Forty-five minutes south of Buffalo lies a luxuriant tapestry of sloping land where five WNY natives have joined together to undertake one of Buffalo’s most ambitious pursuits of self-sustainability.
Castle Campus is a 300-acre environmental complex located in Ellicottville, N.Y., and its purpose is to synthesize Buffalo’s industry of co-op business incubators while providing fresh produce to the region using clean energy resources.
Calling the operation a vertical farm or greenhouse would strip it of its magnificence, but that is essentially the idea, according to project leader Gabe Bialkowski.
Bialkowski and his team refurbished 40-foot shipping containers into indoor grow rooms and use chemical-free, pesticide-free, organic compounds to sprout microgreens and herbs like basil, cilantro, dill, and romaine lettuces all year long.
What’s more, Castle Campus’s innovative farming methods have been blended with traditional farming to cultivate an agritourism destination that will sustain itself for years to come.
Even greater, Castle Campus will prevent a cavalcade of next-generation entrepreneurs from being forced to graze on unpromising investment opportunities, an experience that project headhunter Bialkowski, a music software tech, has experienced first-hand.
A dream deferred
In 2014, Sensu Music barely took off.
Bialkowski and his team of developers in Buffalo —Nick Boreanaz, Matthew Berke, Sal LaTorre, and Jacob Sainz —created a digital recommendation system that paired independent artists with venues based on bookings. The software incorporated A&R recruitment and posting opportunities for indie musicians interested in joining a new band or going on tour.
Bialkowski sought out stakeholders around the city, but very few understood the concept behind the software, he said.
With little support from the music community, Bialkowski and his team were unable to raise enough capital to keep the dream alive in Buffalo.
That’s when a light switched on.
“The accelerator campus [Castle Campus] stemmed from that moment of saying, there needs to be something in WNY that can help these innovative businesses that these silo investors and key stakeholders don’t really care for,” Bialkowski said.
So Bialkowski set out to establish a support system for businesses lost in the fray.
“I wanted to create an environment at the accelerator campus where we could find those companies, bring them in, advise them, connect them to some people, and grow the businesses,” he said.
Room to grow
The businesses in the Castle Campus syndicate have sufficient room to develop. Organic pea shoots and romaine lettuce are some of the campus’s popular product pickings, and orders are fulfilled by two key players in Buffalo’s sustainable farming movement: Moon Burn Farm and Ellicottville Greens.
“It’s exciting that I can utilize my two interests combined, nutrition and technology, to grow a business in my hometown,” said Matthew Berke, CEO of Ellicottville Greens.
The entrepreneurs’ operation is intended to keep restaurants and area businesses’ food supplies local. Every week, a new succession of sprouts is planted using solar panels for restaurants and businesses in downtown Buffalo, such as the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus on Ellicott Street.
According to Bialkowski, 90 percent of all restaurant lettuce and produce is shipped from areas on the West Coast like California and Arizona. Castle Campus strives to create a local option for restaurateurs that is healthy, affordable, and grown on demand.
“We wanted to provide business owners here with...something similar to what they’re already paying through the bigger distributors …Something that they felt good about buying because they knew where it was from,” he said.
But the same concept applied to growing local can also be applied to the independent music community, and the combination of the two became part of Bialkowski’s larger vision.
Refusing to table his independent music software proposal, Bialkowski and his team were given no choice but to move to Los Angeles and sell part of their software company to a media corporation. Within three years, they raised just under one million dollars to keep Sensu Music alive.
Their music group has seen great success in orchestrating live events for artists and developing connections with live entertainment companies, and Sensu will host all live events at Castle Campus this year.
“Sensu helped launch this project initially, was the first investor, and will be a key business under the Castle Campus accelerator,” Bialkowski said.
Farming and festivals: a growing impact
Castle Campus’s farming enterprise of uniting live entertainment with fresh, locally grown food is a trend among agritourism in New York state, according to New York Farm Bureau Public Affairs Manager Steve Ammerman.
This interest also extends to keeping people staying on the farm, with increasingly more farms hosting year-round events like musical performances and creating products like craft beer and wine to sample, he added.
“It is an opportunity to open their doors to the public, increase transparency, and also offer entertainment alternatives based in agriculture,” Ammerman said. “This is happening in all areas of the state, but may hold special appeal to farms near urban areas with more consumer potential.”
As a stranger visiting the property, one becomes easily transfixed; part of the campus’s wonder is buried in its secret location at the end of Witch Hollow Road, a bumpy, shaded path where chickens roam free and the hot summer air clings to visitors’ cheeks.
Castle Campus is more than meets the eye.
“I sensed something big was about to happen. I’ve been in this industry on either the culinary side or the growing side for many years, “said Sal LaTorre, owner of Moon Burn Farm. “I’m passionate about bringing the most innovative ways to farming and changing the way Western New York looks at local fresh food.”
For LaTorre, the farm is truly a labor of love. He spends 60 or more hours a week maintaining the land.
Many people like their food prepared like they do their music: on a little big town scale.
While largely fortified music festivals of earlier days like Woodstock and the Farm Aid Benefit Concert have appealed to a mass market of people sharing a common rural lifestyle, live events at Castle Campus will be organized to appeal to a niche market of Buffalo lovers who enjoy knowing where the music comes from, Bialkowski said.
The 24-year-old entrepreneur said that eventually, Castle Campus will replicate a live-streaming show recognizant of “Daryl’s House,” an intimate web series where indie and touring musicians perform song and story on a decked-out barn stage.
”We want to create this as a destination, not just festivals, not just people playing music, not just produce growing, but a combination of it all, without being too overwhelmed,” he said.
As the urban farming landscape changes, Bialkowski will rise to meet the demands of the next generation within his property limits.
A Community Supported Agriculture program is already underway; a narrow road leading from the first indoor grow pod to a garden of tomatoes and squash on the hilltop of the property nourishes seven participants and counting.
“Ellicottville is one of the most magical areas in the region, and we want to invite a younger generation to become more a part of the community,” he said.
Co-op, community, and higher purpose
“We learned what ventures Buffalo is good for, and where it needs support,” Berke said of his experiences with jumpstarting Sensu Music in the city. “Straight forward, we just had to put our own large-vision spin on it.”
Since the team took what strides they made in Los Angeles back to Buffalo with them to help entrepreneurs thrive together, it’s been an incredible journey forward.
According to Bialkowski, the team is currently in the process of scaling and developing the land, and finding more like-minded mentors and innovators to join Castle Campus.
“We’ve been here growing our business for eight plus months now, have three businesses involved in our program, and we have some concepts in the works that are going to push the envelope on what Western New York has to offer,” Bialkowski said.
The third business Gialbkowski is speaking of, in addition to Ellicottville Greens and Moon Burn Farm, is a network of tiny homes which will be available for rental on the property. One tiny home, overlooking a zenful lake to the right of the grow room property, is already furnished.
Self-sustainable living, farm-to-table planning, and steady economic growth and support are what Castle Campus prospers from, and soon, others can, too.
That’s the project’s main objective: fulfilling a need—not just one, but many.
“I really just think that our generation wants to do more for their community and wants to make a positive difference in the world,” Bialkowski said. “Since everything is practically pushed in front of us now, we see what really exists out there and we start to think about the things we can achieve.”