Growing for the gourmet market
Stratham, N.H. — WHAT vegetables would you grow to please New Englanders? Accouterments for boiled dinner, perhaps - potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. Beets for red flannel hash and shell beans for succotash. Well, isn't that the way we like to think of New England - traditional and unchanging? At the farmer's market in Portsmouth, N.H., an urban type walked up to the Wake Robin Farm stall and said, ``Goddany arugula?'' in that knowing voice of the world-weary gourmet who is among the provincials.
``Of course, but I haven't had time to get it out yet,'' Marsha Wiggin told him. She also had radicchio and five kinds of lettuce, and the usual tomatoes and eggplant, but among the green and red peppers were yellow and chocolate brown ones.
These are the vegetables that please new New England cooks these days, and according to Marsha and Robert Wiggin, who own Wake Robin Farm in Stratham, N.H., the switch is due to the nation's growing awareness of freshness.
``Even sweet corn wasn't selling last year,'' Mr. Wiggin said. ``You'd see farmers putting bushels of it back on their trucks. No one wants the calories any more, nor all that melted butter.''
(Less sweet corn? That hurts a little, I thought.)
The Wiggins are a handsome couple whose personal tastes go right along with their customers. All of that cream and butter that is supposed to typify the American farmers' diet seldom makes it to their kitchen in any form but cheese. And Mrs. Wiggin is apt to get a little tight-lipped about white bread.
``Once we raised lamb and pork for the table,'' she said, ``even smoked our own bacon and hams. But now we eat fish twice a week, legumes, and pasta. And vegetables, of course.''
A generous portion of leeks and peppers are grown just for the Wiggins and their two daughters to be sliced in the food processor, bagged, and frozen for winter menus.
Everybody in the country is ready for an upbeat story about the American farm. Last year the media were full of good news about the Northeast. Young, bright-faced farm workers bustled about in the TV news show segments, their arms loaded with lettuces and their harvest baskets piled high with tiny green and yellow zucchini. The message was freshness and a big enough local market for the farmers to make a good profit.
Bob, who is tall and generously bearded, smiles ruefully. ``You aren't in this business to make money. We're farming because we love it.''
One Wiggin or another has been farming in Stratham for 12 generations. For years, Bob and Marsha managed his father's 250-acre vegetable farm, but they wanted to embark on their own adventure. Now the old Wiggin cabbage and potato fields are full of houses, and the young Wiggins have a 25-acre patch up the same country road.
When they bought the land it was uncleared, which meant they started from absolute scratch.
``We knew from the beginning that we would farm the land ourselves,'' Bob said, ``clearing and planting as we went.''
``Farm help does not exist,'' Marsha said. ``We tried to get some of the neighboring teen-agers to work, but their allowances from their parents or wages from fast-food restaurants were higher than we could pay.''
So they are going it alone, using ingenuity to replace the extra hands. A writer in American Agriculturist magazine called them ``life style farmers'' which involves much more than putting seed in the ground and watching it grow.
Two years ago, Bob began experimenting with a floating row cover, a light-weight white plastic stretched over a frame to protect the plants.
``It was designed to use in spring and fall to keep the heat in and extend the growing season,''he explains, ``but we are using it throughout the growing year ... not just for heat, but to keep out the black flies and cabbage work butterflies that lay eggs and ultimately devastate the crop. It also reduces the need for pesticides.''
Miles of black plastic mulch also cut down the care by controlling weeds. The results at Wake Robin Farm have been so dramatic that the faculty of the University of New Hampshire agriculture school check in regularly. Recently, the manufacturer of the row cover awarded Bob $1,000 for his inventiveness.
Every facet of the farm is their own creation. Bob designed and built the house and outbuildings, which are a more compact version of the rambling New England farmhouse. The wood is stained a warm gray-brown that eases into the landscape pleasantly and naturally.
Every board, every foot of molding, every post that holds up the porch roof is from logs that were cut down to clear the farm and sent off to the saw mill. Those trees do more. Both the house and the greenhouse are heated with a wood stove.
This will be the third year with Wake Robin Farm going full tilt. Steady customers are increasing, arriving with the parsnips that are dug in late March and April. They are the Wiggins' favorite vegetable. ``Even the dog likes them,'' Marsha said. ``You can't leave them unguarded in the kichen or he'll take them for his own.''
Growing perfect vegetables is one thing, but marketing them successfully is another. Marsha takes the harvest to four local farm markets scheduled on different days - Hampton, Exeter, Durham, and Portsmouth.
``I have two huge plastic boxes that I line with cracked ice and pack with the lettuces and greens. By noon they're still crisp and perky.''
Kale and daikon were originally planted for a health food store, but now they both goes along to market. ``Kohlrabi has become so popular, we can't plant enough of it,'' Marsha said. ``Some people buy the small ones and walk around the market eating them like apples.''
The Wiggin living room has a beamed ceiling thickly hung with bunches of dried flowers. The walls are studded with Marsha's chubby wreaths of baby's breath and spiky statice. Old, lovingly refinished furniture gleams richly in every room. The cat is friendly, the parsnip-eating dog asleep. Life is rewarding.
But what about the New England boiled dinner? Certainly something can be done. After all, food writers come back from France with new recipes for cassoulet - that too-sturdy dish of white beans, lamb, and confit of goose.
Boiled dinner might taste great with cod instead of corned beef, some kohlrabi to replace the cabbage, and a handful of very young spinach thrown in at the last minute. You might not be able to turn the leftovers into red flannel hash the next day, but what's wrong with a a new twist on an old favorite?