A fresh connection to the Shore

Locally grown produce is in growing demand

July 21, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

ST. MICHAELS - A cool breeze fans Elizabeth Beggins as she stands under a chestnut tree, stuffing arugula, beet leaves and mizuna into plastic bags. Fridays at Pot Pie Farm are devoted to harvesting crops and packaging them for market, and this Saturday's selection will be a lean one: The romaine lettuce has bolted, and the next crop, a single-serving variety of bibb lettuce called Tom Thumb, is a week from maturity.

Beggins, the farm's manager, takes in a view of Cummings Creek on three sides as she chats with a helper. Ahead is the main house, which sits quietly on a point at the end of a long, tree-lined drive. The vegetable and flower gardens, laid out to the right of the house in a 40-foot-by-60-foot plot of amended soil thickly edged with day lilies, offer a dose of old-fashioned color before the waterfront.

On the left is a scene from the last century, a tenant house with a sweeping front porch and, in back, a tiny kitchen. A hundred chickens feed on the lawn beyond, hemmed in by a mobile electric fence.

Moving crops to market is hard work: Hand-picking salad ingredients in the hot sun takes the morning. The afternoon is reserved for washing lettuce in a bright yellow spinner, weighing and bagging it; eyeballing and wrapping bundles of beets, and putting elastics on fistfuls of herbs.

This operation is small: The harvest amounts to 14 quarter-pound plastic bags of salad zest, three tin buckets of basil - Genovese, lemon and purple - eight bunches of chard and, today, 30 dozen eggs.

But, as with other, larger Eastern Shore growers who sell directly to customers at the St. Michaels farmers' market each Saturday, Pot Pie Farm is part of a movement begun by women in search of permanent change: the return of locally grown fresh food in what was once a mecca for such bounty.

Nowadays, all farming is in decline, according to a report last year by the American Farmland Preservation Trust. The biggest crops on the Delmarva Peninsula are corn, wheat and soybeans for poultry, and feed-grain farmers need subsidies to remain stable.

Seven years ago there was no produce market in St. Michaels. Local farmers sold wholesale and got low prices, and some, including Pot Pie, didn't grow to sell at all. But because of the vision of Pot Pie's owner, farmers in the area now have five markets in which they can sell directly to consumers at higher prices. Farmers again are growing heirloom varieties of tomatoes, peas and squash and have introduced new produce to meet a growing local demand for gourmet, organic and fresh foods.

"We found out we could make a living going to market," says Carmon Dilworth, co-owner with his wife, Charlene, of Sand Hill Farm. For years he sold corn wholesale and had to work nonfarm jobs in winter to pay bills. At the St. Michaels market, he gets $4 for a dozen ears of corn. When he hauled an extra 100 dozen ears to auction two weeks ago, he says he got zero.

Under the shade of the trees, Beggins talks about how she left a job working for nonprofits in suburbia for the farm. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with a degree in communications, she arrived in St. Michaels by sailboat a decade ago with her husband, Jim, who found work with a furniture maker within days.

One of his first customers was Ann Harvey Yonkers, a cooking instructor, who with her husband, Charlie, a Washington lawyer, bought Pot Pie Farm in 1991. She needed someone to run Pot Pie's garden, and the furniture maker volunteered his pregnant wife.

Yonkers, who taught cooking for 15 years, embraced the movement to cook with fresh produce that was popularized in the 1980s by Alice Waters, chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. She was surprised when she discovered that Eastern Shore restaurants served food imported from the West Coast. To her, it doesn't make sense that the "Eastern Shore, one of the most valuable remaining large tracts of agriculture on the East Coast, surrounded by water, and so lovely, can't grow the things we eat."

The garden of the 1780s farm took several years to revive. But Yonkers' idea to help farmers in the Cheaspeake Bay region sell their produce direct for higher prices took hold. While searching for financial backers for a market, she met a woman at American Farmland Trust, Bernadine Prince, who became her business partner. They set up a nonprofit organization, Freshfarm Markets, to educate people about the source of food and why they should support local farmers.

The first market opened at Dupont Circle in Washington. St. Michaels was next. Three more Washington markets followed. The women's motto: "No Farms, No Food!"

In 1998 when the St. Michaels market opened, business was painfully slow. Beggins and Yonkers invented recipes for their veggies and tempted customers with samples. Yonkers demonstrated cooking techniques.

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