Ian Newell has a favorite quote from Calvin Coolidge, which begins: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.” It’s a sentiment he says resonated with him as someone who has never been afraid of a challenge, and one that pushed him to his latest venture — becoming a first-time farm owner with Celeste Farms, a regenerative farm celebrating local artistry and the fruits (and vegetables) of sustainable land management.
Located just outside of the city in Varina, Celeste currently provides fresh produce to local businesses like Ellwood Thompson’s and CSA aggregate Leafy Lanes, and donates produce to Food Not Bombs and RVA Community Fridges. But the highlight attraction at the farm itself has been The Farmer & the Chef Dinner Experience, a dinner series launched in July that begins with a tour of the farm and ends with a multi-course dinner featuring produce grown on the farm, hosted outdoors within Celeste’s wildflower meadow. Throughout the experience, guests learn about Celeste’s commitment to regenerative agriculture — a style of farming that works in harmony with nature to help promote and protect the health of the land — and gain a brief education on the farm’s practices, from composting and cover-cropping to vermiculture and small-scale vegetable farming.
In order to bring Celeste to life, Newell — already known in Richmond as the co-founder of restaurant Goatocado — brought together a team that, while coming from a variety of backgrounds, all share a common commitment to land stewardship. At the helm of the farm’s three main prongs — meadow making, farming, and cooking — are Operations Manager Sarah DeSimone, Vegetable Production Manager Karen Jaeger, and Head Chef Ashton Carter. Newell refers to the three as “artists,” and feels his role at the farm is to pave the way for them to create their works on and from the land.
“I view myself as someone who’s just curating things and trying to put together a team that understands what we’re trying to accomplish,” he says. “And I’m using my 12 years of business experience to remove all the hurdles so that the different members of the team can focus on building their part.”
- Taddy Mikelaites
DeSimone is Celeste’s official ‘meadow maker,’ responsible for designing the meadows on the farm’s property. Full of native wildflowers and grasses like Black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, big bluestem grass, and purpletop grass, these meadows not only beautify the farm’s property, but also provide food for pollinators, forage material for birds, and shelter for small animals like voles. Jaeger serves as Celeste’s resident farmer, following a career that spanned working as a science teacher for over a decade to gaining farming experience at Broadfork Farm in Moseley, Virginia, and later, a goat farm in Utah. Now overseeing the farm’s vegetable production, she aims to mix crops that are native to the area — and can grow well on the land with little need for intervention — with some more experimental choices that help to test the limits of what’s possible on the farm and add variety to farm dinners. Chef Ashton Carter leads farm dinners, developing menus and manning a massive Argentinian-style wood plancha night when he’s not introducing each course. With a long resume in the food space, he previously cooked in restaurants like the molecular gastronomy restaurant MOTO in Chicago and served as farm manager for The Restaurant at Patowmack Farms in Lovettsville, Virginia.
“We’ve all come together with different specialties and skill sets and it’s been really cool to swap knowledge and practice the knowledge I’ve gleaned,” DeSimone explains. “Our hope is to give people a more interactive experience with sustainable and regenerative agriculture and hopefully educate them and pique their interest about that.”
- Taddy Mikelaites
“This was a great opportunity for us to put our skills to the test and see if we could make this run,” Jaeger adds. And it’s running well — the farm dinners have repeatedly sold out, and are currently sold out through early November (new dinners are already being scheduled into 2024). “When you come to a place where the food is being grown and prepared in front of you, it’s an experience that people really enjoy — and it helps that the food is divine,” Jaeger adds.
The team at Celeste plans to continue expanding the farm’s on-site offerings, creating more opportunities for people to appreciate the pastoral space in different ways. In addition to private events, which are already being booked, Newell says there are plans to have less formal events that allow people to explore the farm more casually. As for the dinners, Carter says they aim to launch additional, smaller dinners hosted inside the house on the farm’s property, featuring even more courses and more intimate discussions of what’s on the plate.
“When you can really sit there and explain why you chose this product and did it this way, people can start to attach a personality to the food,” Carter says. “I think this is the future of dining — places on a property that grows its own food. I want people to walk away knowing that there are people out there acting as stewards of the land that can also provide unique experiences and delicious meals.”
“Every event we’ve done so far, there’s this sense of magic in the air,” Newell says.
For more information, visit the Celeste Farms website.
- Taddy Mikelaites