are much lower. Even though the boxes were doing alright, we knew that this wasn’t going to last forever. Now it’s about 150 per day and soon we will have our full production. The question is: Who are we going to sell it to? That’s where we are right now. The restaurants have not bounced back and 50% of my customers are still mostly shut down. Covid has almost completely ruined our plans of expanding our cover cropping and doing things more sustainably. Right now, we are operating on a day to day basis, wondering what the future will be. It is a struggle, but it certainly could be a lot worse.”
How can people support farmers in these difficult times?
“Purchasing would be the best solution but many people’s income has been cut. We have 50 people on our payroll so financial donations wouldn’t really help nor be sustainable. They may help small farmers but they certainly won’t help big ones like us. I would rather have help in a way that I can then turn around and give it back to them as a product. Getting money for free is not a sustainable solution in the long run. Charity is a very good thing but it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, instead of giving someone a fish, you should teach them how to fish. Same concept for us: we need to make our farm stronger during this pandemic to allow us to build the foundations for the future.
Some noble ways to help is to buy a CSA share with us. Support us now so we can change our model and continue doing what we love. Our farm is relatively large and because we are very much dependent on restaurants, we are finding ourselves in a difficult situation. Some small farms, especially rural ones, found themselves in a very good position where they were able to capture more CSAs.”
What have been the main challenges of diversification?
“I’m actually in the mindset of saving my farm so I tried and I will try anything I can. We switched to home delivery, we pushed CSAs, and even did a CSA box with Michelin. We also did a box with Jean-Georges which was the most successful in terms of sales but the volume was not enough to justify the effort of doing this.
Today, as a farmer, I’m running a production unit, but also PR, sales, marketing, and I don’t have the funds to spend on advertising. I don’t even have the time to sit down and do deep analysis on how to make it through. We work 7 days a week on average 15 hours a day.”
Is it possible to be sustainable during a pandemic?
“Sustainability in a world that is not sustainable is a problem because you are trying to do the right thing but in general, it costs more money. Buying fresh good sustainable food is paying for a healthy life, thus cutting on medical expenses. However, most people don’t think that way. For many people, a tomato looks like a tomato. Some of them can’t distinguish the difference between a cheap one and a good one. Some don’t even like foods that have flavors because they are used to eat plastic.
There are a lot of issues with the whole sustainability movement. Sustainably means in the long run you might be able to cut your cost sustainably by doing cover cropping. But, it costs money. It is surely much cheaper to use chemicals. During the pandemic, with people losing their job, they’d rather buy a pound of cheap tomatoes from a guy that is not sustainable. We have to tell people to reduce their consumption, as well as eating better quality. In general, you are getting higher nutrition in 4 pounds of sustainably raised tomatoes instead of 5 pounds of the cheaper ones. The conversation is very complex because a lot of people are unaware that taste equates to nutrients. I try to take the time to explain every day at the market because this is all about education.”
What’s the impact of this crisis on your relationship with Chefs?
“Thankfully, we have a loyal customer base; the best Chefs supported us and they are responsible for our success. People like Dan (Barber), Mike (Anthony), and many others are part of our expanded family. The solidarity we have seen the past months has been amazing.
When this happened, I’ve been talking to many Chefs, and each one of them reacted differently. We have seen a lot of support and ugliness during this pandemic. Some people have changed, even some long-time customers. Fortunately, we have also strengthened relationships with some clients who became real friends.”
What’s next for Norwich meadow farm?
“We worked very hard to be where we are so I really hope to be a gentleman farmer one day. I hope I will still be farming. I’m training the younger generation because I want to see somebody take over our farm. I am 56, and in 10 years I can’t be working 16 hours a day 7 days per week any more. I hope to continue our farm and our brand that we have created. But it is certainly in doubt right now. It is insane to see that one year can wipe out 6 years of progress. Vegetables farming is known as feast or famine. You have one good year and 5 bad ones, but one carries you through the 5 bad ones.
It’s hard but I am still optimistic. If we can get through this year, we will come out stronger. The new relationships that we built with Chefs, restaurant workers, and owners is truly inspiring.”
Order your box of fresh local produce: https://www.norwichmeadowsfarm.com/