Eastern Shore 'Connection' bears fruit -- and vegetables

September 07, 1997|By Rob Kasper

IT SEEMS LIKE SUCH a simple idea. Vegetables and fruit grown by Eastern Shore farmers should be served in Eastern Shore restaurants. The farmers get extra income, which encourages them to keep growing. The chefs get to cook with good ingredients, which keeps them happy. But as with many other seemingly simple ideas, pulling this one off can be complicated.

Farmers tend to be wary of chefs and their picky tastes in produce. Chefs aren't so sure it is worth their trouble to take the extra steps required to secure local produce. Few farmers or chefs have the time to transport the goods. There has to be enough farmers and chefs to make an exchange of goods worthwhile. It is easier to order tomatoes from large restaurant-supply houses that deliver year round, even though the tomatoes they deliver may hail from California.

Near St. Michaels, one small effort is being made to get the local tomatoes, and other locally grown produce, into the local restaurants. It is called the Fresh Connection and is a part-business, part-volunteer effort. As a fan of home-grown goodness, I went over to the Eastern Shore one recent Friday and watched some of Fresh Connection's workers make their weekly rounds.

Shuttle service

One minute I was bouncing along Route 404 in the small truck that serves as the outfit's delivery vehicle. At the wheel was Betsy Jackson, one of two volunteer drivers who rise early on Friday morning to shuttle produce between nine farms and the 12 restaurants in Talbot, Caroline, Dorchester and Queen Anne's counties that do business with Fresh Connection.

A few minutes later, I was scooping up melons, squash and sweet corn from Kenny Simmons at Clayton Farms in Caroline County, trying to fit them into the back of the already-tight quarters of the truck's cargo hold.

Jackson was anxious to hit the road. Farmers and chefs were counting on her to show up by midday Friday, before the wave of tourist traffic hit the Eastern Shore. After we finished loading up, Jackson gave Simmons a check -- on-the-spot payment.

The cargo overwhelmed the truck. The passenger seat was taken by a couple of boxes of squash and some cherry tomatoes. Having lost my seat to some cherry tomatoes, I lingered at the farm talking with Simmons.

He works his farm with his two grown sons, he told me. His wife, Linda, operates a produce stand on Route 404, a heavily traveled route to the Delaware beaches. The busiest day at the produce stand tends to be Monday. That is when the older travelers, who aren't pressed for time and who like to cook, stop at the stand, Simmons said. The weekend travelers tend to be younger, in more of a hurry, and more reluctant to turn off the highway, he added.

He said he liked the Fresh Connection style of doing business, where the truck comes to his farm, and he gets paid right away. The alternative of hiring a driver and shipping produce to wholesale markets can leave a farmer with a lot of risk and little money.

I caught a ride into St. Michaels with Ann Harvey Yonkers. She is the founder of the Fresh Connection. She splits her time between Washington, where she works at the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit group devoted to saving productive farmland, and St. Michaels, where she and her husband, Charlie, a Washington attorney, have a country home.

Croplands being lost

Yonkers said a Farmland Trust survey found that the farms of the Eastern Shore were among America's Top 10 most-threatened farmlands. Cropland is being converted to subdivisions, she said.

One way to help keep these farmers on their land, she figured, was to increase their income. To do that, new ways to sell their crops had to be found. With that in mind, she set up the Fresh Connection, which is now in its second year.

It operates out of a couple of houses off Pot Pie Road outside St. Michaels, where Yonkers and Elizabeth Beggins, the administrator of the outfit, live within hollering distance of each other.

The day I rode with Yonkers, she, too, was toting produce. She was making a few of the restaurant stops on the Friday route. At Bistro, a 75-seat restaurant in St. Michaels, chef David Stein was delighted to see the corn, peaches, blackberries and cherry tomatoes come through his kitchen door. He had plans for them.

The corn was quickly shucked. The peaches and blackberries were going into a cobbler. (The last time he fixed the dessert, it sold out). And the cherry tomatoes would go into a salad with feta cheese and black olives.

When he makes the salad with the local cherry tomatoes, Stein said, the flavor takes off. If you make it with shipped-in tomatoes, he said, the flavor never gets off the ground.

Customers notice difference

It didn't surprise me that chefs would note the difference in flavor between home-grown and shipped-in ingredients. But I was taken aback when Paul Milne, the chef at 208 Talbot, another St. Michaels restaurant on the Fresh Connection route, said his customers had remarked on the flavor difference. Milne told me that a satisfied customer stopped him recently and wanted to know where he got such great-tasting corn. Yonkers overheard this story, and glowed with delight.

Yonkers said the weather will probably determine how long the Fresh Connection will stay open this fall. Down the road there are other complications to this simple business, she said. The truck is too small. The volunteers who drive the truck are moving on.

But at least until the first frost hits, the produce in several St. Michaels' restaurants will come from local farms. And that, Yonkers said, is a start.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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