"Everything Tastes Like Summer" at One Straw Farm
Joan Norman explains how to enjoy seasonal produce to its fullest—and why so many customers are opting to deal directly with local farmers like herself.
Visiting a farm in the winter is a funny thing. There's something eerie about the abandoned equipment, the plowed-over fields, and the dearth of sweaty, sunburned humans who make the place run like a well-oiled machine, churning out truckloads of photogenic produce.
Pulling into the driveway of the Normans' lovely yellow home, though, we see plenty of signs of life. Chickens dart nervously out of the way of our tires, while a good-natured black lab heads straight for the car, tail wagging. Then Joan meets us on the porch and welcomes us in. After three long, full summers of enjoying her organic produce, it feels good to finally look into her eyes and shake her hand.
My husband and I have just completed our third season of the Community Supported Agriculture program at One Straw Farm. Between the two of us and my parents, we mostly finish the overstuffed bags of food we receive each week, and what we can't eat is still food for the eyes: mottled purple cabbage that could be taken straight from a still life by the Old Masters, orange hot peppers with a sweetness that belies their bite, and sweet potatoes that grow so large it takes only one to make a pie. We receive eight items per week, enough to easily feed us with some left over to preserve or share with friends.
Norman smiles to hear us waxing eloquent about her produce.
"The biggest complaint I have, and the biggest reason I have people drop out of my CSA, is they get too much food. They're getting more food than they can eat in a week, and then they feel like they're throwing things away and they're wasting their money. Now, in my household—if my daughter was home, I would need two shares to feed the five of us."
It's a matter of learning to eat locally, she explains. When she cooks, there are often seven or eight dishes on her table, dishes she may have made up on the fly or from the exhaustive compendium of recipes on her website. She demurely admits to "considering" a cookbook, and that there's more to come: "I can make them up as fast as you can give me things, and if you don't like something, I can usually adjust it."
A family staple is Garbage Spaghetti, which is much more appetizing than it sounds.
"At the end of the week, whatever you have, you just put in a pot and sort of sauté it until it shrinks down. You put that in a Ziploc bag and throw it in the freezer. And then, this time of year, when you're wondering what to do for dinner, you can pull that out and add a jar of tomato sauce and throw it with pasta, and all of a sudden everything tastes like summer . . . just think, if you did that seven times, and you had seven more meals this winter, you'd feel like a hero!"
Norman and her husband, Drew, started One Straw Farm in 1985, when organic was not the trendy buzzword it is today. Drew, she explains, had always wanted to be a farmer, and there were two main factors to their choice of an organic farm. First, at a soils class at the University of Maryland, he learned about the micronutrients necessary for life and how to keep them intact—and then he'd go to the next class, where they pushed pesticides. The disparity between soil health and petrochemicals struck him as a dangerous one. The second instance was when he picked up a bottle of chemicals at the dairy farm where he worked. "The label read, 'One Drop Could Kill.' He put it down and thought, 'I'm not that neat. I will make a mistake, and I will spill a drop . . . I don't want to play with chemicals.'"
So they kept the farm chemical-free, and for years they did mainly wholesale business. They realized, however, that selling to grocery stores often resulted in their food being shipped to Florida, New York and points even further from home. "If I can't feed my neighbors, there's something wrong with this picture," Norman said. At the same time, after years of vacations and social activities with the owners of Boordy Vineyards, the two families finally said to each other, "We need to do something together!" So One Straw Farm established its first CSA drop site at the winery, 11 years ago.
While they still do some wholesale business (Norman rattles off a trio of my city favorites: Woodberry Kitchen, the Black Olive and Gertrude's) they have shifted to concentrating mainly on their CSA customers. In the CSA model, the farm and the customer both save money by cutting out the distributor middleman, the grocery store; this allows for more personal contact with the Normans and their customers.
Norman admits, however, that the variations on personal preference can be stressful: "I've done polls and surveys . . . 50 percent of the people want more beets, 50 percent of the people don't want more beets. 50 percent of the people want more chard; 50 percent of the people never want to see it again. The only thing I never have enough of, and I'll never be able to provide enough of, is strawberries. It's not going to happen." A high-maintenance crop, they often ripen before the start date of the CSA, which causes mass confusion as she tries to arrange last-minute temporary drop sites; last year, she brought them to the Mill Valley Garden Center for distribution and caused a traffic jam all the way back to Route 83. "I started throwing them in people's cars as they drove past," she says, shaking her head. "Next year . . . I don't know."
But they're worth it, those picky customers, because they really do act as shareholders to support the farm. Last year, a devastating episode of late blight swept up the East Coast from a farm in Alabama that had shipped tomato plants carrying the disease. Because the economy was faltering, everyone wanted to plant their own tomatoes, and the big box stores who had received the transplants sold out. So all of the dutiful home gardeners who thought they were doing their part to save some money were actually helping to spread the blight to farms throughout the region. It spreads quickly: an entire field can be struck down in 24 hours. In all, One Straw Farm lost $100,000 worth of tomatoes.
Norman is optimistic, however: "The bad news is, we lost $100,000 last year. The good news is, the CSA carried me through that . . . you still got fed and I still made money. If I had been waiting for my wholesale accounts to cover [the cost of the tomatoes], I would be out of business. Everyone saved a family farm last year."
One Straw's presence in Catonsville has grown in recent years from 10 people at one CSA site to more than 100 at five different locations, she says, counting off the totals from memory. They do not currently sell at the Catonsville farmers markets. But if Norman has any say in the matter, small farms are the way of the future. She advocates making small changes, one at a time—starting with simply buying local produce at the grocery store, even if it's a few cents more than the produce from California or New Zealand. Even simply asking where the produce is from can have an effect; if enough people do that, chain stores will start to get the message and purchase more locally grown food.
"Do one thing a week," she says. "Just do one . . . start with small things, because I want you to succeed first, and then you can build on the rest of it. It's not that hard."
No, it's not. Especially when each new change is leafy, juicy and generally delicious.
For more information about a CSA at One Straw Farm, go here.