In the summer of 2004, Dave and I were walking home from a seminar on organic gardening at the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn. The farmer who had spoken gave out bags of freshly-picked lettuces to everyone who came and we ate ours with our hands on the 13-block walk home.
As we walked and munched lettuces, we talked about how different food tastes when it hasn’t been shipped from across the country; when it has never spent time in a wax-lined cardboard box; when it has never seen a refrigerated supermarket shelf. We lamented how difficult it is for most people to have the experience we were having at that moment–eating that perfect, locally-sourced food–and we wanted to do something about it.
applewood restaurant was, and continues to be, a staunch supporter of local farmers. We source entirely from nearby farms and from organic farms further away when we want products that can’t be sourced locally (orange juice, anyone?). Because we buy from area farms, we have the great fortune of getting to know area farmers. We wanted to give our guests that same opportunity.
A Meet-the-Farmer dinner features one farm’s bounty, be it produce, beef, lamb, pork, wild edibles, cheese, and even fish (in the case of our wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon fisher-family). The six-course menu is paired with wine at every course and showcases farm-sourced items on every plate. The farmer is present at these events and speaks about his/her farm between two of the courses. Right before dessert, our chef gets up and speaks about how and why we do what we do as a restaurant with a conscience.
Over the past ten years, we’ve gotten closer to some farmers than to others. Sean Whalen and Ashley Hensel-Browning of Poor Farm in Vermont are two of the farmers we’ve gotten to consider a part of our extended family.
We met Sean when he delivered meat to applewood for our Vermont farmer, Lydia Ratcliffe. Sean would arrive at some point on Thursday with whole pigs, goats, and lambs. Sometimes, he would have eggs, cheese, and rabbits as well. What he always had was a smile, a laid-back attitude, and enthusiasm for what we were doing with the food he delivered.
As time went by, other folks took over Lydia’s deliveries, but our friendship with Sean continued. We would visit his small farm, then located in Chester, Vermont. He kept sheep and chickens, as well as a beautiful organic garden. When he met Ashley, they joined forces and that beautiful garden became even more wonderful and well-maintained. In the spring, they collected maple sap for syrup; in the fall, they collected apples for cider. There was always something happening on Poor Farm. And then Hurricane Irene struck.
The lovely little stream that ran alongside Poor Farm breached its banks and the flood waters washed over everything. The land that the sheep grazed was submerged and the garden was completely covered. They had to find higher ground for the sheep to graze, so Sean loaded the flock into his Volvo wagon and drove them up the road. All the fruits of their hard work was lost to this disaster and there was no choice but to try to start over.
Sometimes, good things happens to good people. After much searching, they were blessed with a beautiful family farm in nearby Weathersfield, Vermont. They were able to move their sheep, establish a larger garden, really forage for wild edibles, and care for their ever-expanding family (child number three is on the way!).
The new land is substantially larger than the Chester property and there is more opportunity for growth than ever before. I asked Sean to describe his experience with Poor Farm in his own words and this is what I got: