Living Off the Land, 21st Century Style in Bloomsburg
The farming lifestyle in Columbia County has gone largely unchanged through the years, as families have maintained long and proud agricultural pastimes. But Ben and Kate Gatski are creating a new model for living off the land. They've turned their passions for farming, food, design, and art into two unique businesses while still staying true to their love of nature. Their small farm near Bloomsburg is not only the inspiration for their metalworking business, Gatski Metal
--it provides most of the operation's raw material. Ben, a self-taught metalsmith and artist, uses old, worn-out pieces of farm equipment to create unique, functional metal art sculptures.
Farming has been an important part of the couple's life, even before they met. Ben had aspirations of running a dairy farm and dropped out of college to buy a small herd of cattle and pursue his dream. Kate worked for the Pennsylvania Office of Sustainable Agriculture
as an event organizer. They met at one of the organization’s Field Days, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Early on, the couple focused their energies on their farm, but like many entrepreneurs, they were open to new ways to incorporate other interests into their business.
"Ben had always been interested in metalworking," Kate says. "His father got him a metalworking kit, and Ben started trying it out."
Most of his earlier efforts were smaller pieces given to friends, until one day the couple had an epiphany--they ran a farm, and there was no shortage of metal pieces around. Why not use some of the worn out farm implements in the artwork? After more trial and error, Gatski Metal was born. In 2003, the couple turned their focus from full-time farming to running a full-time metalworking business, with the farm shifting to a part-time venture. Most folks would be intimidated by the amount of work involved in getting such a business off the ground, especially a couple with two young children, but Kate says the idea of making a living from a creative pursuit is "not that foreign"--her mother’s been a full-time weaver for over 30 years, and her father’s an antiques dealer. In a way, her parents’ occupations helped chart the course for her own life. "Repurposing old items is kind of instinctive," she says.
The couple took their time getting the new business running and building their customer base. Kate said they went "everywhere"--mostly attending smaller craft shows and flea markets to see how the public responded to their work. An appearance at the Buyers Market of America Craft Show in 2004 turned out to be their lucky break. They met a representative from the Folk Art Museum in New York City who was very interested in their work.
"That was a big step up," Kate says. "That really built our confidence to keep doing what we’re doing." Since that chance meeting, several high-end galleries and niche furniture stores, many of which specialize in items made from repurposed or recycled materials, have become wholesale clients.
Working with local vendors is important to the Gatskis when locating items for their sculptures. They buy old pieces from fellow farmers, scrap yards, and dealers in the Central Pennsylvania region as much as possible. The couple still keeps a small herd of pigs and cows on their farm and has no shortage of material of their own. Like other artists, sometimes an idea will come to Ben first, other times a piece of equipment will inspire an idea for a piece. When they purchase the machinery, they cut the object into pieces if it’s not already broken up. Ben uses a pattern for the design, drawing it right on the assembled pieces and hammering out the design by hand. He then welds the pieces together into the new item. Nothing goes unused—he’ll often use old bolts for eyes or pieces of a lawnmower for an animal’s tail. Kate says she and Ben will work together on many of their pieces.
"We’re self-taught," she says of the couple’s artistic training. "It’s kind of instinctive--like an inner calling."
Last year, the Gatskis launched The Steel Fork
, an online store for their one-of-a-kind metal sculptures, jewelry, and other items with a farming or food theme. They’ve adopted the French expression “le gout du terroir” (“a taste of the soil”) as a guiding principle in their business philosophy.
"It’s a process to figure out what people like and will respond to,” Kate says. “Metal sculpture has a limited audience, so we’re looking at creating new products that are more functional to appeal to a wider audience.” The Gatskis are also collaborating with other like-minded artists to create new pieces using repurposed materials. They recently teamed up with Ben’s brother, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, to make a series of sculptures using wood from old barn beams.
It’s not always easy working alongside a spouse, but Kate says that she and Ben make a good team and provide a good balance for each other. Ben’s strengths lie with handling the physically demanding side of the business--lifting, cutting apart machinery, and tending the animals—while Kate is a self-described “big picture person”. She sees The Steel Fork as a holistic reflection of the couple—besides the metal sculptures, they sell whole-hog sausage and do-it-yourself cheesemaking kits through the online store. Ben’s goal is to make and sell their own line of artisanal-type cheeses through the site, although Kate says it’s difficult to sell food products due to the many regulations involved. Meanwhile, Kate’s vision is to diversify the site.
"I’d like to build The Steel Fork so there is a nice mix of things available that reflect our love of design, farming, art, and food."
Sara Hodon is a freelance writer who lives,
works, and plays in Northeast PA. Learn more about her writing trials and
triumphs on her blog. Send feedback here.To
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Ben Gatski at the Gatski Metals shop, with one of his "Deer Head" sculpture creations
Ben surveys his stash of raw materials, sheet metal from scrapped farm equipment
Ben usses a plasma torch to cutting sheet metal patterns
Kate Gatski works at her home office, communicating online with clients, customers and vendors
All Photographs By Brad Bower