Right now, there’s no produce growing in the fields of Jose Garces’ Luna Farm. There’s no full-time farmer on site, no peppers hanging from rows of stakes, no rainbow carrots poking up from soil in the greenhouses and no tomatoes pulling on the trellises that stretch through the covered hoop houses. The mobile chicken coop is empty.
The 40-acre estate in Ottsville, Bucks County is in transition.
For now, “we’re giving it a year to regenerate the soil,” Garces told Billy Penn at a recent fundraising barbecue for the nonprofit Garces Foundation. But the Garces Group has contracted Jennifer Brodsky of Kitchen Table Consultants to help formulate a plan for the farm’s future. They’re assessing bringing in new or different crops than were grown previously, and also talking about adding livestock, although Garces did not yet know what kind.
It’s the first down season for the ranch, which is on land Garces bought in late 2010. The chef-restaurateur, whose restaurant group now runs 18 venues across six states, was originally looking for a country house, a weekend retreat for his family. As he looked at potential locales, he realized that many were surrounded by fertile land. The idea of growing produce for his Philadelphia kitchens was appealing for many reasons — custom heirloom varieties, local terroir and transportation — and by 2012, he had turned 5 acres of his newly purchased property grounds into a working farm.
Under the direction of professional farmers, most recently Jillian Herschlag and her assistant Stormie Romero, the farm became prolific enough to supply vegetables to several Philly-based Garces chefs. Tinto and Village Whiskey were huge users of its produce, and Volvér had a special “From the Garden” salad that featured live Luna Farm lettuce, cut from flats of dirt just minutes before it was artfully arranged on the plate (the dish is still on the menu, but its description no longer mentions Luna). Some microgreens used in recipes at Volvér are still being grown in a greenhouse on the Luna property, according to Garces.
Also currently growing on the property are honeybees.
Chuck Pressler of Bucks County Apiaries maintains hives at several locations around the area, and last year, when he went to check on eight of them at a homestead next door, he got the idea to ask if he could also keep some at Luna. There are three hives now on Garces land, set up at the bottom of the meadows that used to grow crops.
Pressler, who works as chief in the local ambulance squad, also owns a farm of his own and is a serious animal lover — he has cows, but would never slaughter them for meat, for example. He was inspired to take up beekeeping after attending a class on a whim. Honeybees are facing a worldwide crisis — they’re dying in record numbers, and no one knows exactly why (though experts think it could be due to new kinds of pesticides and how they’re applied) — and Pressler wanted to do his part to help. Beekeeping isn’t easy, though.
“I went into this winter with 18 hives, total,” he noted, “and came out with just five.”
He sells the honey his hives produce at local co-ops and farm markets, and also offers shares in a “hive-to-table” CSA. (This year is already sold out, but you can get on a waiting list for 2016.)
So what are the bees pollinating if there aren’t any crops growing this year? Many acres of Luna Farm are still wild, and they’re full of flowering plants of all kinds. Some of them are actually edible, explained Alex Macht, a wilderness survival expert who once worked at Luna full time.
“At one point we were going to set up a wild edibles walking trail here,” he said. On a short tour of some of the property, he pointed out plants of interest and described what they could be used for. Some of his tips:
- Wood sorrel, also known as oxalis, is extremely high in Vitamin C (although you shouldn’t eat more than a handful at a time, he warns, because too much oxalic acid can cause kidney stones).
- Queen Anne’s lace, a relative of the carrot, is high in salt, which is an important component in a foraged diet.
- Goldenrod roots made into tea will give you more energy than coffee with no crash, he says.
- Yarrow is an extremely strong antibacterial, and works wonders on a sore throat.
- Pine trees hold all kinds of treats, including pine nuts (found inside pine cones), but Macht’s favorite is the cambium layer of the tree, just under the bark where the sap flows. He grinds it into a flour and makes pancakes from it — maple syrup flavor is baked right in.
As of now, the plan is to make decisions about what to do with the Luna Farm grounds this fall in order to be ready for the spring growing season, per a Garces Group rep. We’re voting for a drove of heritage pigs — Jose Garces bacon has a nice ring to it.