The Farmers You Don't Know
With all of the emphasis on getting to know where your food comes from, many of us can probably name a number of favorite farmers we buy from at the markets. And a number of chefs and restaurant owners can be regularly spotted at the markets, shopping right next to us with those same farmers.
Busy chefs normally don’t have time to pick through tomatoes at the market, though. With the quantities they need every few days, chefs need consistency, reliability, and quality. They need to be able to make a phone call and have two cases of tomatoes, four of lettuce, 30 pounds of onions, and one case of broccoli show up well before dinner service.
Over the past year, the locally aware have likely noticed an unfamiliar name popping up on menus — a lot of menus. Have you ever seen Woodson Ridge Farms at the Downtown market? What about at the Agricenter? Well, you’re probably not going to. Woodson Ridge Farms was established to sell wholesale to local restaurants.
Luke Heiskell is tall — really tall. I don’t have to look up to meet the eyes of most people, but as I admire farmers as a starting point, “looking up” to Luke just seems correct. He’s initially quiet when I first meet him, yielding to his vivacious wife, Elizabeth, for the initial part of our visit on a very cold morning in December. But once he takes the floor, Luke commands your attention with his knowledge of the wholesale market and business, his opinions on regulations and food politics, and his enthusiasm for how he and his crew bring vegetables to Memphis. He strikes me as someone who can evaluate people and situations quickly and clearly. He’s going to call it like it is and not tiptoe around anyone or any issue.
Born in the Mississippi Delta, Luke farmed cotton, corn, and soybeans until 1990. Ready for something different, he headed west to guide pack trips in Wyoming. Since then he’s been in real estate and construction. Asked about the differences between cotton farming and diverse vegetable farming, Luke replies, “This is a lot harder than cotton farming.”
Elizabeth, maddeningly pretty and stylish at 8:30 AM, is a chef and cookbook author. She greets me with a cheery, “Hey girl!” as she pulls up at the barn. Elizabeth has always worked with food. In high school and college, she worked for Memphis chef Karen Carrier and her catering company. Elizabeth has had her own catering company and has been the lead culinary instructor at Viking Cooking School in Greenwood, Mississippi, for the past eight years. The title of her cookbook — Somebody Stole the Cornbread from My Dressing — published in 2010, gives you just a hint at Elizabeth’s sass and personality.
With their three girls, Luke and Elizabeth embarked on the Woodson Ridge Farms adventure in 2011. Reluctant to leave the Delta, Elizabeth was convinced to after a trip to Covey Rise Farms in Husser, Louisiana. Owned by one of Luke’s longtime friends, Covey Rise operates as a hunting preserve and farm, supplying fresh vegetables for notable New Orleans chefs such as John Besh. After harvesting vegetables that she’d only seen in special-order catalogs and two days of discussion, Elizabeth and Luke decided it was the right move for their collective talents.
Woodson Ridge Farms is 160 acres just outside of Oxford, Mississippi, in Lafayette County. It was well known as a tomato farm in the 1970s, and at various times was used for raising watermelon and cattle. Named after one of the original settlers in Oxford, the farm boasts a beautiful rolling landscape bordered by forest with several ponds, plus a large home and two barns. About 20 acres are under cultivation. Even this winter there are rows of greens, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, radishes, carrots, broccoli rabe, and pac choi.
Luke and Elizabeth are all in when it comes to this farm and how they do business. Starting with the restaurant community in Oxford and branching out to the larger chef community in Memphis, Woodson Ridge Farms supplies a huge range of vegetables all year long.
The Heiskells have created a farmers’ market on wheels just for the chefs. Coming to Memphis four times each week, Woodson Ridge Farms is the supplier to nearly 20 restaurants. Elizabeth and her director of sales, Leslie Wolverton, work with the chefs to find out what they want and keep them abreast of the seasons. Elizabeth speaks their language and knows the varieties, sizes, and specialty items that will excite chefs. “I’m still surprised sometimes, though,” Elizabeth laughs. “The guys from Andrew Michael just went crazy for our mustard flowers… and I was only thinking of them for use in flower arrangements.” Leslie, an entomologist (or bug scout) by education and training, spends half of her time in the fields, so she’s very intimate with what’s coming and can get chefs excited about upcoming crops.
“We are ‘vegetable pushers,’” says Elizabeth. “I want the chefs to walk into the truck, not call out their order from the back door.” Once on the truck, chefs are likely to act like some women in a shoe store, oohing and ahhing over greens still glazed with frost, perfect scarlet turnips, and some of the largest cauliflower I have ever seen.
They take requests from chefs as well. When Acre and Sweet Grass were looking for local kohlrabi, Luke got it into the ground. John Currence from Oxford needed Sea Island red peas; Woodson Ridge grew them. “Exclusivity isn’t really asked for,” says Luke, “unless it’s somewhat jokingly.” Sometimes it just happens, with a particular crop only yielding enough for one restaurant to get the supply. The chefs might change up their menu four or more times per year, but, “If the chefs tell us — early — what they want, we can work with it.”
It’s still an educational process, even with chefs, to convey seasonality. “Just because you see it in Food & Wine Magazine doesn’t mean it’s in season,” says Elizabeth. National magazines are great about telling you what’s coming up but an April magazine cover with tomatoes on it doesn’t change nature. “Tomatoes don’t get ripe around here until June.”
Supplementing with regional items from the sister farm, Covey Rise, Woodson Ridge Farms can swap excess and offer items like citrus and strawberries to help push the seasons. “Chefs ask for local,” says Luke. “But regional is beneficial, too. Louisiana strawberries start earlier than they do here, and I can provide lettuce to Covey Rise after their crop has ended for the season.”
Luke and Elizabeth are a complementary team, bringing know-how, adventurous spirits, and tremendous work ethics to the table. They work seven days a week. This winter, they might slow down just enough to give everyone one day a week off.
The day starts at daylight. Half of each day is spent harvesting, with Jairo Artica managing the harvest crew. The rest of the day is spent on “maintenance,” which covers everything — planting, weeding, fixing roads and equipment, planning future crops, building the onsite commercial kitchen, and then more harvesting. The Heiskells’ three girls love to harvest. The thrill of immediate gratification is apparent, and though the girls miss being in a neighborhood with friends nearby, Luke and Elizabeth realize they’re making lifelong changes in how their children look at food. They will spend hours picking cherry tomatoes and, “We can’t keep them out of the carrots,” says Luke.
Last year, the Heiskells also started a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. With the help of Sarah Griffith as CSA manager, Woodson Ridge full and half shares are available to St. Jude employees and at a St. John’s Episcopal Church drop-off. Their fall CSA finished up December 9, and the next one runs March 20 through June 19, 2013.
Here the goal is to stock a weekly share with at least eight different vegetables, plus some herbs and maybe flowers. CSAs are “the best way to get started with healthy eating and cooking,” says Elizabeth. “We give CSA customers recipes and invite them to the farm where they can taste…We’re not going to let them go back to the same ol’ vegetables.” Sarah chimes in, “Sometimes we have to show them a different way of cooking…Everyone gets tired of turnips for six weeks in a row.”
CSAs used to include the possibility of sharing in the failure of a crop. But Woodson Ridge Farms goes to great effort to make sure that doesn’t happen, sometimes taking a gamble on Mother Nature. They pushed the season on tomatoes by planting starts in September, and were rewarded with a large crop of green tomatoes the week before Thanksgiving. CSA members received a scalloped green tomato recipe to give them a new use for the abundant inclusion in their weekly share. A local grower had several thousand extra broccoli starts. Luke agreed to see how they did planted later in the season, and it has paid off with broccoli coming in strong.
CSA members are invited to pick up their shares at the farm on Wednesday evenings. They walk through the fields and get to know Luke, Elizabeth, and the rest of the team. Kids are welcome to go fishing. It’s not just about getting the same vegetable each week at the store. Buying a share of a CSA is a commitment to a different way of eating. It’s about more than the food. “When they buy a CSA, customers work pretty hard to not let any of it go to waste,” says Elizabeth. “And we’re here to help them think of different ways to cook it…although you can’t go wrong with just adding a little butter.”
At any given time there are 30-plus varieties of vegetables growing on the farm. The entire team at Woodson Ridge is eating from these fields right along with their customers, and they are just as excited to see something new ripen. They all have their favorites. Leslie is particularly fond of candy-striped beets. Elizabeth loves the rainbow carrots. And everyone loves the greens.
“The deer like broccoli transplants,” chuckles Luke. Those deer also ate the sweet potato tops early this season. Combined with a field that wasn’t irrigated as much as necessary, the Heiskells were left with tiny sweet potatoes that didn’t mature to their regular large size. After describing them as “fingerling” sweet potatoes to a fellow chef, Elizabeth showed them to Memphis chefs, who snapped them up. What might have been considered a failed crop turned into a new product for chefs who were happy to put a nice portion of sweet potatoes on a plate, with less cooking time. Look for them during the winter as the process might not be duplicated next year.
Besides the vegetables they grow, the Woodson Ridge team just likes food. Asked about their picks for a favorite or last meal, and the answers run the gamut. Luke loves a Doe’s steak. Lillo’s pizza in Leland, Mississippi, is Elizabeth’s favorite. Leslie says you can’t go wrong with good bread, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Sarah stocks up on succotash so she can taste summer, all year long. And Jairo doesn’t hesitate to name Sweet Grass pickled vegetables as his favorite thing to eat.
On-farm events have grown organically. The Southern Foodways Alliance hosted its yearly Symposium dinner at the farm with nearly 500 attendees and three barbecue pits (one each for chicken, beef, and pork). The farm is well outfitted for events with plenty of parking, large barns, and a soon-to-be-finished working kitchen. Outstanding in the Field (dinners at a single long table) hosted a recent event at Woodson Ridge, and the possibilities are endless for both public and private events. Weddings and fundraisers are all in the cards.
The farm is a continuing process for education and growth. For Luke and Elizabeth, who don’t seem the type to sit still often, it’s also a place to practice patience. Just as a watched pot never boils, it can be tough to wait for plants to do their thing. But, “If you plant it, it will grow,” says Luke.
We might assume that winter is the time for our local farmers to kick back and relax, but not at Woodson Ridge Farms. “This business is four parts marketing and one part farming,” says Luke. “Our chefs depend on us to be there every week.” Chefs don’t stop serving meals, so Woodson Ridge Farms can’t cut off the supply.
So while you might not see them, Luke and Elizabeth will be working all winter long to keep local on restaurant menus for us to enjoy.
Woodson Ridge Farms
662-719-5305 • www.woodsonridgefarms.com For CSA information, contact Sarah firstname.lastname@example.org. Full shares (enough for 4 people), 14 weeks, $420 Half shares (perfect for 2 people), 14 weeks, $280
Look for Woodson Ridge Farms produce on the following menus:
Acre • Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen • Brushmark • Ciao Bella The Elegant Farmer • Felicia Suzanne’s • Folks Folly Hog and Hominy • Interim • Next Door • Restaurant Iris River Oaks • St. Jude Kay Kafe • Sweet Grass • Tsunami and others