How a small Dorchester County farm could be the model of sustainability amidst conglomerate agriculture
Apr 05, 2017 02:00PM ● Published by Arden Haley
Chesapeake Farm-to-Fork: The Little Farm that CouldBy Gail Greco // Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.
Strawberries will bloom bright red shortly, a sign spring is around the corner. What’s not on a corner, but growing a ton of those berries, is a unique farm, Emily’s Produce, on 91 acres in Dorchester County. Although remote, Emily’s has a corner—on the market, that is—of small farms surviving budget, mass production, and land development challenges.
Strawberry sales in spring do add to a farm’s bottom line, but aren’t enough alone—nor corn in summer or butternut squash in fall. Beyond planting, growing, harvesting, Emily’s expands the farming paradigm by literally taking the harvest into their own hands, making remarkable strides in the field of sustainable agriculture, so that you and I always have fresh/local food.
Owners Kelly and Paul Jackson, who run Emily’s Produce on Church Creek Road, know a lot about sustainability, going into their seventh generation of farming. With practices from clean farming and over-the-top community outreach to creative retail draws like an on-farm food service, the Jacksons are solutions-oriented and have made a name for themselves that Shannon Dill, a principal agent for the University of Maryland Agricultural Extension says,” is tops in the state and a leader nationwide.
“From the time they had a little honor-system produce bin, they worked their way up to now raising their children on the farm, sustaining themselves, and helping everyone else’s family with good health and nutrition—plus protecting and conserving the land for the future.”
The Farm as SupermarketThe Jacksons look beyond the farm to their shopper’s eating lifestyle. Think supermarket without the fluttering fluorescents, confusing unit shelf prices, but with the departments: bakery, meat, produce, dairy, grocery, and even prepared foods. Natural light floods this 3,800-square-foot, open-air emporium where you can smell what they’re selling—food just unearthed, glorious, and seductive.
“The first time someone stops at Emily’s they think they’re just dropping by a roadside stand with a little fruit for sale,” states Tom Hutchinson, an Ironman Maryland triathlete, who relies on Emily’s for even the tiniest of crops, those strawberries. “From the day they open in April through November they are our supermarket,” he says. “They’re genuine and caring farmers. We customers are passionately attached to Emily’s.”
Shoppers wheel carts under a modern barn with country cupola, delighting in a sensual experience: the fragrance of melons drawing noses closer to detect ripeness; the cushy feel of peaches assuring sweetness; and the silky stroke of feathery husks brushing their cheeks with just-picked corn. Seasonal crops trigger savory sides to make at home—crispy kale/lettuce salads, snappy asparagus, and grilled eggplant.
Expanding the cook’s repertoire are main course ingredients, dovetailing sustainably again with Emily’s own Angus beef cuts that they cross-promote with products from other livestock producers and watermen: bison, pork, poultry, and Chesapeake blue crab. Meal staples are local: cream-line milk, pastured eggs, small-batch yogurt, rolled butter, artisan cheese. Pay for it all with plastic but leave the shopping list behind, planning a menu from what’s available as do nurse practitioner and wellness coach Katie Tolley and Philadelphia weekender Colleen Morrone, who takes Emily’s pantry home with her.
And shoppers applaud the Jacksons’ clean farming practices, another check-mark for sustainability. Pests and weeds are controlled using what small farmers consider the most practical ‘organic’ approach known as IPM or Integrated Pest Management.
The Farm as CaféYou don’t have to wait for Emily’s farm-to-fork dinners to eat at the farm. With foods made on site, you can eat here daily—even breakfast: crop juices, sticky buns, French toast, granola parfaits.
Lunch can be a steak sandwich, a soup du jour, zucchini fritters, chili or chicken, or pot pie. In the mood for a juicy burger? Emily’s kitchen behind the corn bins even bakes the yeasty brioche burger rolls, the sweet quick breads, puffy pastries, decorative cakes, and uses the strawberries in seasonal pies. Anything not sold or overly abundant is reinvented: watermelon as summer salsa; beans as hummus, and much more in prepared foods for those too busy to cook.
Gourmet types like Jacque and Jerry Hook enjoy a country ride from St. Michaels for culinary inspirations. “Having a fresh food market as diverse as Emily’s only adds to our love of creating something good and different,” says Jacque, “like wondering how Emily’s rhubarb butter might go with some braised lamb shanks!”
The Modern FarmersEven restaurants like Bistro Poplar and The High Spot in Cambridge, Robert Morris Inn in Oxford, and Palm Beach Willies by Taylor’s Island find Emily’s ingredients an opportunity to promote their own measure of sustainability. Owner Kelly is a retired Maryland State Police captain, who traded her police cruiser for a pickup truck she uses to deliver to the chefs.
Paul and Kelly also make constant use of social media to communicate, even answering a customer’s text from the field, or a call while maneuvering a tractor.
Customer service (they insist on one of them always being on hand) they believe, is pivotal to sustainability, something the farm has practiced since Paul’s family began growing grains in this general spot in 1878. Over the years (see their website video), Paul and Kelly had to take a big leap forward by diversifying.
Kelly and Paul’s modus operandi is “zero waste,” using any crops lingering in the field, which means you may find Kelly pulling up heavy pumpkins to fill the pies she helps bake for sale. Over-abundant produce also goes to needy local organizations.
Community outreach of other types is also on the how-to-sustain list. Kelly gives talks on the importance of eating local—such as in her keynote address at the 2016 University of Maryland’s Women in Agriculture of the Mid-Atlantic Harvesting Healthy Choices conference.
More Survival Gear: Pop-Ups and the KiddosFrom bonfires to farm tours, the Jacksons espouse the philosophy do it and they will come. They stage bull and oyster roasts, chef demos, weekly themed food and community-business festivals, “farm pop-ups,” and other edgy ideas to appeal to kids and the young at heart. All this is an effort to keep the farm fun, alive, and an exciting place to be as in “our farm is their farm.”
Emily’s provides local employment (as many as 20 jobs each season). But even with the staff and all their sustainable practices, what is the real key catapulting their success? Two more paid staffers—the Jackson kids, who may be holding that key.
At only 12, Kyle makes sure he’s already a man about the farm, creating and managing the educational playground. Sister Emily, the farm’s namesake, is in her first year studying agriculture at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and already sending new ideas back to Cambridge. Paul and Kelly aren’t pressuring their kids to work the farm after their education or even take it over someday.
Keeping a farm going and growing is a lot to digest, but Emily and Kyle already accept the hard work they know is needed to embolden the farm. “By then they will have their own challenges to deal with,” Kelly says. And we would hope that the least of that will be maintaining those strawberries customers expect every spring, to still plump farm pies and stack house-made shortcakes, and brighten their take-away baskets for many more generations to come.