Farming the Biblical Way

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.

Michael Solomonov and a Sustainable Lag B’Omer on the “Beach”

Medford, New Jersey is the home of the largest Jewish day camp in North America (according to the Wikipedia) and that was the venue for Hazon‘s “Beach, Beer and BBQ” celebration of the holiday of Lag B’Omer on Sunday, May 22nd.  Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day — lag being the gematria for (numeric equivalent) of 33 — of the counting of the barley offerings (the quantity being an omer, about two quarts)  in the ancient Temple, commencing with the second day of Pesach (Passover) and culminating with the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.  Traditionally, it is celebrated in Israel with bonfires.  As observed by the Chassidim, the bonfires commemorate “the immense light that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai introduced into the world via his mystical teachings. This was especially true on the day of his passing, Lag B’Omer, when he revealed to his disciples secrets of the Torah whose profundity and intensity the world had yet to experience. The Zohar relates that the house was filled with fire and intense light, to the point that the assembled could not approach or even look at Rabbi Shimon.”  For everyone else, it is a joy simply to be outdoors.  For Hazon, it was an opportunity to link a ancient holiday to a celebration of the trendy– and important!-goals of a sustainable future.

I was eager to attend because Michael Solomonov, the chef and owner of the Philly restaurant Zahav was scheduled to serve as chef for the event.  Earlier this month, he’d won the prestigious James Beard Award as Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic region (and one of three Jewish chefs to be so honored this year).  Last Wednesday, the Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan invited Michael to his Live Chat feature.  LaBan chatted with Michael Solomonov  and I got to post my comments to him: “I’m looking forward to the Hazon event that you’ll be “cheffing” for this Sunday.  One reason is that your restaurant, Zahav, is not kosher!  I want to be able to eat your food too!  Was your nuclear family (parents, siblings) ever kosher?”  Michael wrote back: “I grew up in a kosher-esque household so we didn’t eat pork or shellfish in the house.  We did, however, turn into bacon zombies the moment we stepped OUT of the house.  Seriously, if “kashruting” our restaurant wasn’t such a “balagan” in the States, we might have considered it more.  But my mission is to expose and celebrate Israeli food, in its entirety, and we would seriously limit our reach if we were kosher.  We don’t serve shellfish or pork or mix dairy and meat on any plate, so we call it “kosher style”.”  My 22-year-old daughter who is usually critical of “kosher-style” catering later commended Michael for his response.  Upon meeting the Chef that evening and identifying myself, he said that I was much nicer than some of the other posters who did not pass censure or decency for their comments.  So, I was all agog to go and I’d signed up my husband as driver and our teen daughter.

The JCC Camp in Medford has plenty of sand for the “Beach” as advertised.  It occupies 120 acres in Burlington County in southern New Jersey and it boasts of a lake too.  A small fair of vendors offering organic and sustainably sourced products kept us engaged until supper time.  I greeted Toni Price, whom I’d seen earlier in the day at Headhouse Square, the largest farmers’ market in Philadelphia.  Toni is a retired English teacher whose husband, Steve, is the chief beekeeper for their Busy Bee Farm located in the nearby Pine Barrens in Tabernacle, N.J.  Last year, their farm was awarded a Pollinator Habitat Grant from the New Jersey National Resource Conservation Service and the USDA.  As a Master Gardener of Burlington County, Toni handles the care and use of the farm’s lavender and other herbs, as well as her flock of free-range pet chickens. She invited my family to visit on lavender harvesting days.

Negev Nectars was also on hand to offer taste tests of their gourmet products from small-scale Israeli farmers.   Their olive oil comes from trees nourished from an underground aquifer of brackish (salty) water- sparing the scarce “sweet” water from Lake Kinneret for human consumption.  I bought several jars of their kosher confitures, spreads, and honey for use as hostess gifts, in particular the items from Kibbutz Neot Smadar, since my husband’s sister is named Smadar.

Jack Treatman, Coffee Buyer and Vice President of Old City Coffee was on hand to explain how their coffee was harvested and culled by hand, with colorful photographs to illustrate his point.  The coffee beans, really the seeds of the plants’ “cherries”, are then raked into fields that resemble sand for drying.  The kosher certification comes at the point of roasting and Jack says that the only reason Old City Coffee is not certified is that its store in the Reading Terminal Market is open on Saturdays.

So, the BBQ dinner!  Michael’s food was a celebration of the flavors of Israel, executed with a modern flair and a gourmet spin.  I loved everything, especially the roasted cauliflower (even my non-crucifer-loving hubby enjoyed it!) and the grilled eggplant.  I cannot report on the meat– chicken shislik and chicken cooked al ha’esh from Grow and Behold Foods — which I didn’t eat because I’m a vegan-wannabe.   Dessert was s’mores made with marshmallows toasted on sticks over a real honest-to-goodness bonfire and chocolate from Holy Cacao,  which is made in small batches by observant Jews on the hills of Hebron “at the edge of the Judean Desert” in Israel.  Electric Simcha’s http://www.facebook.com/Electr… Hasidic rock music and Israeli dancing added to the ruach (lively atmosphere).  I was so inspired by the whole celebration that I volunteered to work on the next Hazon event in Philly, especially if it involved Michael Solomonov.  And I’m happily married!