What time do you get up in the morning?” is not the most inspired question a reporter can ask a Greenmarket farmer. No one ever says, “Around ten-ish.” But we couldn’t help ourselves the other day while talking to Kellie Quarton of Quarton Farm in Sullivan County, 112 miles north of the city. And as it turned out, her response surprised us. “I set the alarm at 1:38, because ‘138’ is a Misfits song and I have a thing about numbers that I make into something,” said Quarton, who likes hardcore punk and once did a stint at Deathwish records outside Boston. “But if I’m being lazy,” she said, “I set it at 2:12, because 2-1-2 is Manhattan’s area code. I leave for the city at 3:30. If I’m running late and leave at 3:45, that’s okay; if it’s four, I’m mad at myself.”
What’s even more impressive about waking up at Quarton Farm is that it is done without the aid of caffeine. “I’ve never drunk coffee because of my sister,” said Quarton. “We’re friends now, but when I was in high school my sister worked at Starbucks and she was really mean, and I attributed her meanness to drinking coffee.”
Nevertheless, adhering to this horrific pre-dawn routine has paid off for Quarton, who, before finding her life’s work tilling the soil, aspired to teach high-school math, dabbled in theater, and hawked coconuts at the Rockaway Beach boardwalk concession. That’s where, several summers ago, she met Chris Field and Jessi Okamoto, fellow concessionaires at Field’s brother Andrew’s Rockaway Taco stand and, at that time, nascent Greenmarket farmers themselves. Soon, Quarton was tagging along with the couple on their jaunts upstate to Greenmarket guru Rick Bishop’s Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in Roscoe, where the three eventually ended up working full-time. Field and Okamoto would go on to found Campo Rosso, the 13-acre Pennsylvania farm known for its beautiful and delicious chicories, and in 2017, Quarton leased land of her own in Hurleyville. The pristine produce she now sells Mondays and Saturdays at Union Square Greenmarket has attracted the attention of discerning vegivores like Brooks Headley of Superiority Burger, Marc Meyer of Cookshop and Rosie’s, and Hearth’s Marco Canora.
“Kellie rules!” says Headley, who plans his vegan heros and salads around what she brings to the market. “Lately we’ve been getting her Mexican tarragon (insanity, almost fruity) for ice cream, cabbage, crazy sticky garlic that is nothing like that pre-peeled drivel; her spinach when it’s around is practically beefy, great leaf lettuces, broccolini, Thai basil that makes me cry, edamame, purslane, Rumba carrots, and her sprouting cauliflower when she has it.”
Hearth’s Canora is equally smitten. “Her stuff always seems to have been picked at that perfect moment which is a crazy-hard thing to do. I wanted to make a simple salad of tomatoes and watermelon recently, but I wanted to add a variety of punchy herbs to it,” he says, “so we walked the Saturday market trying to find who had the best and most unique assortment, and Quarton Farm won, hands down. They had gorgeous dill flowers, Mexican tarragon (with flowers attached), and a crazy petrol-y variety of oregano and cilantro. I’m also a big fan of Kellie’s bean game — both pole and shelling beans.”
Beans, in fact, are the vegetarian Quarton’s passion, both to eat and to cultivate. Even before she planted her first seed, her goal was to create a signature crop, not unlike the way chefs set out to create signature dishes. “I was thinking that Tim [Stark, of Eckerton Hill Farm] has tomatoes, Rick [Bishop] has strawberries, Chris and Jessi are chicories. What should my crop be?” The answer was obvious: Grow what you love. Grow beans.
Last week, Quarton brought to the market her first beans of the season — a deep-pink, burgundy-speckled Italian heirloom variety called Rosso di Lucca; in the coming months she’ll harvest some 30 other varieties and sell them fresh for now then dried in the fall and winter.
The only hitch: Beans are hard to grow and, what with the picking, the shelling, the sorting, and the cleaning, fairly labor-intensive. There’s also marauding gangs of ruminants to contend with. Last year, Quarton planted all her beans in a field without a fence only to have the plot of land co-opted by a herd of deer who turned it into an all-you-can-eat buffet. It resulted in a beanless Greenmarket season for Quarton and she felt terrible about it. “I didn’t understand how much deer love beans,” she said.
Compared to beans, growing lettuce is a breeze. So, almost accidentally, Quarton has become a lettuce specialist — Little Gem, mini-romaine, big romaine, butter, arugula, even iceberg — all in the service of financing and expanding her bean business. And don’t get her started on the public’s love affair with tomatoes, which she began growing in a greenhouse last year. “It was the easiest, most financially beneficial crop I’ve ever grown, and also the least rewarding,” said Quarton. “I’m glad that my customers like them, but I feel nothing about growing tomatoes.” Still, if it gets her closer to her bean-queen dream, she’s not complaining.
*A version of this article appears in the August 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!