The Growing Art of Growing
Here we are in March: not only is it early spring in Northeast Florida, but it’s National Nutrition Month and, thanks to a campaign by local nonprofit Girls Gone Green (GGG), a month marked by pledges to eskew meat for plant-based foods in the name of dietary consciousness. No Meat March is an international movement that helps those curious about vegetarian and vegan diets experience them during a finite period of time – thirty-one days.
Once aspiring veggie-eaters have gone to NoMeatMarch.com and pledged to participate, they receive daily emails with nutritional information and recipes, and links to resources that foster community among their newfound cohort and the broader plant-based community. The local queen of all things “green” and GGG executive director, Julie Watkins (see this issue’s The Conversation), sees No Meat March as a gateway to greater mindfulness toward food, its origins and how our bodies use it.
When dining mindfully, listing the ingredient sources of just one dish can quickly become an education in farming, and growing food is getting more and more attention. Trends in diet and dining, environmental changes, and innovations in farming have put some growers under the same umbrella as artisans, an esteemed title in today’s culture.
Two nearby farms are employing methods that look toward a sustainable future for farming and illustrate growing (pun intended) alternatives – Traders Hill Farms in Hilliard, and the smaller operation, Veggie Confetti Farms in St. Augustine. Both supply produce to local restaurants such as Black Sheep, Ovinte, bb’s, Bistro Aix, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails, and others. Traders Hill also supplies White Oak Plantation and area country clubs and hotels, and Veggie Confetti Farms supplies the new Kitchen on San Marco, which received the Diner’s Choice Award 2015 from Open Table, and was recently named Best Farm to Table Restaurant by The Florida Times-Union.
Traders Hill is a unique example of a traditional farming operation being transformed into a state-of-the-art alternative one. The idea stemmed from a chance meeting between Angela TenBroeck, who was teaching in the coastal sciences program at Mayport Middle School, and Richard and Delores Blaudow, who had just purchased a farm on the St. Marys River in Nassau County. The farm had a couple of former chicken houses that the Blaudows wanted to put to use again. TenBroeck, whose grandmother had hydroponic greenhouses in the ’70s, had a very different idea for the chicken houses; she converted them to aquaponic greenhouses, combining traditional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals in tanks) with hydroponics (growing plants in water). Incidentally, she also put many former chicken farm workers back to work.
The growth inside TenBroeck’s greenhouses is symbiotic – her aquaponic life creates food [read excrement] for her hydroponically-grown produce. “By turning fish water into plant food, we deliver delicious, difficult-to-grow produce year-round but require zero soil, pesticide or herbicides, and we use just 10% of the water of traditional farms,” she says. Using less space and water, no chemicals, and specially-designed LED lights that emit only the spectrum of light that plants need while allowing for a 24-hour-growth cycle, makes a smaller impact on the environment in two ways. The obvious is simply by using fewer resources. But since the model is also more adpatable to varying locales, greenhouse growing potentially puts more food closer to restaurants, thus decreasing shipping and its associated carbon emissions.
That’s one of the things Lynn Wettach of Veggie Confetti Farms touts about her hydroponic vertical farm where she and her
family grow microgreens for restaurant use. A vertical farm grows up, not out, she says, making it ideal for urban and suburban use. She adds, “Our farming practices are sustainable due to our much smaller farm footprint and the reduction of water use. Hand watering delivers a small amount of water directly to the roots of the plants as opposed to saturating acres and acres of farmland.” Of course, Veggie Confetti has no need for chemicals, either, and since no fish emulsion is used, the microgreens are completely vegan. Their microgreens are delivered to restaurants living in a clean, soilless growing medium at the peak of freshness. Much like a personal herb garden, chefs harvest the growing greens on-demand just prior to serving, maximizing the greens’ shelf life and minimizing waste.
The microgreens themselves are tender, tiny, edible greens from the seeds of vegetables and herbs, usually harvested at less than three inches tall. They are not only an artful accompaniment to plating, but pack a serious nutritional and flavorful punch.
The small shoots produce strong, complex flavor profiles and a 2012 US Department of Agriculture study showed them to have higher levels of nutrients than their mature counterparts; some four to six times more. Veggie Confetti grows micro versions of kale, broccoli, carrot, and cabbage, to name a few, in sheets of coconut hull sitting in shallow trays. A bite of the mustard microgreen is like tasting the fictional everlasting gobstopper at Willy Wonka’s: layered and surprising, the taste starts out vegetal, almost cruciferous, then finishes with the earthy bite of brown mustard.
Creativity abounds in these new growing methods and expands when put to use by some of our area’s top chefs. And this relationship may very well be indicative of the future of dining on the whole.
In the first installment of Mindful Dining (Mindful Dining Part One: Proteins, Arbus Jan/February 2016) we asked an esteemed group of local chefs and restauranteurs who espouse the slow food, farm-to-table movement about how they source and use proteins – meat, poultry, eggs and dairy. So, now we will hear from this same group on the backbone, er, base, of the meal – produce and grains. We asked them about their sourcing, growing, and use of these items on their menus, and asked them, along with TenBroeck and Wettach, what trends they see and predict for food and farming.
In the spirit of No Meat March, let us celebrate all that is grown in and from the ground (so to speak). … Crunch!