ON THE EASTERN edge of New York’s Hudson Valley, in the hamlet of Ancramdale, is a working farm unlike the others surrounding it. It looks every bit the prototype of quaintness: a red barn, neat plantings, grazing cows, a rolling field dotted with pecking chickens, and, on the day I visit, a sky that stretches turquoise all along the horizon. But at Sky High Farm, every fresh egg and kale stalk is grown to be given away. Dan Colen, a painter represented by Gagosian gallery, who was part of downtown New York’s highly influential post-9/11 art scene, purchased these 40 acres more than 10 years ago. He did so precisely because the land evoked bucolic farming fantasies — a contrast to his life of urban grind. Today, Sky High has consciously planted itself upon an alimentary fault line, a pressured splinter of American abundance (and an increasingly affluent Hudson Valley) pushing against the very real issues of food insecurity that so many in the region and the country at large are facing. The farm’s reason for existence is twofold: to heal the land and to provide nourishing and culturally relevant foodstuffs to local communities in need.
To support the tireless work, Colen recently joined forces with Daphne Seybold, former communications head for Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market. Together, they launched Sky High Farm Workwear, a fashion brand intended to turn cool-hunting customers into donors and supporters. A half-dozen harvests were reaped and distributed among regional food pantries before Sky High Farm’s merch was rolled out: repurposed baseball caps, recycled tees, and deadstock sweatshirts in miscellaneous colors printed and patched with the farm’s trippy logo of a sensual strawberry in full canoodle with an enraptured crescent moon. For those in the know, these early products were snapped up when Dover Street Market New York hosted an in-store farm stand. And the seed of partnership was planted.
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Colen had been self-funding the farm and donating 100% of its yield to food programs across New York State. But to keep going, he needed a more sustainable and long-term model. “I learned about the massive problem of food apartheid and how important agriculture is in the equation. I realized how unique a project SHF is,” he tells me as we sit at a picnic table beneath the canopy of a giant maple. With a team of experienced farmers, activists, and Seybold working alongside him, Colen began the process of converting the farm into a 501(c)(3), or nonprofit organization. But almost immediately, the limits in terms of growth, scalability, and employee equity became apparent, and the team didn’t want to rely on the fickle unpredictability of external donors. There had to be a better way. “We realized there’s no point doing [the 501(c)(3)] unless we can leverage the energy and the pace that you can access through the for-profit structure,” says Colen. Conversations with pioneering, socially responsible brands like Newman’s Own and Patagonia ensued, and they started to imagine how Sky High Farm could innovate and build a model that fulfilled crop-yield objectives and aligned with their ideals.
Sky High Farm Workwear, a seasonal collection of wardrobe staples, came into existence in early 2022. The company is employee-owned, and 50% of its profits go directly to the farm to further its goal of providing maximum impact on food security and land stewardship. “The brand was created for the purpose of fundraising for the farm,” Seybold stresses, “as well as for education around the pressing issues of environmental and food justice.” But who said attire worn while laboring and challenging broken systems couldn’t be cute? Dancing corn and eggplants are embroidered along button-down shirt plackets, and the aforementioned besotted moon is escorted by a shapely strawberry on fuchsia workwear coats and quilted fleece hoodies. Many pieces on the website will sell out.
The brand’s immediate success is thanks in part to the globally influential creative talent and cultural influencers that orbit the Sky High ecosystem. Colen and Seybold have leveraged their community of blue-chip peers and coveted fashion companies, enlisting visual artists like Kara Walker, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami, as well as brands like Supreme, Denim Tears, and, most recently, Balenciaga, as collaborators for special product drops. Converse is set to launch the second version of the Converse x Sky High Farm Workwear collaboration later this month. “It’s infinitely more interesting for people to commune and engage with a[n agricultural] brand that sits at the intersection of fashion, art, and culture,” Seybold states. Fashion today is not only a social signifier but a soapbox to share ideas and invite involvement in social issues. But the line between sincere action and marketing hubris is fine, and Colen and Seybold acknowledge the finesse required in selecting their bigger partners.
We walk through the open field where the chicken coop on wheels, or “egg-mobile” is currently stationed; every week it follows the livestock’s pasturing to deposit organic fertilizing matter in the soil. The “workers” cluck as Seybold explains the company’s vision of democratizing philanthropy through retail transactions. “Involvement in this work is [traditionally] reserved for a donor class that can afford to write a check. The idea of allowing as many people as possible to engage with us through the creation of ‘cool product’ is a way to harness interest and allow people to participate in what we’re doing,” she says. “We can sell a pair of $40 socks and effectively render whoever buys it a donor in support of the farm’s work.” Dan pipes in: “We’re trying to bring not-for-profit ideals to the for-profit world.”
The rain didn’t come down much this summer, and so, in late August, the fields are tonal shades of dirt and gold. The no-till vegetable garden, normally bursting at this time, is taking its time pushing out varieties of native squash, and the plum tomatoes hang green like grapes from their climbing vines. The dirt crumbles beneath my feet. Here, the harvest is mostly timed to what nature is ready to give up, at her pace and capacity, with gentle nudges (of the regenerative type) to yield production in less temperate seasons. Still, the donation this season will exceed 30,000 pounds of fresh, high-quality vegetables and meat, equaling roughly 20,000 nutrient-rich meals. The goal is to exceed 100,000 pounds in the years ahead.
Violet clouds are outlined in crimson by light of dusk as I say my goodbyes. I can’t help but hope that the mission my hosts have set upon has the power to trigger contained eruptions across our systems of production and consumption. As if reading my thoughts, Colen adds one last summation of Sky High’s work. “My interest has always been in challenging norms and the broken ways we operate as a society. I’m interested in investigating other ways of doing things in a new, better, and more equitable way,” he says. “And maybe the farm, the organization of the farm and the [clothing] brand, can do it better than any painting could ever do.”
Polina Aronova-Cahn Writer
Polina Aronova-Cahn is an editor and writer who connects the interrelated dots of culture, style, and conscious living. Her work is focused on lifestyle communication, translating the tools of mindfulness and holistic well-being into approachable yet aspirational stories of deep human connection.
Ryan McGinley Photographer
Ryan McGinley is an American photographer who lives in New York City. He was the youngest artist to ever have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 2003, at the age of 25. That year, he was also named Photographer of the Year by American Photo magazine. He is known for a snapshot style that captures the energy and irreverence of youth.
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