Food from Amish farms to city tables


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My trip into Somerset County Amish Country began early in the morning on Friday, Sept. 21. I met Bryan Greenawalt on the side of the road at the Donegal exit of the Turnpike. I jumped in his van and we began our journey. My mission was to trace the path that he travels each Friday to procure vegetables for sale at the Farmers' Market Cooperative of East Liberty. It was a beautiful fall day, so I had a feeling a great experience was in store.

Bryan is a farmer himself, with many years of experience. Son of John and Ina Greenawalt, he grew up on the 300-acre Greenawalt farm in West Newton. His family farm specialized in egg production and growing sweet corn and pumpkin products. As times and markets changed, the family modified the scale of their production. After Bryan married, he purchased his wife's family farm about 20 miles from his parents' farm. He and his wife now run a small dairy farm, milking 32 cows with a goal of growing to about 100.

Instead of growing all his vegetables himself, Bryan has developed relationships with a number of Amish family farms in Somerset County. Those relationships started about five years ago when the Greenawalts were looking to find additional sources of eggs to supplement their own production. Those relationships have intensified over the past two years.

I have come to know Bryan over the past few years at the East Liberty market. The quality, quantity and variety of the vegetables that Bryan has been bringing to the market are really impressive. These include things such as carrots and root vegetables of all colors, strange-looking fall squash, red and purple potatoes, oddly shaped sweet potatoes, and local strawberries that seem to appear at all times of the year. I noticed that Chef Trevett Hooper from Legume was buying his produce by the boxful. Chef Hooper told me that he has made the trip with Bryan a few times, which is how I came to ask if I could tag along, too.

Bryan's Friday trip always starts with a visit to the Countryside Produce Auction in Salisbury. The auction operates on Tuesdays and Fridays, April through October. The building consists of an open barn-type structure. Farmers bring their products in and display them on pallets in neat rows. Sellers line up to view and inspect the items prior to the auction starting. Bryan brought some of the sweet corn grown on his parents' farm to sell at the auction.

At 10 a.m. sharp the auctioneer started methodically going through the bidding process for each and every lot. He starts with the largest lots and moves to the smallest. Some of the large lots were several pallets in size. All the sellers and buyers must register in advance, and are assigned numbers. Bryan seemed to know from memory most of the numbers and who the growers are. Most, but not all of the farmers, are Amish. The parking lot had a lot of gas-powered vehicles, but also a whole row of horse-drawn buggies.

It was very hard for me to follow the auctioneer, as it all seemed to go so fast. But Bryan was on top of it and at the end of the process, he had purchased half a vanload of produce. It was all just beautiful stuff -- potatoes, zucchini, cauliflower, squash and much more. He bought an entire pallet of cabbage, 120 heads in all. It took two hours before we pulled out of the lot.

We picked up some food from the little lunch counter at the auction, and we were then on our way to visit many Amish farms. I asked Bryan how he met so many Amish since they are essentially "off the grid" in terms of telephone and computer access. He said that "it was a slow process where one family introduced him to another" and his connections into this tight-knit community began to grow. "It was important to work to build their trust. In some cases I met farmers by just driving around on the country roads and stopping at different locations."

Our first stop was that of Joseph and Miriam Peachy. They operate a small farm that includes a herd of dairy cows and a large plot of vegetables. They have been farming this land for 18 years. They operate a roadside produce stand and a small store that sells general merchandise. They had many varieties of heirloom tomatoes. I spoke with Mrs. Peachy and she took me for a tour. She told me it all started by just growing enough for the family (they have seven children). Then they started growing some "extra" for people who stopped by. Same with the general store -- they started carrying just a few items and then expanded as people asked them to carry more and more. Now, she said, the produce stand is very popular and attracts people from Maryland and West Virginia. I purchased a bushel of heirloom tomatoes and Bryan picked up some pears and apples.

Mrs. Peachy, in turn, purchased a large quantity of the cabbage that Bryan had in the van. I asked her how they preserve it and she said they keep it on a porch and cover it with a thick layer of leaves and a heavy rug. They pull out a head as they need it. It will last for months stored in this manner, and the flavor changes as it ages.

Next stop was Sam and Nettie Yoder. They grow a diverse assortment of vegetables on about 12 acres. They also have a small dairy herd. They were very excited when we arrived because a calf had just been born. I got to talk for a while with son Aaron, who looked to be about 18 years old. He described to me all the different types of activities he performed on the farm. His dad barked out a few orders while we were talking. I asked him which were his most- and least-favorite chores. He said he liked them all. With a big smile he said, "I love the variety and cannot imagine doing anything else but farming."

While I was talking, Bryan was rounding up many boxes of various vegetables, including cauliflower, small pumpkins and shelling beans. My relaxation was short-lived. Bryan asked where the soy beans were, an item ordered by Chef Hooper from Legume. Mrs. Yoder said they were in the field, so I was pressed into duty to help pick a bushel.

That gave me an opportunity to spend some time with Mrs. Yoder, and of course ask her lots of questions. I was impressed with the variety of vegetables I saw in the field: Swiss chard, collards and soybeans -- not things I associate with an Amish farm. She said that many of those items were ones that Bryan had requested they grow because they are popular with customers at the market in Pittsburgh. She said she had never eaten them and asked me how people prepare them. So I shared a few recipes with her.

We spent a lot of time talking about the dairy aspect of the farm. Their farm consists of a grazing area, an area to grow feed for the cows, a barn for shelter, a pond for water, and a windmill to pump the water. She said that dairy cows are integral to most Amish farms. First, they provide fresh milk for the family to consume, as well as butter and cheese, which are homemade. They also provide milk for sale to milk processors, which provides income year-round. So even when milk prices are low (which they are now), it still makes sense to maintain a herd of dairy cows.

The Yoders also have a small roadside stand that has become increasingly popular over the past few years. Mrs. Yoder thinks peoples' interest in locally grown food has motivated people to take the time to drive out to the farm.

Moses Yoder lives a few miles from relatives Sam and Nettie Yoder. His farm also is small. But it is jam-packed with greenhouses and vegetable plots. Moses Yoder was not present on the farm. Bryan has an honor-system arrangement with him. He looks in the barn for vegetables that are packed into bushels. He chooses the ones he wants and then leaves money for payment. He picked up grape tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower and kohlrabi.

I was impressed with this operation because it had multiple greenhouse structures-- metal frames with plastic covers -- that are called high tunnels. This allows the crops to be started earlier and also harvested later, which provides for a much longer growing season. Most of the high tunnels were filled with various types of tomatoes. Drip irrigation is used to efficiently water the plants. When necessary, heat is provided by wood-burning heaters.

Bryan explained that these small 10- to 20-acre farms need to be very efficient. The farmers use every square inch of space to make the farms economically viable.

The next stop was right down the road to visit the farm of Eli Yoder, not surprisingly a relative of the other Yoder families that we visited. I was looking forward to meeting Eli Yoder because this is one of the farmers that Chef Hooper told me about. The chef has been working with him to grow a vegetable called salsify. This is an odd-looking root vegetable with a frilly, grassy top. It can be cooked like any other root vegetable, and is said to have the flavor of oysters. At the restaurant, Chef Hooper makes it into a mash, or fries it.

Chef Hooper loves to put these unusual "old-school" items on his menu at Legume. Another one of these is Amish Shaker Corn. He read about it in an old cookbook called "America Cooks" that was published in 1949. This book is organized by state, and provides traditional regional recipes. In the Pennsylvania section, it describes an item called "Shaker dried corn." Shaker dried corn is corn cut from the cob and dehydrated in a Dutch oven so that it becomes as hard as dried peas. It's then rehydrated in lukewarm water and cooked. Chef Hooper says, "I became enamored with the idea of putting it on the menu as I really like the deep caramel flavor of the corn." He spoke to Sam and Nettie Yoder about it but they said they never heard about it. But they must have done some research, because two months later, Bryan delivered the first batch of dried corn to the chef. The two of them have been working together like this for about four years now, and the chef says that "this really fits with our niche at Legume to try to connect people with the food and farmers who grow it."

Bryan carries a lot of Amish canned products at the East Liberty market -- pickled beets, cucumbers, apple butter and many more items in jars. So we stopped by Sam Beachy's to pick up apple butter and cider. We got to meet Mr. Beachy, and as luck would have it, he was running the cider press when we arrived. It looks like a vintage press that grinds up the apples and pours them into cloth bags that are then squeezed to press out the juice. We also stopped to visit Paul Yoder, who specializes in making various canned items such as pickles and beets. Bryan picked up quite a few cases of each. We had to squeeze them into the van, which by now was almost completely full.

The day was getting old, and I was getting tired. But Bryan still was going strong. He wanted to make two more stops. One of them was to visit Nancy Yoder, who specializes in growing strawberries. I always wondered where Bryan gets locally grown berries so late in the year. Mrs. Yoder was happy to take us on a tour of her small operation. She grows about 1,100 plants in plastic pots that are connected to poles. They hang three or four pots high. All of this is contained in a high tunnel that helps protect the plants from the elements. She grows a variety called 'Seascape' that bears fruit continuously. She is able to produce fruit from May to November.

After one last stop to visit Noah Kinsinger for eggs and a surprise box of leeks, it was 5 p.m. and we started heading home. Bryan and I reflected on the day, and also discussed the next day's events. I was glad to be heading home, but he still had many hours of work ahead of him. The East Liberty market opens at 5 on Saturday mornings. He still needed to get back to his farm, and then reorganize things in preparation for the market. He gets to bed about 10 p.m. but needs to get up around 2 a.m. to get things loaded and then travel into the city. In total, it's a 240-mile roundtrip between the market and the farms in Somerset County.

Going with him gave me a new appreciation for all the effort that is involved in growing food and getting it to the market. Bryan's relationship with the farmers is a great example of collaboration that connects Amish farmers with urban customers.

I agree with Chef Hooper, who says, "He is doing something really cool."

Epilogue

Bryan has continued to make his circuit through Somerset County nearly every week. Of course things have slowed down quite a bit, and only limited items are still available -- cabbage, carrots, onions and a variety of potatoes, plus preserved items including jarred vegetables and dried beans. Chefs Hooper from Legume and Justin Steel from Bar Marco stopped by the market and scooped up most of the dried beans.

How is this possible in the dead of winter? Bryan credits the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Amish farmers. In addition to using wood burners in the high tunnels to extend the growing season as long as possible, "They are also very experienced at storing vegetables in underground root cellars, and then pulling out portions for sale periodically." They even preserve their meat in jars -- chicken, beef and venison.

This time of year they are busy shelling black walnuts that were harvested in the fall. The walnut meats are sold to raise money that goes into their communal health-care funds.

David Lagnese is on the boards of Slow Food Pittsburgh and the Farmers' Market Cooperative of East Liberty, where he and his family run the Kew Park Coffee Bar and also sell Pennsylvania cheeses, dried fruits and California olive oils. He can be reached at david.lagnese@verizon.net.

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