Photograph by Lisa J. Godfrey
At Kate Mountain Farm, a couple transforms a historic resort into a diverse agribusiness
Visitors to Kate Mountain Farm, in Vermontville, see the large, furry creatures in the distance and sometimes think they’re sheep; they have coarse curls of hair that look almost exactly like fleece. Except for the larger males, they’re roughly the same size as sheep. It isn’t until you’re right next to one and hear it grunt that you realize this is either a confused member of the ovine family or … it’s a pig.
This type of pig—a rare Hungarian breed called the Mangalitsa—is ideally suited to the climate of the Adirondacks. In addition to a coat worthy of North Country winters, Mangalitsas have a layer of back fat that’s several inches thick; it’s enough insulation to get them through the coldest winter without a shiver. Their fat is prized for making charcuterie, and their meat is deep red and marbled, almost like beef. They’re Adirondack tough, but they’re also delicious.
In the last 15 years, the breed has experienced a renaissance, as breeders and farmers have worked to increase the population of Mangalitsas and pull them back from the brink of extinction.
The Mangalitsas seem to get all the attention here, but anyone who visits Kate Mountain will notice that the farm itself is also in the middle of a renaissance. It’s the site of a homecoming and a restoration, where a young couple is breathing new life into a historic property and crafting a future for themselves at the same time. Like so many parts of the Adirondacks, it’s also a place where you have to be tough and adaptable to make a go of it.
Aaron Caiazza, the 42-year-old owner of Kate Mountain Farm, grew up just down the road, in Saranac. His aunt and uncle, Carol and Dave Vossler, owned the property where the farm is now, and Aaron spent a good part of his childhood scampering through the forest there.
“I made tons of forts in the woods … one of my favorite things to do was build shelters out of balsam trees and cook food,” he says. “I liked the idea of pioneer living, of making it on your own in the wilderness.”
When he and his cousins weren’t riding horses into the woods, building campfires, or playing on his uncle’s logging equipment, they would take the family’s video recorder up to the unrestored part of house—once the old Kate Mountain Lodge —and film horror movies. Its long hallway of burnished pine beadboard served as the perfect set for their own version of The Shining.
For visitors to the farm, opening the door onto this wing of the house is like stepping back in time, to 1925, when the lodge was built. Each room had its own sink, with a shared bathroom down the hall. Guests would arrive by train to Saranac Lake and arrange for a car to be sent by Hans Goettich, one of the original owners. When the guests arrived, they might enjoy a home-cooked meal or a game of shuffleboard; they could spend an afternoon fishing in a nearby creek or hunting. One advertisement for the lodge, from the years when it was operated by Robert and Emmi Ketelsen, offers “Relief for Asthma and Hayfever Sufferers. Complete Rest and Relaxation in our Private Park.”
The changes in the surrounding landscape represent how the use of the land has changed through the years. The photos in one brochure for the lodge show a land bereft of trees, from decades of clearing for logging and to open fields for growing potatoes. (This part of the Adirondack Park was known for its potatoes—the tubers were harvested as a seed crop, but also to produce clothing starch.) It seems unimaginable now, standing on the site of the old shuffleboard court, that a visitor in the 1920s or ’30s could have had a view of 35 peaks, as the brochure claims.
By the time Aaron’s uncle, Dave Vossler, purchased the property (at the time, more than 400 acres) from Emmi Ketelsen in 1972, enough trees had grown back to make the land valuable for logging. After Dave and Carol married, they renovated part of the main house for their growing family, and over the years the handful of guest cottages became a chainsaw repair shop, a pottery studio and a storage shed. Other than the pottery classes Carol offered, the lodge was simply a home.
Aaron eventually moved away to California. After college, he spent about eight years working on farms and in restaurants, learning about perennial agriculture and restorative farming practices, before ending up in New York City. He stayed in the city for his work as a filmmaker, but his heart was in the Adirondacks. As Carol and Dave began to talk about selling the property, he hatched a plan to start a farm of his own, to preserve the remaining historic buildings and to restore the lodge. Fortunately, his partner, Kelly Cerialo, who teaches hospitality at Paul Smith’s College, was game for the plan. They returned to Kate Mountain in 2013.
Anyone who’s ever planted a garden or raised an animal knows that it takes patience and time. When your goal is to create a farm out of standing woods (not to mention restore an old lodge and its passel of outbuildings), it takes years. Where do you even begin?
“I made a fence big enough for seven pigs,” Aaron says. “And when they outgrew that, I made a bigger fence. And then I got more pigs.”
Bit by bit, he has cleared the land, created pastures, built fences. He’s sifted dozens of buckets of fist-sized stones from his quarter-acre market garden and added truckloads of manure to the beds. As he’s cleared the land, he’s increased the herd from seven pigs to almost 40 over the last five years, and has added poultry, as well. This year, he’s raising 500 chickens for meat, 30 turkeys, 20 to 30 ducks and 30 or so laying hens. He’s also increased his produce output, going from a small household garden of ordinary vegetables to growing specialty crops like Chinese artichokes for chefs at The Point, a high-end resort on Upper Saranac Lake.
Because of the high quality of the meat, Mangalitsa pork fetches a price to match its gourmet status. To broaden his market and be able to provide more chefs locally with a steady supply of pork, Aaron also started raising another breed called the Berkshire. While supplying many private chefs with meat, eggs and vegetables, he also delivers to restaurants such as Bitters and Bones, Fiddlehead Bistro and Hotel Saranac (all in Saranac Lake), as well as Top of the Park and Big Slide Brewery and Public House (both in Lake Placid). Right now, he’s raising animals on roughly seven acres, with a goal of having up to 25 acres in production with sheep and possibly goats in the mix.
While he’s creating pasture and space for row crops, he rotates the animals through the property. Pigs’ strong, chisel-like snouts make them adept at uprooting small trees and plowing up shrubs and briers. They’re omnivores, so they eat what’s there: roots, insects, foliage. And they can clear the underbrush from a plot in short order, making the woods accessible for logging off the trees and creating pasture. Unlike modern breeds of pig, heritage breeds like Mangalitsas are especially good foragers. Following the pigs with chickens helps keep the parasite load low, so the herd stays healthy. “The birds clean up after the pigs, so they go after the pigs in the rotation, in an effort to build good soil for future uses, both plant and animal,” he says.
Working the land changes the landscape in obvious ways. But the act of working the land, of felling trees and shoveling soil, can also shift the vision of a project, as new limitations or difficulties present themselves.
“We’re making good progress with limited resources. A lot of the work on this place has been done with a wheelbarrow and a chainsaw,” he says, though they’ve invested in other machinery over time—including his uncle’s portable sawmill, which Aaron uses to mill wood for clients and for renovating or constructing new buildings around the property. Last summer, one of the cottages was re-sided with lumber cut from trees felled near the barn to open garden space.
“You learn a lot by doing,” he says. “If I had all the money in the world, more of the work might be done by now, but I’d have made some costly mistakes.”
Fortunately or unfortunately, then, Aaron and Kelly have had to get the operation off the ground gradually. Since they purchased the property, they’ve expanded on Aaron’s original vision. Ultimately, they’d like to develop a self-sufficient agritourism-style destination, perhaps even with a farm-to-table restaurant on site. Aaron has the experience in farming and cooking; Kelly brings years of experience managing high-end hotels in New York City. Together, they have an ideal partnership for this kind of operation.
Two of the old cottages have been restored so far, and this summer, another one will take on a new purpose: a farm store that will be open to the public, offering meat, eggs, vegetables and value-added products like sausages and rendered lard for baking. The store will also serve as a kind of community vending space, featuring products from local artisans, farmers and other producers.
“The goal is to have the place become a destination, to be self-sufficient, but also to create community,” Aaron says.
Find farm store hours and information about seasonal tours at www.katemountainfarm.com.