Celebrating Farm to Fork Chesapeake: A Visit with Several Local Farms
Jul 09, 2015 01:11PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Sally Fallon Morell and Brian share treats for her beloved cows.
We visit several local farms that exemplify best practices for sustainable farmingStory & Photography by Rita Calvert
Ahhhh, farm-to-fork. The words alone make our mouths water...and with good reason, as we picture ourselves delighting in the pleasure of the freshest food, perhaps with a view of ruby red berries or melons in the field, and reveling in the ambiance of a pastoral landscape’s beauty, fragrances, vibrant fields, and pastured animals. It’s a joyful sensory experience; so good for us in so many ways.
But what does farm-to-fork truly mean? Local? Seasonal? Yes, but the most progressive farmers are taking it far beyond that to emphasize a direct relationship, even a bond, between the farm, the land, and the consumer.
Farm-to-fork or, alternately, farm-to-table, can mean different things to different people. What do you envision? A sweeping single serpentine table dressed with white linen and flowers, set amongst the corn fields with convivial diners gathering ’round? This novel outdoor dining concept was popularized by California chef and artist Jim Denevan in 1998. He often asked his guests to bring their own signature dinner plates for his aptly named “Outstanding in the Field” traveling farm-based dining series. But there are many other models of farm-to-table, from a sort of caravan traveling from one winery or microbrewery to another where sips are paired with delectably fresh and novel foods, to grill-offs, during which competitor chefs promote different farms by way of choice ingredients, all to vie for the day’s prize.
Let’s take a look at farming through the passionate eyes of some of our very own Chesapeake region farm-to-table champions; people for whom farm-to-table is so much more than a catchy phrase about local food. No doubt, the local farms represented herein, offer delicious food from their fields and green pastures for their animals, but moreover, they all consider it their mission to educate and excite all of us about the commitment to local and seasonal food, and healthy, sustainable farming practices. Each of our featured farms has a tour program, offering an intimate experience of their progressive operations—authentic farm-to-table businesses and people, for which we can feel good about supporting with our food dollars. Yum!
Clagett Farm of the Chesapeake Bay FoundationIf you wake with the chickens and you are especially lucky, you might get to experience Farm Manager Michael Heller playing his bagpipe (complete with kilt) for his mesmerized cows. Thus was my grand experience when I originally visited Michael to discuss co-authoring The Grassfed Gourmet Fires It Up!, now our farmer and the chef cookbook.
More than three decades ago Michael left his job teaching plant ecology at the University of Maryland and rose to the challenge of rehabbing the 285 acres of depleted tobacco and corn fields, which was Clagett Farm. “It was a wonderfully impossible job,” Heller says, with a glowing enthusiasm. “And here, 30 years later, the learning curve keeps going up and up… I still feel like I’m just getting started!”
Clagett Farm of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is an excellent example of one of our region’s first successful CSA’s (Consumer Supported Agriculture). Carrie Vaughn, vegetable farmer at Clagett, grows vegetables and fruits for 450 CSA shares annually and donates 40 percent of the weekly harvest to the Capital Area Food Bank and underserved communities. The farm also raises about 16 head of beef (also sold through their CSA) fed on the pasture and in winter, on hay, grown on the farm. Sheep have just arrived this past spring.
With Michael Heller in the lead, Clagett Farm will host the first annual Burgers and Brew for the Bay (coming October 2015). In this farm-to-table experience, everyone can be part of the vegetable harvest, the animals on pasture, a hayride, and a friendly “grill-off” with a few artisan brews or even a root beer float (local root beer, local ice cream).
Our Neighbor, P.A. Bowen FarmsteadThree years ago, I first visited Geoffrey Morell and Sally Fallon Morell’s farm, P.A. Bowen Farmstead in southern Prince George’s County, and took the tour led by Sally herself. “All of the Jersey cows at the 95-acre historic farmstead are named after famed opera characters and singers,” Sally told us with a chuckle. As we passed a shaded forest grove where the piggy harem (Sally’s term) was based, one large female with a large splotch of color, perked up when Sally chortled, “Hello there Dot!”
In 2015, on a cold blustery day, snow blanketed the farm landscape as the new enthusiastic farm manager and cheese maker, Brian Wort, gently hand fed treats to a crew of Jerseys playfully romping in the pasture. Across the road, happy piglets switched from snuggling with their mum to pawing through the curious white stuff.
Now this isn’t just any farmstead, but rather a venture of Geoffrey Morell and Sally Fallon Morell, co-founders of The Weston A. Price Foundation with Sally being author of the famous, Nourishing Traditions, as well as Nourishing Broth: An Old-Fashioned Remedy for the Modern World, and The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care.
Sally advocates a nutrient-dense diet of whole foods, including animal fats. Rotational grazing is emphasized for all their farm species on this land. All animals are provided with a habitat that allows them to thrive: pigs root through the forests; broilers are moved from pasture to pasture in their chicken tractors; hens, roaming freely, work over the pastures recently grazed on by the dairy herd; the Jersey cows, milked just once a day, are given new pasture daily. The grain mix fed to the pigs and poultry is non-GMO and soy-free, and mostly locally grown. Chemicals are eschewed in favor of organic, bio-dynamic plant and animal care. The cheese making is regulated by the state of Maryland under a pilot program for raw cheeses begun in 2009.
Cheese making is the farm’s signature and Sally is the star of this opera. During my winter visit, Brian handed Sally an immense half-moon of the award winning Prince George’s Blue Cheese. We all got to sample and comment on the superb, nutty, naturally-rinded blue cheese, which celebrates Maryland’s seasons. Chesapeake Cheddar, also a competition winner, took second prize for artisan cheese at the 2013 American Cheese Society competition. Sally states, “We produce cheese from early spring to late December. Then, throughout the winter, everyone gets a rest—cows and people.”
From the P.A. Bowen Farmstead retail store you can gather your own farm-to-table fixins’ and dine outside on the picnic tables overlooking the pristine fields. Education extends far beyond the pastures as the farm carries a plethora of the farm’s products: soy-free, pastured animal foods including many cuts of beef, humanely raised veal, pork, and chicken, including a variety of organ meats. (In the fall there are turkeys for Thanksgiving.) There are also soy-free eggs and raw milk cheese, Sally’s cookbooks, along with other locally produced, healthy products. The fermented ketchup and barbecue sauce are leading products in promoting the age-old health benefits of fermented foods, which Sally spends time explaining in Nourishing Traditions.
One enthusiastic customer designates P.A. Bowen Farmstead as a “road trip adventure” in her words, “What a charming place!”
Currently, the farm store is open year-round Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 10 a.m.–6 p.m. or by appointment. Classes are published on the website. Walking farm tours are given on Saturday mornings at 11 a.m. Admission is $15 for adults and $5 for children, ages 10–18.
Cabin Creek Heritage Farm in our BackyardThe mud-splattered ATV (all-terrain vehicle) bobbed along the forest path, down the hill, around the bend, and finally came to a stop as the curious “Woodland hogs,” of the heritage Berkshire breed, trotted over to see their mum-human and have some affectionate conversation. Energetic, lean, and tan, Lori gave a “piggy, piggy, piggy” and at least 30 more enthusiastic Berkshires came hobbling over the tree-line to give a cheery hello.
Lori and Doug Hill’s Cabin Creek Heritage Farm in Prince George’s County has gone through a complete metamorphosis since I last visited their alpacas, at least nine years ago. In 2000 the family farm had a herd of alpacas, a few chickens, and cats, of course. Lori sold off the animals and then found herself depressed by a true empty nest; her three children were away at college and there were no woolly friends to greet her each morning. Scouting around for ideas to cultivate their 24 acres, Doug was surfing the internet when he came across an article on woodland pigs. The couple discussed and realized, “We have land, we have woods, we want to give back to the land more than we take from it, and we love animals.” Thus, their first-generation family farm and farmstead was born. Lori says they feel it’s a “missionary calling” to foster this sustainable farm and give back to the land at the same time. They are an educational farm where free tours are given on Saturdays.
As a close neighbor, the co-manager of P.A. Bowen Farmstead gave the Hills an in-depth tour of his multi-species farmstead. Doug and Lori said “We could do this,” Lori told me. “We don’t have ‘trade secrets’, we trade secrets or share information with other sustainable small farmers.” Lori described how Cabin Creek Heritage farm’s CSA has expanded from a meat-based CSA to incorporating products from other farms such as organic produce, berries and fruits, and beef from Evermore Farm of Westminster, Maryland. You can’t go far in the sustainable small farm world without hearing the name, Joel Salatin. His farm model was the template for the Hills’ vision as it has been for many fledgling farmers. Smiling proudly, Lori told me that not only does her daughter, Amanda, work on the farm, but they have interns from the University of Maryland Agriculture Department to begin working with them this summer.
The symbiotic cycle of the family and animals thriving on the land while also returning nutrition to the soil is one of the most rewarding relationships a farm can cultivate. Of this, Cabin Creek Heritage Farm is a shining example.
Rhode Island Reds and Golden Comets lay some of the finest eggs around. As a true homestead, the Hill family built five eggmobiles as well other buildings on the property. Roots Market of Clarksville, Maryland, is one of the farm’s best customers of eggs. “They can’t keep the eggs in stock,” Lori says. Customers say Cabin Creek Heritage eggs are the best of all eggs, carried in the store.
The broiler chickens, raised for meat, are safe and sound in a protected “chicken tractor” of Joel Salatin design. The mobile chicken coop has sunlight openings, plenty of ventilation, and is moved daily for fresh pasture foraging. Heritage turkeys have their own free roaming pasture during the fall season.
Traditionally pigs were raised in woodlands, and while this practice is still somewhat common in Britain, it’s almost unheard of in the United States because of the industrialization of agriculture. Cabin Creek Heritage Berkshire pigs live year round in the woods—no confined barns, just the sky, pasture, old oak trees, healthy soil, and “piggy candy”…acorns. “Acorn finished” pork is famous in Italy and Spain, homes of the world famous cured prosciutto and Jamon Serrano. In our region, there appears to be a run on pastured pig bacon—as is the case for both P.A. Bowen Farmstead and Cedar Creek Heritage Farm. Since each variety of livestock has primal cuts, bacon and the pork tenderloin are the star cuts from hogs.
As Cabin Creek Heritage Farm grows in leaps and bounds, stay tuned for more animals…maybe even a few new breeds. (Katahdin sheep are one example. They have hair, not wool, which the sheep shed on their own—no need for shearing; they look similar to a goat. This breed of heritage sheep are also parasite resistant.)
Lori elaborates, “We create an opportunity for customers to partner with us in various directions. We have our CSA, which is expanding in numbers and products. We also go to the customer via the many farmers’ markets where we sell.”
To find Cabin Creek Heritage Farm products call or visit the farm or visit one of several local farmers’ markets, including those in Riva, Annapolis, Tacoma Park, Old Bowie, Olney, Hyattsville, Med-Star South, Pigtown Community Farm Market in Baltimore, or at Victoria’s Fine Foods in Severna Park.
With a deeply rooted passion for nature and food, Rita will travel to any small sustainable farm to explore the local family, experience the produce, and talk to the critters. The explorer in her loves to share the integrity of an exceptional meal produced by those who raise the food and skillfully turn it into plates of art. She writes, photographs, and blogs of international farm-to-table experiences from Turkey, the Nordics, and Spain to her home turf in the Chesapeake Bay region.