The Believers

Cheryl Rogowski: Organic Genius

Dec 1, 2005
Outside Magazine


FOR A HALLOWEEN party last year, Cheryl Rogowski got dudded up as Einstein. It was a fitting look for the 2004 recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. Rogowski, however, is no lab geek—she's far happier talking apples than atoms. A fourth-generation farmer-cum-agricultural-activist in Pine Island, New York, Rogowski, 44, earned the award for proving that small farms can survive by selling exotic produce to urban consumers with fat wallets and organic sensibilities. The breakthrough idea transformed her family's 150-acre vegetable farm into an expanding natural-foods empire. "Diversification is the only way we could survive," says Rogowski. In 1999, she incubated her theories on three acres, planting 15 types of chile and dealing them to New York City's foodies via community delivery services. The concept took off. She now grows some 250 types of produce. Last year, Rogowski took over the farm and, with money from the MacArthur prize, launched a food label, Black Dirt Gourmet. She's also begun negotiating a distribution deal with organic-minded supermarket Whole Foods. "We now have the freedom to choose who we sell to, how we sell, and how we grow," she says. Exactly the way it should be.