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Foodizen, a new regular feature from The Citizen, delves into the nexus of food and culture in cities, as a way to tell us about the people, experiences, tastes and history of Philadelphia.

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Foodizen will take us into neighborhoods, far from the Center City foodie epicenter, not just for stories but also for community gatherings to explore some of the ideas that are continuously re-creating the city of Philadelphia.

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Foodizen: Dinner on the Farm

What’s even better than a farm-to-table dinner? A farm-to-farm table dinner, that also helps keep small, sustainable farms afloat

What’s even better than a farm-to-table dinner? A farm-to-farm table dinner, that also helps keep small, sustainable farms afloat

Mike Joyce, who heads the kitchen at Barbuzzo, is the rare kind of chef who writes restaurant menus entirely based on what farmers have available. In particular, Joyce creates culinary wonders with what he finds at Bucks County’s Plowshare Farms, where Teddy Moynihan and his family raise produce, storage crops like beans and corn, lambs, and pigs while caring for the land on which they farm.

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That’s why, starting last summer, Joyce jumped at Moynihan’s invitation to put a decidedly non-urban spin on the old farm-to-table story: by cooking at the farm, with ingredients grown on the farm, for customers who travel to the farm for dinner. For Joyce, it’s a great opportunity to get out of the city for a day, to see the fields where the produce and meat he prizes are grown. 

“Our perception of what food should cost is based on a 50 to 100-year trend in the U.S. of producing food as cheaply as possible,” Moynihan says.

“The great part is having my line cooks—some who have never been to a farm—get to go out and see where some of the ingredients we use come from,” he says. His cooks, along with the diners, get a glimpse into the hard work that goes into growing, say, a bag of greens that just shows up in the restaurant kitchen.

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For farmer Moynihan, the farm dinner series has a more practical purpose: It’s a way to bring in much-needed funds for his farm. And he’s not the only one trying out this strategy. H.G. Haskell, of SIW Vegetables in Chadds Ford, will host 16 dinners from July to October this summer, with chefs from Eat Blvck, Musi, and the Pasta Lab making four-course meals with farm-grown produce in a makeshift kitchen outside the barn. Both farmers hope to make enough money from the dinners to keep them in the black in the off-season.

Because, point blank, it’s hard to make a living farming responsibly—growing high-quality food while paying fair wages and improving the health of the land—on a small-scale farm. “We don’t have economies of scale, so the margins are smaller,” says Moynihan, who, along with his wife Faith and two employees, cultivates and raises animals on about 20 acres. They can’t take advantage of the discount that comes with buying seeds or animal feed in bulk, and it’s especially challenging to grow a wide variety of vegetables to keep market customers and CSA members happy.

Diners take a tour of Plowshare Farms before enjoying their meal. Photo by Katherine Rapin

Though some customers are open to paying a bit more for high quality produce grown nearby, small-scale farmers are still largely competing with prices set by industrial agriculture. “Our perception of what food should cost is based on a 50 to 100-year trend in the U.S. of producing food as cheaply as possible,” Moynihan says. That makes it nearly impossible to thrive—without being creative about how to leverage what they have to offer.

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Haskell, of Chadds Ford, started his dinner series six years ago, as a thank you to his CSA members, just at the time the farm dinner concept was becoming popular on small farms around the country. He called it Field to Fork, and invited local chefs to cook for his customers a handful of times each season. A couple years ago, after a particularly trying season, Haskell found himself facing the possibility of closing SIW Vegetables after more than two decades in business. After years of borrowing money each spring to make ends meet, he realized he needed a new way to make extra income if he wanted to continue doing what he loves—growing food.

So in 2018, he installed lighting in the 1600s barn; bought tables and chairs to accommodate 140 diners; hired people to organize and plan the dinners; and upped the ticket price. Since then, the ticket sales from Field to Fork have helped to relieve the financial stress.

For chefs and diners who are interested in supporting sustainable agriculture, it’s the ultimate farm-to-table experience—more like farm to farm table.

The events aren’t cheap—a Field to Fork dinner costs $78 (BYOB, includes four courses); and dinner at Plowshare runs $130 (includes cocktails, appetizers, four courses, plus paired wines and a lengthy tour of the farm). But for chefs and diners who are interested in supporting sustainable agriculture, it’s the ultimate farm-to-table experience—more like farm to farm table.

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Andrew Wood, chef and co-owner of now-closed Russet, is among the chefs cooking dinner at Plowshare Farms this summer. Russet was the kind of place where small farmers and foragers could just show up on the stoop with their wares, which Moynihan did. “I’ve been buying vegetables from him just about as long as he’s been growing them,” Wood says.

Wood’s approach to cooking dinner on the farm is a step beyond what he can do in a restaurant kitchen. “I like to keep it rustic,” he says. When his team arrives at the farm, they start by digging a hole. “I build the menu around what we can cook over an open fire,” he says. “It gives you an opportunity to think about food differently, when you’re thrust into this outdoor environment.”

For both Moynihan and Haskell, farm dinners offer a way to share a bit of their hard work with chefs and eaters—to educate and inspire curiosity around what it takes to grow food while being good stewards of the land. “Guests get to see the nitty gritty of a working farm and get a glimpse of what a modern farming family looks like,” Moynihan says.

“Guests get to see the nitty gritty of a working farm and get a glimpse of what a modern farming family looks like,” Moynihan says.

Earlier this month, I joined about 40 guests at Plowshare’s first farm dinner of the season, with Samantha Kincaid, Jon Nodler, and Michael Fry of Cadence. It started with an introduction to the complicated inner workings of small-scale sustainable agriculture and the out of sight labor that goes into growing high quality food. We walked past Moynihan’s four-year-old son, tearing down the driveway on a two-wheeler to the compost pile. For the next 45 minutes, we got a crash course in small-scale organic farming.

A few take-aways: Plowshare’s sheep are rotated around small sections of the farm to ensure they eat the grass and weeds down to stubble (if they have access to the entire field, they’ll only go for the good stuff—the tender leaves and shoots, like we would). To keep rows of potatoes from being decimated by the Colorado potato beetle, Moynihan plants rows of flowering cover crop to attract wasps, which lay their eggs in the pests’ and eat the larvae as they hatch. Plowshare’s pigs, heritage breeds from Rodale Organic Institute, wallow in the mud pit Moynihan set up to keep cool and stay protected from sunburn and disease.

After, we filed into the barn to taste the results—getting to know the folks around the table as we passed platters of brined pork shoulder atop bitter greens, tender broccolini, and grilled apricots; new potatoes tossed with charred radicchio; and zucchini corn cake with whipped buffalo ricotta, blackberry sauce, and black currants prepared by the team at Cadence.

A week later, we received a thank you email from Moynihan that spoke to what it means to him:

“So much of the work we do as farmers stays hidden in the fields, isolated even from those who enjoy the products of our labor. Sharing our work with guests is such a joy, and actually helps us to continue the sometimes thankless job of sustainable farming.”

Photo by Kelli Wilke Photography; IG: @wilkephoto; more at https://www.kelliwilke.com

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