Ken Myszka is eating his lunch, being interviewed, and taking a semblance of a breather in the middle of one very long day that includes several different full-time occupations all at once: farmer, chef, businessman, husband, and educator. But whatever you do, don’t ever say he’s working. “We don’t use the word ‘work,’“ he states emphatically. “This is a lifestyle and a way of life. This is who we are, not what we do.” Myszka is talking about his passion – food – and how he plans to meld this passion with his lifestyle into the mainstream, one person at a time. “I feel that for the very first time work and life can be meshed together into a system that is amazingly efficient. We want to change the world.” As lofty as that might sound to the common listener, it might be wise not to discount him. You see, Ken is transforming his vision into reality with Epiphany Farms Enterprise, his “farm-to-fork” concept farm in Downs, Illinois.
On this particular day, Ken has spent his morning hours transplanting seedlings from the greenhouse to the field – organic romanesco, red cabbage, kale, bare root onions and spinach are all in now, but this is only the start of spring, and those morning plantings are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. After the initial planting is underway, fresh ground will need to be turned by hand, animals will need to be fed or moved to fresh pasture, paperwork needs tending, customers require attention, interns need direction, and a myriad of other seemingly miniscule tasks need doing. When the sun has long since set, and other farmers are settling in to rest for the next day’s work (but remember – we’re not calling it that) Ken will suit himself up in his chef attire and head to his restaurant, where he’ll assist at dinner service and do prep work for tomorrow’s meals. His partner in both the farm and the restaurant, Stu Hummel, is a chef-farmer, too, and they share the duties of both Epiphany and the restaurant, rotating days and responsibilities of both. Ken’s wife Nanam wears many different hats, as she cares for the animals, plants and harvests the produce, keeps books, and acts as the farm’s “gal Friday” every day of the week.
It’s intimidating to hear the amount of “lifestyle” Myszka packs into any given day, and one might wonder how the pace could possibly be maintained over the long term. But Myszka is different from the stereotypical farmer. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, Myszka became a successful Las Vegas chef, working in the kitchens of such illustrious restaurants as Company American Bistro, Restaurant Guy Savoy, Bradley Ogden, and Bouchon. While there, he earned an additional degree in hospitality management, met his future wife Nanam, read Michael Pollan’s “new classic” The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and had his epiphany. The farm on which his father had raised pasture-fed beef would be a perfect place to establish his life – healthy land that could not only feed him and surrounding neighbors, but could also provide a restaurant with fresh seasonal produce and farm-raised meats, a way to bring real food – sustainably raised food – to people from all walks of life. In addition, such a venture could provide education to everyday folks: a vehicle for changing not only the way people eat but how they come by their next meal. His choice of location wasn’t solely guided by his desire to “go home” – as Ken states, “Illinois is a desert of conventionality. I’d say we’re home to the capitol of conventional agriculture in the country, since we are one of the major producers of corn and soy beans in the U.S. The current ag bill was signed not too far from here, so I believe that if we are truly going to change the world, we have to change the areas that are the most entrenched, which is why I came back here.” So home he bravely went to Illinois, and after researching every tiny aspect of what a business like this might entail, he tilled the first fields at Epiphany Farms.
Myszka is shameless about evangelizing his way of life, but he’s not off-putting like someone banging on the front door might be. His enthusiasm is contagious: “My connection with the land, with Mother Nature, and my position in this larger food system, the place all of us take in the system – all of us are connected through the land, and we need to have a different mentality than just making money. My strength is in the cooking, and in my business model I realized that I needed to have a service attached to my product, so now I provide interactive dinner parties in people’s homes. This is what people eat, it’s what they are putting in their bodies to live, and there is something more important here than just the bottom line.” Salad greens, according to Myszka, are a microcosm for the changes he sees as imperative. In the conventional restaurant supply business, for example, a chef contracts a purveyor of salad greens for a certain amount of baby lettuce leaves – those tender first edible shoots that scream with flavor and look flashy on the plate. But, like all babies, this lettuce grows up, and the farmer who has made a small fortune at the beginning of the growth cycle is left with mature lettuce plants that most chefs don’t want. In Myszka’s system, as both the grower and the chef, he writes the mature lettuce into the menu, thus making the produce more cost effective, the restaurant a showcase for the best-case end result, and giving the chef a much-needed creative outlet. The beauty of this system, of course, is that there is far less waste and land is put to its best use with minimum disturbance. What’s better for the soil, he contends, is ultimately better for people. That’s a statement that’s hard for anyone to argue with.
Sustainability is ultimately at the heart of all Ken Myszka does. He’s worked directly with the Salatin family, of Polyface, Inc., the farm featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and those discussions stand behind everything he does. He cares for his 220 laying hens using the Polyface method, which involves moving chickens – and their portable fencing and their “egg mobile” – every single day. Three days later, the cows are grazing where the chickens used to be, and intensive pasture rotation is the rule of thumb. Wandering freely are the guinea fowl; pigs, beef steers, turkeys, meat chickens, and ducks all live the way they were meant to – foraging, grazing, scraping, and digging for their food. The meat and eggs these animals produce are both better tasting and more healthy to eat, because they’re raised with little stress and loads of perfect sustenance. Fuel consumption is kept to a minimum because Epiphany Farms only has one tractor which is used for mowing and tilling, and even tilling is kept to a minimum. “Everything is done by hand, the way it used to be in the old days,” Myszka says, “and aside from my travelling expenses, fuel use is pretty little. We’re 110 horsepower all day long!” On a seventy-two acre farm, that’s no small feat. “The corporate farms are brainwashing the public,” Ken emphasizes. “The generations before me – my parents’ and grandparents’ generations – bought into the idea that technology would save them, but we’ve learned the hard way that it’s been too much technology and too little time spent doing things the old way. And in the case of farming, the old way is proving to be the best for us health-wise.”
Education of the public is the ultimate goal of Epiphany Farms – changing the way people interact with their food in a most fundamental sense. There’s an internship program, a day-long farm experience, and those private dinners Myszka prepares for a very lucky clientele. The dinners are particularly important to the public education process, because “Verbally persuading people never works” – Myszka is back to his passion again – “Only demonstration truly works; for instance, demonstrating something like the taste of an egg grown sustainably works far better than trying to talk about it. Let people taste the eggs and they’ll understand.”
What makes Ken Myszka’s story so compelling and honest is that he never positions himself above his customers or those he hopes to influence toward his lifestyle. He’s still learning, just like everyone else is. “Every single day of this journey I’ve tried to find mistakes, not avoid them, because that’s the only way I’m going to learn. I don’t look back on mistakes. I’m trying to evolve and grow just like everyone else is. My goal originally was to create a restaurant system, but I don’t want to buy into the current restaurant model. I want to start something totally new, something that is sound business, sound agriculturally, sound from a personal perspective, while maintaining integrity to my beliefs.” If anyone can do it – and he is doing it – Ken Myszka can. Just whatever you do, don’t call it “work.”