The morning started like any field trip I’d ever been on, except that a few of our cars sat waiting in place of a school bus, and instead of a late student holding up the rest of my class, it was a chef stuck in traffic. But that electricity was there, the groggy, early morning low hum of excitement. The gears turning in all of our heads about spending the day in a new environment that we’ve have wondered about, but never seen or experienced. That buzz was as tangible as the broken bits of treats pastry chef Amy had set out for us. And finally so was the chef, so we headed south.
“You’re not going to believe this road,” forager Chris Padin said to me as we turned off of a paved road and onto a half-paved road, “this is where I pick up the eggs.” I laughed at the irony as we bounced along and imagined how much more bumpy it’d be in the work van with even less suspension. “First time I came here I thought it was a joke,” he smiled, but I’ve been eating in Genuineland long enough to know that those PNS Farm eggs are no joke.
Alice Pena walked out onto her porch and welcomed us, then she directed us around the corner to meet her sweet three-day-old baby chickens. Us girls, and the boys, all cooed and squeaked and swooned. Alice told us a sad story about someone stealing half of her hen house, the result being the chickadees in front of us. Then we walked to the hen house where she told us all about keeping healthy hens and eggs. I learned about the antibodies that shouldn’t be washed off of an egg, and that the little dance chickens do when they scratch at the ground and peck it is how they get that pretty yellow yolk we love, from the protein in the bugs they eat. My favorite fact: she’s never had a sick hen. Talk about TLC! Read more about Alice and her hens here.
Next we headed even farther south to Krome Avenue to meet mother and son Teena and Michael Borek at Borek Farms a.k.a. Teena’s Pride. We couldn’t have had a warmer welcome. The spread that Teena arranged for us was a chef’s wonderland. Purple-orange, red, green, and white peppers, heirloom, cherry, grape, and striped green tomatoes, as well as a plethora of herbs and lettuces — all that had been picked that morning. We dove in noses first, forks second. I tasted the spiciest watercress and the sweetest red peppers that I’ve ever tasted. She introduced us to the two ladies who process all the heirlooms for Michael’s Genuine and Harry’s Pizzeria. And she presented Chris an award for the great work he does for their farm with his company, Farm to Kitchen.
Then Michael took us into the cooler. Steve Martin, the kitchen manager at Harry’s Pizzeria, got to see and taste the first San Marzano tomatoes of the season. “Don’t worry,” Michael said as Steve bit into one, “they’ll be blood red before we pick the ones for you guys.” Prudence Baselais, aka Black, one of the MGFD sous chefs picked up an ear of corn. “Taste that,” Michael ordered. His uncle has corn fields not far from his tomato fields, and that raw corn was the best I’ve ever had. In telling about how good that corn was I’ve heard similar stories about standing in a corn field in late summer tasting the corn. As a born and bread Miami girl, my story is, of course, in a walk-in-cooler in January, still though, that same sweet crunch. So juicy that we all laughed and wiped our faces as we left not a kernel on our respective cobs.
Heading out to the greenhouses was an even greater adventure. Tasting everything from chocolate and pineapple mint, to a hunk of raw sugarcane that Ray, the MGFD line cook doing Sunday’s Stagiaire Supper, actually jumped into the sharp, tall grass to forage. Teena explained about their water conservation program, how the water runs through each plant bed in different and complex ways, before being purified and recycled. We learned that everything there is hand-weeded, and that certain beds are covered in silver plastic because white flies are blinded by it, they won’t fly towards it, they’ll fly up instead. We learned of the challenges of growing heirloom tomatoes in the south Florida heat, and then we saw the “wet wall.” Basically an AC condenser that stretches one whole wall of the greenhouse and has water running over it all the times, keeping the vines cool, and letting them ripen faster, giving us flowers and then fruits sooner.
“Do they ever fall off the vines?” Juan, a MGFD line cook asked.
“Never,” Michael responded.
Teena gave us our mission. It’s called SAFFE – Save American Family Farms from Extension – and it’s simple, just go into your local grocery store and ask the produce manager if they buy local produce. Then go to customer service and request homestead vegetables. Then go home and write corporate and say the same thing. According to Teena there are only four family farms left down here, and two of those don’t have any children.
As we drove to our final stop I looked out the window as plant nursery after plant nursery zoomed by. Chris explained that there are less and less vegetable farms than there were before, because we are out-sold by Mexico. They grow the same things we do because they have the same climate, but they have less regulation for their labor and use pesticides, so they produce more and can underbid us every time. We stopped at a stop sign and a giant plow drove by. Chris said that it could plow the same field in two days with the one man driving it that 50 employees would take two weeks to do. So it would seem everyone’s livelihood is at stake.
Then we met Herb at Knaus Berry Farms, whose enthusiasm for chefs was equaled by his enjoyment of beef, and where the farm’s history is still matched by the age of their fans. In 1956 two brothers opened up to sell produce and baked goods. More than half a century later and the lines are out the door every weekend and holiday. Even in the generation of social media, an old school Knaus Berry Farm strawberry got the Harry’s Pizzeria instagram up to a record 67 likes. Herb married into the family, but he does have a picture somewhere of his father and father-in-law standing next to each other in the 4th grade class of Redlands Senior (now Redlands Elementary). If that’s not family business, as sweet as any, I don’t know what is.
We drove away from the wide fields and straight rows of the Redlands. I sipped my strawberry milkshake and looked through the pictures I had taken. I thought about Alice’s eggs and Teena’s passion. There is so much to learn on a farm. That much I knew going into it. What I didn’t know was how much I had to learn from four farmers, two chefs, four cooks, and a professional forager, or how much the combination of all of them and the farms would inspire me. Knaus Berry Farms is open daily to customers, and Teena does horticulture tours a few times a week. I recommend the trip down there to everyone. In fact, we are all but requiring front of house and back of house employees to sign up to join Chris on at least one farm run this year. Chris does these ride alongs on Thursdays departing from MGFD at 9:00 a.m. Something about all that farm fresh goodness just makes you want to be better people — and we think better at our jobs — and that’s worth the 40 mile trip from Miami, any day.