by Matt Saccaro
As soon as we arrived at Spence farm, I was reminded of a farm described by Michael Pollan in his book ‘The Omnivores Dilemma.’ Pollan describes the ideal farm and a farmer primarily concerned with raising healthy animals, nutritious vegetables and sustainable practices to ensure that his farm would remain strong and viable for years to come just like generations before him; an alternative to the industrial feedlots and chemical laden produce that tend to fill grocery store shelves. Spence farm operates on these principles and we were fortunate enough to see it for ourselves.
After meeting Marty Travis, his son Will and wife Kris who now operate Spence Farm, I was struck by their passion for their work and the sense of responsibility to the fields, forests (they are foragers as well) and animals that that ultimately provide the food that lands on our plates. Like the farm Pollan writes about, Spence farm doesn’t rely on one item to sell every year, but constantly evolves to grow what works best on their land but also what their customers are asking for. “Diversify,” Marty will say again and again, driving the point that chefs and farmers should work together. If there is something you want them to grow, they plant it for you.
Our day began with some chores. The animals needed to be tended to, so we let the chickens and ducks out of their houses to roam around the farm (they were out and about the entire time we were there). Next we fed the pigs, an adorable breed called Guinea Hogs. This breed was originally from Guinea, Africa and was brought back from the brink of extinction in this country through the efforts of small farmers willing to raise heritage breeds of pig. We discussed the raising and breeding process as we moved the pens to different sections of the pasture so the pigs could graze on fresh vegetation.
The pasture is surrounded by four different varieties of cornfields. We tasted some of the baby corn right off the stalk. At that point, the corn is sweet and the inner leaves and ‘corn silk’ are all edible. When the plant matures, the kernels will be harvested and ground into cornmeal.
Adjacent to one of the cornfields is their wheat field. Spring wheat and Winter wheat are harvested to provide restaurants with whole wheat berries and wheat flour which they mill in one of their barns.
Our next move was into the woods. The farmers were very happy to have found some mushrooms growing on dead tree branches after a recent and very rare rain this summer. They had harvested several pounds of oyster and chicken of the woods mushrooms. We went back in for more and found some more oyster mushrooms, but also searched for a fruit called the ‘paw-paw’ indigenous to the Midwest and Northeast. Since it was such a hot dry summer, the trees suffered resulting in a low yield, but was still managed to shake about 10 lbs. of fruit off of the trees.
From there we walked through the fields where the farmers are growing several different vegetables this year, including kale, bok-choy, several varieties of potatoes and heirloom tomatoes, including one variety from the Galapagos Islands that can be traced back to Darwin’s expeditions to the area.
I am proud to work with these farmers. We are able to off our customers heritage breed meats and varieties of vegetable unavailable anywhere else. Passionate and thoughtful cooking will always come from our kitchen, but we must understand that it starts on the farm.