Jess Piskor’s lightbulb moment — which would set him on a path to move back to northern Michigan and become a farmer — came on a day when he almost overslept. It was 2008 and he was living in Ann Arbor and working for Zingerman’s Deli after graduating from the University of Michigan, where he had initially intended to be a journalist. A coworker had started a small vegetable garden in nearby Dexter that would provide produce for Zingerman’s Roadhouse restaurant. Piskor volunteered to help.
“I went out there on my day off,” remembers Piskor. “I was planting tomatoes and realized I had never had more fun. I was literally digging holes and putting tomatoes in the ground, and I realized that this was exactly how I wanted to connect with people.”
A year later, the Suttons Bay native moved back to his roots and started Bare Knuckle Farm on family land just outside Northport.
“When I started to fall in love with food, I realized that Leelanau County was a wonderful place for me to return to,” said Piskor. “I had left immediately after high school and never thought I’d be back.”
Jess Piskor, who turns 35 on Dec. 30, is now a leader among northern Michigan’s young farmers — who play an important role in northern Michigan’s local food-based and restaurant economy. The Traverse City region of today is celebrated for its beaches and breweries, but just as much for its classy restaurants and vibrant farmers markets.
Through Bare Knuckle Farm, Piskor embodies the importance of farmland preservation and maintaining our collective bond with agriculture. More and more farms around the Midwest are no longer handed down from generation to generation and give way to suburban sprawl. But Piskor dug his hands in the dirt where his grandfather — a “gentleman farmer” on the weekends — planted before him.
The community of Northport, in particular, has grown to Piskor like tomatoes to sunlight. During Friday farmers markets, shoppers and food lovers flock to his Bare Knuckle Farms booth.
“We set up and we’re swarmed almost immediately,” he said. “Being a businessperson and selling your product, it’s all about interacting with people honestly and sincerely. I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve never had to sell a product that I didn’t believe in. It’s powerful to know that as a farmer I can grow the food and I can stand behind it.”
“It’s really cool to see the number of customers who come back week after week and tell me about the food they cooked and how they shared it with their family.”
Northport is experiencing a cultural and culinary revival these days after struggling a decade ago when its hospital closed and population dwindled. But now a microbrewery, hip bowling alley, food truck and thriving café anchor the downtown. It also enjoys a new sewer system, a nine hole, solar-powered golf course, and the attention of celebrity chef Mario Batali. Bare Knuckle Farm is a badge of local pride, too.
During the summer and early fall, Piskor and his staff of half a dozen employees also sell their produce at farmers markets in Suttons Bay and Traverse City (They had a booth at the Glen Arbor market, too, but couldn’t keep up with demand. Piskor received phone calls of encouragement to return to Glen Arbor.)
The most exciting day of the week at Bare Knuckle Farm may be Thursday, the day before the Northport market. The crew picks all the crops out of the field by 11 a.m. while the temperature is still cool, packages them in the hoop house, and then Piskor cooks a big harvest lunch, using mostly ingredients from the farm, to reward his staff. This is their opportunity to kick back and enjoy the toil of their labor.
Piskor and his wife Michele Ferrarese, have a nearly 2-year-old son, Rudi, who is often present at the harvest lunches. Ferrarese owns Birch Point Farm near Traverse City, where they live, making them a rare “two-farm family”. Rudi knows every inch of Bare Knuckle Farm, interacts with the chickens and pigs, and gets to help bag lettuce.
“We’re a free-range family. We let him run around quite a bit,” laughs Piskor.
Piskor’s thriving farm allows him to experience Leelanau County (dubbed “the land of delight” by the native Odawa people) in a beautiful, holistic way — with his hands in the dirt and with his produce as his wares. But he shares one thing in common with many Traverse City area business owners: a struggle to find housing for his workers. He has turned away some job applicants who don’t already have a place to stay in northern Michigan. Others have taken the creative step of building a yurt and staying there through the summer.
His other principle challenge is to convince more people to support their local farmers markets and invest in local food — in restaurants, from grocery store shelves, at school cafeterias, and even from food pantries. We at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities are heavily invested in this mission.
“My hope and vision for food in this region is that we can get rid of the word ‘local’ because food just means local in people’s minds,” said Piskor. “I hope that when you say ‘I bought some food today’, it’s assumed that it’s local, and that’s it’s strange to say ‘I got imported food’.
“We really need to see a driving force of people really demanding local food. It’s one thing to get it at a fancy restaurant. It’s another thing to expect it at every restaurant. We want to see our farmers markets not busy but bustling with activity.”