Touted as a “squash rock star” by Laura Matthews on her blog, Punk Rock Gardens, Tom Culton, 30, has not only appeared on the David Letterman show but he has participated in Sotheby’s “The Art of Farming” auction along with the gracious-living guru Martha Stewart. He has been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Bon Appetit magazine. He supplies his heirloom and other weird-looking vegetables to local upscale restaurants such as Vetri, Zahav, and The Farm and Fisherman in Philadelphia (the latter recently garnered a three-bell rating from the Inquirer’s food critic, Craig LaBan) and to celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud in New York City.
What the other media interviews do not mention is that Tom is a devoted member of the River Brethen Church, one of only two remaining Old-Order Mennonite communities in Lancaster and in New Paltz in upstate New York. Members of his family have been living in Lancaster County since 1740, but several generations back they were dissatisfied by the leadership and dropped out. Tom is the first one in his family to return to his ancestral faith. According to Wikipedia, the River Brethren oppose war, alcohol, tobacco, and worldly pleasures. They also observe the Sabbath– on Saturdays, like the Jews– in which they do not work. Tom scatters extra grain for his chickens before the Sabbath, just as manna fell in double portion for the Jews in the desert.
Tom grew up farming but it was in his teens that he understood “it’s one of the most important roles” he could have in the world. After his mother’s death in 2001, he found solace in farming– nurturing something while Nature nurtures him in return. ”Growing food is one of the beautiful things in the world, even when it can be a dark place,” said Tom. His mother bequeathed to him the ancestral home (his father had left them when Tom was only three days old), and Tom ventured to turn his family farm– previous crops had been tobacco and carrots– to a more sustainable future. His grandfather, now 81, has come to see the folly of his post-war generation relying on chemicals without regard for the environmental impact.
Faith is a very important factor in Tom’s life. It gives focus, strength, and understanding. He “doesn’t look for answers in man-made solutions, but in God’s solutions.” The farming life is so insecure, affected by unpredictable weather conditions and capricious market prices. Farmers can easily lose faith in the face of difficulties but Tom turns to prayer during the sad times (deaths and relationship woes), crops failures, and husbandry diseases.
It is in church on the Sabbath that Tom feels embraced as a farmer. In fact, his fellow church members are all farmers, but he is the only organic one– and the one with the highest yield from his land. Once a contractor for a fellow church member ventured to drive his truck through Tom’s land– with its access road that “would have saved him $5 in gasoline” costs– but Tom saw the guy in time and ran to block access, standing him off “like the student protestors in Tiananmen Square (China).” He was cursed roundly for his unneighborly action, but the unheeded drips from the guy’s pesticide-laden truck (and the wheels) could have cost Tom his organic certification or at least incur a hefty fine.
Tom has tremendous respect for the elderly and the ways of old. His grandfather lives with him. The senior Culton is not enamored of speaking to outsiders but he enjoys puttering on the farm. He also cultivates his own saffron plot– for his favorite rice dishes– a therapeutic crop requiring a labor-intensive harvest of the stamens. Respect for the elderly was also demonstrated by his church when their Bishop suffered a stroke. To maintain his dignity, he and his wife were sent to a remote farm (away from bustling Lancaster) owned by a church member to live out his days in pastoral peace. Ancestral ties are maintained through family burial plots on his property, a right protected by his church. In another affirmation of tradition, Tom is refurbishing his family’s buggy, which he plans to use on his wedding day when he meets the lucky gal who cherishes a farming life. The River Brethren were among the last of the Mennonites to give up their buggies.
Organic farming can give comparable or better yields than conventional agriculture but it does demand much more labor. Tom grows alfalfa, which is dicey to grow without pesticides, as feed for his dairy goats and as a cash commodity as well as a cover crop for fixing nitrogen (a natural alternative to petroleum-based fertilizers). Every five years (in contrast to the seven years between Shmittah (Hebrew for “release”) years in the Jewish tradition), he takes out his alfalfa and rotates his crops in the fields. He has located a French company that uses certified non-GMO (genetically modified organism) corn to produce biodegradable plastic for agricultural purposes. It’s much more expensive, priced at $400 for 5,000 square feet versus $89 for the conventionally produced plastic. Tom has seen farmers take the lazy way and simply plow the regular plastic under their land, where it doesn’t ever completely degrade but which does chip off and get into our food and water supply.
How did he learn to farm the organic way? When he began farming seriously, it was already in his DNA. So, he did not read much, because it was really just common sense. ”You go with your heart” and do what is only sustainable for your land. It has become a “very religious experience” to come to realize that modern research has confirmed his wholehearted experience on the farm. Tom recently got his first computer and was able to search on the Internet for the correct spelling of the Red Piriform tomato (with ribbed shoulders) that was previously thought to only grow in the Ligura region of Italy but which Tom has succeeded in cultivating and supplying to his chef friends. On Tom’s kitchen table is a bobble-head figure of Mark McGwire, the discredited baseball player who admitted to steroid use last year, to remind himself that people still prize natural talent– and by extension, natural food– without chemical enhancements.
Tom has one high-top (plastic-covered tent) greenhouse without any heating source and one that is heated by waste oil, processed by him (centrifuged to remove impurities) on his land. He collects the oil from the area restaurants, which pay him to take the waste oil off their hands.
This year, Tom has the assistance of Matthew Yoder, recently returned from a stint in Maine and newly adopted into the River Brethren faith, and Ian Osborne, an “English” young man not of the faith– just as Jews might distinguish between themselves and the goyim (Gentiles). Matthew brought his knowledge of crops that thrive in New England and the two of them have planted heavily on the 53 acres of the Culton Organics farm. What are his favorite crops? Fava beans– or just about any bean– and artichokes with its purply, thistly flowers.
Tom’s plans for next year comprise of a reduced reliance on produce and the introduction of ducks and geese (for the eggs and meat). His farm now supports 15 chickens (only two of which are now mature enough to lay eggs daily), a small flock of goats, and one turkey. Most of the goats are milk-producing animals, but one lone billy goat was allowed to retain his horns and escape castration (which adversely affects the taste of the meat). Why was this one chosen for the sacrifice (his eventual slaughter)? He was the mean one of the flock.
Tom and his friend, Michael Solomonov, the chef at Zahav and a recent winner of the prestigious James Beard award, plan to tour Israel together. Does he wish to see the Christian religious sites? No, he is willing to follow Michael’s lead; besides he is more interested in seeing the Jewish historical sites.
You could taste the delicious dishes made from the heirloom vegetables from Culton Organics at area restaurants and you may meet Tom and Matt on Sundays at the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market (open from 10 am to 2 pm at Second and Pine Streets). Be sure to bring your smile or he’ll charge you double.