Farm aid

Moved by their stomachs (and hearts), D.C. - area foodies help an Eastern Shore farmer transplant his precious crop.

October 17, 2005|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN REPORTER

Inside an Eastern Shore greenhouse the size of a football field, a chop saw shrieks discordantly as it slices miles of metal guttering into portable lengths.

All 50,000 feet of the metal trough is being moved, truckload by truckload, to a new home, so that innovative farmer David Lankford can continue to grow the lush herbs, fruits and vegetables he supplies to numerous choice restaurants.

The crews that have spent the last several weekends doing this dirty work at Lankford's Hurlock farm might be called a Save the Baby Peas Corps. Washington-area foodies, they were roused by an online alert from Lankford's friend and patron, Alexandria chef Cathal Armstrong. Their mission: to dismantle Lankford's farm in order to save it.

Patricia Dillman, director of litigation support for a Washington law firm and a leader of the effort, has returned to the Dorchester County farm weekly since the call for help went out in late summer.

"I can't drive to Louisiana and Mississippi to help [hurricane victims]," she says, "but why not help someone in your own backyard?"

Especially when the gastronomical future may be at stake.

The response has been gratifying to both Lankford and Armstrong. A ruddy man with a white beard and flashing blue eyes, Lankford, 56, is an agricultural visionary who, due to business troubles, has been forced to relocate. Armstrong, a boyish 36, is the dexterous proprietor of Restaurant Eve, a combination bistro and formal "tasting room" that has received plaudits galore since opening last year.

The two men's expertise may lie at the far ends of the food chain, but in the past year and a half, they have come to depend on one another for sustenance and success. Now, they are working to salvage the farm so that Lankford can continue to provision Armstrong's and other restaurants. Without the joint effort, Lankford would lose his livelihood. And the arugula Armstrong serves in simple, lovely salads and other dishes would simply not measure up.

Back to his roots

Lankford met Armstrong shortly after the chef opened Restaurant Eve. Under the name Shore Phresh & Phancee, Lankford had been delivering produce since 2000 to area restaurants to offset debt acquired when he expanded his strawberry transplant business. "I developed a unique way of growing strawberries very cleanly, virus free," he says. But the strawberry enterprise was costly; Lankford built it too quickly and became overextended.

"So we went back to our roots, which are vegetables," Lankford says. Cultivated with the same methods used to raise strawberries, the vegetables flourished on what was then known as Davon Crest Farm. Because Lankford farmed year round in greenhouses and provided a profusion of herb and produce varieties, he had a lot to offer fine restaurants.

Lankford was also willing to cater to particular needs, allowing his fennel to bolt, for example, to harvest the plants' delicate blossoms for garnish. The same precise skills were employed to collect the chive blossoms, cucumber blossoms and tiny Johnny jump-ups prized by culinary customers.

Lankford's produce was consistently pristine, Armstrong says. But, "I didn't even realize the scope of what David was doing until I went out there myself. He wasn't just some hillbilly farmer growing vegetables. He had a very sophisticated, very innovative farm."

Over the years, Lankford has developed a self-sustaining growing system in which plant refuse is ground up and recycled into the soil. He then grows his produce in long rows of guttering, the kind used in housing construction, irrigated with miles of PVC piping. With the aid of his wife, Sharon, crop consultant John Hochmuth and a handful of day laborers, Lankford works the farm, actually a sprawling network of 17 greenhouses so densely cultivated that an acre's worth of guttering yields 8 acres worth of produce.

Although he used the same seeds as other farmers, Lankford's ingenious approach became widely known for exceptional produce - ideal for chefs like Armstrong, who emphasize "simple preparation to highlight the quality of the ingredients."

"One of the best examples of things he grows is arugula," the Dublin-born chef says. "Most people are growing it hydroponically. ... David grows it in soil and controls the diet much more carefully." The arugula is "full of intense flavor, full of pepper," Armstrong says. "It doesn't taste anything like the watery stuff you get from anybody else."

Growing friendship

As they collaborated, the friendship between chef and farmer grew. "The more I got to know him, the more I got to like him," Armstrong says. "They are very, very, very nice, down-to-earth people. It just killed me to see them in such trouble. I would do anything I could to help them out."

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