You don’t need pro equipment to snap the best food shots at dinner or in a trendy new restaurant. But making a few small adjustments can help you capture the best perspective, lighting, and trends for your food shots. We recently talked with Shell Royster, professional food photographer, about how she captures delicious looking cover images for Charleston Magazine, and also savory food and drink snaps on her cellphone.
I’m seeing changes in styles, colors, and perspective. Currently trending in food photography is the move away from natural light. For years there was this warm Martha Stewart-ish approach with beautiful, natural light. But now, many food magazines have shifted.
For example, if you look at Bon Appetit, you will see lots of hard light, punchy color, high contrast, and completely different compositions with lots of graphic appeal. Natural light is still the best there is for mouth-watering food photography, and it still has its time and place. But, right now, food photography is all about lighting with bright flash, strobe and continuous light.
Typically I don’t analyze whether a digital image was shot with a phone or a DSLR camera. What I do notice is if it is a bad image – over edited, bad composition, or using the wrong filters, for example.
I think there is an opportunity to make great food images with a phone, it really comes down to the rudimentary skills of photography – lighting and composition. Honestly, I sometimes shoot with a cellphone because I don’t always have my camera available.
I would say technical skill, then a good eye, followed by the right equipment. You can make beautiful pictures without the best equipment, it really is about understanding light and having the ability to shape it. That requires technical skills and a good eye. I prioritize technical skills when it comes to shooting for a client, as opposed to shooting for personal reasons, because the client often has technical requests for an image.
For me, the weirdest is raw seafood – sea urchin, octopus – slimy, slimy things, not something I really want to touch or move around in the frame!
I find that commercial imagery is my biggest challenge, I tend to have a “beautiful mess” philosophy, so for something like a perfectly arranged burger, I call in a professional food stylist. There was one commercial shoot I was on where the recipe was not working. The stylist had to make the recipe three times and we still had to make major adjustments to the food for the camera. Some recipes are just really challenging to make the food look appetizing.
Restaurants tend to have unflattering lighting for food, so practice some creative ways to adjust for poor lighting conditions. If you are near a sunny window, use the available light. But if it’s night or dark, ask a friend hold their camera flashlight for you, to create a modern-looking image with some pop.
If the chef doesn’t plate attractively, then whip out your fork and knife to rearrange the food to create a better composition, or try shooting from different angles. Look for texture, color, or interesting views of the environment to incorporate into the shot.
Ultimately, editing is critical. Editing software light Lightroom will help you adjust the white balance and make color corrections and while editing the final image. – nothing is worse than yellow or blue-tinged food!
— all images Shell Royster for Charleston Magazine
Looking for small city garden ideas? This gallery of images from Richmond’s Oregon Hill neighborhood shows how you can carve out some creative and attractive garden space in small urban neighborhoods. Oregon Hill’s back alley gardens are full of flowers, vegetables and creative artwork. These city growers lean more toward the practical side of gardening, but many create beautiful green in both sun and shade.
Oregon Hill is a small, urban neighborhood alongside Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. It’s a scrappier, less-visited version of Richmond’s famous Fan District, although Oregon Hill’s historic land is home to popular Hollywood Cemetery, the final resting place of two U.S. Presidents and other notables. The neighborhood proper is only about 8 blocks long by 4 blocks wide, and home to a mix of students, artists, young professionals and longtime “townies” who have lived in their family houses for generations. These are only some of the alley views of Oregon Hill’s secret gardens. (Click on the first image to scroll through the gallery.)
The word “farm” conjures up images of sunny rolling hills, green with rows of fresh vegetables. But visiting a mushroom farm is more like stepping into the Twilight Zone – literally. At Urban Choice Mushrooms, the farmland is a shadowy warehouse outside Richmond; the plant rows are shelves of plastic bags; and the produce ranges in color from bluish grey to vivid yellow. Not a speck of green in sight.
This is the modern mushroom farm.
Jake Greenbaum gives a tour of the Urban Choice Mushrooms warehouse, starting with the walk-in cooler. The stainless steel shelves that fill the room are stacked with plastic mushroom bags filled with a custom blended growing medium. The mushrooms are coaxed out by florescent grow lights, and coddled by an even 60-degree temperature and steady humidity level that hovers above 70%.
In the wild, mushrooms spring from rotting logs, so Jake’s growing medium is a mix of hardwood sawdust, cottonseed hulls and lime (the chemical, not the green fruit). His mushrooms grow to harvest size in about 10 days, and each bag produces at least two mushroom crops.
“This really isn’t what I thought I would end up doing,” Jake says. “I was going to business school at VCU and trying to figure out what I had a passion for.”
At the time, Jake says he was growing some shiitake and a few other mushrooms at home, in the bedroom. As the home experiment expanded, Jake realized that mushroom farming was his passion. “I knew I liked building stuff and growing things. At some point I was like, Ok, this is what I’m going to do,” he says.
The Urban Choice Mushroom farm has long ago outgrown the bedroom. Next to the walk-in cooler where the mushrooms grow is the mixing area with supplies and a big green mixing hopper used to blend the growing medium.
Behind the mixing area is the clean room, complete with scrubber filters and sealed doors. How many farms have a clean room?
“People think you grow mushrooms from spores,” Jake says. “but that’s not how it works. We use mycelium. It’s live cultures, so it’s sort of like a yeast.” In order to keep other yeasts, or other mushrooms, from growing in the bags (or contaminate them), Jake has to sterilize the growing medium. Thus the clean room.
After mixing the medium and packing it into individual gallon-sized plastic bags, called “blocks,” Jake adds water and then steams batches of the blocks in the clean room. The steaming sterilizes the medium, which can then be inoculated with the mycelium.
Urban Choice grows blue and yellow oyster mushrooms. The yellows are a vivid sunny color that pops out among the soft bluish grey of the blue oysters. King oysters (also known as king trumpets) are a soft greyish brown, with a meaty texture and fat, tasty stem.
Lion’s mane is a distinctive white mushroom that bulges out of the blocks in soft lumps. It’s covered in the fine white “fur” that sparked its name, and makes it easily recognizable in the wild. Oddly, it has a mild flavor that is often compared to lobster or crab. To preserve its delicate taste, chefs usually slice this chunky mushroom into steaks or chunks and simply sear it in butter.
Jake is busy growing Urban Choice Mushrooms but he’s also helping others get started with their own mushroom farms.
People want to grow mushrooms but they don’t have any idea what it takes,” he says. “I can facilitate that and help them make it profitable.” Jake sells his grow blocks to people just starting a mushroom farm, and also lends some of them growing space in his warehouse.
“A warehouse is a really easy place to start,” Jake says. “It’s always the right temperature.” Many of the small growers he supports sell their mushrooms at local farmer’s markets.
Between providing mushrooms to area restaurants, supporting small growers, and selling his custom growing medium, Jake is stepping out of the Twilight Zone and fast becoming the region’s mushroom king. We expect to see a lot more mushroom choices from Urban Choice in the coming years.
This story originally appeared in Williamsburg Winery’s lifestyle blog
Beaver Creek Farm raises quail, pheasant and other lean and flavorful game birds on five acres of land in Varina, Virginia, and another ten acres in King William. It’s a small family farm raising something really tasty and unique.
Beaver Creek Farm supplies many of the top chefs in DC, even catching the attention of the Washington Post. Owner Spencer Moore has been running the quail farm for 25 years, ever since he was an Eagle Scout. Now his sister and brother-in-law, Donnie and Veronica Oakley, also help out. Spencer would rather be spending time outdoors with wife Melanie and three-year-old daughter, Vivien, than talk about what he does. But we got him to open up about why he loves game birds.
“I’m an avid hunter, my dad got me into hunting,” Spencer says. In Boy Scouts I used to read Boy’s Life magazine, and they had these little ads in the back, ‘make money raising quail.’ I always kind of wanted to do that.”
Spencer’s parents had a neighbor who raised quail for game preserves, and teenaged Spencer joined in. “We raised them in pens, then we would catch them and take them out to shooting preserves, for people training their dogs.” Spencer went to Radford and VCU to earn a degree in orthodontics, but he quit lab tech work in his mid-20s to focus on the quail farm.
“I love animals,” he says. “Hunting, being outside. It’s very peaceful. You can go there and do your work, be by yourself.”
Today, at age 43, Spencer still raises game birds for hunting, but he has a growing business in “meat birds” for chefs. He supplies quail, partridge, pheasants and quail eggs. Conventionally-raised game birds live in cages and eat corn and soy feed, pretty much like commercial chickens. But Beaver Creek partridge and pheasants fly around tall, netted flight pens, and eat native grains and insects. The quail, being ground birds, live in a large protected space indoors. They don’t plump up as quickly as birds on conventional farms, so they cost a little more. But their active, healthy lifestyle creates a flavor that chefs appreciate.
“The chef who cooks with game birds is more in tune with the reality of farming,” says Javier Arze. Javier owns Huntsman Specialty Game, which distributes Spencer’s birds. “With local products you have the occasional hiccups where the farmer couldn’t get birds processed that week because he was plowing snow. These things don’t happen on big farms.”
Javier says that chefs who cook game birds are also more skilled. “They want to do the work,” he says. “They don’t want birds that come in exactly the same size, all deboned and vacuum packed. They are looking for local products that are unique and responsibly farmed, with high quality and taste.”
Beaver Creek hatches about 300 new quail each week, and also processes another batch of 300 eight-week-old birds. At any given moment during winter’s game season, Spencer has 5000 pheasant and 5000 partridge running around the farm.
“What’s hardest is keeping them alive. There are a hundred things that could happen to them,” Spencer says. “You have to regulate the temperatures for the quail. During storms, we have to run down there and turn on the generators. Once the gas company let the gas run out for the heater and we lost a couple thousand birds.”
“Sometimes we lose them because a hawk, owl or raccoon will scare them and they’ll run into something. Predators are a big challenge too. It’s a hundred things or more, and every day it’s something different. Twenty something years we’ve been doing this and we’re still learning every day.”
A hundred pounds of raw beef. Two giant gaping grouper. Cases of pickled peaches, foraged mushrooms and rare whisky. This is what chefs bring to a three-day potluck.
Seven years ago, chef Brian Voltaggio asked sheep rancher Craig Rogers if the staff from Volt Restaurant in Frederick, Maryland, could come camp out and cook at his several hundred-acre Border Springs Farm in Patrick County. That first cookout quickly swelled to nearly 100 chefs, and Lambstock has been growing ever since, attracting celebrities like Sean Brock, Vivian Howard and Edward Lee, among others, with its underground vibe. From New York to New Orleans, hundreds of food industry insiders come annually to cook on outdoor fires, swap recipes and techniques, taste new ingredients and share bottles of bourbon while live music drifts over the rolling farmland.
This piece originally appeared in Virginia Living magazine
Why would chefs who work 14-hour days drive for hours to cook on their day off? “It’s about chefs having an opportunity for fellowship amongst themselves,” says Rogers. “That’s the reason we don’t open it to the public. Nobody is on display, there’s no pressure. Just appreciating where food comes from and how you go about honoring it.”
I’ve come to see the chefs in action at Lambstock, and do some serious eating.
I arrive with a group from Richmond, and we camp under some trees at the edge of a pasture full of other tents about 200 yards slightly downhill from Rogers’ house, toting our gear and food in a golf cart. About a hundred yards away in a neighboring pasture a small stage is set up for the live music that will start around dinnertime, and a a sizeable drink tent is stocked with beer, wine, cider and liquor. There are also several fire pits here, and a long row of tables and folding chairs, all tightly clustered around the 20 feet by 80 feet open-air kitchen pavilion where it’s a flurry of lunch prep.
Kent Graham, who recently moved to Memphis but still runs the Field Dog Kitchen food truck in Atlanta, is deep-frying chicken in one of the Cowboy Cauldrons—a massive steel pot hanging over a fire. While we wait, we snack on a charcuterie platter with pork lardo and roasted foraged mushrooms.
Serving dishes appear and disappear as chefs plate up roasted meats, pickles, savory sides and sourdough breads, then those who aren’t cooking devour them. “Lambstock is one giant laboratory,” Graham says. “Last year, for example, I got handed some lamb testicles. I shaved them and flash fried them, then made a Coca-Cola reduction. It was so good it ended up on my menus.”
Next to Graham, long brown hair pulled back, is Lilly Gray Warren, former sous at Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina, who now cooks at pop up restaurants in Raleigh. Graham hands her a cold bottle of beer. She looks at it, shrugs, and pours it into her pot of grits.
“Here it’s not about the perfect detail, it’s all about flavor,” she says. “You can try new things because it’s a one-off, not something you have to cook the same way every day over and over.” The beer grits are tangy and rich. I make a note to try that trick at home.
Jeff Farmer, chef at Fortunato and Lucky in Roanoke, is on the Lambstock prep line, tossing roasted pigs feet with hot sauce. A trotter is something chefs love, but would never cook at work, because it “is too much to throw on a plate at the restaurant.” Next to the kitchen, Craig Reeves, a catering chef from Williamsburg, quietly sets up a small table spread with lambs-head tamales and garnishes. He stands back and smiles as a small crowd forms and the tamales disappear: “Last year I came prepared to cook but I was overwhelmed.” He’s been planning the tamales ever since. (Chefs can be part of a bigger meal or do something on their own, there are no rules, he explains.)
The crowd swells to about 300 hungry people, as a crew of chefs from Virginia and North Carolina prep dinner. Vivian Howard from Chef and the Farmer arrives, trailing a crew filming her PBS show, A Chef’s Life. She sets up next to Jim Ertel of Richmond’s Salisbury Country Club, who is working with a container of Asian noodles. He slides his cheap plastic bin next to Howard’s antique wire basket of colorful Shishito peppers, nudges Howard and grins: No style here, only substance.
As a bluegrass band onstage sounds the fiddle and banjo, rich wood smoke wafts through the kitchen pavilion from the fire pit, where a lamb hangs on a spit and ducks dangle from their long necks. Chef and forager Jitti Chaithiraphant from Boston applies a marinade with a brush made of nearby pine and shiso leaves. He is cooking with Mike Wajda, of Proof on Main in Louisville, Kentucky, and Kosta Kontogiannis, who is planning a new restaurant in Baltimore. The three swap foraged mushrooms, homemade vinegars, pickles and stories as they eye the meats and create side dishes.
“At Proof we did a bourbon sauerkraut,” Wajda is saying. “Fermented it in a Pappy Van Winkle barrel for two months. We called it Pappy Van Kraut.” Laughter ensues. The sun dips low as all around us chefs meet or reunite around food, swapping stories, sharing ingredients and demonstrating techniques.
Dinner appears: Lamb banh mi, lamb nachos, roast duck, Thai green curry, lamb enchiladas, chicken bao and so much more. Diners spread out on the hay-bale seating, balancing plates on their knees, eating with fingers and passing bottles of wine, hard cider and brown liquor.
As the food settles, Durham-based hip-hop artist Shirlette Ammons takes the Lambstock stage and gets the crowd dancing. Meanwhile, in the outdoor kitchen, my husband Eric Lindquist, a former chef who is making breakfast in the morning, hunts for breakfast sausage. He chats with Knoxville-based Michael Sullivan, who sells beef for Creekstone Farms. They discuss flavor profiles, and Sullivan offers to mix up a few pounds of lamb and sage sausage to stow away for morning.
The food (and bourbon) doesn’t stop coming until after midnight, when Ian Robbins of Williamsburg Winery cranks out a tub of cinnamon ice cream, and chef Jon Roberts fires up the wood oven for a variety of his signature late-night pizzas. The music plays on, with a new band every hour switching it up from bluegrass to folk to rock covers. Craig Rogers takes the stage with a few words about the value of farm-to-table eating as the crowd cheers. The night ends with people drifting back across the field to their tents to fall into deep food comas.
As the early sun slants through the kitchen, a few late-nighters are snoozing in chairs and on hay bales around the outdoor kitchen. They stir and help pick up empty beer bottles as Eric rolls out biscuits for the still-hot pizza oven and starts the gravy.
Chef Ertel’s helpers are like kids with a new toy, excitedly commandeering a cauldron to make corned-lamb hash with fried duck eggs. As I clear off the serving table, Joe and Heidi Trull appear with Coca-Cola chocolate pound cake and fried hand pies from their South Carolina restaurant, Grits & Groceries. Early risers gobble these up, then dig into the hot food as we plate it. Team RVA’s breakfast disappears quickly, and then we pass the fire to someone else.
Bill Hartley, formerly of the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and soon opening Postal Fish Company in Pittsboro, North Carolina, takes over the prep tables. He and business partner James Clark edge aside our breakfast pans and start readying lunch, wrapping their grouper in chicken wire for the fire pit.
“This is a big party, and it’s fun to cook with other chefs,” says Hartley. “At food festivals it’s head down, serving food. Then all you want to do is pack up and take off. But here, you stay around so you can socialize. And you get ideas for things you want to try.”
Chef Arthur Mueller of Little Hen in Apex, North Carolina, starts prepping quail with a cherry-bourbon glaze as we clean our pans. After a quick lunch plate of Hartley’s grouper and citrus slaw from Chris Fultz at Richmond’s ZZQ, it’s time for us to pack our knives and go. We say our goodbyes, load one of the golf carts with our camping gear and drive to the car.
Behind us, the food just keeps coming.
To get the Lambstock recipes, visit Virginia Living magazine, where this piece first appeared.
Are oysters a plant or an animal? Many vegetarians eat them, claiming they reproduce like plants and feel no pain. We call an oyster producer an oyster farm, and small non-commercial oyster farmers call themselves “oyster gardeners.”
I recently talked with Karen Hudson of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science about Virginia’s oyster gardening programs, and whether or not she thinks the tasty bivalves are part of the plant kingdom.
The Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association has been around a long time. Their mission is educating people about growing oysters for the health of the Chesapeake Bay but also for enjoyment. They’ve been the force in that education effort in getting people interested.
One thing TOGA has done to help the oyster industry was to increase awareness when the commercial oyster industry was setting flavor profiles for the eight different Virginia oyster regions. TOGA put on an oyster tasting with Virginia Tech. They host a tasting every year. There are six growers from different regions and they educate people about the different flavor profiles and how to enjoy them. Shuckers come and demonstrate, and they compete. They demo how fast and well they can shuck. Then people realize they can do this at home, have parties and serve different kinds of oysters.
So that group, part of their mission is to look at the fun ways to enjoy oysters and the good taste of Virginia’s many different oysters.
There are constantly more people interested in raising oysters, and so membership in TOGA has increased. Now it’s up to over 500 members. My role is to liaison with the academic community for education. For example, we put on a Master Oyster Gardener course for TOGA.
For oyster gardening, the TOGA part, people learn how to garden oysters. They learn the nuts and bolts of where to get oyster seeds and how to get started. They also learn oyster biology, and what other critters live in the oyster garden. TOGA takes people who enroll in the classes to a research hatchery and see how oysters are hatched and produced. They study oyster larvae, the whole nine yards.
We have guest speakers who come talk about the public fishery, oysters in general. We offer education on the rest of the story – not only the biology and ecology of oysters, but what’s happening in the broader spectrum of landings in Virginia.
There’s a difference between an oyster farm, which is a commercial production, and hobby farming. Gardening is non commercial. That’s an important distinction. You are raising the oysters for your own enjoyment, not for commercial sale. The oyster“gardening” education is similar to that for Master Gardeners. The idea was these will be Master Oyster Gardeners. You’re gardening, but in water.
There are two things we ask people to do: Get a no-cost permit to give the homeowner the right to put oyster floats at their dock for non-commercial purposes. Then we ask people to look and make sure they are in an area that’s safe to eat oysters. They need to look on map and call the Department of Health. There are great links online where you can pull up maps and see exactly where you are, and it’s very clear what’s good water and what’s not. For non-commercial oystering – gardening – you can grow them anywhere. But if you’re in condemned waters the advice, of course, is not to eat them.
The site matters. For a dock you need to have at least a foot of water at low tide. Oysters want to be in an area with a good salt content, so if you are higher up in the fresh parts of the rivers, you have to be careful and double check the salinity.
When it comes to methods, there are a lot of options. An oyster farm or garden can can have bottom cages, floats, bags, there’s really no one way to do it. You can play around with what you have available. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. When you’re at the gardening level where you’re not growing commercial quantities, it’s less of a concern. When you’re closer to the bottom you can have mud worms and predators on your oysters. On top, the floating cages and bags, in some cases you can have river otters and other animals can get in. At the end of the day it comes down to what’s easiest for you to maintain at your site.
Today’s oysters, if you get the hatchery-raised varieties, mature in 12-18 months. So you can start eating them within a year.
Oysters are definitely an animal. I don’t know exactly how terms like “oyster seed” got initially coined. I guess it was copied after the plant world classifications, but I don’t know why.
Oysters have eggs and sperm, they have external fertilization, they fertilize in the water column. But they are dispersed through the tide. I guess I see a little of the thought process behind vegetarians not thinking of them as animals, however they are definitely not a plant.
In his book The Third Plate, chef Dan Barber argues that chefs have the power to change the way the world eats. Evrim Dogu is proving that true every day when he sources local grain for Sub Rosa bakery in Richmond, Virginia. Dogu opened Sub Rosa in 2012 (a few days later the building burned, and he spent a year rehabbing the damaged space). Today, Dogu grinds his own grains to make his assortment of whole grain breads and pastries, fired in a wood oven.
Dogu works with local farmers to source heirloom grains like Bloody Butcher and Hickory King corn and winter wheat. But the search isn’t easy. Although Virginia lends itself to growing ancient grains like sorghum, oats and rye, most farmers these days grow those crops for animal feed. By seeking out local farmers to supply his bakery, Dogu is working to bring back local grain to the mid-Atlantic landscape.
We talked with Dogu about the benefits and challenges of working with local grain.
We buy about 2500 lbs of grain a month, which all has to be turned into flour. For pastries, we buy pre-milled flour. We use maybe eight bags a week. That’s 1600 lbs a month.
Our local sources change for Virginia grains. Last year we were able to get more local grain. Wheat is particularly hard to find because there are not a lot of people growing wheat. Our soft wheat for pastry and corn is about 20% local from a farm in Montrose. But bread wheat and alternative grains, for that we are still looking.
In America, we tend to think in market-based terms. Supply and demand. But we have to move away from the idea that demand is going to drive more farming. It won’t.
I think it’s a knowledge-based issue. We grew heirloom wheat for centuries and then lost it in 50 years. We’re talking about reintroducing something, a way of farming, that’s been abandoned for 50 years. We need to reintroduce these heirloom grains and growing practices that will make them sustainable for the farmer. For example, a lot of farmers say they don’t have the equipment to grow grain. They need access to knowledge of how to grow these heirloom varieties.
I’m telling farmers that I can pay $.75/lb, which is three or four times the rate that a grain elevator will pay. The farmer says, “Oh wow, I could get four times the amount, so if I grew a quarter of my current crops I’ll make back what I would with less work.”
So the math is simple. But when it comes to growing it, farmers don’t have the experience growing grain for human consumption. This is true from North Carolina to Iowa. Farmers are growing a lot of corn and soybeans, but for animal feed, not for human consumption.
That can change. Craft bakeries and chefs are looking for a high quality and unique local grain products that will have excellent flavor beyond the norm.
In North Carolina, a grain project worked with an ag extension, but in Virginia they weren’t interested. Virginia Tech’s ag program was not interested. They call the seed their own, and they aren’t interested in sharing. They’re also not interested in heirlooms or organic farming. Heirloom is half the yield, and they want Virginia to compete on the commodities market.
If someone can put together a “bread lab” on the East Coast, researchers can trial it out and make it ready for farmers. They can breed grains and find what works regionally, then get those to the farmers. This would skips the years of testing famers have to do, to grow the crops and save the seeds.
That would be revolutionary for the whole region. There are bakers from North Carolina to Vermont hungry for heirloom grains.
Read more about Virginia’s heirloom grain movement here.
Read more about heirloom Bloody Butcher corn here.
We visited the winter garden lights display at Brookgreen Gardens in Myrtle Beach. It gave us a lot of ideas for using lights and candles in our own garden. Plus, it was pretty.
Garden strawberries are a tempting item to add to the urban garden, but may not be worth it. I was thinking of putting some in myself. But then I visited farmer and strawberry grower Debra Stoneham. And I interviewed California strawberry farmers for a Washington Post story (excerpted below). I decided not to grow garden strawberries, mostly because they take up so much space in the urban garden. But I learned a lot about why farmer’s market berries are so pricey:
You can grow your own garden strawberries, but they won’t cost less than those at the grocery. In our market, grocery strawberries are half the price of those at the farmer’s market. I learned why when I visited farmer and strawberry planter Debra Stoneman.
Strawberry farmers do most of the work by hand, no matter what size farm. Field workers for large growers are “guaranteed minimum,” a pay rate that is monitored by various government and advocacy groups, says Oleg Daugovish, farm adviser at the University of California’s cooperative extension. California’s minimum wage is slightly higher than Virginia’s, so labor costs are not the deciding factor for strawberry prices.
It is important to know that for many small growers, farming is more a lifestyle than a business. They aren’t as ruthless about profit margins as their larger competitors. Debra Stoneman runs the 16.5 organic acres of Byrd Farm in Columbia, Virginia, with her husband Philip, their high-school-aged daughter and two longtime employees.
“We don’t take any money out of this farm,” Stoneman says. She and her husband work long farmer’s hours for free. They pay their bills with retirement income. At age 63, Stoneman can still harvest a row of garden strawberries at blinding speed. But these days she spends more time doing administrative work. She can rattle off most of her expenses with the accuracy of a chief financial officer on an earnings call.
Not that she’s concerned about big profits. “I’m here because I love it,” Stoneman says, “I know I’m fighting the good fight, and I’ll die up there on that hill.”
Stoneman’s prices aren’t always an accurate reflection of her product’s true cost. Pricing is a black art that every small business struggles with – trying to find a sweet profitable spot in between what it costs to produce something and what price the market will pay for that item. Businesses tend to price lower for a high volume of steady sales, and price higher for seasonal and specialty items. Fiddling with that equation is so complex that business school professors make careers out of teaching it. And it’s even harder if, like many small farmers, you don’t track your numbers.
“I set my prices around where the grocery stores are, the higher end,” says Crumptown farmer Brad Constable. “Sometimes I track costs, but there are so many that they get away from you quickly.” In California’s Central Valley, the small growers I checked were charging from $2.50 to $5.00 a pound for local strawberries.
Small farmers in both California and Virginia explained that they often set prices to account for their lower yields and better quality. They grow short-season summer varieties that prioritize flavor instead of hardiness, beauty and productivity.
Stoneman has only about three-quarters of an acre in organic strawberries. With such small acreage she is more susceptible to losses due to Virginia’s unpredictable climate. For example, she estimates that 50% of this year’s berry harvest molded in unusually heavy spring rains. Byrd Farm can’t supplement with fields in drier parts of the Southeast, or even Mexico, as many large California berry suppliers like Driscoll’s can. For small farms, profits spike and dip, so profitable crops need to offset money-losing crops or an entire bad year.
Ultimately, farmer’s market shoppers, farm-to-table chefs and gourmet grocery stores simply don’t care about complex pricing details. They are often happy to spend more money to support small local farmers rather than finance big industry. But they would throw all those “support local farms” arguments out the window if the produce didn’t taste great. And flavor is where local and garden strawberries have California’s shipped fruit beat.
“The strawberries from California have a hollow heart, they’re not dense inside. We call them Styrofoam berries,” Stoneman says. That extra density is why her quarts weigh more. The California berries look terrific, and they’re available nearly year round, so you can serve strawberry shortcake at your Labor Day picnic. But they simply don’t have much flavor.
This story was originally written for the Washington Post Food section.
Upper Shirley Vineyards just outside Richmond didn’t really plan to have a winery garden. But with so many farm-to-table restaurants actually tending their own kitchen gardens, the vineyard was inspired to explore just how “local” its own kitchen could get. They planned to grow a few popular herbs that the kitchen used every day, and the idea sort of leaped to life.
A member of the kitchen staff, Dan Leech, offered to get it started. He put a shovel to the rich Pamunkey soil and worked in some composted manure from the winery’s horse stables. Chef Carlisle Bannister asked about including a few key produce items. Winery owner Tayloe Dameron added some bright sunflowers to take advantage of the full day-long sun and to distract birds from devouring the rest of the produce.
Before long, the little winery garden had grown to a robust 15 by 40 feet. Visitors sitting on the back porch, facing the river, can look over to the left to see the plot.
There are rows of tall, dazzling sunflowers, backing stripes of colorful vegetables and bright marigolds. It doesn’t look all that big from a distance, but there’s an amazing amount going on in there. Once Dan got started, there was no holding him back. He sowed mint, parsley, rosemary, lavender, hot and sweet peppers, okra, turnips, carrots, beets, and radishes. There are three kinds of basil, four varieties of tomatoes, pickling and several other types of cucumbers, and then butterfly bush and comfrey, which produces beautiful white bell-shaped flowers, for good measure.
For the restaurant, the winery garden accomplishes a few important things. Mainly, the chefs bring all of these fresh vegetables and herbs to the table. For example, Chef Carlisle created a beet carpaccio using only the winery’s Chioggia own beets.
When the mint threatened to overrun the middle of the garden, as mint will, Chef Carlisle turned that problem into opportunity. He drew on his Lebanese heritage to create one of his favorites: fattoush—a flavorful diced vegetable salad with homemade croutons—featuring a mint and lemon dressing. He experimented with specialty drinks for hot days on the porch, like a mint and lavender limeade. So, as guests eat and drink, they help maintain order in the vigorous and sometimes unruly garden.
Few professional kitchens can grow all of the produce they need, so the winery relies on a sturdy list of local growers to for the busy kitchen’s daily needs. They feature the garden treasures as each one peaks, rolling with that seasonal harvest of radishes, beets, carrots, cucumbers, or whatever else was picked fresh that morning.
Another important role for the garden is that the flowers attract good bugs, like pollinators. Bees don’t pollinate grapes – the vines manage that all by themselves. But they do pollinate some of the winery’s important cover crops and grasses, helping them to thrive and do their jobs. The flowers also attract ladybugs, which feast on the pesky aphids that love tomatoes and cucumbers.
What Upper Shirley didn’t expect was that the winery garden would quickly become a destination for its hardworking kitchen staff to relax before and after work. Mostly that means Dan and Chef Carlisle, tending to the plants and picking the harvest. “Working in a kitchen, it can be intense,” Dan says. “I like to unwind by coming out here and just spending time weeding. It’s relaxing.”
In the first year of a kitchen garden, a lot is trial and error. A vineyard is used to that after years of growing grapes. Upper Shirley will have to learn what plants produce well in the clay-heavy soil and hot climate. They will find out know what produce will go to groundhogs and deer. There are plenty of groundhog holes in the area, which makes Dan a little nervous. But he thinks the deer will be less of a problem.
“There’s all that corn on the drive up,” he says. “And Tayloe and Suzy have nine dogs. If I were a deer, I think I’d stick to the corn.”
There are rabbits too, but since the nearby Presquile National Wildlife Refuge is home to bald eagles and other raptors, visible on the prowl from the winery back back porch, the rabbits are pretty careful to stick to the hedgerows.
If you visit Upper Shirley Vineyards, look for Dan out tending the teeming rows, and don’t be afraid to ask a few questions (or maybe lend some advice about groundhogs). And know that something on your plate likely came right out of that rich Pamunkey soil you walked across before you came through the door.
This story was originally written for the Upper Shirley Vineyards blog.Follow us on Instagram!