Five high school buddies launch a multidisciplinary rural retreat
Castle Campus cofounder Gabe Bialkowski with a tray of microgreens.
Photos by Eric Frick
The portrait of a farm, for many, resembles a children’s book illustration with a red barn, tractors, fields full of row crops, a few animals, and maybe a scarecrow for good measure. There’s a farmer, too, with a special brand of restlessness and imagination, who is always thinking about how to work more efficiently, improve the quality and quantity of what he grows, and nurturing his family, community, and land.
Aside from a barn and several swaths of open hillside field, Castle Campus does not look like a farm. But on roughly 300 acres just outside of Ellicottville, the five young men who work this land are certainly farmers with a different picture of what the future of farming might look like.
Their concept is both simple and complex. On the simple side: Food, music, and learning bring people together, so they’ve imagined a place where all of those things can happen symbiotically. The “why” and “how” are where the complexity comes in.
Castle Campus is the project of Gabe Bialkowski, Sal LaTorre, Nick Boreanaz, Matthew Berke, and Jacob Sainz. In 2014, the five high school friends from St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute together launched Sensu Music (then called Castle Music Group, hence the Castle Campus name). But they had a hard time finding anyone to mentor or back their music tech/promotion startup in Buffalo. They moved out to Los Angeles where they lived for two years and found the incubator resources they needed to grow their company.
Upon their return to Western New York in early 2018, the group purchased a sprawling plot of land, a former farm, at the end of a gravel road five minutes outside of Ellicottville; close enough to town to be accessible but far enough out that the quiet of the woods and fields is uninterrupted by leaf-peeping crowds. It’s the headquarters for a new concept intended to grow ideas and communities by combining agriculture and entertainment in one place.
"Music is the center of community,” Bialkowski explains. “And so is food. This will be a home base for both.”
The goal for Castle Campus is to become a self-sustaining entity, then find other small businesses—in music, farming, agritourism, food, and like-minded others—to use the campus as a cooperative accelerator space where entrepreneurs can share land, communities, ideas, and resources to grow together, the exact scenario their own start-up was sorely lacking five years ago. Sensu Music operates as the founding entity on the campus, followed by Ellicottville Greens, a specialty, organic microgreens growing operation run by Berke.
The idea to start with microgreens was born out of practicality. They could start growing and selling right away with minimal investment in things like soil amendments and field equipment, grow-to-order with a quick-to-mature crop, and reduce the risk of spoilage and waste that results when growers can’t find buyers for produce in the field.
Inside a sizeable grow room in the finished basement of a house, rows and rows of multi-tiered shelves are lined with a soil-less hydroponic system that produces dense, flourishing trays full of basil, beet, cilantro, cabbage, and dill sprouts in just ten to fourteen days year-round. The picked-to-order sprouts end up on menus at Ellicottville Brewing Company, Villagio, Dina’s, country clubs, and a rotating roster of Buffalo restaurants.
Some of the shoots become the key nutrient-dense ingredient in more than a thousand mason jars full of cold-pressed juices for subscribers and farmers markets per week. The most popular is pea shoot lemonade, a spring green tart-sweet elixir that’s fresh and invigorating. Pea shoots are comparable nutritionally to wheatgrass, says Berke, but they taste better and they’re easier to juice. Beet shoots are also a favorite, lending all the nutrition and bright red hue of beets with less of the earthy flavor that some people don’t care for.
With the microgreen concept proven, the goal now is to expand the operation to grow houses built inside repurposed forty-foot shipping containers on the property. Sainz, the engineering and construction head for Castle Campus, outfitted the first one last summer, a bright green ten-foot-long mini version that’s insulated for year-round growing and outfitted with a natural spring water hydroponic system that circulates under magenta grow lights set on timers (these will eventually run on solar power, which the land is well-sited to host). The “pod” produced a continuous supply of fresh, perfect mini heads of bib and romaine lettuce, plus dill, cilantro, and microgreens—more than 600 trays per week—for Dina’s and Holimont and verified a growing model that can be replicated many times over as demand increases.
Behind the mini pod and barn, the land rises into a wide bowl of sprawling fields lined at the top by woods. One section is a produce patch that supplied fresh vegetables to a small CSA run by LaTorre and gave the campus crew a better sense of what the soil was like on the property. Nearby, the guys cut paths through the uncleared brush and into the woods to create a private trail system that can be used by campus visitors, with benches placed near the topmost edge of the field as restings spots from which to appreciate the scenic view into the valley. The natural grade of the land also creates an earthen amphitheater that is ideal for future outdoor concerts.
Back downhill and tucked at the end of an illuminated footpath in the woods is a tiny house, the first of many that will be built on the property for guests. The quaint shake-shingle structure with a metal roof features exposed beams, an antique stove, a lofted bedroom, and a wide front porch overlooking a tiny private pond. Bialkowski says the first secluded-yet-accessible getaway and future tiny homes sited throughout the property are ideal spots for creative productivity where writers can retreat, musicians can find inspiration, and city people can come out and ponder the peace and quiet. In its first season, the small rustic-yet-well-appointed dwelling was nearly booked solid.
More tiny homes will be built as the campus becomes more sustainable, and moves toward becoming a full-service agritourism destination.
“Agritourism is a newer concept here, but we saw a lot of successful models outside of Los Angeles during our time there,” Bialkowski explains. “Western New York is an agricultural community at heart, so it makes a lot of sense that it would work here, too.”
The vision for this modern farm includes careful, intentional growth to ultimately create a destination for farm-to-table dinners featuring produce grown on site and by other local partner farms and producers, music events like concerts and festivals, and entrepreneurial gatherings like think tanks, retreats, and opportunities to network. The combination of activities makes perfect sense if you think about it, says Bialkowski.
“Music and farming are both old professions that have to reinvent and adapt as times change,” Bialkowski explains. “Farmers and musicians have to constantly think about new ways to make and deliver their goods. The same could be said for entrepreneurs. Our goal is to provide information, resources, space, and connections, and have everything keep growing together here.”