Farm to table eating isn’t new. In fact, it’s as old as the farm day is long. But when it became cheaper and easier to produce and distribute processed foods, we went from a farm-to-table nation to a factory-to-drive-through one. In the past decade or so, as we’ve become more concerned with the safety, seasonality, and freshness of our food, we’ve seen a renaissance in eating closer to the source. We’re putting our food back into the hands of our farmers. Here are some of their stories as well as some tales of the shepherds bringing it to our tables. The season’s ripe for the picking—pull up a seat.
|Andrea Hubbell and Sarah Cramer Shields|
Sharing a plate
Not only do friends Sarah Cramer Shields and Andrea Hubbell share office space and a career as photographers, but they also share a love for food and telling the stories of the people who grow it, make it, and cook it. During a gastronomic tour of New Orleans earlier this year, they laid down plans to collaborate on a project profiling local farmers, bakers, chefs, and enthusiasts through a written and photographic narrative centered around their contributors’ preparation of a favorite recipe. Last month, they launched the project, titled Beyond the Flavor, and have posted a new story and dish every week. You’ll get a taste of their work in several of the stories to follow, but for a complete meal, check out beyondtheflavor.com.
|Left: Caromont Cheese joins prosciutto, roasted pecans, and a vinaigrette on a bed of arugula—all local! Right: Gail Hobbs-Page’s popular Caromont Cheese biz grew from a small herd she adopted to provide her with fresh milk. (Photos by beyondtheflavor.com)|
A Gail and her goats
For Gail Hobbs-Page, the chef-turned-farmer and cheesemaker at Caromont Farm in Esmont, April is an especially busy month in an always hectic year. This is the month when she begins making the addictively tangy goat cheeses that grace salads, sandwiches, and cheese platters all over our town and at farmers’ markets, restaurants, and gourmet shops up and down the East Coast.
Hobbs-Page’s 50-goat herd, which grew from the adoption of a few dairy goats in 2001 when she wanted a personal stash of raw milk to drink, now works as a well-oiled, cheese-producing machine. The goats breed late fall, gestate through the winter, bear their kids in February, and are weaned by March. Come April, the first two hours of Hobbs-Page’s mornings are spent milking her dairy herd of 32 goats. She repeats the same thing 12 hours later, using the interim to process all the milk she gets—about 80 gallons a day—into cheese.
In simplest terms, after adding a bacterial culture and rennet to the milk, the curds separate from the whey and what we know as cheese is underway. Pasteurized milk is used to make “fresh” cheese, which gets molded into disks of creamy cheese, like the Farmstead Chèvre, which is aged fewer than 60 days. Unpasteurized milk is used to make “raw-milk” cheese, but since the FDA requires that it be aged more than 60 days, it’s far from an immediate process. The 2.2 pound wheel of Esmontonian—semi-firm, pungent, and grassy—gets rinsed with a Virginia Vinegar Works wine vinegar as it ages 120 days in the exterior cave. It lives on for months and keeps us in cheese year-round—after the fresh chèvres have long been devoured. Aging cheeses means that Hobbs-Page doesn’t have to interfere with the goats’ natural cycle or freeze curds —all important tenets to sustainable agriculture and local and seasonal eating.
Caromont Farm’s current 23-acre operation has been more than a decade in the making, but Hobbs-Page’s passion for using local ingredients has roots in the 26 years that she worked as a professional chef. Having cooked at restaurants like North Carolina’s The Magnolia Grill and The Fearrington House before coming on as the chef de cuisine at Hamiltons’ at First and Main (where her husband, Daniel Page, still works as the general manager), Gail became a forerunning advocate of preserving local flavors and tra-
ditional food cultures. She’s Central Virginia’s version of Alice Waters—our grande dame of the locavore movement.
The salad Gail shared on Beyond the Flavor is a practice in all things locally-raised, hunted, and gathered. Arugula from neighboring farm Double H gets lightly dressed with a warm fig vinaigrette that uses Jam from Daniel, another anchor at the City Market. She drapes the greens with prosciutto from a pig she raised and killed herself, but the prosciutto from Olli Salumeria in Manakin easily substitutes as her favorite local alternative. She tops the perfectly dressed greens and ham with generous shavings of her aged, raw-milk Esmontonian cheese and a sprinkle of roasted pecans—Virginia ones, of course.
Find Caromont Farm’s booth every Saturday at the City Market and look for its cheeses in gourmet shops and on restaurant menus around town.
|Left: Joel Slezak and Erica Hellen began Free Union Grass Farm two years ago by raising cows and chickens before discovering the need for locally raised duck in the area. Right: A plate of Free Union Grass Farm chicken, fried in a combination of lard from last year’s pig and duck fat. (Photos by beyondtheflavor.com)|
Duck, duck, chicken…and cows
Jackson, the black lab, was the first to greet my daughter and me when we arrived at the Free Union Grass Farm where partners Joel Slezak and Erica Hellen own 13 acres and lease 25 acres from a neighbor on Slezak’s family’s land.
In 2010, the young couple started out raising cows (Joel’s dad raised Jersey milk cows there in Free Union) and chickens (Erica interned at Polyface Farms), but around the same time they discovered that the chicken market was flooded, they found an unfed niche in the industry. “I worked at Feast! for two years and chefs kept asking for duck,” said Joel. After doing some research, they realized that ducks thrive as pastured animals and are great for irrigation because of how much water they drink (and poop).
Erica introduced us to a flock of week-old fluffy baby ducklings who spend their first few weeks in a “toasty, predator-proof brooder” before making a home in a 12′x12′ pasture pen that’s moved each day. The ducks are killed between seven and 12 weeks depending on their gender, but getting their feathers out is another story. “It takes us about 16 hours to do 40 ducks, but only half a day to do 100 chickens,” said Erica.
Erica and Joel sold their first ducks last year to restaurants and at the City Market, and chefs and home cooks have been knocking down the barn door for more ever since. After being sold out for months, they’ve just processed a new batch of ducks and came to the second market of the season bearing whole birds, breasts, legs and thighs for confit, and even little half pint jars of duck fat—liquid gold in the culinary world.
Free Union Grass Farm’s broilers arrive on the farm as day-old chicks and keep snuggly in the brooder for a few weeks before they’re relocated to the pasture in portable 10′x12′ pens that Joel and Erica move every morning. The chickens get a new patch of grass and bugs to munch (which cuts down on the amount of grain they need) and their manure gets spread evenly across the pasture.
Their flock of 70 laying hens (who lay eggs with vitamin-rich, bright orange yolks and a colorful array of shells from speckled browns to blues and greens) roam the fields in a structure they affectionately refer to as the “Egg Roll.” A combination of recycled pine and white oak built on a hay wagon chassis, the Egg Roll gets moved to fresh grass every one to two days. Erica and Joel move it behind the cows so that the chickens can scratch out the cow patties and distribute the manure, keeping the pasture from getting clumpy, and cutting down on parasites. In the afternoon, they get free-range playtime.
Rounding out the pastures at the Free Union Grass Farm are the 10 heritage-breed British White cows (crossed with some Angus) that Erica and Joel move every one to three days to a new paddock, keeping them entirely grass-fed. The diet is healthier for the cows and the resulting beef is leaner, higher in omega-3 fatty acids, and better in flavor and texture than that from corn-fed, industrialized cattle.
Erica and Joel are growing their farm—slowly and organically—but remain planted in their belief that raising multiple species is the healthiest and most profitable way to farm. Apart from that, the secret to their success is simple. “You can’t ever sit on your ass—there’s always work to do,” said Joel.
At the end of a long day, Joel and Erica enjoy a meal made with what they’ve raised, grown, and processed themselves. In Beyond the Flavor, they lightly coat Free Union Grass Farm chicken in an egg wash and herbed dry rub and then fry it in a combination of lard (from last year’s pig) and some of the duck fat they always have in their fridge. Now that’s living off the land.
Find Free Union Grass Farm’s booth every Saturday at the City Market and look for its meat and eggs at Rebecca’s and on menus around town like The Clifton Inn, Duner’s, Mas, Maya, and Zinc.
Feast! owners Kate Collier and Eric Gertner recently celebrated the shop’s 10th anniversary with tastings from local artisans and giveaways. (Photo by Cramer Photo)
A decade of feasting
In February 2002, Feast!, the cheese-wheeling hub of Charlottesville’s foodie mecca, the Main Street Market, opened with an olive oil and vinegar filling station, 40 specialty cheeses, 10 deli and cured meats, and a limited selection of sandwiches. A decade later, this passion project of Kate Collier and Eric Gertner (who later became teammates in life, too) has grown in size and offerings with more than 75 cheeses, 60 deli and cured meats, a lunch café, a catering biz, and 20 full-time employees.
Six years ago, C-VILLE Weekly reported on Feast!’s $5 tomato, which broke down the cost of buying produce from our small local farms. Today, Feast! remains committed to showcasing the bounty of our countryside and the farmers who harvest it, convicted in its belief that locally grown food tastes better, and that higher demand will keep our farmers in business and eventually drive down the cost of that $5 tomato.
Local ingredients take center stage in Feast!’s salads (like spinach and arugula topped with Polyface chicken salad, pickled red onions, sweet and spicy roasted pecans, golden raisins, and sweet moscatel vinaigrette) and sandwiches (like the grilled focaccia panino with rosemary ham, Caromont goat cheese, Virginia Chutney Co. spicy plum chutney, and arugula). Local farmers and artisans visit after the City Market on Saturdays in July and August, spending the afternoon meeting the families that they feed, answering our questions, and providing samples of their wares.
Collier and Gertner estimate that, since opening, they’ve purchased more than $5 million in foods from Virginia businesses, donated $50,000 to local schools and nonprofits, served 750,000 customers, sold more than 100,000 pounds of cheese and 65,000 bottles of wine and employed 126 people. Talk about a fruitful decade.
Earning your share
CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is a 50-year-old model that’s still working, but how exactly? Community members (that’s us) buy shares in the spring when farmers need seed money (quite literally) and then every week come summer and fall, we pick up an assortment of fresh produce from the farmer’s market, the farm itself, or another convenient pick-up location. The original part of the model—lending our hand on the farm in exchange for our goods—has somewhat fallen away, but most CSAs are eager to work with everyone, so sometimes bartering or workshares are an option. Every week’s pickings are more or less a surprise, so you channel the Iron Chef inside of you and get cooking.
Bellair Farm CSA
5375 Bellair Farm
What it offers: 50 different types of veggies, plus eggs and pork.
How much a full share feeds: A hungry family of four, so split a share with friends.
Run time: May 21 through October
Pickup: From the farm on Wednesdays from 10am-3pm or Saturdays from 9am-2pm. You can also pick up produce at Pen Park Market (Tuesdays 3-7pm) or the Meade Park Market (Wednesdays 3-7pm).
Additional information: Shareholders have the opportunity to pick vegetables once a week from the farm’s Pick–Your-Own fields.
Iona Farm CSA
7252 Jefferson Mill Rd., Scottsville
What it offers: 30 crops and 50 varieties. Eggs, poultry, field greens, herbs, tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, beans, peas, potatoes, onions, etc.
How much a full share feeds: A family of four.
Run time: Mid-May through October
Pickup: On Tuesdays after noon inside the Iona Farmhouse.
Radical Roots CSA
3083 Flook Ln., Keezletown
What it offers: Each half-bushel includes tomatoes, leafy greens, herbs, peppers, fruits and other organically grown produce depending on what’s in season.
How much a full share feeds: Two to three adults.
Run time: June through October
Pickup: Harrisonburg at the Friendly City Food Co-op, on the farm, or at the Meade Park Market in Charlottesville.
Additional information: Shares for eggs ($60/year) and cheese and butter ($87.75 for 18 weeks gets you a half pound a week) are also available.
Appalachia Star Farm
163 Shaeffers Hollow Ln., Roseland
What it offers: Five to nine different seasonal vegetables and occasional common herbs (such as basil and parsley).
Cost: $512.50 for a vegetable share, $538.13 for a vegetable and herb share, $1,025 for two vegetable shares, $25 for an herb share.
Run time: May through mid-October
Pickup: Meade Park Market (Wednesdays) or City Market (Saturdays).
|Local dinner series Hill & Holler brings the table to the farm. Its second event, held inside Bellair Farm’s newly built barn, featured food prepared by Clifton Inn’s chef, Tucker Yoder, and wine from Gabriele Rausse. (Photo by John Robinson)|
Popping up at a farm near you
Hill & Holler gives all new meaning to the farm to table philosophy by bringing the table to the farm. The event company, a joint effort of tavola’s general manager, Tracey Love, and Caromont Farm owner Gail Hobbs-Page, hosts dinners every few months, spotlighting a different farm, chef, winemaker, and nonprofit group at each. The dinners are open to the public—reservations are first-come, first-served—and portions of the diners’ $75-100 are donated to local food and agricultural organizations.
Both denizens of the restaurant industry, Love and Hobbs-Page launched the Hill & Holler dinner series last fall with an aim to bring farm food back outside, to remind us all of where it’s grown, and where they think it tastes best. The atmosphere is rustic—high heels and fancy clothing are not recommended—and guests help themselves to family-style platters of food and bottles of wine set directly on the table.
“My goal is to bring the community together by integrating the talents of local farmers, winemakers, and chefs at a communal dinner table. Nothing brings people together faster than sharing a meal. We are lucky to be surrounded by so many people producing amazing food and wine that it should be celebrated, and shared in return through supporting local food/agricultural/arts-based organizations. It’s all coming from the same pot and returning to the same pot. It’s a nice cycle that happens to have the added bonus of a farm dinner in the middle of it,” said Love.
The inaugural event last October took place in a field at Blenheim Vineyards and featured four courses prepared by chef Lee Gregory of Richmond’s The Roosevelt, paired with wines from Blenheim Vineyards, all in support of the UVA Food Collaborative. In January, Hill & Holler took shelter from the cold in Bellair Farm’s newly built barn and enjoyed food prepared by Clifton Inn’s Executive Chef, Tucker Yoder, with wine made by Gabriele Rausse, all to support the Local Food Hub.
Morven Farm, part of the University of Virginia Foundation, provides the bucolic backdrop for the next dinner, scheduled for Sunday, May 27 at 5pm, where Gay Beery from A Pimento Catering will cook and Andy Reagan from Jefferson Vineyards will provide the wine. Benefitting from the proceeds of this dinner is The City Schoolyard Garden at Buford Middle School, which operates two after-school programs in gardening and cooking. Fruits of the labors of both Morven Farm and the City Schoolyard Garden will be featured in dishes throughout the meal.
To make reservations or to join the mailing list to receive updates and information regarding future events, e-mail Hill & Holler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Director of development and outreach Emily Manley gets to planting at the Local Food Hub’s six-acre Educational Farm, located outside of Scottsville. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)|
America’s next top model
Ever since Feast!’s Kate Collier launched the Local Food Hub in 2009, it’s been getting our attention. But now, the nonprofit that buys and aggregates goods from 70 small, local farms, distributing them to more than 150 area markets, restaurants, schools, hospitals, and institutions, has caught the eye of our federal government too.
Last month, the Local Food Hub hosted a group of Senate Agriculture Committee and USDA reps on a tour of its warehouse and educational farm. As they draft this year’s farm bill, the officials came to explore the Local Food Hub as a model that successfully expands market opportunities for farmers.
Jim Barham, Agricultural Economist with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service said, “I have been closely studying regional food hubs for several years now and what the Local Food Hub has been able to accomplish in such a short period of time is quite remarkable. It is a testament to the great efforts of the Local Food Hub, the strong commitment and dedication of the farmers they work with, and the growing demand from consumers for locally grown food.”
Emily Manley, the Local Food Hub’s director of development and outreach, is thrilled with the national recognition. “Local Food Hub’s model provides economic opportunity for small farms by enabling them to access large, institutional markets. But we don’t work in a vacuum—we are integrated and collaborative, combining infrastructure with a suite of educational opportunities, farm services, and community outreach programs,” she said. “The idea that we may also have the opportunity to positively impact local food systems across the country is very, very exciting.”
For a list of where to find food distributed by the Local Food Hub, visit localfoodhub.org/our-food/where-to-find-our-food/.
|Out standing in their field: Brian Walden, with his wife Mihr and son Sylas, inspects his barley. Ten acres of his 500-acre cattle farm are devoted to the grain, which first sprouted last fall. (Photo by John Robinson)|
Local waves of grain
There are only a handful of local grain growers in the area and when I met with Brian Walden, owner of Steadfast Farm in Red Hill, I learned why. “We don’t have the flat expanses of land they have out west, and Virginia’s hot and humid climate is treacherous for growing grains,” said Walden, who uses a hard red winter wheat developed especially for the East Coast to withstand humidity and resist disease.
So why, with a 500-acre cattle farm, a half-built house, and an almost 3-year-old son among his list of responsibilities, did he add growing grains and legumes to the list last year? “I noticed that there’s no one supplying the largest and most important part of the food pyramid, and what is provided is lacking nutritionally,” he said.
There’s a huge demand among bakers and brewers for local grains, but Steadfast Farm is taking it slowly, selling its harvest from 10 acres of wheat directly to shoppers at the City Market or through CSAs (and to Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie, where it’s used in whole wheat pizza crusts).
In addition to the wheat, Steadfast Farm grows sunflowers, a variety of seasonal vegetables, 10 acres of small white and black beans, 10 acres of malting barley, and a few acres of oats that the cattle graze, but these other grains are really a work in progress. “Trying to juggle each crop and its individual problems is time-consuming,” he said. And for growers like Walden, who regerminate their seeds every year, the process is especially painstaking because you can’t harvest early and the crop must remain physically secure and disease-free in order to produce again. Walden has always outsourced his seed-cleaning, but with a view towards total self-sufficiency, is building his own seed-cleaning facility on site.
As if Walden needs more on his to-do list, Steadfast Farm is part way through the involved process of organic certification and has added an operation raising rainbow trout in an artesian spring. Grass-fed beef, of course, is still its primary business. Farming is a labor of love that Walden wants to pass along to his son: “I believe we have a responsibility to cultivate our land just as homeowners do their lawns.”
Look for Steadfast Farm goods on local restaurant menus and at the Charlottesville City Market. Or, participate in one of its three CSAs that feeds four herbivores a month ($120 for three months), five omnivores a month ($180 for three months), or two gluten free-ers a month ($105 for three months). Pickup’s at the City Market on the first Saturday of the month.
This little piggy went to market
We all need fruits and vegetables (six to eight of them a day if we’re counting), and traditional CSAs make it easy to fill our tables with local ones, but that doesn’t mean locavores can’t be carnivorous too. The Rock Barn, Ben Thompson’s Nelson County-based business, which splits its week between custom pork butchery and upscale catering, is challenging the shrink-wrapped conventions of our meat industry and offering a protein-based CSA meant to supplement produce-based CSAs. The Porkshare program launched last fall, and gives buyers access to a constantly changing assortment of pork, sausages, and smoked meats from pigs raised, butchered, and packaged locally.
Each $80 share weighs between eight and 10 pounds (one pig feeds eight porkshare customers) and includes seven different cuts of meat centered around a culinary theme with an aim to showcase the entire animal “from snout to tail.”
Yes, this means that in your Virginia High Eatin’ share, you’ll get some smoked jowl along with your spare ribs, and in your Louisiana-Bayou Cajun share, you’ll get some belly along with your Andouille. The Rock Barn’s goal in including these less common cuts is twofold: First, it reflects our total utilization of the pig (remember, there’s still only two pounds of pork tenderloin on a 200-pound animal); and second, it pushes home cooks to think a little harder about what’s for dinner, encouraging them to experiment. Totally stumped on what to do with your ham hocks this month? The Rock Barn includes a featured recipe with your share and gives you e-mail access to its chefs for cooking advice.
Available without a contract, on a month-to-month, first-come, first-served basis, Porkshare’s flat-rate fee means a consistent market in which farmers only slaughter what’s been sold, rather than needing to sell what’s been slaughtered. Thompson feels this stability helps farmers focus on heritage breeding programs and open-pasture feeding, contributing to the overall health and happiness of the animals. Happy pigs mean even happier bacon and that’s enough to make anyone smile.
The Porkshare hosts once-a-month pick-up sites at the Charlottesville City Market, the Nelson County Farmers’ Market, and in Crozet, Waynesboro, and Richmond. Visit therockbarn.net for more information.