Monday, June 20, 2011

Monday Farm Tour, Pt. 1: Black Dog Farm

Monday morning, Annie comes knocking on our door a full three hours earlier than we'd expected. I'm still lying in bed browsing through the day's news, but she's right to come early: when the day's agenda involves visiting five different working farms, you want to get there before the sun gets too hot. I jump in the shower, fill up a Mason jar with coffee, and Melissa and I pile into Annie's car to hit the road. She wants to introduce us to the places and people that provide the restaurant's ingredients...and at a restaurant where its central philosophy is that good ingredients are the basis of good food, I want to get the backstory behind what we're cooking.

Our first stop, as we sipped our coffees and munched on croissants, was Black Dog Farm, run by Rob and Brenda Harlow along with their son Ian and his family. Annie's known them for a very long time, and so Rob was more than happy to walk us around the property and look at his crops. They bought the farm over 20 years ago, and have kept some of the original buildings on the property. The vast space of the farm gives them more growing space, yet they can only plant as much as they can sell--to consumers, to restauranteurs, to individuals hoping to expand their home gardens. My own little window box could barely handle the size of these plants, which are available at the Saturday morning farmers' market in Eastsound.
The Inn at Ship Bay gets tons of vegetables from Black Dog, and every row of vegetables--flourishing patches of lettuce, greenhouses full of tomato plants, strawberries and peas just ripening on the vine--is enough to make my stomach growl with hunger.
Rob and Brenda are trying to grow a lot of different things, vegetables and fruits that haven't always grown well on the island. Her flower garden is lush with roses, some of which are snaking up the sides of the house, and lupines almost as tall as me.
Meanwhile Rob is still tinkering with what he can do on the farm, including shifting to a flock of free-range chickens. They're big beautiful birds, happy and clearly well-fed...
In the greenhouse, he's tinkering with growing eggplant (not easy to cultivate on Orcas), and he shows us the vines, male and female, of kiwi plants that will soon be delivering bushels of fruit.
Among the row of potted bushes and trees along the periphery of the property, Annie suddenly lunges at a plant with wide, flowery leaves. "Are these Garry Oaks?" she asks, rubbing a leaf between her fingers. Rob nods. She's giddy with enthusiasm--these trees, once widely found all over the San Juans, have been rapidly disappearing. Whether this is actually a product of sudden oak death, no one can say, but if Rob has them for purchase, that could very well mean reforestation is a possibility...
It seems like every word on a farm starts with "re-"--replanting, redeveloping, reusing. At his little farm stand out on Enchanted Forest Road, Rob's son Ian and his wife decorate the shed with old kitchen tools--though some are rusted out, they carry a gorgeous vintage patina that turns an old shed into something quite special.
Repurposing old material requires some knowledge, some ability to spot the gems in the trash heap, and sometimes just good timing. Rob managed to buy his recycled windmill from an older island farm--he showed up, piled the parts into his truck, and drove away.
As we exit the property, we stop by the farm stand, which provides fresh produce, flowers, and a few homemade goods to the community twice a week. "We're thinking about putting in a juice bar over in the corner," Rob says, and Annie immediately lights up. "You should do that! And in that giant freezer, you could keep extra stuff like pesto in your off-season." As Annie talks to Rob about maybe running off a batch to feature at the Sunday pizza special, I'm loving her enthusiasm for the possibilities that this farm presents. Her entrepreneurial side is firing when she visits these farmers, and not just because of what she could make with their produce--while I know she loves what she's doing in the kitchen, she has a big, broad vision for what she might be able to do for this island, and one of the things she's hoping for is to engage the island's entire economy in the promotion of her food. Good ingredients are part of any great dish, and what Black Dog's offering could prove essential to transforming the island...

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