Grow something special, and they will come.
You could say that farmers Josh and Jean Jennings know their beans. On their 150-acre Meadow's Mirth Farm in a suburban area of Stratham, the couple and a few employees cultivate 10 acres of produce - offering their goods to local restaurants and the public at the Seacoast Farmers Market and the Exeter Farmers Market. At their booth, you will find all the usual seasonal vegetables plus a nice selection of heirloom tomatoes and heirloom beans - all organically grown.
The beans are a specialty crop for the couple. "They are not a great money maker for us because the harvesting is done basically by hand," says Josh. The plants are pulled in August and September after they have dried on the vine.After drying for an additional day, they are threshed with a couple of sticks fashioned by Josh from a photograph of early American tools. The beating separates the beans from the pods. The plants are then winnowed by a big fan that blows the chaff away, leaving the precious beans.
Jean loves how the heirloom varieties look like "little jewels." "The flavor of these beans is incomparable, " says Josh. Fresh dried beans may seem like an oxymoron, but he explains that most beans in the supermarket could be two or three years old. Besides, when the beans are in their full bounty, he brings them to market in their pods before they are dried. These "shell beans" cook faster and have the most flavor. Jean plants several heirloom varieties each season and many have historical ties to the region.
The True Red Cranberry bean they are growing this year was popular in the backwoods of Maine. They were prepared by camp cooks and delivered to loggers via a river raft. The beans were slow-cooked in a "bean hole," a rock-lined fire pit, in a method the cooks probably learned from Native Americans. Though not quite as round as a cranberry, this bean has the same deep red hue. Closer to home, the Jacob Cattle bean was found stored in the walls at Strawbery Banke. These heirloom varieties caught the eye of Evan Mallet, chef/owner of the Black Trumpet Bistro in Portsmouth.
Mallett is enthusiastic about saving heirloom varieties of all types of produce. Last March he hosted a meeting with local farmers as part of the Chefs Collaborative, an organization of chefs that supports sustainable agriculture and makes connections to like-minded farmers. At the meeting, he made his requests for specific heirloom varieties to be grown, and sent the farmers off with bags of seeds as part of Slow Food's RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) Grow-Out program. The Jennings left with the True Red Cranberry bean for Mallett to feature on his menu later in August and September.
Many of the heirloom seeds were purchased from Seed Savers Exchange, an organization in Iowa dedicated to preserving heirloom varieties of all types of produce. Mallet and other area chefs purchase the harvested beans and vegetables from Jennings to create side dishes with a unique depth of flavor. It's a bonus that the beans and other heirloom vegetable varieties are saved from obscurity, plus they have become a sought-after commodity at the local farmers market.
Josh is a thirty-something college graduate who fell into farming because "it resonated with all that I believe." The farm's Web site, meadowsmirth.com has a quote from Thoreau that pretty much sums up the couple's attitude: "Live in each season as it passes, breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of each." But as farmers whose lives are at the mercy of the seasons, I imagine they work a lot harder than Thoreau ever did.
Meadow's Mirth Farm is leased by the Jennings from the owner of Berry Hill Farm next door. Both were recognized by the state as a Farm of Distinction a number of years ago. The award is given to farms that add to the scenic quality of the state by being, in a word, pretty. As a leasee Jennings did not have to put up a huge amount of capital to get things going. He also has access to tractors for tilling and cultivating. Like any good business planner, Josh has prepared the fields for things he can and cannot control and is able to keep cash flowing year-round.
This spring there was plenty of precipitation but little sun. Josh says, "I plant crops that will do well in a variety of conditions. If one crop suffers, then another is bound to do well. With the cool early summer, our lettuces and peas had an extended season, but it took a bit longer to get ripe tomatoes."
Each farm on the Seacoast and each parcel within that farm has its own localized soil conditions. Josh says you have to learn about your land and adapt to its needs. You learn pretty quickly what grows well where - that is why all the different farms have different specialties. If Josh has a problem in the fields he knows where to go - older farmers have seen it or done it all before. "The farming community is pretty tight on the Seacoast, and I have learned a lot from more seasoned farmers," he says.
The August harvest tests the couple's mettle: "It's hot, it's humid and we keep going hauling in thousands and thousands of pounds of carrots and potatoes. And after coming off of four or five months without two days off in a row, our bodies are lean . we don't have much more to give. We are lucky if we can grunt to each other at the end of the day." But the fall harvest is not the end of the season or the cash flow.
"We started the Winter Markets in Portsmouth last year and this year have planned to expand the concept to almost one a week," he says. The Jennings store their root crops and offer them for sale to chefs and at the markets year-round, in addition to greenhouse-grown produce in a trade deal with a nearby farm.
In addition, Meadow's Mirth Farm offers a few CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) opportunities for those who wish to share in the bounty of the season. Members pay up front for a weekly "share" of vegetables to come later in the season.
Being a farmer is hard work and not extremely profitable, but Josh and Jean believe in what they are doing. "New Hampshire feeding New Hampshire, that is what it is all about," Josh says. He is also an active member of Seacoast Eat Local, a board member of the Seacoast Growers Association and director of the Exeter Farmers Market to boot.
Thankfully, the ball is rolling on its own now - the public has found farmers like the Jennings all around the state. He says he doesn't have to worry as much about constantly marketing the farm. "Demand has taken off. In spite of the economy, people are still looking for good local food," he says.
As for the joys of farming, Jennings says, "I am happy not to be stuck in an office, but every year is a new experiment. You never see the same thing twice. In the end you have to be adaptable and have a lot of hope."
Here's hoping that the sun will shine and the rain will fall and the produce will get to market for all our local farmers. With organic vegetables appearing to be the cure for everything from diabetes to heart disease to belly fat, it's time to get out the cutting board and really enjoy what the season brings.
This article appears in the August 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine