Farm to Table at Cottingham in Talbot County
Aug 01, 2012 06:26PM
● By Anonymous
Cleo Braver is one of the Shore’s great hostesses. She easily entertains political figures or groups of 200 in her sunny gallery at Cottingham Farm, a certified organic vegetable farm in Talbot County.
In the 17th century, Cottingham Farm was originally named after the town of Cottingham in Yorkshire, England. It grew tobacco then, probably followed by wheat to feed General Washington’s colonial armies. In the 1900s, fruit trees were planted, followed by feed corn and soy in the 1920s. When Braver and her husband, Alfred Tyler III, purchased Cottingham they continued growing corn and grapes. In essence they were gentlemen farmers.
Then, in 2007, Braver decided to change her home, and soon began to change her entire approach to agriculture as well. She asked a friend (this author) to assist with linking two cramped glass wings on the rear of her 20th century-built French provincial home. She wanted one 75-foot long gallery. With more space and new central-arched ceiling and windows, gatherings were suddenly more comfortable and she opened her estate for use by local organizations. Every month an environmental group met in the gallery, sometimes with lecturers.
These gatherings, and considerable study, ultimately helped Braver with her new vision for the farm. She was influenced by Don Kerstetter, a leader in the sustainable agriculture movement, and had studied at the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture which, according to her, has an excellent introductory course.
By 2008, Braver obtained prefab greenhouses, installed 65-foot natural buffers on the edges of the farm to control runoff to the Bay, and grew her first heirloom tomatoes. Varied in shape and color, the tomatoes were delicious and unusual. An instant hit, according to Braver, “They were invited to a wedding.” Soon, Whole Foods Market purchased them to sell in their regional stores. Taking her vision a step further, Braver had Cottingham Farm certified organic in 2010 under the USDA National Organic Program.
Cottingham Farm now has three greenhouses that produce more 70 types of vegetables, herbs, and fruits. The summer crop includes her famous tomatoes, peas, small succulent melons, and various beans, including a favorite with children, red Chinese “yard long” beans. Local restaurants purchase the vegetables; individuals can buy them at Whole Foods, Easton Market Square, or farmers’ markets in Rockville and Bethesda and some opt to purchase shares in advance through a CSA program (Community Supported Agriculture).
Braver, originally an environmental lawyer, came naturally to her new mission. She suggests that much of the agricultural land in Maryland does not feed people, but confines animals, primarily chickens, and the land that is farmed is used for corn, a monoculture that attracts insects. Braver further extrapolates that chemicals are used to kill the insects, while other chemicals fertilize the soil. And yet more chemicals kill the weeds. All the while, trucks bring in most of our produce from other states and countries.
For Braver, her food is “real food”. Herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, or artificial fertilizers are not part of the equation. Compost is the fertilizer. Bugs and caterpillars are picked off by hand. The plastic windows on the greenhouses require constant raising or lowering. The operation is decidedly labor intensive. Three to five workers produce her harvests, including Cleo who has work-hardened hands to prove it. She notes happily that this is one way to create more jobs.
Recently, participants in the CSA program were invited to a Harvest Dinner at Cottingham Farm. They toured the greenhouses, and then gathered in the kitchen with afternoon sun streaming through plant-filled windows. They helped prepare beets layered with mozzarella, basil mashed potatoes, roasts, salads, and fruits. They then sat down in the gallery at a long table set for 24, glimpsed the final rays of setting sun, and enjoyed their feast.
Only five acres of land are used for food production at Cottingham. The remaining 155 acres host swaying native plants, a pond with content ducks, a few grape arbors, outbuildings (including a Yoga barn), manicured grounds, and a beautiful rose gardens near the main house.
Braver is a charming environmental proselytizer, advocating causes and movie ideas, helping in her own way to clean up the Bay, and urging us to eat more healthful and flavorful food. She is making a difference, one heirloom tomato at a time.
All photography by Tony J. Lewis, Jr.