GREATEST: Sky High Farm
Coinciding with a video installation and exclusive capsule at MANIFESTO 2023, Dan Colen, Josh Bardfield and Daphne Seybold narrate the essence of their collective mission.
Since its founding in 2012 as a studio by artist Dan Colen in upstate New York, Sky High Farm has quickly expanded to encompass a variety of mediums. Working with Josh Bardfield, the Executive Director of Sky High Farm who holds a Master Degree in Public Health from Columbia University, the farm now operates as a public 501c3 nonprofit organization, donating 100% of their sustainably produced food and supporting food-access initiatives.
Last year, Sky High Farm’s co-CEO Daphne Seybold and Colen co-founded Sky High Farm Universe, a for-profit brand a portion of whose revenue goes back to supporting the farm’s initiatives. Since launching, the label has worked with everyone from Denim Tears and Comme des Garçons SHIRT to Balenciaga, Erewhon and Nadia Lee Cohen.
At MANIFESTO, a three-day festival presented by Kaleidoscope and GOAT at Espace Niemeyer during Paris Fashion Week SS24, Sky High Farm presents a video unpacking the issues they’re tackling with their work alongside an exclusive capsule collection. Below, Colen, Bardfield and Seybold discuss their ambitious project.
Tell me about the origins of Sky High Farm and the burgeoning clothing brand.
DAN COLEN: I founded Sky High Farm in 2012 as part of my art studio. In 2020 we initiated a 501c3 and have been operating as a public nonprofit organization since then. That structural transition has enabled us to expand our operations and programming capacities considerably. Following that transition, a group of the farm’s supporters have come together to found a new entity, Sky High Universe, which is structured with the singular purpose of sustaining the nonprofit’s work by creating unique revenue streams and expanding the farm’s audience and support network.
Josh, can you speak to the individual short-term and long-term goals for the nonprofit, especially with the newly purchased 570 acres?
JOSH BARDFIELD: Our short and long-term goals are interwoven. Over the next two or three years, we will continue to reinforce the pillars of our work which are: regenerative farming for donation, farmer training and education, grants to farmers and food justice advocates to build greater equity in the food system, as well as forward-facing educational programming for youth across the Hudson Valley and New York City.
Over the long-term, Sky High Farm is expanding its food sovereignty mission by building an inclusive operational and educational farm, food hub and residential community dedicated to ecologically centered agricultural education and farm business incubation in the heart of the Hudson Valley. Our project simultaneously addresses responsible land use through regenerative agriculture as well as the fragility of our local food system and nutrition insecurity by growing food exclusively for donation. We also tackle opportunities for the next generation of young farmers to find their place in agriculture through formal education, deployment of food justice and arts-based education to narrow the gap between food production and food knowledge as a source of community empowerment.
Over the next decade, we envision these activities coalescing around a new vision for local agriculture where people collectively define their food systems and the policies that underpin it, with sovereignty at the center.
We hear so much about food scarcity in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, but rarely do we think of it as a Western problem. Can you explain what’s happening even in places as close to home as Upstate New York?
JB: Food insecurity is a product of a food system that is inherently unjust. It is a product of agricultural policies that favor profits and politics over people’s needs and is a leading driver of pollution and climate change. It abuses land to produce crops, such as corn and soy which are not used to feed people, but to feed dairy cows or to be processed into ethanol or sweeteners. Moreover, BIPOC farmers are historically disenfranchised and deliberately excluded from access to land and resources. These variables have conspired to perpetuate a system that is racist, unjust and unsustainable. Food insecurity is a symptom of this larger problem and needs to be examined within this broader context to be truly understood.
Dan, throughout history, artists have been really connected with social and political action. It seems like this is more necessary today than ever before. Do you see yourself as a political artist?
I really just see myself as an artist. I don’t really even need that title that much, but it works best when describing myself to others. I think it’s fair to say all art is political. To live in this world, it’s impossible to not be political, but it’s not where my thinking starts. The way I approach my work is intuitive. I’m interested in abstraction and emotion and spiritual things more so than politics.
With the Sky High Farm Universe brand, you've created a new conduit that gains you access to an even larger audience. How has the response been to the clothing?
DAPHNE SEYBOLD: So positive. What’s inspiring is how much the industry has come out to support this work and understood the power of the model since Day One. There has been zero resistance and only support for the Wholesale Donation Program: an innovative wholesale model in which every retailer that carries the collection must commit to an upfront donation, thereby turning all customers into donors of the farm’s work, which is incredible to see. In our first 16 months, we raised over $300,000 for Sky High Farm.
How important is it that the creation of the collection is sustainable? Can you tell us about the fabrics you use and the manufacturing partners you work with?
DS: Deeply important. We look to re-imbue the amazing design that exists in the world with our values, so our core collection is made of vintage and deadstock. As it relates to partner production, they strive to use deadstock, vintage or upcycled fabrics in the manufacturing of our collections. We believe we can propose high-quality products made of what might otherwise be deemed waste.
Do you see a shift, not only in the fear of climate catastrophe, but also in creating a more equitable society and building community?
DS: Millennials and Gen Z are motivated increasingly by civic duty and engagement: issues before institutions, peer involvement, everyday acts of beneficence, conscious consumption but perhaps most importantly, they are interested in the redistribution of decision-making power and wealth. When we set up the business, we made the deliberate decision to make a for-profit business, an entity that could exert its influence through pop culture, with a flexibility that could allow us to be responsive to customers’ demands and tastes. Collaboration is at the core of this brand, with individuals and entities that feel compelled to participate in our mission. We wish to create a movement to fund the next revolution: agriculture.
Dan, tell me about the video you will be screening at MANIFESTO that encapsulates many of the issues the brand and the farm seek to address.
The animation is a manifestation of the themes we explored while designing the Spring 2024 collection, which Sky High Farm Workwear collaborated on with Interview Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Mel Ottenberg. The collection takes a burning American flag as its central iconography. We utilized different stylistic presentations of a burning flag to explore the multiplicity of meanings conjured in that provocative image: from patriotism to protest, from political to personal, from cultural to environmental, from ceremony to degradation and from literal to poetic.