In Colorado, a ‘chef farmer’ pivots to survive the pandemic

Bruised clouds loom over the charred foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and a frigid wind tears at the hand-lettered sign that hangs from a new wooden shelter barely a dozen yards off the road. A 17-year-old lies buried here. “You will not be forgotten,” the sign reads.

In a low-slung greenhouse just steps away, the boy’s father is back to work, coaxing chartreuse baby lettuce to life. Fresh mizuna and tatsoi will soon join sweet spinach, sprouting outdoors under gauzy sheets. The greens are among the few vegetables on Eric Skokan’s Black Cat Organic Farm while the frozen earth holds its breath.

“We’re at the nadir of the year in terms of production,” he says. At 51, the trailblazing “chef farmer” is slowly emerging from a nadir all his own.

When the coronavirus pandemic shuttered his two Boulder restaurants in early spring, Skokan reinvented his farm-to-table business to keep most employees on payroll. He offered takeout, opened a year-round farm stand and refurbished a vintage ice cream truck to deliver made-to-order meals. Neither of his restaurants had enough room for outdoor dining, so he turned to his 425-acre farm and erected umbrellas over wooden tables on a dahlia-and-strawberry-covered hillside.

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