Grower’s Spotlight: Tara Rockacy
Welcome to the new year and also the seventh installment of Grow Pittsburgh’s Grower’s Spotlight! We started this series last spring in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a way to cultivate community in spite of social distancing restraints. Over the past several months, we’ve introduced you to some inspiring backyard growers, community gardeners, small agribusiness owners, and even a master composter. In the new year, we’re excited to highlight more impressive local growers in our community. To kick things off, we’re thrilled to feature Tara Rockacy, owner and ‘queen bee’ of Churchview Farm, a third generation sustainable family farmette located in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. Churchview is not only a
production site but also a teaching farm that grows fresh produce for CSA workshares and volunteers, student interns, local chefs, and on-farm educational and culinary events, including the locally-famed, quick-to-sell-out farm dinner series. Learn more about the space, Tara, and new farm chef Csilla Thackary below and be sure to follow Churchview on Instagram to keep up with all of the happenings around heirloom produce, workshops, and farm dinners!
GP: Can you provide a brief history of Churchview Farm?
Tara: My grandparents purchased what is now Churchview Farm in the 1930s as homesteaders; my grandpa Emil worked for Gulf Oil and my grandma Hilda raised their family. My dad was the oldest of ten children, and they all contributed to maintaining the Farm. The family grew and preserved food, hosted giant corn roasts, and welcomed extended family. I spent quite a bit of time at the Farm as a child with my cousins and remember much of the Farm being fields of vegetable crops and feed hay (and now feeling envious because he didn’t need to fence any of it in). I also recall chickens, cows, goats, and pigs – all part of the family – until it was time to eat.
GP: How long have you been growing food and in what different capacities?
Tara: I didn’t develop an interest in growing or gardening until adulthood, starting with container gardens on the rooftops of various apartments. When I moved to the Farm in 2007, I immediately started growing food on a larger scale, but just for myself and friends & family. I started a CSA program in 2009, and began selling to a few chefs the next year. By 2014 or so we were probably growing at nearly our current rate and capacity. We are still expanding our fields but not dramatically. If anything, we’re growing more food now because we have more perennial production, and have done a lot of work on the soil so we’re able to grow more intensively. The focus was always and continues to be heirlooms in general (nightshades in particular — the more rare and strange the better) and always on flavor and diversity.
GP: How did you learn what you know about growing now?
Tara: The bulk of what I knew and learned in the early years of farming come from my family (mostly my mom), my farmer mentor Barb Kline (formerly of Mildreds’ Daughters Urban Farm, and also a cofounder of Grow Pittsburgh!), and certainly my friends and peers in farming and gardening. But just jumping in, being willing to try and experiment, and learning from the mistakes and the successes is probably how I came by most of the knowledge I have today. One of the things I really love about farming is that you’re always learning. And at Churchview, because we are a collaborative teaching/learning space, that’s especially true. Every day I’m surrounded by people who are learning from me and I’m learning from them.
GP: How does Churchview differ from other small, local farms?
Tara: Our model is pretty unique and unconventional, and it’s evolved over time. The “Farm, Educator, Host” tagline fits us very well. As much as we are an agricultural entity, we’re also a teaching and learning space, and an event and community space. At our core is collaboration and that’s at the heart of everything we do: from growing food, to teaching, to our culinary and educational events. I think what makes this unique model successful for us is a spirit of community, and certainly our semi-urban location.
GP: What’s been Churchview’s relationship to Grow Pittsburgh over the years?
Tara: Churchview’s relationship with Grow Pittsburgh is so valuable to me, and started so long ago, that it’s hard to remember a time when GP didn’t have some kind of involvement with the Farm. It started, of course, with collaboration. We first partnered as a host site for the urban farm apprenticeship program and our collaboration has grown each year since. Farmer Hanna is a longtime friend of mine, and when she came to GP years ago that relationship grew into even more workshops, classes, and really fun collaborations like the Backyard Farm School series. Hanna and I are expanding that series for 2021 (stay tuned!) and I’m excited to see it grow for years to come.
GP: How have you been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and how have you adapted your operations and programming in response?
Tara: I’m incredibly grateful that we’ve been able to pivot and adapt to COVID-19 and all related restrictions, safety procedures, and processes. As a (largely) outdoor space, the ways we needed to adapt were relatively manageable. We quickly put new limitations and procedures in place, in both the agriculture and events aspects of the Farm, and took a step back when needed. We became part of Safe Service Allegheny, and operated with strict caution. But we were largely able to continue to offer the farm as a much-needed place to connect, learn, and engage. And that was made possible by our workshare and volunteer family, our wonderful staff and guests, and certainly the support of the Pittsburgh community.
GP: How do you see Churchview growing and changing in the future? What are your biggest dreams for the farm?
Tara: I’m very happy with the progression Churchview has made in the last ten years, and especially now with Chef Csilla on the team, I think we’re very much finding our stride. I love where we are right now. Of course, we will always continue to challenge ourselves and what we can do for the community. Csilla and I have started working this winter with a team of amazing people who are helping us move toward realizing a pretty big dream for the Farm….. Hopefully we’ll have more to share about that later this year!
GP: What’s your favorite thing to grow?
Tara: A running joke among workshares and volunteers is “whatever crop we’re currently working on is Tara’s favorite.” While I do discover new “favorite” crops and varieties all the time, and they change with the time of season, everyone who knows me also knows the short answer: heirloom tomatoes (with heirloom peppers a close second).
GP: What are some of your favorite resources and literature you’d recommend?
Tara: I find so much inspiration in cookbooks, for both the kitchen and the garden. I love looking through them in the winter while making decisions about seed orders. My all time favorite cookbook is probably Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden. I also love Vegetable Literacy by Debora Madison, and, most recently, Ruffage by Abra Berens. One of my favorite resources for farming is definitely The New Seed Starters Handbook by Nancy Bubel. I keep copies in the greenhouse and on my office desk; it’s a fabulous resource. Another is How To Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons. It’s essentially a small-space gardening workbook, resource, and planning tool. That one’s probably the farming book that I recommend the most overall.
A most exciting recent addition to the Churchview team this season is Chef Csilla Thackray, formerly of Legume/Butterjoint, who is now the Farm’s official Executive Chef & Community Engagement Coordinator. We asked Csilla a couple of questions about what attracted her to the Farm and how she hopes to bring the culinary side of Churchview to the next level:
GP: What’s the appeal for you, as a chef, working in this context as opposed to the traditional restaurant settings that you’ve worked in?
Csilla: Working in a restaurant setting is invaluable to your growth as a cook, but it can also be a very limiting experience. Yes, you get to work with incredible produce, but it isn’t often that you get a chance to understand how those products ended up on your prep table. I had an opportunity a few years ago to be a chef in residence on a farmette in Vermont and it was very transformative. I found that removing myself from the kitchen walls unlocked my creativity in ways I could not have expected. When Tara brought the opportunity to my attention, I just had to take it. Getting to truly learn about produce from (literally) the ground up adds depth to the work you do as a cook. I feel as though the experience will give me a chance to express myself through dishes in an entirely new way.
GP: What do you hope to bring to CVF’s offerings with your culinary skills and knowledge?
Csilla: I’m very excited to introduce a few new event series to our existing roster. The sky’s the limit for creative expression on the farm and there will be a lot of opportunity for me to explore my Hungarian heritage and the best possible ways to utilize Tara’s bounty. I’m looking forward to engaging with our customers through cooking classes and educational events as well as the exchange of knowledge between Tara and myself. I know I have quite a bit to learn from her about growing…and peppers!
Know another local grower you’d like to see in the Growers Spotlight? Maybe it’s you! Drop us a line to be featured in our next newsletter or on our blog.