Meet the six people at the forefront of a food revolution that’s advancing on Bucks County.
By Scott Edwards · Photography by Kresimir Juraga
As much as the terms local, organic and sustainable are thrown at us these days, it’s easy to tune out and hold out for the inevitable end to the marketing campaign. But even if you do—and I did, months ago—it’s impossible to ignore the activity that’s stirring around seemingly every corner.
Last summer it seemed like everyone suddenly belonged to a C.S.A. (Consumer Supported Agriculture farms), or at least took up frequenting farmers markets while they sat on a waiting list for one. Dine out, and most orders at the surrounding tables were coupled with some variation of the following: Is the beef grass-fed? Are the veggies local?
Whether it’s being health conscious or scared stiff by a recession-run-rampant, we’re looking for answers. And it was only a matter of time before we began demanding them of our sustenance.
Fortunately, there’s a growing number of people willing to step up and assume that responsibility. Good for us, too: They’re not an I-told-you-so lot. In fact, they’re people of few words, because seeing is believing to them.
In that vein, let me introduce six who are likely to have the greatest influence on how you eat this year.
No family business endures 10 generations without several heroic acts, some 11th-hour negotiating and a handful of metamorphoses. Snipes Farm is no exception. Sister and brother Susan Snipes Wells and Jonathan Snipes have heard all of it by way of their historian father, a man who somehow managed to convince PennDot to stand down when it expected to cut a wide swath through the middle of his Morrisville farm to expand US Route 1 in the fifties.
They witnessed much of it for themselves, too. Feeling the weight of all that sacrifice and determination, they’re forging their own great comeback. Since buying the farm from their cousins in 2004 and promptly shutting down the 50-year-old garden center that was hemorrhaging money, Snipes (pictured) and Snipes Wells have reclaimed the property as a full-fledged farm and developed a learning center around it, both of which operate as a nonprofit.
They started a C.S.A. in 2007 with 15 shares. Last summer, under the nurturing hand of Brad Berry, a young Warrington native who farms for philosophical reasons and who prefers to do so barefoot whenever possible, that number grew to 150.
Snipes Farm has long been a popular destination for school tours, which lent immediate credibility to the two-year-old education center. Its focus for the time being resides in landing grants for farm-to-school programs and growing the adult side of the curriculum with cooking and gardening classes.
How to make a boutique farm economically viable is the million-dollar question, especially in the case of Snipes, whose extreme isolation is evident in the giant cell tower that peers over the highway that pins the property against aging apartment complexes and strip malls. But Snipes Wells and Snipes appear to have a grasp on an answer. Almost all of the C.S.A. members hail from the surrounding community. So the interest is there. And, they broke even in 2010, Snipes Wells says. But Snipes, a former strategic planner, is daring to be ambitious. He envisions moving the farm at least a step beyond sustainable, so that it’s producing its own power as well as its own produce and empowering the surrounding community to do the same, transforming apurely extractive process—and region—into a regenerative one.
Excuse Robin Damstra if she seems in no particular hurry. The last half of 2010 was a life-altering stretch for her. Over roughly two months in the late summer, Damstra launched a business (Half Pint Kitchen) and got married. Derailed by a major car accident a few years ago that left her with chronic back pain, suddenly everything was coming to fruition at once.
To put the period truly into perspective, it’s necessary to know that Damstra didn’t start cooking seriously until 2006. And even then, she entered into it only to impress her now-husband. He was a foodie and she was that smitten. Or rather, they were that competitive, as she prefers to tell it.
Damstra launched her food blog—originally, TheClumsyCook.com; now, CaviarAndCodfish.com—for the same reason. Her husband, James Salant, was working on his first published book when they met, which compelled her to become a better writer.
The blog and her cooking followed much the same trajectory. Just as she eventually learned restraint in making good food from simple ingredients, Damstra understood that she needed to personalize her blog, which she did. Almost flinchingly so. The narrative that runs between gourmet-grade recipes and artful photography courses with the vulnerability of a private journal never meant for public consumption.
In the months after she was forced to abandon her career because of the pain, Damstra started gravitating to what helped her feel better. Attending farmers markets became a central part of her weekly routine. She was such a frequent visitor to the Stockton Farmers Market (because she lives nearby) that its manager asked if she wanted to participate. Renting a kitchen at the rear of the market, Damstra sold her first batch of ice cream there in July.
She likes to think that she’s making country-style ice cream from 50 years ago, but she confesses she’s not that familiar with how ice cream was made then. Hers is dense and creamy. And she likes to experiment with local ingredients, which leads to flavors like her cranberry vanilla sorbet. Her best-seller: salted caramel ice cream.
She’s already garnering interest from some local markets, but distributing would thrust Half Pint forward in a way that Damstra’s uncomfortable even considering at this point. For now, making the coming weekend’s ice cream is enough.
A year ago, Christina (Christy) Devlin was an unemployed art teacher. (She has a master’s in teaching the visual arts from the University of the Arts.) Devlin picked up baking, a lifelong interest, to keep herself and her creativity occupied. And then she pulled some of her fellow unemployed-art-teacher friends into the mix. The popular TV shows “Cake Boss” and “Ace of Cakes” were their tutorials. They experimented on friends and family, but demand ramped up almost overnight and their little support group became a thriving small business.
Devlin was seeking out local, organic foods long before it became fashionable. So she of course incorporated them into her baking. That she was in Sellersville, one of the last truly rural corners of Bucks County, simply made it easier to do so. Devlin and her husband bought a 200-year-old fixer-upper on three woodsy acres there nearly three years ago. In October, she took over a deli about five minutes away.
The place is very much a work-in-progress. Devlin envisions an authentic country store—antiques and all—stocked with beef, dairy and produce from surrounding farms. The bakery would be the centerpiece. Less than two months in, though, she’s relegated to made-to-order by an ill-equipped kitchen, though the orders are rather impressive: a two-foot tall Nutcracker confection and a Batmobile cake, for starters. Most importantly, she’s doing it on her terms. “I was told that I wouldn’t ever be able to make buttercream with organic shortening,” Devlin says. “I did figure it out, and it works and it’s good.”
Her patrons, who seem to be pining for a place like she has in mind, are her eyes and ears. They linger for 20, 30 minutes at a time discussing food, farms, gossip—even though there’s nowhere to sit. And Devlin encourages it, because eating locally to her is as much about fostering a sense of community as it is about the consumption and the awareness. “It’s that small family, comfortable kind of feeling that I don’t want to leave here,” she says. “Because I think that that will undermine the whole point of this.”
Spend a couple of hours in a car with someone—in a driving rainstorm, no less—and you get to know him pretty well. By the time we stepped out of his Grand Cherokee and onto the thick mud of Breakaway Farms in Manheim, PA, I learned the following about Matt Ridgway: He’s an animated conversationalist (not the best quality for a motion sick-prone passenger). He’s curious and well-read. And he takes his work hyper-seriously, which, fortunately for me, involves carving up pork into a variety of downright savory forms.
Our trip to visit Nate the Farmer was an extension of that meticulous thoughtfulness. When Ridgway launched PorcSalt last year from a small Warminster warehouse, he had very specific ideas about how he wanted his operation to unfold: Small and slow. He attended an intense charcuterie course at Iowa State University. He returned home and built his own tongue-and-groove smoker. He created a prep room in a giant cooler at the warehouse with wall-to-wall stainless steel tables and a low-velocity blower that keeps the chamber at a constant 40 degrees. All because over the 13 years he spent cooking in some of the finest French kitchens on the east coast, he witnessed ambiguous charcuterie practices that were informed more out of myth than mastery.
And then Ridgway found his way to Nate, who’s quietly carrying out his own revolution and producing some of the healthiest, happiest pigs in the region, Ridgway says.
Through the early going, PorcSalt is catering almost entirely to restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, though they’re giants. His pungent red wine bacon and the subtler honey-cured bacon made with his beekeeper father’s own stock are being devoured by the likes of Café Boulud, Marea and Le Bernardin.
A storefront somewhere is inevitable, in due time. “My goal is to produce the best product that I can possibly do with my space. And if I feel it’s getting too big, it’s time to change,” Ridgway says. “I know that’s not really the best business model. For me, it makes me sleep better at night.”
Not many people experience an adverse reaction to Doylestown. But Linda Shanahan did. To her credit, though, she persevered.
Shanahan grew up in Bucks County and moved west at 22. It was there, namely in Oregon, that she was exposed to and then enveloped by an environmentally conscious community in motion. That it was so pervasive only made her feel that much more removed from it when she moved to Doylestown with her husband Eric seven years ago and discovered the stark contrast.
Once they finally rejected the idea of moving back, they began plotting an uprising. By the time she found her way to the first meeting of the Doylestown Food Club in late 2009, Shanahan already had two seasons beneath her as a small-scale farmer. She and Eric lease 22 nearby acres wedged between housing developments and a vet hospital and launched their own C.S.A. Even though they had no real experience. Or equipment. And the plot was a wasteland.
Last summer, their third there, they fed 25 families. They’re now embarking on the extensive organic and biodynamic certification processes. To that end, Shanahan started an all-encompassing native plant installation last year, complete with wetlands.
The food club was something she considered doing on her own, but could never find the time to devote to it. Coincidentally, she condensed her work schedule just prior to the club’s launch, which became her excuse for devoting 40 or more hours a week through those early, formative months. Working largely as a liaison to the farmers, Shanahan has evolved into a central force behind the development of the co-op. “I can tell you without a doubt there would be no club and no future co-op without Linda,” Steph Walker says. The club is Walker’s brainchild.
Shanahan’s become so heavily relied upon by the likes of Walker because she possesses a wealth of knowledge on the practical nature of sustainable living. Nuggets like: the majority of local farmers aren’t tech savvy, which complicates communication; a basic distribution network is desperately needed; and serious planning can offset the higher cost of buying locally-grown. She encountered it all firsthand and found a way around. Just as she did when it came time to distribute compost without a tractor.