Last week I visited three of the 20 Amish farms that comprise the Path Valley Farms collective, serving nearly 60 DC restaurants. In this enchanting place food is grown by those who ride in buggies to serve the needs of customers who travel by jets.
One gets the sense travelers seldom visit the 2-3 mile wide valley of farmland rolling and undulating between long blue gray ranges, 100 miles west of the touristed trails of the Lancaster Pennsylvania Amish. The farms of Path Valley thrive along a former Indian trail. I found Path Valley human sized (as opposed to outer worldly like the Grand Canyon), cradled within the arms of the soft hills.
Katie Joynt manages the collective for the growers. She took me on the tour and explained the logistics of this remarkable organization.
Every January a planning meeting takes place where several things are decided. A new collective board leadership is voted in and commitment sheets are filled out - a page of what the farmer plans on growing for the season. Joynt checks these sheets and ensures there is a wide variety of produce offered as well as not just one person growing carrots, "to spread the risk."
In April the delivery goes from once a week to twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, and this is how it works. As produce is collected on Monday Joynt receives individual sheets from the 20 growers with what they feel they could harvest that week - 3 pounds of carrots, 9 pounds of kale, 10 pounds of potatoes, etc. Tuesday evening she compiles all of those individual sheets into a comprehensive availability list that she emails out to her list of DC restauranteurs.
Chefs have until Thursday at 10 am to respond with their order. "I get contacted at all hours," says Joynt with a smile. Restaurant orders are broken down into individual orders for farmers. Thursday at 8 am the farmers call her and again at 12 pm so they can start picking and preparing the produce for collection. (*A small pause here is necessary: Path Valley Farms picks to order, that means the english peas you are eating at Sonoma on Saturday were picked on Thursday afternoon, that is very unusual.*) The produce is all brought to a cooler dock where the individual pickings are then reshuffled into the restaurant orders. By 4 am Friday morning all is complete and a truck with two volunteers heads to DC to drop off the freshly picked vegetables to discerning restaurants.
When I asked Joynt about growing practices she says that working with Path Valley is often in addition to the many other enterprises the farmer's family might be involved in. Therefore, many families choose not to go through the tedious process of becoming certified organic. They do grow using organic practices. The fertilizers and pesticides they use are those that are allowed by organic standards. It is a practical approach that allows a variety of growers to participate instead of just those who can afford the certification process. The co-op welcomes the great-grandmother who sends just a few pounds of okra per week as well as those who send fifty pounds.
Driving around to visit the three farms I received an education in not just the care and the love with which plants were tended, but also a slice of human existence so very different from my own. For example, my lifestyle is "English" and, though politeness dictated an attempt, it was clear that me describing a "blog" or Real Time Farm's "farm-linked menu" where you "scroll" over items with a "mouse" didn't work.
I sampled my first fresh gooseberry on a hilltop with Mary - "I feel on top of the world up here."
I tasted a late season strawberry as Eli, gesturing to his neat 18 inch rows, gave me a strawberry lesson - "Some people want a nice wide row and I don't like it. I like it like this ... because I want that ventilation. If I don't have ventilation, I have trouble. If I have one thing on that leaf there [he pulls up a leaf with some brown gray spots] it will just keep growing ... if it never dries out the water actually spreads it. That is why I like my wind ... I like my wind flowing through there. You see a strawberries worst enemy is itself. It can't be crowded."
Finally I toured a greenhouse complex with Nancy. She showed me microgreens being grown with the aid of pipes warmed during the winter by a stove that takes "about 70 bundles, maybe 80" of cut wood to help warm the tender shoots. "You could put up your bed in here if you wanted to," she laughed as she pointed to the cavernous soot filled space inside the stove.
I reluctantly tore myself away from the warm hospitality and kindness of Joynt and the farmers and followed the route the produce takes to feed Washington DC restaurants. 120 miles and 2 1/2 hours later I turned off the expressway, and went inside to the televisions, computers, lamps, refrigerator, stove, and microwave - to sit and savor a perfectly ripe watermelon grown with love from Path Valley Farms.