It's hard to believe that people walk into Patti Popp's farm stand at Sport Hill Farm (SHF) and say there's slim pickins'. But they do. It's one of the frustrating things local farmers deal with — customers so used to supermarket produce, they can't see the arugula for the fields. They're miffed there's no corn in June.
Well it's September now and the corn kernels are sweet and tender. Sport Hill Farm's market bins in Easton are filled with corn, cucumbers, cantaloupe and cabbage, peppers of red, orange and green hues, plums, peaches, apples and tomatoes in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. And one of the best potato crops in years. SHF planted seven varieties. Now, they're harvesting Kennebec. Purple potatoes will be dug up soon.
That some farm stands carry corn in June (they buy it), is a topic that gets Popp fuming. Sport Hill Farm grows most of the produce it sells. Any supplemental items — like stone fruits or apples — are clearly labeled from Connecticut or New York state farms. SHF sells eggs from their free-range (and frequently escaping) chickens, as well as local artisan products, like breads, bacon, honey, milk, cheese and yogurt.
Sport Hill Farm is more than a market. It's the center of a community of people who care deeply about the range of issues embodied in food — beyond the trendiness of TV cooking programs and celebrity chefs to issues of health, environment, treatment of animals, and creating a local sustainable economy. SHF runs a popular weekly community-supported agriculture program — which is not without its headaches. That seasonality issue again. People are spoiled. They want corn in June. Damn it, it must be in season in some part of the world.
SHF's produce is served in eight local restaurants, including The Whelk and the Dressing Room in Westport and Bar Sugo and Oak and Almond in Norwalk. Driving out to the farm in Easton is an investment of time for a busy chef. Westport Farmer's Market makes it easier. "A lot of chefs come to the farmer's market," said Popp. Westport Farmers Market runs through Nov. 7, Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Popp says there's an understanding between chefs and farmers. "Family farms and restaurants are both small businesses. People who come to the market are putting money back into the community. It keeps Connecticut more sustainable."
On a recent Thursday, chef Geoff Lazlo of The Whelk was drawn by Sport Hill Farm's cantaloupes. Inspiration for a special? "I don't know what I'll do with it," he said, "I'll take it back and play with it." He thought of eggplant, also in season. "Maybe roasted, serve it with burrata, some honey and chili," he said, imagining the sweet, juicy cantaloupe, smoky soft eggplant, creamy rich burrata, with a touch of sweet and heat.
At the demo tent, Barteca Restaurant Group's regional chef Scott Rabedeau grabbed some stuff from Sport Hill Farm's stand — chard, corn, tomatoes — and sautéed batches of it to fill tacos. He offered free tacos with Bartaco's hot sauces. Bartaco has locations in Stamford, West Hartford, Westport and Port Chester.
Also at the demo booth was Farah Masani of Farah's Farm in Wilton. She works as a local food sourcer for Barteca, and she is a farmer by trade. She tilled the soil at Millstone Farm in Wilton for four years before starting her own farm. Originally from India, Masani is in her second year of production at Farah's Farm. "I have four acres," she said. She practices what she calls "satellite farming." In addition to the three acres she lives on, she leases an acre in Fairfield. "I turned a gentleman's backyard into a farm," she said. She also has 50 chickens and 10 ducks.
Masani is proud of her farming model. "I have no employees," she says, "I have farm camps and volunteers. They work and learn and earn a share of the produce. And I am teaching them how to grow." Masani sells her produce to Barcelona, the Whelk, Le Farm, Bistro 7 in Wilton, and Oak and Almond in Norwalk.
Oak and Almond's Kitchen Sink Salad features local produce, an ever-changing seasonal chopped salad. Local Swiss chard is served with the organic chicken. Popp, who works 15 hours a day, even after recovering from a brain aneurysm, has been to several of the restaurants that use her produce. Do any dishes stand out in her memory? "Any restaurant that takes the time and staff to source locally is excellent," she said. "There's a huge difference in the quality when you're using fresh, local vegetables. I can't go to a regular restaurant anymore."
Sport Hill Farm Stand, 596 Sport Hill Road., Easton, sporthillfarm.com
Westport Farmers Market, 50 Imperial Ave., Westport, Thursday 10 to 2, until Nov. 7.