homestead farm: where u-pick!

As I drove down the country roads of Potomac, into Poolesville, Maryland, I was flushed with fall memories from my child.  I was on my way to Homestead Farm, the farm where I hand plucked my own ripe orange pumpkin every year as a kid.  I would wander around the field until I found the perfect pumpkin.  And today I was back again to pick my own produce, this time peaches and blackberries.

The hustle and bustle of the city often seperates washingtonians from the origins of their local food, even though just a short distance.  But with the recent growing popularity of “pick-your-own” produce, urbanites can pick their produce and eat it too.

Homestead Farm features strawberries from mid may to late June; tart jerries from mid-June to early July; Blackberries throughout  July; peaches starting in mid-July through August; and apples and pumpkins in the fall.

The farm itself has a store where it sells local jams, Homestead produce, and honey sticks.  Wheelbarrows line the fence, luring customers to the fields.  In the fall, hayrides and corn mazes bring bigger crowds.  Kids watch as goats climb a series of narrow ramps for feed, and awe in beauty of the fall colored leaves.

But the real draw of the operation is the connection visitors establish with agriculture.  And as I picked my own peaches, straight from the tree, I was thankful for the experience.

 

 

patisserie poupon: baltimore bakery

On a Monday afternoon, I breezed through metro traffic, up 95 North to Baltimore.  I pulled up to Patisserie Poupon, smack in the middle of Jonestown neighborhood.

The town itself was founded in 1732, remaining one of the oldest neighborhoods in Baltimore.  The neighborhood once provided housing to a mix of European immigrants.  The Jonestown synagogue was in fact the first erected in Baltimore.  With such a history of European culture, and close proximity to Charm City’s own Little Italy, this ideal French patisserie made perfect sense.

I was waiting to speak with Joseph Poupon, head chef and owner, but well into a conversation about cake lace, I ordered two cookies, unsure of their ingredients or name.

As soon as I found a seat, and took a bite, I could feel the cookie melt in my mouth.  This was a real french bakery.  Patisserie translated means pastry, or a shop where such pastries are sold.

Joseph Poupon was surely French, accent and all, though he moved to the states around the age of 18.  This Baltimore location was his first, of two, the other in DC, though all the baking happens in Baltimore.  The chef organizes his employees into two shifts, one which begins in the middle of the night and runs through morning, and then the other which starts late morning and carries through the day.  In order to supply customers with fresh products, the bakers work around the clock.

As we walked through the kitchen, every chef was cutting, stirring, baking, or mixing, producing the most wonderful buttery aroma.  Just behind the counter, and we were in a different world.  Oven and after oven, along with mixers as tall as their operators.  The variety of tools and talent led me to believe this crew could make anything, and store it for years, with the amount of freezer and refrigerator space at their disposal.  But bakeries, though delicious and comfortable, come with their fare share of challenges, particularly cost.  Chef Poupon told me about all of the expensive machinery required, and soon we were discussing regulations, which require frequent changes and upgrades.

Joseph supports the cause of clean and safe food, though often it requires more investment into his business.

Like waste.  I guessed bakeries put their trash out for trash pick-up each week to rid themselves of waste, but I was sorely wrong.

Making changes to the structure, equipment, layout, menu, or food procedures requires notifying the health department.

The Maryland Food Code dictates how a food service business should manage food, waste, hygiene, employees, temperatures, plumbing, and the list continues.  As our technology advances, the State can pursue more hefty regulations, requiring new purchases and more advancements to be made at the bakery.

Additionally, Joseph wants to expand shop.  He loves the neighborhood his bakery has called home for almost 20 years, and he bought the free space to the left of the existing structure.  He would like to push the bakery back, and be able to expand the eating area for customers.

The average baker in the United States makes $26,306 per year, though they can eat their weight in baked treats.  So, for most, baking is a profession of passion, which Joseph Poupon exemplifies.  He takes on new challenges designing wedding cakes, and plays with local fresh fruits to create new desserts.  Baking is no easy, or inexpensive, task.  But Joseph has a heart for French pastries, which his customers flock to purchase.

 

Always Hungry,

Lauren

Real Time Farms Food Warrior DC ’12

the farm at walker-jones: changing schools and food

Walking through newly determined NoMa, or as the signs used to read “New York Avenue,” I saw a colorful farm stand, with a few brightly colored vegetables, and one giant zucchini.  Intrigued, I introduced myself, and met Kristy McCarron, who works with The Farm at Walker-Jones.

With a great smile, she explained that every vegetable I saw was farmed and harvested by a student at Walker-Jones, a district public school where 100% of the student population receive free breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

When I finally made it to the farm, I was impressed with the size of the plot, and how well it was maintained.  Kristy works with the school’s food lab, a program designed to integrate the farm into the curriculum and help students learn more about the food they are growing.  Currently, teachers incorporate the farm into their curriculum through Everyday Math, Responsive Classroom Social Curriculum, and Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop.  Trained as a chef, Kristy loves working with children who have so much to gain from the experience.

Within the public system, one of the main challenges of a school-associated farm is funding.  The Farm at Walker-Jones frequently applies for grants to subsidize the costs of the food lab as well as farm projects.

The farm began in 2010, and this summer, the USDA approved food grown at the farm to be used in the cafeteria.

Already, Walker-Jones has a unique cafeteria.  DC Central Kitchen‘s Fresh Start Catering provides from-scratch food as part of a pilot program servicing 7 DC public schools.  The organization trains at-risk individuals in the culinary industry, while producing and distributing meals all over the district, to those in need.  The program attempts to bring better nutritional content to school meals, while still appealing to kids.  It also aims to incorporate more local foods into the food served.  Recently, DC received high marks on its’ schools breakfast, in part because of its work with such pilot programs.

At Walker-Jones, they are paving the road, as a school farm in the public school system– working through the bureaucracy to establish funding for their farm, curriculum to incorporate their farm into the classroom, and the ability to serve produce from the farm in the cafeteria.

But more incredibly, they are teaching elementary children about the value of growing food and how to prepare it.  Bright signs announce each plant, and the plot is sectioned into different gardens.  The butterfly garden outside the fence, the herb garden within, as well as sunny sunflowers, and vegetable patches.  Compost demands an entire corner, but proves educational with all of the signage available.  And of course, picnic tables under a shelter remind visitors of the farm’s purpose–kids.

What’s next for the farm?  Kristy spoke of chickens or quails, to provide fresh eggs and manure to add to the compost, and the hope of more consistent funding.  Though the farm currently operates under the school system, most funding comes from grants or foundations.  The money allows the farm and food lab to function, however inconsistency makes running the program difficult.

One thing can be sure, the Farm at Walker-Jones is changing school food.  Often the term is relegated to cafeteria ladies slapping sloppy joe filling onto styrofaom trays.  Now, with the help of DC Central Kitchen, the Farm at Walker-Jones is expanding the conversation beyond the lunch room.

 

Always Hungry,

Lauren

Real Time Farms Food Warrior DC ’12

SPAGnVOLA chocolate: from seed to truffle

Among the traditional fruit and vegetable vendors at the Bethesda Central market, one stand stood out, SPAGnVOLA Chocolate. After one sample, I was on my way to Gaithursburg for a taste of real chocolate.

Few chocolatier’s can claim they grown their own cacao.  But SPAGnVOLA can. No big money or world distribution, just a farm in the Dominican Republic, which directly sources to their Gaithersburg, “Truffle Factory” via the Baltimore Harbor. For the owners, Eric and Crisoire Reid, the journey began with AgroCriso organic farm, just a few miles outside of Crisoire’s hometown.  With two large mountains, the operation organically produces cacao, as well as tangerines, avocado, mangos and papayas.

Like the Big Tobacco companies that once dominated the world tobacco industry, today, “Big Chocolate” corporations dominate world chocolate sales.  Hershey, Nestle, Mars and Craft (after buying Cadbury) are recognizable as the largest distributors of chocolate, processing a huge percent of the world’s chocolate.  The average consumer chocolate bar is only 10% actual cacao.  In order to cut costs, companies often use vegetable fats and sugars to make up the majority of the bar.  In the European Union, labels must now disclose whether chocolate contains vegetable fats other than cacao butter.  Even commercial dark chocolates only reach about 25% cacao.  According to my factory tour guide, chocolate, for the most part, is treated as a commodity.

SPAGnVOLA makes single-estate chocolate.  That means one farm, one factory, and one product.  For SPAGnVOLA, that translates into maximizing volume and quality.  Larger producers of chocolate bars usually buy cacao from many different farms.  Cacao from all over the Southern Hemisphere can be found in the chocolate coating of one single Kit Kat bar.  Where as, when eating a single-estate chocolate product, the origin of the chocolate can be traced back to one farm.

The roasted and un-roasted cacao bean.

My tour guide at the factory likened single-estate chocolate to the concept of a winery.  Just as in wine, cacao beans reflect their surroundings in taste.

Though the Dominican climate suits chocolate’s growth, the small country produces less than one percent of the world cacao.  Cacao only grows in the southern hemisphere, now mostly in Cote d’Ivoire, Indonesia, and Ghana.  However, the most sought after cacao bean, Criollo, originates in Central America.

At the Truffle Factory, the quality of the product remains the most important objective.  I joined 11 others for a chocolate making class, where we witnessed the dedication of the chocolatiers.  In order to temper the chocolate (or bring the temperature from 117 degrees to 84, and then heat it back to 89), Crisoire pours her chocolate onto the granite counter top.  We all gasped as the liquid chocolate approached the counter’s edges, but it stopped within inches of the border.  With two metal spatulas, Crisoire worked the chocolate down in temperature.  Then she gracefully pushed the chocolate off the edge of the counter into a bowl.  She then heated the chocolate with a heat gun, giving the chocolate a glossy-like glow.

In larger scale operations, machines temper the chocolate.  When Crisoire works with her chocolate, she can tell the temperature before using a thermometer.  She knows her chocolate, from seed to store.

For consumers like me, who know little about their favorite chocolate check-out line purchase, SPAGnVOLA provides a wealth of knowledge about the current global manufacturing of chocolate.  The factory tour provides as much information about agriculture as the chocolate truffles.  SPAGnVOLA’s vision for organic chocolate, closest to its purest form, reminds visitors that every food has an origin, worth knowing more about.

Always hungry,

Lauren

Real Time Farms Food Warrior DC ’12

bread for the city: gardening for the community

On a hot summer day in the District, nothing seemed more appealing than a documentary screening at The Fridge.  Appropriately named, as we were provided with a wealth of snacks.  The movie, “A Community of Gardeners,” detailed the history of urban community gardens in DC, as well as profiling a few different gardens.

Originally, gardening became popular with the governmental push for Victory Gardens during World War II, and ever since there have been a plethora of community gardens in the area.  Many are owned by the National Park Service, and divided into plots, where waiting lists determine the lucky tenants.

However, now, a variety of differently organized projects fall under the broad “community garden” designation.

Like Bread for the City.  A widely recognized non-profit, located in Shaw, as well as Anacostia, Bread for the City provides legal services, medical services, social services, food and clothing to DC residents.  The rooftop garden is an extension of the food program, providing some fresh produce for the food pantry, though operating more as an educational resource than anything else.

Here clients can participate in open hours Monday through Thursday, 9-12, to learn gardening skills, walk away with fresh food, or spend time in the breathtaking space.

The idea shared input and output, as clients, volunteers, and staff care for the space, and continue to reap the rewards.  However, the food harvested from the garden cannot supply all 28,000 clients who come to the pantry each month.  Thus, the non-profit has established Glean for the City, which provides 53,000 lbs. of fresh produce from the area’s farmers markets.  Each month, BFTC also hosts a free farmers market to provide even more local and fresh produce.

Food insecurity continues to plague DC residents, as more and more high end grocery stores enter the District, limiting many citizens’ access to affordable food.  The USDA defines “food insecurity” as a term that indicates the availability of health and safe food, or the ability to acquire that food, which may be limited by monetary restraints or distance.

Bread for the City’s Rooftop Garden attempts to not only provide food, but educate clients about how they can actively grow their own produce.  Gardening for a comunal good, rather than individual gardeners, and revolutionizing the notion of a “community garden.”

 

Always hungry,

Lauren

Real Time Farms Food Warrior DC ’12

springfield farm: the meaning of “free-range”

As I walked through the Bethesda Central Farmers Market, with a bulky camera around my neck, and notepad in hand, enthusiastic customers continued to approach me.  None were more vibrant than the regular egg and sausage buyers at the Springfield Farm stand.  “These are the best eggs I’ve ever had.  This is the farm you need to talk to,” one customer urged.  Encouraged by her compliments I approached Catherine, one of the daughters of the original farmer who began the farm.  The land had been in the family for 300 years, and for Catherine, who grew up all over the world as a military kid, it was the only place she ever considered home.

I pulled up to a house on a large property, and as soon as I got out of my car, a golf cart was beside me, with Catherine at the wheel.  We visited the turkeys, who gobbled at Catherine’s call, and the forest which housed all of the pigs, hidden from sight.  We got back in the cart and sped across Yeoho Road.  We passed another house, belonging to Catherine’s sister, a bunch of chickens, and to the poultry chickens.  Catherine began to explain the rotation of the chickens, and how they help the soil.  Off in the distance, a wonderful patch of vegetables grew on land, leased by a friend.  The chickens stood within the bounds of a white mesh electric fence, which Catherine explained, could easily be moved, to rotate the patch of grass from which the chickens fed.  She pointed out a less lush looking section, which the chickens had recently devoured.

At Springfield Farm, it starts and ends with the egg.  It’s what they are most proud of, and with good reason.  Their laying hens are free-range.  Now, by USDA standards, free-range poultry must have access to the outdoors, however the label for eggs is far less clear.  Eatocracy makes sense of the popular “free-range” and “cage-free” labels, which often confuse consumers.  Catherine explained that often, chickens may have access to fresh air, but because their food is kept within the coop, the chickens neglect their natural instincts to gobble up worms and bugs, and stay inside.  Some factory farms easily include a door on the design of their chicken coop, without allowing much outside activity for the animals.  The Springfield hens stay outside from sunrise to sunset, until their collected inside the coop to protect them from predators like foxes and mink, which have struck before.  Once, a human predator even invaded the coop, stealing two chickens.

The chickens’ ability to roam freely within the fence encourages the chickens to act more naturally.  The roosters walk around the plot closely followed by the hens, whom they willfully lead to food.  In order for the chickens to digest the food they find, they need insoluble grit in their gizzard.  The grit helps break down the food and allows the chicken to process the food properly.  Free-range hens often obtain enough grit from their regular diet.  (Another plus of the free-range life-style.)

Free-range eggs also carry nutritional benefits, resulting from a more natural chicken diet.

With less cholesterol and saturated fat, yet more vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids, these eggs even taste differently.

The chickens are raised free of pesticides and antibiotics, though not organically certified.  Catherine explains that in order to have an organic product she would have to buy a certain feed from New Mexico, which is a less sustainable option.  At $5 a dozen, the eggs may be at the top of the price range, but for good reason.  The family operation relies on lots of human labor, for which the price must account.  And though still run primarily by family members, the farm now sources to local restaurants and Whole Foods in Annapolis.

Catherine admits, she never saw herself as a farmer, but she has grown to love her occupation.  She is able to spend time with her family, enjoy a beautiful setting, and create a product she is proud of—a truly free-range egg.

 

Always hungry,

Lauren

Real Time Farms Food Warrior DC ’12

nick’s organic farm: saving more than a homestead

In an unassuming neighborhood, deep in Montgomery County suburbia, I turned into a regular looking driveway.  The “Save Nick’s Organic Farm ” bumper stickers, which plastered each car in the garage, alluded to what lay just behind the property.

Sophia Maravell, Nick’s daughter, offered to give me a tour of the property and tell me more about the current political fight behind the bumper stickers.  I quickly learned that this farm was different; Nick Maravell saves non-GMO organic soy and corn seeds, eventually selling to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and helping to encourage diversity within the crops.  Huge colorful bins with rocks atop hold the precious seeds.  Monsanto Corporation engineers created genetically modified organism (GMO) soy and corn, which now dominates 95% of soy grown, and 80% of corn in the US.

We walked past tractors and a small vegetable plot, and through a tiny painted door, which led us into leased land.  The Montgomery County Board of Education owns the plot, able to reclaim it whenever the land might be needed to build a new school.  However, Nick Maravell has leased the land for 32 years.

This year, the Board of Education leased the land to the County, which wants to partner with a private organization to build a soccer megaplex on the site.  The County did not seek community input.

Upon hearing about the termination of their lease, the team at Nick’s came up with a plan.  The farm proposed that in addition to an organic farm, the land be used as a learning center for the community to learn about real farming.  Then, the farm would be even more of an asset to the county, as an educational opportunity for students and hopeful future farmers.

The county ruled, and as of now, the farm will stop operation on August 15th of this year.

Nick’s Organic Farm will still be able to operate on its other site in Frederick, which houses all of the organic cattle, poultry, and egg production.  However, because the Frederick property, though owned by Nick, is adjacent to GMO soy growers, Nick is unable to grow his organic variety on the premises.  Monsanto’s GMO seed is patented.  If Nick grows organic seed, he runs the risk of cross-pollination with the local GMOs growing.  According to Sophia, the cross-pollination will not only distort Nick’s corn and soy, but could also cause legal trouble.  Monsanto has a history of accusing farmers, whose fields were accidentally contaminated, of patent infringement.

For the Maravell family, and the rest of the farm community, the fight is greater than Nick’s organic farm.  The farm represents a movement against patented GMO seeds, and hopes to spread organic varieties instead.

Though quite a contentious property, the field itself was calm and peaceful.  Most of the lot grows corn and soy, until the edge of the plit, but just to the left, a little vegetable patch grows all sorts of different varieties.  The garden is designated Brickyard Educational Farm.  With colorful name signs, and Sophia acting as enthusiastic caretaker, the garden’s purpose as a learning resource for children was quickly apparent.  “These tomatoes are done, we’ll get to rip those out with the kids,” she told me.  Adjacent to the fenced garden stands a small chicken house, with a few calm hens and roosters.  “The kids love them!” They visit from camps or schools, and learn how to churn the chickens’ feed.  Sophia teaches them about the chicken’s important role on the farm, helping the soil, and how they can be useful to people, providing poultry and eggs.

Just like Nick’s, the educational farm hopes to provide knowledge and understanding.

 

Always hungry,

Lauren

Real Time Farms Food Warrior DC ’12