What's new at area farms this season

Like any successful general manager, a farm owner takes stock during the off-season to determine what went right, what went wrong and how to improve. This season, area farmers are expanding their crops of forgotten heirloom vegetables to entice customers old and new. The biggest changes look to be something that most customers aren’t going to see: a better understanding of the land, more effective ways to combat pests, and innovative farming methods.

What does this mean for you? If all goes according to plan this will be a fantastic year to eat Western Pennsylvania produce found at farmers markets, supermarkets and restaurants. Here’s a season preview from a few of the region’s standout farms:

Blackberry Meadows

According to Greg Boulos, who owns Blackberry Meadows Farm in Natrona Heights with his wife. farmer Jen Montgomery, their primary goal this year is to encourage customers to spend more time growing and processing their own food. To that end, the farmers are expanding their Garden Share program. For $150, customers will get a huge array of seedlings, including many of the heritage varieties that make Blackberry Meadows a big draw. It’s then up to customers to raise them (with some growing advice from the farmers) at home or in a community garden. “It’s like getting our CSA in your backyard,” said Mr. Boulos, who estimates the value of the produce — if grown successfully — at about $900.

Although it might seem counterintuitive for farm owners to teach people to feed themselves, Mr. Boulos said, “The more we focus our business around community development, the stronger our business becomes.”

They’re also partnering with Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, providing it with 1,200 seedlings (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers) that will be distributed in Homewood through June 17.

The farm’s expanded community kitchen will be humming this season with classes and potlucks designed to demonstrate, enjoy and preserve a bountiful harvest. 

Crop-wise, Mr. Boulos says that last season’s experiments with purple tomatillos and pineapple-flavored ground cherries both proved to be successful, and customers should expect to see more of both this year. He and Ms. Montgomery are experimenting with an Italian ground cherry variety that “tastes like oranges dipped in chocolate.”

There are still garden and traditional CSA (community supported agriculture) shares available, and the farmers vend at Farmers at Phipps (Wednesday) and Farmers@Firehouse (Saturday) markets. They sell at Marty’s Market and through Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance.

Garfield Community Farm

Last summer, a family of hungry groundhogs took up an uninvited residency at this urban farm. There also was intense pressure from other pests, including the harlequin bug, a cabbage-munching cousin of the stink bug that’s not often found this far north. Farmer John Creasy believes the cold winter should have killed many of the burrowing bugs, and a few new fences ought to keep away the local groundhogs and deer.

“Our main goal for this year is to continue and expand the community outreach in the Garfield neighborhood,” he said. To that end, two of the four farm interns were recruited from the neighborhood, and there’s a new team of volunteers dedicated to outreach. “We want to better connect with our neighbors, especially those who have low income, so that we can get food into their hands.”

The completion of the farm’s bioshelter means much more salad and microgreens, plus there will be a fine array of heirloom tomatoes and eggplants.

More exciting for Mr. Creasy: the farmers’ long-term projects are starting to pay off. There are more than 30 fruit trees and this year they are expected to produce their first significant apples, peaches, plums and pears. “It’s very rewarding to look at a garden not just for what I’m going to get in 60 days, but for what’s going to give more and more as the decades go by,” he says.

Here, patience and permaculture guide the agricultural philosophy. “We’re always trying new stuff,” such as bokashi, a Japanese/Korean method of composting that quickly ferments food and farm waste into compost that retains significantly more nutrients than traditional North American methods. They’re also experimenting with making biochar from Japanese knotweed. “We’re taking a plant that’s a horrible nuisance to us and using it to nourish the soil.”

Next in the long-term plan: Growing berries. In addition to raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, there are “less heralded but just as exciting” prospects such as the elderberry, seaberry and the dastardly sounding superfruit — the chokeberry.

The farm opens its Wednesday market on June 3. The farmers are continuing their partnership with Salt of the Earth restaurant and also will be selling greens to Tasa D’Oro, Spoon and Park Bruges.

Churchview Farm

In addition to expanding her popular line of cucumbers — a 15-inch Chinese variety called ’Suya Long’ is a favorite — Tara Rockacy, owner of Churchview Farm in Baldwin Borough, says she’s now growing 114 types of heirloom tomatoes, up from an already impressive 85 last season. Additions include ’Bread & Salt’; ’Turkish Striped Monastery,’ a small, red and gold tomato grown from seeds saved by Pittsburgh urban farming pioneer Barb Kline; and the highly productive, sweet-sounding ’Chocolate Pear.’

Although Ms. Rockacy says that heirloom tomatoes are her passion, she confessed she recently succumbed to an “unhealthy addiction to heirloom peppers, too.” So look for ’Agi Dulce,’ a New World pepper that has the same floral notes of a habanero without the scorching heat; ’Doux D’Espagne,’ a sweet frying pepper also known as ’Spanish Mammoth’; and ’Beaver Dam,’ a wildcard pepper that can either be hot or mild. You won’t know until you taste them.

She says that this year she’s experimenting with succession and companion plantings. Planting radishes before cucurbits, for example, creates a dual use space and therefore a larger harvest; plus, the radish seeds repel cucumber beetles. The expanded farm dinner series (17, up from 11 last year) is an opportunity for the public to enjoy the farm’s produce, and an opportunity for her and her crew to add a touch of beauty to the landscape.

“Because of all the events we do here I have to think about the aesthetics of the farm,” she says. “I’m planting companion plants that are pleasing to the eye.”

Amaranth, the ancient pseudocereal with dramatic tassels of colorful flowers, is a terrific companion to the humble potato plant. And a field of sunflowers surrounding a tomato patch goes beyond simply adding to the rainbow; the flowers attract stink bugs, so they can be picked and killed before they reach the tomatoes.

For the first time, the farm is jumping into selling produce at a market stand; they’ll be vending on Fridays at the Pittsburgh Public Market. They also sell produce to E2, Dish Osteria, Root 174, All In Good Taste Productions, Independent Brewing Co., Crested Duck Charcuterie, Casbah, Spoon, Grit & Grace and Stagioni. Although the CSA subscriptions are sold-out for the season, Ms. Rockacy says she often can accept direct orders via email.

Who Cooks for You Farm

Chris Brittenburg, who owns New Bethlehem’s Who Cooks For You Farm with his wife, Aeros Lillstrom, said doubling the production area last season was a step in the right direction toward growing the couple’s Certified Naturally Grown operation, but it took last year to figure out what grew best in each field. That, combined with an all-out attack from an army of strawberry-eating voles and other pest pressure, resulted in a smaller-than-planned harvest last season. “I’m expecting a much better season this year. We have really strong systems in place and an experienced farm crew,” he said.

“We’re not jumping into growing a bunch of new things that people aren’t necessarily familiar with this year,” he added. However,  “We do try to encourage people to try some stuff like chicory and dandelion that we know is good for them.”

They want customers to experiment with the familiar by trying unfamiliar varieties -- say, of cucumbers, even if they look different than cucumbers “should.” Even if unusual varieties don’t produce and sell as well, “we still think it’s important to grow these because it makes eating interesting.”

The farmers are hoping their innovative “market CSA” encourages frequent visits to them at farmers markets. Just like with a traditional CSA, members buy in at the beginning of the season. However, instead of receiving a weekly box of pre-selected produce, members can choose what they want at the markets (including small-batch crops only available to members). Ms. Lillstrom says, “We get to know what they like and what they don’t like, and can farm better for them,” said Ms. Lillstrom.

Find the farm at East Liberty (Monday), Monroeville (Saturday, new this year) and Squirrel Hill (Sunday, also new this year) farmers markets. The farm also has a special relationship with Legume Bistro and will supply some produce to Bar Marco.

Hal B. Klein: thismanskitchen@gmail.com.


Hot Topic