Claverach Farm. Photograph by Greg Rannells
Yesterday, we spoke with Joanna Duley of Claverach Farm and Vineyards, which is hosting Slow Food St. Louis' Feast in the Field on June 26. Unlike Slow Food's last event, Lamb-stravaganza, where meat was the star attraction, this will be a "veg-centric" (though not vegetarian) dinner, with some of St. Louis' best chefs, including Josh Galliano of Monarch, Cary McDowell of Winslow's Home, Carl McConnell of Stone Soup Cottage and Adam Altnether of Taste by Niche basing their dishes off what's growing in Claverach's fields right now. Duley talked to us about that event, and gave some advice on how those who want to grow their own food can do that...even now, as we head into midsummer.
I read a bit about the event on the Slow Food page...what are you guys contributing to the event? Since it's billed as a "veg-centric," dinner.
Well, we will have all of the shoots that we grow available with the chefs to work with. Right now, we are starting to pull some really nice beets. We've got yellow beets, and a really nice Italian variety called Chioggia, they're the ones with the swirls, they look like candy-canes, sort of. We're starting to pull some multi-color carrots, so there will be a variety of carrots for people to use. We've got some really nice hothouse Japanese cucumbers, Tasty Jade. Our squash is starting to slow down a little, so there may or may not be baby squash. The first crop is finished, and the second crop...we'll see how fast they grow between now and then. We have a lot of really gorgeous onions coming, and fresh garlic that's harvested. There's green beans....those are the main things. There will be probably be some greens, maybe some salad, probably some sauteeing greens of some sort.
Like kale, or Swiss chard?
Probably some chard. There might be some arugula that was baby, but we'll let it grow a little. Once we stop harvesting for salad, we let it grow and mature a bit. So there would be some argula for people to work with.
Are you guys the main produce suppliers then, or are other farms participating?
We have relationships with a lot of the chefs that are coming, so I'm sure I will individually talk to people I'm already working with and see what they want for the dinner. There are a few chefs on the list that I have never worked with, a lot of it is because they are out in Chesterfield or places where we don't do a lot of deliveries. If there are places that have chefs they already have relationships with, they are free to honor those relationships, so there will be a good range of produce.
So, Missouri's got a long agricultural history, but it's more conventional, more monocropping, more green revolution type farming. So I wanted to talk a little bit about what you guys do as a small-scale farm, and how that is tied to Slow Food. Anyway, I went to your website, and I didn't realize Claverach was the Welsh word for clover! And I know that you grow clover as a sort of green manure.
Right...actually, it means "clover acre." And right, we have a lot of clover around. I think that first and foremost we do what we do here because Sam [Hilmer], my partner, grew up on this farm, although it was not a working farm at the time. His grandfather had grown up on this farm, but then as an adult moved and had another piece of property that he farmed. Sam's parents, when they were a young married couple moved into the original farmhouse. So, Sam ended up growing up here but it skipped a generation. His parents weren't farmers, but they lived on the farm. He worked on his grandfather's farm as a boy, and he just kind of had a passion for it. But he also has a passion for food, and so do I. I've been here with him for the past eight years. He's been farming for the last 15 years. It's really the way that we do things, it really does have to with wanting to grow really beautiful, delicious food to eat. This particular farm, if you see it, it's not really set up for monocropping. It's not a lot of ground, in the scheme of things, for a conventional farm. Something interesting to think about is from working on a small farm and trying to make a living from selling vegetables....there's reasons agriculture evolved the way that it did. People just got tired! They got physically really worn out. There's a practicality to it. Like, how do you actually make money growing vegetables out of the ground? So I don't think....it's paradoxical. People wanted it to be easier, so these industrial systems came along. But in a certain way, they did not make it easier to make a living on a farm. So, it's complicated. It's something we're really aware of. It's very beautiful and idealistic what we're doing here, but we are also still in the process of trying to figure out how to make it sustainable for us, like a real living over time. With some of these smaller market gardens, there ends up being a high level of...it's just a tremendous amount of very focused work. And you're working with nature, and stuff happens! It can wipe out your whole crop. So that is why Sam and I have decided that the way we are taking this farm, we've rehabbed our barn, and we want to have people come here and eat, and have an experience on the farm. We are hoping it is way for us to pull things all together, this beautiful produce out of the field, and then we make a little bit of wine, we have vinyards, and so it'd be a place to bring everything together in a food-focused kind of way.
The whole backyard garden thing...people are growing a lot of their own food now. Part of that is the awareness Slow Food has brought, some of it is these scares with industrial food, like salmonella in eggs, part of it is the recession...but people, a lot of them, have a much greater awareness that these tomatoes they have been eating in the grocery store....well, in some ways it's not quite a tomato, proper!
Yeah, that's the educational part, when you realize that there's a real difference. It has to do with tasting it, with actually eating it, and perceiving the difference.
So how did you come to all this?
Actually, I have a degree in fine art [laughs], and after art school, I needed to get a job. So I gravitated to kitchen work. I worked for years, my first professional kitchen work, I worked in a big bread bakery for several years. I worked in a couple of bakeries, and then I worked in a catering kitchen cooking pastry. Simultaneously, I started a garden at my apartment in St. Louis. I got hooked on growing food and then cooking it. So I was getting kind of burned on the kitchen, so I started working part-time at another farm, Bellew's Creek. Paul [Krautmann] grows like black beans and popcorn and sweet potatoes. So I worked for him for several years. Then I met Sam through Paul, because they were friends and neighborly farmers. So that's how it all evolved. I was really doing farming and cooking simultaneously for a number of years.
So, say there's this theoretical person who goes to Feast in the Fields, and then gets hooked, too, and wants to grow some of their own stuff. What advice would you have to someone who is just starting out? Though I guess it's kind of late in the season.
No, it's not! We have such a long season here. If we weren't heading into midsummer, something good to start with, and this is something to do in the fall when it cools down a little bit, is some salad, arugula or basil. Basil is a great thing. Basil is a heat-loving plant. Herbs are actually a great starting point, because they are easy, you can grown them in pots. Even really tomatoes in a pot. You can probably still find some tomato seedings out and about, it's not that late. It just feels like it's later in the season that it is, because May was so extremely hot.
And I guess seedlings are better to start with, versus seeds.
I think so, other than if someone to grow a little pot of some salad, when the weather is a little cooler. Actually, arugula grows all summer, it grows fast, and it's easy. There's something exciting about planting a seed, and seeing what comes of it. If you're someone who's never actually grown anything, then growing a little bit of arugula is actually kind of exciting, because it grows fast from seed. You don't have to do a bunch of transplanting or babying.
If someone's a little more advanced...what are some of your favorite varieties for Missouri?
Well, it depends on how much space someone has. It's actually really fun to grow squash, but they take up space! They could take over your yard. But for people to see squash blossoms, it's an exciting thing to make that connection, to see the plants put out flowers and they become the vegetable. It's part of a learning curve of understanding where vegetables come from. This time of the year, with squash, you can just sort of plop the seed in the ground or in a pot and they grow pretty well. So we grow the little pattypan squash, the little yellow sunbursts. People really love those. We grow some Italian zucchini, and we harvest baby zucchini, with nice, big beautiful blossoms on them. Beans are something, like bush or climbing beans, if someone has a trellis. I really love growing green beans, because they do really well in the heat. They're pretty productive, and the plants are pretty. Tomatoes are always a great backyard thing to grow. The cherry tomatoes, we grow one called Sungold, beautiful sweet little cherry tomatoes. They're really productive. You can get a ton of tomatoes off one or two plants.
What are some of your favorite sources for seeds and plants?
We love Johnny's. That's probably our main catalog that we work with. We have a few other companies that we get very specific things from. But Johhny's narrows it down to the great varieties, they're based on flavor and productivity. And I would say for seedlings, look around at farmer's market; I don't know how many of the farms still have seedlings that they are selling, but I know Biver Farms sells a lot of seedlings at the Maplewood Farmer's Market. I imagine they still have some. They sell Biver's seedlings at Local Harvest and at Whole Foods.
Anything else you want to add about Feast in the Field?
We are very excited to be hosting that event here. It's a good fit for where our interests lie, and where we are heading in our vision of what we want the farm to be. It's exciting, because the chefs that will be here are people we've worked with, and I'm excited to meet some of the chefs we don't work with.
Any last words of advice to aspiring vegetable gardeners out there? Since that's where you started.
That is where I started! Well, basically when I started I got kind of obsessed with it. I read a lot of seed catalogs, and I read a lot of gardening books. So there's that. You can approach it from a studious kind of way, but I think the other thing is to just plant some stuff and see what happens, because it's also so experiential. Every year here, we have certain things that we grow because we know them and we know they do well, and we know how to grow them well. But we also experiment a little. There is always a certain amount of trial and error, discerning whether or not we want to add this into the production, or does it not work that well? I'd say just do it! Plant something, even if it is just a tomato in a pot, or some herbs in a pot. It's exciting to see what happens.
Slow Food Feast in the Field happens Sunday, June 26 from 3 to 6 p.m. at Claverach Farm and Vineyards; more information here.