Small Farmers bring new life to the Green Mountain State
It's 5 a.m. on a recent summer day and the sky is a crisp, pale, predawn blue. At a gourmet organic produce farm in Greensboro, four young people are squatting and shuffling, razors and white plastic buckets in hand, among beds of ankle-high plants. The pungent aroma of shorn arugula drifts in their wake. Compared to waist-high fields of wheat or towering stalks of corn, this crop seems Lilliputian. The beds of greens are about the width of a city sidewalk; the plants, on average, six inches tall.
Directing the foursome is a young man in brown Carhartt pants whose rumpled blonde hair spikes up like a tattered sunflower. He's Peter Johnson, 31, namesake and proprietor of Pete's Greens. Johnson's minute mesclun greens point to possibilities beyond their petite, picturesque plot. Even as Vermont's dairy farms have been shutting down at an unprecedented rate -- 77 in 2002 alone -- the number of small farms in the state has been rising over the past decade. According to Lindsey Ketchel of the Vermont Fresh Network, 97.6 percent of Vermont's agricultural enterprises are classified as "small farms." Pete's Greens illustrates the viability of small-scale farming. His business is booming -- in each of the last six years its gross income has grown by 50 percent.
Johnson's family moved to Vermont when he was 12, and his "homesteader-type" parents grew much of their own food, he says. "I pretty much always knew I was going to be a farmer." He got an early start. When he was 9, Johnson grew and sold pumpkins, with his mother's help, under the name Pete's Pumpkins. "My mom was really into me doing this kind of stuff," he recalls, "and I just happened to really like it."
Green thumbs run in the family -- Johnson's two sisters also oversee garden-oriented businesses. Anners landscapes and is becoming a partner in Pete's Greens, and Danika sells fresh flowers for weddings through her one-woman company Blomma Flicka ("Flower Girl"), also in Greensboro.
While a senior at Middlebury College, Johnson built a solar greenhouse and sold the vegetables he grew to fellow students, who dubbed the produce "Pete's greens." He liked the name, and the occupation, enough to stick with both after graduating.
Pete's Greens was started literally from scratch on a miserly acre of soil Johnson carved out of the forest on his parents' Greensboro property. After liberal applications of cow manure and silage, the same turf is now "phenomenal," he says. Johnson uses no artificial pesticides or fertilizers to keep his kale hale and his harvest hearty. Preventative methods like crop rotation keep down bugs and weeds, he explains; he hasn't had to use even organic pesticides for several years.
"Around here, 'organic' still has a bit of a hippie connotation," Johnson says. A few other local farmers have expressed reservations about chemical-free agriculture. When giving vegetables to one skeptic, he jokes, "I could spray it with Roundup if it'd make you feel better."
But, occasional misgivings aside, his neighbors have been largely supportive, selling bags of mesclun and arugula in their stores and lending him equipment. "I like to point out that 'organic' is not this weird, new thing," says Johnson. "This is how their grandfathers and fathers did things."
Organic is far more than a farming fad; these days it's the fastest-growing sector in the food industry. According to a 2002 USDA report, the market for organic has increased 20 percent each year since 1990. Pete's has more than kept up with organic trends nationwide: Now in its sixth year, Pete's has expanded from a one-man, one-acre seasonal enterprise to a year-round farm on 11 acres. The farm grows an array of produce, from standard head lettuce to the more exotic French mâche. Pete's sells a minimum of 600 pounds of greens weekly during the summer to an expanding customer base, including Burlington's City Market, Montpelier's Hunger Mountain Co-op and restaurants around the state.
A florid mix of Pete's braising greens turns up, lightly sauteed with pork, at Smokejacks in Burlington. Chef Maura O'Sullivan is supplied by about 10 farmers, many in Burlington's Intervale, but added Pete's for the specialty items. "His stuff is beautiful," she says. "It's obvious that there's a lot of care involved."
Chef-owner Carl Huber of Tanglewood's in Waterbury agrees. A self-professed "potato freak," he rattles off the spuds he gets from Pete's. "By the time stuff gets here from California, it's often a little ragged," Huber says. "Pete's produce is slightly more expensive, but there's less waste and a better chance to use it before it spoils. With Pete, what I order today comes out of the ground tonight, and I'll have here tomorrow."
Pete's Greens are also dished up as far as Boston -- at No. 9 Park Street Restaurant in Beacon Hill and Casablanca in Cam-bridge -- and at the new Joe Allen Restaurant in Ogunquit, Maine. The far-flung chefs order gourmet greens but do not like pansies in their mesclun, says Johnson, explaining, "Down there they think flowers in salads is totally '80s."
Though many premier chefs serve his produce, Johnson himself cooks rarely, and then only primitively, he says. "My idea of preparing a meal, which I do several times a day, is grabbing a handful of whatever from the walk-in cooler and eating it." Though not a vegetarian, he subsists mostly on his mesclun. "It's the single biggest perk of this work," he vows.
As he leaps from row to row in his field, Johnson identifies some of the less familiar greens to a curious observer. A bed of neon frills is golden endive. It has a sharp taste. "Bitter is in," he says. The tall, vermillion amaranth variant is wheat whose heart-shaped leaves jazz up the mesclun mix. Wild purslane has salty, aloe-like leaves with the largest amount of good-for-your-heart Omega 3 fatty acids in the vegetable kingdom.
The mâche grows in delicate, deep-green rosettes. It has a nutty flavor with a hint of lavender soap. Wrinkled cress looks like parsley and tastes like horseradish. Johnson fills a bucket with tightly furled, butter-yellow zucchini blossoms. "[The chefs] serve these fried and stuffed with cheese, I think," he offers.
Johnson grows 11 varieties of lettuce. His carrots come in five colors, including red and purple; his beets come in four. He harvests a full spectrum of round and fingerling potatoes -- so-called because they are long and narrow. These include banana and rose gold (yellow), Tom Thumb (pink-fleshed), Swedish Peanut ("a little, brown, funny-looking thing"), blue and cranberry, and purple Peruvians.
Johnson and his workers shear, pluck and uproot various vegetables with an eye towards consistency. Size matters in this market; the baby beets must only be so large, and mesclun greens cannot grow beyond certain dimensions. "You can never relax and say, 'I've got it made,'" says Johnson. "With biology, everything's always changing. The field conditions change, the environment changes, climatic conditions change... It poses a constant challenge."
Still, Johnson says, he wouldn't trade the work for anything, and that's not just lip service. Until recently, he was slated to run the farms for the Rockefeller Stone Barns Project -- an agricultural and education center with a world-class restaurant run by Blue Hill of Manhattan in Pocantico Hills, New York. When none of his workers were interested in shouldering Pete's Greens -- even at a reduced scale -- he decided to turn down the job offer.
Johnson is committed to his greens, and to the Greensboro area, for the long haul. He just bought 160 acres more farmland and is planning a trip to Europe this fall to explore more efficient organic farming methods. His central goal for the near future is to mechanize much of the cultivation that is now done by hand. Most of Johnson's workers are seasonal, and he's feeling some strain as the business grows. Increasing his profits will enable him to pay for "good, quality, long-term help" and continue to expand.
But getting bigger won't mean relocating to gentler climes, John-son promises. "I think I'd get really bored of anything predictable. In farming, there's always something there to surprise or astound you -- especially in Vermont. It's endlessly fascinating how things change."
The proliferation of small-scale agriculture here is also a reason to stay. Though it means Pete's Greens has more competition, Johnson says, "It's really kind of neat. It seems like Vermont has something big going on with small alternative ventures. I see it as a real movement."
Farming is hardly a cushy occupation, Johnson concedes, but it suits him. "What I like best, I think, is that at the end of the day I've produced something good."