This city boy got to take him a field trip to three farms and get educated on a variety of agricultural and environmental matters during last weekend's Tour de Farm. I was stoked to be one of three Instragram contestants to score a car pass and tote for the event courtesy of Edible Northeast Florida magazine. With St. Johns County's ongoing land development surge, it was fitting to be reminded of how integral farmland is to our day-to-day lives and eating habits.
I stuck with the farms south of the St. Johns River. First stop - IFAS/Hastings Center. This farm doubles as a demonstration unit. The facility uses living displays to educate communities about Florida-friendly alternative crops and sustainable agricultural practices. At the welcome desk, I was greeted by none other than Amy Robb - founder and publisher of Edible Northeast Florida magazine. She's incredibly friendly, bubbly, and full of meaningful conversation. We talked about food, writing, travel, her family's long term goals, and the folks that make St. Augustine a great place to live and play. Rather than have my tote mailed to me, she handed me one on the spot. It was put to use right away when I scored a cinnamon basil plant from a visiting farmer. (I didn't know there were such varieties of basil.) It smelled fantastic. There was also chocolate basil on hand, which blew my mind. I got to munch on some of it...definitely want to try my hand at cooking with it soon. Palatka’s Veggie Confetti Farm was on site and discussed the benefits of micro greens. I got to snack on some sunflower and broccoli seedlings that were harvested within 14 days of germination. In this phase, they are packed with as much as 40 times more nutrients than mature plants - a solid pick me up to fuel continued farm hopping.
Hastings Center is home to two barn cats named Thelma and Louise. They have distinct personalities. In my experience, Louise is the cuddly one who will purr for any visitor. Thelma is the adventurous tree climber. Today was the first time I remember seeing a cat climb and descend a tree. Thankfully, the fire department didn't have to rescue Thelma (this time). Word on the farm is that Thelma was stuck in a tree for three days once, yikes!
Next stop - Rype & Readi's Elkton farm. This farm focuses on educating families about high quality food and cooking techniques as well as offering interaction with farm animals. Collage Restaurant's head chef - Matthew Brown, was invited to do cooking demonstrations. He made a scrumptious seared tilefish with butternut fettuccine and a beet top garnish. Several in attendance (myself included) were surprised to learn that should fish get stuck to a skillet, the best response is to turn up the heat and press the meat into the pan. This counter-intuitive approach repels the fish from the sizzling surface, go figure! The fish was cooked in beurre noisette (brown butter), crusted with crushed almonds, and further seasoned with turnip greens, sea salt, lemon juice and garlic. It was out of this world.
In addition to the fish sample, serrano ham, apple pecan salad and sweet potato datil soup were being served at Rype and Readi.
The St. Augustine Distillery was also represented and sampled vodka orange juice and an unnamed drink made with molasses, rum, and Meyer lemons.
My third and final stop found me slightly northwest at Ben Wells Produce, where The Floridian had a table. They sampled purple sweet potato chips with a buttermilk ranch dipping sauce. Ben Wells Produce had two llamas on site for petting. I had a great chat with a rep from North Florida Land Trust. It was reassuring to learn about the work they are doing to preserve land in Northeast Florida. Local land is being developed rapidly as families flock to the area in search of A rated schools.
It was refreshing and eye opening to spend the afternoon doing something out of the ordinary. Even though I graduated from being an institutional student almost 10 years ago, there doesn't have to be graduation from education (and field trips for that matter), am I right?
Happy farming, northeast Florida :-)