Sunday, February 8, 2009

We're in Martha Stewart Living

How do you turn a story about a vegetable farm into a five-page spread on food and entertaining?

That was the challenge I and the editors at Martha Stewart Living faced for the March gardening issue. Regular readers may recall me writing briefly about Drew and Joan Norman's One Straw Farm in Baltimore County and their hugely successful CSA (community supported agriculture) plan. This was a bit of a stretch for Martha, glamorizing the business of growing tomatoes and onions and kale. If you look closely at the credits you'll see that the photographs were taken by Helen Norman who is Drew Norman's sister and a regular contributor to Martha Stewart Living. They live on nearly adjoining properties in White Hall near the Pennsylvania line.

The Normans' is a remarkable story of hard work and determination in the building of a modern family farm. They met at University of Maryland, where Drew was studying agriculture, and with help from parents bought some abandoned acreage in the rolling countryside north of Baltimore not far from where Drew Norman grew up. For years they grew vegetables organically for the national wholesale market but faced stiff competition from California. Things looked grim when they learned that a load of eggplant they'd sent to Texas arrived frozen (they didn't know they were supposed to wrap the eggplant individually against the cold). But then Whole Foods offered to buy whatever they could grow for the closer-in Mid-Atlantic market. Things really started to move the Normans' way when they discovered CSA.

Their CSA is now huge--they cultivate 175 acres for about 1,400 subscribers in the Baltimore area. They deliver to numerous drop sites but clients are also allowed to select their own produce from any of the five farmers markets where Joan Norman displays their goods. When I was at the farm in July, production was in full swing. I followed Joan on her rounds and managed a long conversation with Drew while he was fixing a tractor. Both of them are definitely moving targets: Drew is mostly in the fields growing and harvesting while Joan tends to the business end. They employ and house 17 seasonal workers from Mexico to help with the field work. Imagine planting 50,000 tomato seedlings.

On Wednesdays Joan is one of several vendors at Boordy Vineyards, a venerable Maryland winery just a few miles from the farm. There's a sinful chocolate tasting along with a local cheese display, buffalo burgers, wine sampling and live music. In the afteroon, hundreds of locals with kids and coolers show up for a picnic and a show outside the old stone tasting room. It's quite a sight, with a very strong feeling of family and community.

That's the Normans' reward for 25 years of hard work in the soil. They both take seriously their role in reviving local agriculture. "Noday gets on a sinking ship," said Joan Norman. "But build an ark and they'll climb aboard two-by-two."

The Normans have built quite an ark.


Ramona said...

I'm really looking forward to my issue this month, Ed. What a wonderful, local story.

Julia said...

This is fascinating! I look forward to reading the article. I'd be curious to hear how their operation differs from some of the smaller farms you've visited -- like Even Star.

Ed Bruske said...

I think you'll enjoy it, Ramona. Some nice fresh produce and recipes in there. The raspberry tart was quite good.

Julia, imagine acres and acres of the immaculate rows you've ever seen covered with black plastic. The fields are incredibly tidy. They have a big composting operation wherein they trade hay to a local stables for the manure. This farm also has housing on site for the field workers and a huge, very efficient packing barn. When I was there, they were installing several greenhouses to extend the season. Try to imagine all seed trays and vast tables of seedlings waiting to be transplanted. It's quite a sight.

Michelle said...

For some reason I'm receiving free issues of Martha's magazine, and that is how I found your wonderful blog.

Ed Bruske said...

Michelle, I must have forgot to mention that Martha Stewart Living is just a promotional tool for The Slow Cook.

Enjoy the free copies. They could probably use every paying subscriber they can get right about now.