Late last year, the Austin Food & Wine Alliance announced their 2014 grant winners – New Farm Institute at Green Gate Farms, Springdale Center for Urban Agriculture, Fresh Chefs Society, Growers Alliance of Central Texas (GroACT) and Anjore. To highlight the many sides of Austin’s flourishing food community, we’re showcasing the exciting efforts from each of these wonderful organizations.
First up? The Springdale Center for Urban Agriculture at Springdale Farm.
Austin Food + Wine Festival: How has Springdale Farms’ partnerships with local chefs and restaurants enhanced its discovery of unusual produce?
We always enjoy walking the farm with chefs and learning together, as they pick and taste straight from the field. We have discovered, for example, that when kale goes to seed, it puts on a very unusual, edible seed pod that is actually very tasty. Radicchio blooms a beautiful flower that is very unique.
When they come to us, chefs bring specific knowledge they have learned from their experiences working in different parts of the world, and the information allows us to learn about varieties of vegetables not historically grown in our area. Most recently, we grew herbs from a chef’s Korean grandmother, who passed the seeds along to us. Other chefs have brought seeds from plants they have discovered in their travels.
With the grant from AFWA, you’re going to be testing heirloom and heritage seeds on new culinary plots. What interested you in trying these seeds versus others?
Every geographical region has an “approved” list of what crops historically have grown well in the area. It is easy to stick to that list of tried and true varietals. It is more fun to expand from that established list and experiment with heirloom and heritage varieties. Since we only have five acres, the risk of crop failure could very negatively impact our necessary income from produce. With the AFWA grant, we will be able to designate test plots with less risk to our income stream in case some don’t work out.
With so many crops today being genetically modified, we are very interested in bringing back lost or forgotten heritage varieties, and hoping the ability to document our successes (and failures) will allow us to share with other farmers, and potentially expand the varieties of food crops that can be grown locally, thus expanding our food system.
What have been the most significant rewards from taking the risk of growing incredibly unique, innovative things? Any surprising discoveries?
With regard to the aforementioned Korean herb, Parilla, the chef we grew them for planned a Korean Dinner on the porch of our house, to highlight this herb. Several folks cooked Korean dishes, and we were able to learn about that cuisine. The experience of enjoying a meal using herbs grown from seeds from the chef’s grandmother was just as rewarding for guests as it was for the chef.
Last year, we grew an Italian variety of green beans. It rained for several days and we could not get into the field to harvest them. Days later, an entire harvest was past its prime and we thought un-salvageable, but a chef researched some possibilities for us, and we ended up drying the beans and shelling them. Our crop was saved, and they were amazing! Since we have to plant in the appropriate season, we will be planting some very unique varieties in our test plots very soon. We will be able to supplement this answer in several months!
How has Springdale Farm influenced and encouraged more local and regional chefs to experiment with farm-to-table cuisine?
While I’m not sure we have influenced anyone at this point, chefs are mostly inspired by the quality and freshness of just harvested produce. It just tastes better than what they can receive on a truck from California, and I think their inspiration comes from the taste of what they get from us and the other local farms. We invite any chef who is interested to come walk the farm with us, see how food grows, and get inspired by getting back to the source of the food they cook. Mostly, we are inspired and influenced by what these amazing chefs are able to do with our produce.
What are you most looking forward to for the further of Springdale Center for Urban Agriculture and its ability to reshape the culinary landscape in the Austin area?
We want to continue to work with established chefs, but also to reach out to younger folks, aspiring chefs and eaters alike, to teach the value in locally grown food. We hope by documenting our food growing experiments, we will be able to expand the varieties and quantities of food available for everyone in this region, which will help keep our dollars spent locally, and keep the cuisine ever changing and interesting. We have also been contacted about growing some foods for medicinal purposes as well, which is very interesting. It’s an exciting time and we are so grateful for this grant money to be able to expand our efforts!
As the beneficiary of the Austin Food & Wine Festival, the Austin Food & Wine Alliance (AFWA) relies on a portion of festival proceeds to support its culinary grant program, educational programming, fundraising events and operations. As a 501c3 nonprofit, the AFWA hosts signature fundraising events like Official Drink of Austin, Live Fire!, Great Austin Food Race, Wine & Swine and more. In addition, the Alliance is committed to inspiring and supporting high school culinary students from all over Central Texas by hosting the annual Culinary Arts Career Conference with more than 600 students being able to attend at no cost.