When Ezra and Mary Bertakis decided they would begin farming, they committed to working an organic farm. No synthetic pesticides and no chemicals. They wanted to produce the very best produce.
Ezra Bertakis and his wife began Chef’s Way Organic Farm in 2012, and it’s one of the “original” organic farms. Ezra Bertakis said his grandfather “hobby-farmed” the land back in the ’70s before he and his wife turned the farm into a small business.
“We’re following in the footsteps of my grandpa,” Ezra Bertakis said. “He was organic before it was actually organic. It was just a bunch of farmers that checked on each other to make sure they were all buying the untreated, everything they could get their hands on.”
Ezra Bertakis attended the Organic Farming Training Program at Michigan State University, where he learned the basics of organic farming and became familiar with hoop houses — covered growing areas that protect crops from wind, sun, rain, and snow. But Ezra Bertakis said most of his knowledge about field farming comes from when he was a kid, working alongside his grandfather.
“I talked to all of the old-time farmers and asked them how they did it before the sprays,” Ezra Bertakis said. “I went and bought all the old machinery that nobody wanted. And that’s what an organic farmer is.”
After learning about how to farm organically, Ezra Bertakis said he realized that he and his wife are “soil farmers.”
“With the best soil, comes the best, cleanest crops, and the most healthy,” Ezra Bertakis said. “And that’s how we can do this organically and survive on this. It’s not about what I spray on it or put on it, but it’s about how I’m managing my soil. If it’s perfectly clean soil, it means there shouldn’t be weeds.”
Ezra Bertakis added that he manages the health of the soil through soil samples and testing to ensure the soil has the proper amount of nutrients. He said he focuses on the microbiology of the soil and aerates the soil instead of churning it, so that the microbes are not as so disturbed.
In addition to monitoring nutrient levels, Ezra Bertakis said he and his wife make all of their own on-farm compost out of their vegetables. The Bertakises also plant cover crops in their fields to protect the soil during the cooler months.
“We’re trying to create what they call a ‘green manure’: after you put a cover crop — cereal rye, clover, things like that — we’re really boosting our nitrogen and building our soils,” Ezra Bertakis said. “It’s all about protecting our soil throughout the winter from washaway. You get a cover crop down and it’s going to protect it from the erosion, while suffocating out the weeds.”
Although the Bertakises do not plant produce in their fields during the winter months, Mary Bertakis said their hoop houses are filled with leafy greens this time of the year. Mary Bertakis said her work changes in the winter because it’s easier to work in the hoop houses during the middle of the day, when it’s warm. Whereas in the summer, the two have to work early in the morning before it gets too hot outside.
Both Ezra and Mary Bertakis agreed that produce grown during the colder months often tastes better than produce grown in the springtime.
“It’s also a delicacy in the winter,” Mary Bertakis said. “It’s delicious because winter produce is sugary.”
Ezra Bertakis said the sugar content builds about 30 – 40% within produce, and the entire flavor profile changes. Although winter produce may have the best taste, Ezra Bertakis added that the winter months are also the most difficult time for farming and harvesting.
The two have a limited time to harvest in the winter because crops unthaw, move out of their freeze cycle, and are only awake for three to four hours a day.
“In the winter, what normally takes 30 days, now takes 90 days, and your next cutting, that takes triple the time,” Ezra Bertakis said. “You’re getting a lot more of a product that is more difficult to come by.”
Mary Bertakis runs the business aspect of the farm and said it’s important to find chefs who realize the importance of having organic products. Everything on the farm is done by hand. Every year, Mary Bertakis said she has to fill out paperwork to receive recertification as a designated organic farm.
“It’s not only a farm, but it’s a small business,” Mary Bertakis said. “You have to wear 1,000 hats in a small business, and then you have to wear 500 more when it’s a farming business. It’s been a really fascinating seven years.”
Chef’s Way Organic Farm’s first client was Hillsdale College. Bon Appetit’s General Manager David Apthorpe said the food service has purchased tomatoes and leafy greens from Chef’s Way Organic Farm.
“Bon Appetit has a strong sense of local purchasing, and it makes sense to partner with Chef’s Way Organic Farm,” Apthorpe said.
While Apthorpe said he appreciates the ability to get fresh produce nearby, he said it’s difficult to pay premium prices for organic produce. Although, the new “market station” in the dining hall may allow Bon Appetit to purchase more organic produce from Chef’s Way Organic Farm in the future.
“The market station is a great opportunity to highlight produce because we can get organic rice and grains too,” Apthorpe said. “It’s a premium station, so we can offer premium products.”
Mary Bertakis added that her favorite part about having an organic farm is packaging all of the produce for delivery. Every Thursday, she and her husband will hand-package all of their leafy greens for Friday deliveries.
“Every time I’m doing that, I just hope that the food helps people get healthy, and people who are trying to get healthy,” Mary Bertakis said. “When people get diagnosed with cancer, they immediately want to switch over to all organic, and I think about those people who are probably buying our food because it is so lovely and truly organic. I think about those people and hope that this food will help them be strong.”
Ezra Bertakis added that they deliver produce to Ann Arbor, Detroit, Lansing, Battle Creek, and parts of Indiana.
Before he and Mary Bertakis started their farm, Ezra Bertakis classically trained as a chef at the Florida Culinary Institute under the original Iron Chef, Masaharu Morimoto. Ezra Bertakis worked in various high-end restaurants and even had an opportunity to work at Morimoto’s restaurant in Manhattan.
But as an executive chef, Ezra Bertakis said he never saw his family. He worked from 8 a.m. until 2 a.m. the next day. Ezra Bertakis said he and his wife reached a point in their lives where it was either time for him to open his own family restaurant or do something else.
Ezra and Mary Bertakis both said they felt called back to Hillsdale to be with Ezra Bertakis’ grandfather after his wife passed away. The two said they faced challenges beginning an organic farm, but Mary and Ezra Bertakis now get to spend everyday together working in their fields and hoop houses.
Additionally, Ezra Bertakis can provide the best produce to local chefs, something he said he wishes he could have had access to when he was a chef.
Mary Bertakis said her husband taught her what he learned at culinary school and she does most of the cooking for the family. Every day, Mary Bertakis said, the family tries to eat something from their farm.
For both Ezra and Mary Bertakis, working on the farm is always a learning process. Every season, they said they take notes on how to improve for next year. Every crop presents its own challenges, but their work is fulfilling because they get to provide people with high quality produce.
“We work hard, but we’re trying to do good things in the world,” Mary Bertakis said. “And I think this is the best way we’ve learned to do good things in the world. It’s fun because we like to do a lot of community things, and this gives us an opportunity to do those things.”