Food - Seeds of change
Local food advocates Wrecking Bar and King of Pops literally bought the farmThursday April 14, 2016 04:00 am EDT
Despite the scores of Atlanta restaurants that have embraced farm-to-table sourcing, relatively few have taken steps to grow produce of their own. Even in expert hands farming can be an unpredictable undertaking, not to mention hard as hell. Leaving the farming to the farmers makes a heck of a lot of sense. But that hasn't stopped a few brave restaurants from attempting to grow.
The clear trailblazers in Atlanta are Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, who brought Summerland Farm back to life in 1992 and have been using Summerland's produce at their restaurants (including Bacchanalia and Floataway Café) ever since. Back then, there wasn't much high-quality, local, organic produce to be found, so Summerland served a very distinct purpose. These days Summerland alone produces as much as 20,000 pounds of produce annually.
Seven years ago, Four Seasons Midtown chef Robert Gerstenecker created a rooftop garden space filled with herbs, honeybees, and even watermelons ("spectacular, like no other I've ever had," he says). Canoe has long had a garden filled with grape vines, fig trees, and citrus. And you can't miss Kimball House's little garden as you walk by the old Decatur train depot. Home Grown, 4th and Swift, BoccaLupo, and a handful of others also maintain similar operations.
But growing your own ingredients is tough.
"Farming, if you can believe it, is even more difficult than the restaurant business," Quatrano says. "So much of what happens on the farm is outside of our control, and even the best plans can be upended by nature."
Two five-year-old Atlanta businesses — King of Pops and Wrecking Bar Brewpub — are, to put it mildly, highly committed to the idea of growing their own ingredients. Both have launched full-fledged farms in the past year and a half. And we're not talking mere garden plots, but vast expanses of land with diverse, year-round crop programs. Both the King of Pops' and the Wrecking Bar's farms have clever names that show strong ties to their founding businesses: one is the King of Crops farm, the other the Wrecking Barn. Both farms sit on the edges of suburbia: King of Crops roughly a 45-minute drive west of Atlanta, in Winston; the Wrecking Barn 40 minutes to the east in Loganville. And both farms have also started exploring farmers markets, other restaurants, and even CSA programs as additional outlets for their future produce.
Both businesses view their young farms as more than just a source of quality produce. They are platforms for business diversification, expansion, and pathways to community engagement. Whether it's supplying a gourmet frozen pop empire and Ponce City Market bar with homegrown ingredients, or acting as a competitive advantage for a growing brewery operation, King of Crops and Wrecking Barn are taking farm-to-table to a whole 'nother level.
ERIC CASHGREEN THUMBS: Wrecking Bar Brewpub chef Terry Koval (left) and farm manager Rachel Hennon at the Wrecking Barn farm
ERIC CASHWRECKING BARN: The crops are tended to by a handful of part-time workers along with farm manager Rachel Hennon.
ERIC CASHBUDDING OPPORTUNITY: Crops start to grow in the greenhouse before being transferred to the field.
ERIC CASHWALK THE WALK: Wrecking Barn farm manager Rachel Hennon surveys the progress at the farm.
Wednesday is planning day at Wrecking Bar. The staff comes in around noon to discuss the menu, plan out the week, make sure everything is humming along from the kitchen to the brewery. After a recent Wednesday meeting, chef Terry Koval, managing partner Stevenson Rosslow, and brewmaster Neal Engleman hung around to give me the lowdown on what it's like to have an entire farm in the Wrecking Bar family.
The brewpub has been a beacon of local sourcing in Atlanta since it opened in summer 2011. To demonstrate, Koval took out the daily menu and highlighted all the ingredients from local purveyors: foraged serviceberries, Atlanta Harvest lettuces, Riverview Farms pork, White Oak Pastures beef, several Georgia cheeses. Soon most of the page was covered in bright orange marker. Then he handed over a sticky note with $242,591 scribbled on it — the amount Wrecking Bar had spent on local meat, dairy, and produce in 2015. That's the vast majority of everything that came through the kitchen doors.
Surprisingly, the Wrecking Barn didn't show up much on the early March menu Koval had in front of him. With a bounty of new vegetables just now coming to life, this spring marks the farm's first full year of growing. It has been a sometimes-bumpy ride thus far. Erratic Georgia weather, such as heavy flooding in February, has presented full-time farm manager Rachel Hennon (formerly of Love is Love Farm) with numerous obstacles.
"The biggest challenge has just been getting into a rhythm with the land and learning a bit more about juggling the farm plan with Mother Nature's plan," she says.
A week later, Koval and I met up with Hennon out at the farm on one of the first days of the year that truly felt like spring. The air was thick with the funky smell of compost, heavy on spent grains from the brewpub. Trees sprinkled with delicate white flowers were just coming into bloom, the tunnel-like hoop houses full of sprouting veggies. Koval hadn't been to the farm since winter and was giddy at the sight of broccoli plants flowering with tiny yellow buds.
Of the 63 total acres, only seven are currently planned for farming this year. Those seven acres will produce 45 different crops, and many multiples of that when you consider specific varieties (tomatoes are considered one crop, for example, but the Wrecking Barn plans to grow 16 types of tomato). One particular crop, though, makes Wrecking Barn unique. Hops. Because hops are basically unseen around these parts, the just-planted crop could be a tremendous asset for the brewpub's beer program. That is, if a plant that typically flourishes in places like the Pacific Northwest and Bavaria can also thrive in Georgia. If so, the Wrecking Barn will become the state's most significant producer of local hops, and will allow the brewpub to experiment with new local flavor profiles.
Beer was the primary reason for starting the farm in the first place. Wrecking Bar owner and founder Bob Sandage saw it as an opportunity to build a farm-brewery with enough space for making sour and wild ales plus room for barrel aging and experimentation. While the brewery is still in the works, the farm is already making an impact on the restaurant. Two days after visiting the farm, that same beautiful flowering broccoli that Koval had spotted showed up as a vegetarian special served with a sweet and spicy sambal.
JOEFF DAVISA large pond on the King of Crops farm is set up to provides water for the fields and the house on the property.
JOEFF DAVISOf the 68 acres on the King of Crops farm only three are currently being used. Crops include strawberries, which are now being harvested and will be used in King of Pops Popsicles.
JOEFF DAVISKing of Pops Bar Manager Neil Ringer and Farm Manager Russell Honderd in one of the greenhouses.
An entirely different (and much more colorful) sight met me at the King of Crops farm when I arrived one bright and warm spring morning. The compost pile there was topped with a rainbow of used citrus peels that had already given their juice to the pop man.
The King of Crops farm is a vast work in progress. The property is 68 acres, 20 of those leased out to a stable, with roughly three acres currently planted. It doesn't sound like much, but the impact of those three acres will be felt later this year. According to farm manger Russell Honderd, at least 10,000 pounds of strawberries and melons from the farm will make their way into pops this year if all goes well. He also plans to produce plenty of blackberries, ginger, lemongrass, and herbs to fuel pop production.
Honderd and Neil Ringer, who wears many hats for King of Pops, agreed to give me a tour of the farm. Surrounded by rolling hills, the grounds contain several ponds that supply water to the property and dormant fields waiting to be cultivated. Hoop houses that once held potted plants for the former tenant — a nursery — are now filled with bushy lemongrass and young blueberry plants. So far, the farm has produced a wide variety of salad ingredients for the King of Pop's Bar at Ponce City Market, as well as farmers markets in Decatur, Brookhaven, and, soon, the new Beltline Farmers Market.
Honderd enthusiastically points to an expanse of soil that will soon be planted with melon seedlings. "We've always struggled finding melons that are sweet enough to make a great pop," Ringer says. "Russell grew a small amount of Old Time Tennessee melons last summer, and they turned out amazing."
The hope for this season is to offer several melon pop varieties sourced purely from the farm — pops that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.
Like the Wrecking Barn, the goals for the King of Crops farm go beyond mere sourcing. King of Pops co-founder Steven Carse sees the farm as an opportunity to connect with the tribe of fans King of Pops has cultivated over the past five years.
"We aren't there yet, but we want to use this as a place to learn and teach about sustainable agriculture," Carse says. "We have a unique opportunity to introduce good food to people that normally would be more skeptical."
They've already invited King of Pops fans out to the farm for events, and have even had students from a nearby school group come by to learn about farming in person. While Ringer and Honderd are looking forward to building out the farm over the years to come, including a nursery of indigenous plants, they relish the real-world impact the farm is already having, like when they're able to hand over a pop and say the ingredients it was made with came from their farm.
"Being able to give our customers a tangible answer to what we have been working on for the past two years is pretty awesome," Ringer says, "and we know it's only going to get better."