You Say To-May-to, They Say To-Mah-To

Driven by consumer interest in healthful eating and land ethics, a young crop of farmers is raising a new breed of produce—and it tastes waaaaay better than that stuff in the supermarket.




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Manager Michele Wales says Coverdale Farm is ripe with
educational oppurtunities. Photograph by Tom Nutter,

It’s mid-summer, and rays of sunshine warm the fields and a group of people at Delaware Nature Center’s Coverdale Farm near Greenville. They crowd around society volunteer Dolly Berndt, who holds up an odd looking vegetable, a True Lemon Cucumber, to show to Farm Fun Day attendees.

The vegetable looks more like an orange tennis ball than the slender green cukes on the shelves at the supermarket. “You just wash it and eat it like an apple—skin, seeds and all,” Berndt tells the group.

A few rows over, farm manager Michele Wales picks a Purple Calabash, one of the farm’s unusual heirloom tomatoes. She describes it as “smoky, tangy and so rich, your jaws ache, but finishes with a solid taste all the way down to your stomach.”

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Nearby, head garden volunteer Bob Kleszics crouches near a straw-covered bed of potatoes, scanning for weeds. There aren’t many to pull because the mulch inhibits their growth. Mulching with straw is a very different sort of practice than those of the big, traditional farms we picture as typical of Delaware. But this is a very different farm.

Over the past seven years Kleszics and other volunteers have built up a rich, healthy soil free of pesticides and fertilizers—the foundation of any organic enterprise. This loam could easily be compromised by the weight of petroleum-burning tractors, but at Coverdale, which will soon offer community-supported agriculture, the crew maintains a with-the-hands-only policy. They work the soil with a broadfork, a classic agricultural tool that achieves deep tillage with little human effort and no combustion.

Wales is part of a new breed of farmer that is cropping up across the country. They are fighting to save their family farms, their lifestyles, and their livelihoods by serving a smarter consumer with creativity and innovation.

The small plot at Coverdale is only one of the new examples of farming. Small organic farms, farmers markets and community-supported farms are jostling to meet the growing demand of a more health-oriented, eco-conscious consumer who is also keen on buying local.

No doubt they will flourish, but there is a great deal of work to do first.

In February, when the ground was still frozen, Wales started 1,700 seedlings in long trays of potting soil, carefully placing them on heat mats and under lights 24 hours a day. Like babies in a hospital nursery, the young plants were monitored for warmth and nourishment to ensure the best possible start for a life outdoors.

Wales has been practicing what she calls “February farming” since 2000, when she started managing Coverdale Farm. With a degree in elementary education, Wales had satisfied her passion for the environment by working with the Chester County Parks Department in the late 1990s, most notably with Springton Manor Farm. It was her first brush with a working farm. She has never looked back.

At Delaware Nature Society, her first task was to write her own job description. Coverdale Farm was new for DNS. There was no vegetable garden, no animals. Wales had to layer the farm onto the model of a nature center.

Coverdale sits on about half of the 352 acres that make up the Burrows Run Preserve, a gift to DNS from Crawford and Margaretta Greenewalt. The tract includes rolling hills, old-growth woodlands and open fields that spill down to Burrows Run, a pristine tributary of Red Clay Creek. The Coverdale property had a working farm on it as far back as the early 1900s.

Shortly after her start, Wales presented the idea of community-supported agriculture to DNS executive director Mike Riska. “Coverdale’s mission is one of education,” Wales said, “and a CSA gets us closer to a real farm, clarifying for the community the complete food cycle from farm to fork.”

It wasn’t a hard sell. CSAs found their way to the United States from Europe in the mid-1980s when it became apparent that farming—practiced by only 2 percent of Americans—had become too remote from the life of the average consumer. As people who wanted to eat in a more healthful way realized they must become part of the process, they began to pay in advance to cover the costs of a local farm for a weekly share of the produce. They also reconnected with the land. According to LocalHarvest, the number of CSAs in the United States was estimated at 50 in 1990. It has since grown to more than 1,000.

H.G. Haskell, owner of SIW Vegetables in Chadds Ford,
says community-supported farming is a win-win situation.
Photograph by Tom Nutter,

Most CSAs operate as organic farms that believe in building a community of local agriculture and nurturing a deep sense of land stewardship. Unlike conventional farms—those that raise one major crop, often corn or soybeans, on hundreds of acres that are tilled with heavy machinery, heavily irrigated, heavily fertilized and heavily treated with pesticides—small community-supported farms such as Coverdale raise a diversity of crops such as tomatoes, beans, sweet corn, peppers, salad greens and herbs, employ no-till practices, and rotate fields often to control pests and soil erosion naturally.

A trend toward healthier eating has prompted more than CSAs to bloom. Farmers markets, having left the country roads to set up right in the neighborhood, are growing more visible and creative. In season, one fills the parking lot at the Hockessin Fire Hall. Another gathers on grassy Bancroft Parkway in Wilmington, while another crowds the sidewalks near Trolley Square. Bethany Beach, Milford, Georgetown, Rehoboth Beach and Lewes also host weekly farmers markets May through October.

“Our biggest trouble with farm markets is finding enough farmers to meet the demand,” says Mike McGrath of the Delaware Department of Agriculture. “It’s out there waiting for the capable grower.”

So what’s all the fuss about? It’s simple, really: flavor, service and better nutrition.

Consider this: Some supermarket tomatoes are picked while pinkish-green in California, then spend a week or so traveling across the country in a dark truck, with a spritz of ethylene to spur ripening. Open the truck doors in Delaware and—voila!—red, ripe tomatoes. Contrast that with the local product—warm and ready with an earthy, heady aroma—picked no later than yesterday.

At SIW Vegetables, a farm market and CSA on Route 100 at the Pennsylvania-Delaware line, there are 15 varieties of heirloom tomatoes available, among them Cherokee Purple, Brandywine and Green Zebra—and that’s only a quarter of the 60 varieties grown there. In addition to tomatoes, one can find melons, onions, eggplant, berries, okra, gourds and corn. Service is also seductive at your local farm market. At SIW Vegetables, owner H.G. Haskell personally calls customer Harry Brown when the okra is in.

In Middletown, wholesaling once made up 80 percent of the business at Filasky’s Produce, but as the area has grown, so have retail sales. Neighbors from an over-55 community across the street shop there several times a week because, as one noted, “We have the time, the money, and the motivation to get healthy and maintain our good health. We know that fresh fruits and vegetables make a difference.”

Highland Orchards sits on a 6-acre farm in North Wilmington, an area most would consider serious suburbia. The farm has been in the Linton family since 1832, well before Exit 8 of I-95 could spill you out onto Foulk Road. In addition to its thriving produce market, Highland supplies Christina School District with fresh salad greens and fruit for its school lunch program. (Farm owner Ruth Linton says kids actually request fruit for snacks.) Highland also participates in the Farm to Restaurant initiative, part of New Castle County’s three-year-old Buy From Your Neighbor program. Highland supplies such places as Harry’s Savoy Grill and Pizza by Elizabeths in Wilmington, as well as Iron Hill Restaurant and Brewery and Homegrown Café in Newark.

Buy From Your Neighbor encourages residents, school districts and local chefs to “buy fresh, buy local,” which means better produce and prices for consumers, as well as more profit for farmers, who can cut out middle men such as marketers and transporters, thus saving fuel and reducing pollution.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Haskell says. “The farm helps the community stay healthy, and the community helps the farm stay healthy.”

Coverdale Farm adheres to a with-the-hands-only
approach to agriculture. Photograph by Tom Nutter,

To be USDA Certified Organic means that a farm’s fields have been free of synthetic pesticides and herbicides for at least three years and that the farmers use specialized equipment and practices—all painstakingly recorded for authorities.

There’s a growing interest in organics from non-traditional farmers and landowners in Delaware. While they won’t entirely replace traditional farms, Kent County Extension agent Gordon Johnson reports that the state gains at least one certified organic and one certified naturally grown farm every year.

“It’s an area with a lot of growth potential,” Johnson says. In 2005, organic foods made up $13.8 billion of U.S. sales. Though that’s only 2.5 percent of total domestic food sales, it’s up from 0.8 percent in 1997, a four-fold growth in less than 10 years.

Andy Meddick runs Good For You Organic Produce Market outside Lewes, and he is proud of his products, “everything from arugula to zucchini,” much of it from his nearby farm. Though it isn’t certified organic yet, “we follow the rules,” he says.

Good For You carries a range of products that are “clean,” that is, free of preservatives, chemical additives, artificial colors, flavors and hydrogenated fats. Meddick also provides fresh produce to several area restaurants: Second Street Grill, Café Azafran and Fish On! in Lewes, as well as Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats, Neva’s Café, and The Pig + Fish Company in Rehoboth Beach.

For more than 30 years, Newark Natural Foods Co-op has carried a wide range of products—most certified organic, some natural—from farms in neighboring Pennsylvania and Maryland. Harvest Market in Hockessin, which has tripled in size since it opened in 1995, proves that organic-buying clients are growing in number. Its owner, the same Bob Kleszics who is head volunteer gardener at Coverdale, points out that in addition to organic, he strives to buy local. One nearby shelf, overflowing with peaches “from Glen Willow Orchards 4 miles up the road” proves the point.

Some farmers consider the organic certification process too burdensome. Instead, they opt to market their products as “natural” or “authentic,” a term coined by Eliot Coleman of Four-Season Farm in Maine, one of Wales’ heroes. Coleman has refused to buy into the certified organic label, explaining that “authentic” growers are committed to supplying food that is fresh, ripe, clean, safe and nourishing. He believes that his customers, who buy directly from his stand, can ask any question about the safety or quality of his products. And that’s part of the allure of a farm market: One can chat directly with the farmer.

That’s the route Coverdale’s CSA will take. It will offer fresh, ripe, clean, safe and nourishing products that are local. It will start small, with 30 shares, by, members hope, spring. They are raising funds to hire a farmer experienced in production agriculture and organic agriculture by fall.

“We’re not certified-organic,” Wales says, but the farm has been free of artificial additives for the past seven years. Shares will be offered to the community at large, which will include nature society members, who may get advance notice or a membership benefit to join.

“One of our major goals of the CSA is to broaden the scope of people interested in supporting the mission of the Delaware Nature Society and Coverdale Farm,” Wales said. “We welcome anyone who believes in supporting this local food system.”

Spurred by a hunch that the public craved knowledge, Wales and Kleszics initiated a program through DNS last fall, Localvore, a class to familiarize adult students with local farms and their products, including vegetables, fruits, meat and dairy items. The class quickly sold out.

“We need a revolution in our food ways,” Wales says. So she and like-minded farmers are adapting to the changing needs of an evolving customer base. It’s called survival of the fittest.

And the beat goes on. As the old pole barn at Coverdale was razed, new buildings for animals and farm operations went up. The old farmhouse still graces the hill, while the Bank Barn, the “gem of Coverdale,” still holds court with an adoring public. Built in the 1700s in the English-German style, a section was built underground facing south-southeast, which retains the heat in winter and stays cool in summer. It’s an ideal place for livestock (such as the dairy cow that often draws a big audience of kids who want to try milking it) and an ideal, low-impact farming practice.

An outdoor classroom will supplement the CSA by offering classes for kids and adults about healthy food, the cycle of food and Delaware’s food culture. While Wales’ work has drifted away from some of the “dirty work” of the farm and become more administrative, she sees Coverdale as ripe with educational possibilities.

“I see my role now as one that nurtures the vision of food system education while forging community-regional partnerships,” Wales says. But she strives to balance her days with administrative responsibilities by returning home each day dirty from immersing herself in some form of farm work or teaching, always with a smile on her face.

“I drool over what can happen at Coverdale,” Wales says. “Our arms are wide open to the community.”



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