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The Evolving Nature Of Farm-To-Table

When I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the ‘80s, farms were a regular part of our lives. The Garden State has a rich farming history and plenty of farm stands that we’d visit for different items. Within 30 minutes, my family could be at Larison’s Turkey Farm in Chester for bottomless turkey dinners and deep-dish turkey pot pies. My brother and I would blow bubbles through straws into the chocolate milk we bought from Wagner’s Dairy Farm in Warren. I remember taking an elementary school field trip to Geiger’s Cider Mill to learn how they made apple cider and tasting cool, fresh cider from the tap. My family would also buy apple pies from Geiger’s in the fall.

Later, after high school, my Dad and stepmother Jane relocated from Berkeley Heights to Morris Township, putting them just down Route 202 from Wightman Farms, sadly, the only farm I mention that’s still in business. That became our new go-to farm stand for pie and cider. That’s also where Jane, a longtime early childhood educator, brought kindergartners to pick apples every year. If anything, Wightman Farms has become more exciting over the years; they now offer a pumpkin slingshot and build a corn maze each fall. I’m sure my daughters would love to visit, taste and sling.

Since I became a professional food writer in 2005, farms have taken on added meaning. They’re a way to connect the dots when perusing menus or documenting dining experiences. More importantly, I’ve also enjoyed many opportunities to visit farms and vineyards as part of my food focused travels, learning why and how people grow different crops and varieties and figuring out how to differentiate between practices like organic and biodynamic. Visiting farms like Chino in Rancho Santa Fe, Windrose in Paso Robles, Ma’o on Oahu and North Arm in British Columbia have all inspired me for different reasons. I’ve also learned so much about what I eat, and seasonality, by shopping at farmers markets weekly and visiting farmers markets when I travel. It’s always fun to share seasonal fruits with my daughters while we shop and to see their genuine reactions.

Of course, when I was a boy, I simply focused on what farms could offer me to eat and drink. I wasn’t thinking about how farmers treated their animals, produce or soil.  When I look at the Larison’s Turkey Farm menu, which is still available to view online, they sure weren’t using words like “pesticide-free,” “hormone-free” or “organic” to describe their poultry. At that point, even though many farms had implemented these practices for decades (or more), these words weren’t a big part of the mainstream lexicon. The people who ran farms also might not have considered marketing catch-all words like “sustainability” that are now commonplace.

Now “regenerative” is an operative keyword. Giving more to the farm and the land than you take.

It’s no longer good enough for farms (or countries) to break even when it comes to factors like carbon footprints. With the world heating up every year due to climate change, farmers must pay more careful consideration to how they conduct business. Now “regenerative” is an operative keyword. Giving more to the farm and the land than you take. Monoculture is a death sentence for farms, equivalent to salting the earth. Simply planting cotton or corn until the crops leech the soil of nutrients is unacceptable except for the most insidious GMOs (another modern keyword). Thankfully, enterprising farmers like Sunrise Organic Farms in Solvang and Santa Rita Hills and Alma Backyard Farms in Compton and San Pedro are willing to invest the time, research and resources to diversify for the soil’s sake and to maximize longevity.

Not every farmer needs to follow the lunar calendar and bury horns full of manure from lactating cows, as biodynamic champion Rudolf Steiner proposed as part of his approach. However, it’s always possible to dig deeper, learn and do more. That applies to both farmers and consumers. After all, avocados, carrots, and chicken wings don’t magically appear on store shelves or at farmers market stalls.