Beyond organic: Local farmer Michael Clark’s produce thrives despite growing pains

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Planet Earth Diversified's Michael Clark. Photo: John Robinson Planet Earth Diversified's Michael Clark. Photo: John Robinson

I had never known an independent organic farmer before I went to meet Michael Clark, who owns and works Planet Earth Diversified (PED) farm outside of Stanardsville. Therefore, I had nothing on which to base any expectations. But what I did not expect was to meet an organic farmer who would go fishing more often if he didn’t have to stand still in order to do it; who kills enough deer to keep his freezer stocked with venison; who once applied for and was offered a job as an electrical engineer to help design Ronald Reagan’s pie-in-the-sky Star Wars missile defense system. I did not expect a farmer who stays up too late at night learning Linux so he can eventually write computer code to outfit his five greenhouses with an automated monitoring system; and who also dabbles in motion graphics for the YouTube videos that Planet Earth makes and posts to help raise public awareness of what independent farming is all about.

Clark inserts basil into tubes. It grows hydroponically, but he uses real dirt as the substrate. Photo: John Robinson
Clark inserts basil into tubes. It grows hydroponically, but he uses real dirt as the substrate. Photo: John Robinson

“Oh, I’m not opposed to national defense,” Clark said when he caught me doing a squinty-eyed double take at that Star Wars tidbit. And the deer slayer part is mostly because he has a permanent license to kill wild animals that graze his crops and could contaminate his produce.

Clark is an enigma. An engineer with a metaphysical mission. A naturalist farmer who was willing to work for Ronald Reagan. Raised Episcopalian in suburban Richmond, he grew his first tomatoes at age 5. The next year, he planted walnuts with his grandfather on land that he now owns in Floyd County. Clark brought his own hydroponically grown roses in five-gallon buckets with him from home when he came to UVA to study engineering in 1975. He tended to those flowers in the space where his roommate’s lower bunk would have been, had the roommate shown up for school. He sold his produce at Blue Mountain Trading Company (now Integral Yoga) while in college. He has been growing things for a while now. And the produce that comes out of his farm is as fine as any available.

“It’s amazing stuff,” said chef Harrison Keevil of Brookville Restaurant. “It tastes delicious, it’s grown correctly, and it’s just cared for. [Clark] actually loves absolutely everything that he does.”

Any longstanding regular customer of Clark’s—and there are many—will tell you the same thing about him.

“What he does,” said Vincent Derquenne, chef at Downtown favorites Bizou and Bang!, “is beyond organic. The guy works very hard to bring that product that is in that little box. I don’t think people understand when you buy the baby mizuna (greens), the micro mizuna, how much work that little box was.”

Leslie Jenkins, Michael Clark’s partner—in life and on the farm—knew after tasting his fresh tomatoes that she wanted to be involved in Planet Earth Diversified. Photo: John Robinson
Leslie Jenkins, Michael Clark’s partner—in life and on the farm—knew after tasting his fresh tomatoes that she wanted to be involved in Planet Earth Diversified. Photo: John Robinson

Love and the tomato

Clark’s produce is so good that it found him true love. I had a chance to hang out at the first day of the City Market season with Clark and his partner—in life and on the farm —Leslie Jenkins. In the late ’90s, Jenkins worked at Integral Yoga, where Clark brought his goods to be sold. “Everyone told me, you should try his tomatoes,” she said during a lull. “But I wouldn’t eat any tomatoes that I hadn’t grown. One day at the store, I was eating cheese on baguettes with sliced tomatoes and I was like, ‘Oh my God, where are these tomatoes from?’ Somebody said, ‘You’ve been selling them.’ So, the next time Michael came in I talked to him and then started working on his farm.”

When I first tried to get my head around the idea that Clark had carried his leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, and radishes to the market pretty much every Saturday between Easter and Christmas for 30 years, I got snagged on what I assumed the toll of the social aspect of dealing with customers would take on a man who has chosen to live all of his adult life in the deep country. But he and Leslie work so hard on the farm, a farm they couldn’t possibly leave to itself for any significant length of time, that a day at the market is their version of a day off. Albeit a long day off.

The night before market, they both stayed up until midnight, weighing and packing micro-greens, arugula, spinach, and all manner of herbs into plastic cartons and Ziploc bags—each labeled and bar coded. They wake at 3am, pack up the truck, drive the 22 miles to town, set up the tent and the stainless-steel bins, fill them with ice, arrange the produce in neat rows, make coffee three different ways, hang signage, and then proceed to sell bag after bag and carton after carton of greens from 7am until noon.

Clark and Jenkins wake up at 3am on Saturdays to get ready for the City Market. Photo: John Robinson
Clark and Jenkins wake up at 3am on Saturdays to get ready for the City Market. Photo: John Robinson

Then, as the market merchants break down their stands to go home, chefs from Downtown restaurants start showing up at Clark’s stand to take produce he has not yet sold. Derquenne and his sous chef, Brett Venditti, walked up about 12:30pm, the day I visited, to look through a big cardboard box of leafy bunches that Clark had set aside for them.

“Doing what we do with him, coming at the end [of the market day] and picking up things is more about, for us, to push us to create new things,” said Derquenne. “It’s always good for us to have something coming out of what’s left and we say, ‘O.K., we’re going to do something with this.’ Pretty much the box that he gives us is kind of a surprise. For brunch, for example, we created a couple of new things just because of the things that we got from Michael. And that’s what’s fun. We like changing our menu and at the same time we like to be taken out of our comfort zone.”

  • Casual Reader

    This is one of the best articles I have ever read in either the Hook or the C-Ville and certainly has made the C-Ville my favorite local paper. Attention C-Ville editors: keep giving Preston topics like this one and get him away from the local restaurant review dreck. It’s stuff like this that is where it’s at. I have seen Michael every Saturday at the farmer’s market and I grew up in Charlottesville. I read stuff here that I never knew about him and the struggles of farmers like him in the area. Thumbs up!

  • Concerned Citizen

    This is a great story & very nuanced. Keep up with the interesting topics and A+ journalism.

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