Farm to Table: A Farmer's Perspective
Issue   |   Wed, 09/11/2013 - 00:30
Image courtesy of bookandplowfarm.com
The College’s own Book and Plow farm, which made its first harvests this past summer, provides produce to Valentine Dining and local restaurants.

I started my mornings around 7:15 this summer and with the hottest shower I could achieve in Newport House. While others might have found this heat to be excessive during a muggy Massachusetts summer in a college dorm without air conditioning, I needed it. As the heat rolled down my body, I stretched, preparing my muscles for another day chock full of physical labor at Book and Plow farm.

I love working at Book and Plow. The physical labor is satisfying and the company we keep is fantastic. While clearing beds of weeds, I can have social hour with some of my closest friends. We bond over shared experiences, discuss issues in our lives and are unable to keep secrets while working together for eight hours a day. If I happen to be working on the tractor, I find the isolation comforting because it allows me to reflect upon my life and my actions. Some of the jobs we do may be absolutely wretched, like loading rotting straw bales onto a hay wagon during a cold rain, but I still feel accomplished and look back upon the worst of experiences with the satisfaction of knowing that I may have hated life during that period but that it was worth it. After all, Pete and Tobin, the official farmhands, suffered through all the pain with me.

On harvest days, we brought a different energy to the job. Each of us arrived with goofy smiles, giddy laughs and the anticipation of a fabulous morning. We were not going to spend four hours on our hands and knees weeding hidden carrots or walking about under a blistering sun as we picked rocks from a dusty, stale field. We were going to harvest food and possibly have some new faces on the farm as friends of Book and Plow arrived to help harvest the fruits of our labor. You have to understand that new faces are as exciting as surprise coffee and doughnut deliveries. As much as we love each other, we delight in having new faces on the farm to add spice to our conversations. The extra help is always appreciated.

Thus, harvest days are awesome. We have new faces and good food and happy people, and on one particular harvest day, we had a treat. I do enjoy harvesting kale and collards, as this is easy and fun; I like picking tomatoes and pulling carrots; I’m a bit wary about cutting herbs, having filleted my finger with a harvest knife during my first harvest of basil. But throughout the entire season, I had been watching the melons grow and grow, without ever appearing to mature and be ready to eat. Again and again, Pete and Tobin told me they just weren’t ready. At one point, we tried a watermelon only to quickly learn that the immature fruits are rough — it’s like having a full piece of the awkward pale pink meat next to the rind.
However, on this particular harvest day, Tobin said the cantaloupes were ready. READY. We swept through the bed, chucking any that had rotted due to the rain, sorting the ripe ones into two piles — ones to be donated to a food drive and ones to head off to Arise, a restaurant in town.

At the end, we shared a few victory cantaloupes, and I rejoiced in the sweetness of the tender flesh. Having had perfectly ripened cantaloupe fresh from the vine, I have to say that there is no going back. I could say this for any piece of produce, but I do think it is particularly pertinent to say this for cantaloupe because so often we find ourselves half heartedly sampling frigid, slimy pieces of the melon that do not have half the flavor or sugar of Book and Plow’s.
Mid bite, I exclaimed in excitement as my mind raced with ideas for that evening. We could go to Arise and savor more of this delicious cantaloupe at a restaurant! While I am always ecstatic to eat Book and Plow produce at Valentine Hall, I found myself drawn to the idea of consuming our harvest in town, where people besides Amherst students and faculty also dine.
Nine hours later, my friends and I gathered around one of the candlelit tables outside Arise. Jim, Monica, Rainer, Luisa, and I had spent our morning laboring at Book and Plow and now hoped to (literally) enjoy the fruits of our labor. My first question for the waitress was, “Is there anything with cantaloupe on the menu?? We harvested it this morning!” And here, I gained insight into the restaurant world: Arise didn’t actually know what to do with the cantaloupe yet. The chef didn’t have a plan but had gladly taken them when Tobin offered. So, our waitress knew that the cantaloupe had arrived and that the chefs would be experimenting with cantaloupe cocktails, but no other details yet.

Although we despaired over the lack of cantaloupe, my friends and I shared a fabulous meal. We began with the classic herbed chickpea fries with a special house aioli ($8) and burned our impatient tongues on the scorching, savory prisms with their soft interior and crunchy, crispy cases. Next, Monica and I followed through on our agreement to order two different pizzas and share piece for piece. I chose the Talkin’ Hot Turkey ($16.50), a 12” pizza topped with Arise’s own turkey sausage, spicy ricotta, roasted tomato sauce, aged mozzarella and grilled peaches. Monica ordered the Crimson Hog ($17), another 12” pizza topped with bacon, a berry reduction, aged mozzarella and grilled red onion. We had to go piece for piece. I loved the spice of the ricotta, mixed with the rich taste of roasted tomato and aged mozzarella and the sweetness of the peaches adding a light floral sense. Meanwhile, the salty bacon mingled pleasantly with the sweet but slightly tart berry reduction and grilled onion. We could have devoured our pizzas, but found ourselves full after four slices and thus saved the rest for another meal. Although our pizzas were expensive, they lasted for two meals and were definitely worth the money.

I would have liked to eat Book and Plow’s own cantaloupes at Arise, but I now appreciate that restaurants do not always have a plan when buying fruit and that sometimes the produce may not be as fresh as customers are led to believe. I also learned more about the relationships between producers and restaurants — they appreciate our labor and help us out. Arise gave us a 20 percent industry discount! I hope that others will try out this restaurant tucked behind Bank of America, next to Amherst Cinema. The fruits of our labor at Amherst are now literal and should be tasted.

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