Chesapeake Farm-To-Fork: Burgers, Brews and Bay Education at Clagett Farm
At Clagett Farm, it’s all about education, fun, and environmental awareness
By Rita Calvert // Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.
As one travels along the quiet winding road leading to Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro, the song “Country Road, Take Me Home” comes to mind. An understated wooden sign alerts one to turn at the curve and suddenly the road widens to a pastoral vista of one huge old tobacco barn with sheep and cows grazing on the hillside beneath.
Strains of bluegrass music wafted to us, while a breeze carried the aroma of smoky goods on the grill. It felt like a welcome home to good living—an opportunity to see real farm living behind the scenes. With seven chef stations cranking, each paired with a different artisan beer, the big decision was which direction to head first.
This was year two for a rocking fall festival featuring 100 percent grass-fed beef, lamb, and pastured pork. Sponsored by The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and their Clagett Farm Burgers & Brews for the Bay—a festival with a mission of demonstrating the merger of sustainable farming with watershed management, which started over three decades ago when Clagett was acquired.
Guided by our Passport map, we headed up the hill for choice Clagett lamb sliders. Rasheed Abdurrahman of Eat & Smile Catering had a quick sell-out with his Moroccan Clagett Lamb Sliders (brought back by popular demand from last year) housed on a brioche bun and smeared with homemade roasted tomato jam.
Kosmas “Tommie” Koukoulis, owner of Cafe Mezzanotte in Severna Park, Maryland, went Italian-style with a perfectly grilled Clagett Farm grass-fed beef slider, topped with pancetta jam, gorgonzola cheese, and peperonata square (balsamic roasted bell pepper), with baby arugula and garlic-thyme aioli; paired with Victory Hop Devil IPA.
Farm to Feast Catering of D.C. served up a basket of fried Clagett Farm okra, with Diamondback Omars Oat Pale Ale. But wait—you have to pair all of that goodness with local artisan brew efforts or a root beer float with locally made Prigel ice cream for the kids and every adult. Then off we headed to the music tent for a Dominion Root Beer float and some swing dancing to the music of The Fiddle Oaks.
Mark Haskell, international travel chef with roots in Tuscany and the Bayou country, touted an open face fresh sage-Clagett beef slider with chili cheddar beer sauce and pickled okra on a brioche bun; paired with Star Hill Last Leaf Maple Brown Ale.
Mathew Ramsey, D.C.’s own feisty burger expert, both chef and author, offered a “Mystery Creation” and had a long line waiting. His Clagett beef slider touted Worcestershire dusted potato chips, cheese, shredded lettuce, with roasted leek aioli; paired with Dominion Oak Barrel Stout.
Carnitas enticed with P.A. Bowen Farmstead's own slow-braised pork. Chef Brian Wort, also farm manager, topped the pile with homemade curtido—a Latin American sauerkraut from fermented vegetables. This treasure was supported by a brioche bun; paired with Mully’s Jack Patuxent Pale Ale.
Folks lined up from start to finish for Clagett Farm’s clay-oven pizzas by Clagett’s Rob Vaughn, native tree nursery manager. Rob personally made the dough for the three different pizzas—all with homemade sauces and fresh herbs from the farm’s wood-fired grill: Margarita Fresh Basil Pizza with roasted vegetable toppings and mixed cheeses; MeatCrafters Artisan Pizza with MeatCrafters salami and fontina; and the Clagett with mixed sweet peppers and cheese; all paired with Bold Rock Cider.
For this festival, Clagett Farm has found a way to keep its educational mission pure fun for adults and families with clever information stations at each grill as part of the food and drink excitement. A great example was Kosmos’ beef slider station next to “Grazing for the Bay” station—the pasture of sheep and cows where Michael Heller talked about the difference between feeding and finishing animals on pasture over finishing with corn. A bonus trip inside the fence was offered to meet and pet the gentle animals. At another station, Carrie Vaughn, Vegetable and CSA production manager, explained cover crops and doled out packets of seeds next to the vegetarian food station at her “Vegetable and Cover Crop” location. While at the very popular “Land Use and the Bay” station, rainfall and runoff are measured according to the type of ground cover.
I asked Heller what the Burgers & Brews Festival means to him. His answers are always an opportunity to learn. “The big message is that 100 percent grass-fed is the champion for soil health. ‘Soil health’ is now top priority for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation because it is key to Bay health. Policy and programs that promote soil health affect every farmer. Ten years from now, every sustainable farmer will brag about their soil health and that will make a huge difference for the Bay.”
The estate of Charles Clagett bequeathed the 283 parcel of tobacco farmland to The Chesapeake Bay Foundation in 1981. The agreement was that Clagett Farm would remain a farming and educational operation. Enter Michael Heller, leaving his job teaching plant ecology at the University of Maryland and faced with the challenge of repairing the depleted soil. He’s been at it long before sustainability was a buzzword in Maryland.
Clagett raises a wide variety of organic vegetables and strives to provide food to people of all income levels. Eighty-five thousand pounds of produce is for sale to the public through a large community supported agriculture program (CSA). For more than 20 years, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Clagett Farm has provided free and reduced-price, fresh produce to people living in poverty and near-poverty in Washington, D.C. The project, a collaboration with Capital Area Food Bank, blends local sustainable organic agriculture with social justice. CBF calls the program, “From the Ground Up.”
The 100 percent grass-fed beef (7,600 pounds in 2016) from Clagett is for sale to the public in the spring and fall. The new sheep have provided 400 pounds of lamb. These animals are also good for the environment and a great way to strengthen the local economy.
In the Native Tree Nursery, 10,000 native trees and shrubs are planted throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed as a buffer against erosion.
Maryland Grazers Network, founded by Heller, spearheads the transition for farmers from corn-fed to grass-fed livestock and from conventional farming to sustainable by way of a mentoring program.
Every day during the school year, groups from the surrounding locale take a bus ride to Clagett for an educational tour of the farm and see just what might be growing.
Farming methods are truly sustainable here—both economically and environmentally, while the farm blends local sustainable organic agriculture with social justice.
For this three-article Chesapeake Farm to Fork series on how small farms stay sustainable, we have gotten a bird’s-eye view of Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Clagett Farm and several on the Eastern Shore. Each farm has designed their own signature events, but all of these outreach programs benefit their communities. Hopefully, you now have a very different behind-the-scenes perspective of the “weed ’em and reap” gang; for their dreams, love of the land, produce, and animals.