A fresh connection to the Shore

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

At every opportunity they talked up the taste of farm-ripened produce and explained the system of big agriculture in which farmers produce high volumes and sell sometimes below cost, a system that gives "a false sense of abundance," Yonkers said one afternoon by cell phone from the H Street market in Washington. Taste, too, is "very compromised," she says. She mourns the loss of "seasonality," of knowing the season by the fruit and vegetables that are ripe.

"There is a certain amount of pleasure in seeing asparagus. You think, OK, asparagus means it's spring! You eat it for six weeks, until you are sick of it, and then come strawberries - the first red thing of summer - and then peas and fava beans," she says. "It's very sensual."

Here on the farm, beets are on the wane, and Beggins bags what she thinks will be the last garlic scapes - the long, thin, curly green stems of the plants clipped after flowering so the bulbs can flourish. When people taste the garlic pesto she makes with scapes, she sells out.

There remain eggs to be gathered and washed. But first, the flowers. For two hours, Beggins and her assistant, Carol Bean, cut and bundle flowers into seasonal bouquets. Yonkers arrives from Washington to help, and they drive along in a golf cart to snip blue-lilac branches of old-fashioned chaste trees, Queen Anne's lace, tiger lily, black-eyed Susan, larkspur, bee balm, hydrangea and lisianthus, also known as summer rose.

Soon there will be zinnias and cosmos, phlox and yarrow. The lavender is gone - ruined by Isabel, last summer's tropical storm.

A gentle rain at 4 p.m. forces the women to finish their flowers in the barn. There they raise each new bouquet and boast about its being more beautiful than the last. A breeze flows through the open barn, nearly tipping over the buckets of flowers. As the last bouquets are assembled, Yonkers retrieves a bottle of sweet wine and some water glasses from the main house and brings them to the barn. Over wine, they recount the week's work.

All day Beggins has been on her feet, and now the chickens call.

Her daughters, Michaela, 9, and Rachel, 7, prepare buckets of food and water and put them in a golf cart they will drive to the chickens. Early tomorrow, Beggins will take two hours to load two trucks with produce, flowers, eggs, folding tables and cloths, and unload them in town beneath a cool green market umbrella.

Three years ago, she noticed her customers shopping with lists. Two years ago, she saw crops she could grow in bigger volume to make a profit. And tomorrow, a half-hour before the market opens, her customers will be waiting in line.

The nine other full-time farmers at the St. Michaels market sell at all the markets open during the week, and they are profitable. Farm-fresh produce markets, Yonkers says, are "the only sector of farming which is hopeful."

The next morning, the women are up at 6 a.m. Pullets - young hens - escape from their house like rebellious teenagers and must be protected from the dog, Mia, before the women can finish loading the trucks and collect the girls for the eight-mile drive to town.

A nursery grower has already unloaded her plants when they arrive at Muskrat Park, and by 7:45 a.m., folks selling meat from grass-fed cattle, homemade cheeses, just-baked bread and organic vegetables are setting up.

The line for Daniel Kreider's tomatoes - available from only May to mid-July - is forming when Beggins realizes she forgot the garlic pesto she stayed up to make and worries scapes won't sell as well.

But repeat customers can't get enough of them. One, Kay Perkins, buys several bunches of scapes when the market opens. Once, she inquired about ordering them ahead to fill her family's craving for the pesto, she says, because she was leaving on a monthlong trip to China and feared she would miss the season.

Another regular customer asks Beggins to save three dozen eggs so she can stand in a different line for organic vegetables. Sand Hill Farm is selling lush raspberries and the first corn - "Sweet Ice" - this morning. Nearby, Butter Pot Farm has exotic forms of squash: Magda from the Middle East, Ronde de Nice from France and cocozelle from Italy. Every week now, these veggies are delivered to local restaurants, including the Inn at Perry Cabin, whose executive chef, Mark Salter, is giving the cooking demonstration this morning.

In seven years, the market has come alive. A farmer on the Shore now makes his own organic feed for chickens rather than sell his corn to others who make it. A few tables from Beggins, a husband and wife who work on a large local farm sell beef from grass-fed cattle raised in Virginia. Three years from now, they expect to sell grass-fed cattle raised on the Eastern Shore.

"This is a little enterprise," Yonkers says of the market, "but there's a lot of activity going on behind it."

Roasted-Beet-and-Crab Salad

Serves 4

1/2 pound fresh beets

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup rice-wine vinegar

salt and pepper to taste

1 pound crab meat, picked over for cartilage

1/4 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons sour cream

2 tablespoons shallots, minced

1 tablespoon prepared horseradish, or to taste

1/2 cup red onions

1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning

1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped

Cut the tops and bottoms off the beets. Place beets in a small roasting pan, adding 1/2 cup water. Cover with aluminum foil and place in oven, roasting at 400 degrees until tender.

Reserve cooking water. After cooling beets slightly, about 20 minutes, rub off skin and thinly slice beets using a mandoline.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk olive oil and rice-wine vinegar together. Season with salt and pepper, pour over beets, cover and chill for 6 hours.

In a separate mixing bowl, toss crab meat with mayonnaise, sour cream, shallots, horseradish, red onions and Old Bay. Season with salt and pepper.

Divide beet slices onto plates and mound crab salad mixture over the slices. Drizzle the reserved beet water around each plate. Garnish with parsley.

-- Chef Michael Rork, Town Dock, St. Michaels

Per serving: 536 calories; 28 grams protein; 41 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 10 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 140 milligrams cholesterol; 596 milligrams sodium

Spinach and Sun-Dried Tomato Risotto

Serves 2

1/2 shallot, diced

1 garlic clove, crushed

2 cups veal or chicken stock

1 cup arborio rice

salt and pepper to taste

6 diced sun-dried tomatoes

3/4 cup heavy cream

2/3 cup excellent-quality parmesan

1 ounce spinach, washed well

Heat a medium saucepan over medium to high heat and add the shallot and garlic and 1/2 cup stock. When the stock is boiling, add rice, stirring, and cook until the mixture is dry. Reduce heat to medium, add another 1/2 cup stock and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Continue to cook and stir until nearly dry, repeating the process until all the stock is incorporated. Toss in sun-dried tomatoes and add the cream, stirring and cooking until the risotto is al dente and of good consistency.

Stir in parmesan, taste for seasoning and add additional salt and pepper, if desired. Toss in spinach, stirring to wilt. Serve warm.

-- Barbara Helish, Bella Luna Italian Market, St. Michaels

Per serving: 856 calories; 25 grams protein; 44 grams fat; 26 grams saturated fat; 88 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 146 milligrams cholesterol; 1,241 milligrams sodium

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