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US: "Weird" vegetables not so unusual in Maine

When Hubert McCabe and Sarah Tompkins moved to Searsmont to start Fine Line Farm a few years ago, they quickly realised the local market for vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and peas was already cornered by established farmers.

So they searched out of the box — sometimes way out of the box — for inspiration. These days, Fine Line Farm is busy growing its reputation as a go-to place in the mid coast for unusual crops like fresh ginger root, squash blossoms, sunbuds, fava greens, Japanese turnips, tatsoi, edible flowers and more, and that’s just fine with the Fine Line farmers. 

They sell their produce at the Rockland Farmer’s Market, at the Deer Isle Night Market and directly to a lot of local restaurants, including Ondine in Belfast.

“We’re weirdos growing weird vegetables,” McCabe joked. “We do grow a lot of strange vegetables or different vegetables or obscure vegetables. And we also do a lot of normal vegetables, but we grow them differently.”

And they’re not alone. It turns out that some Mainers are hungry for vegetables that likely would never have been grown in their grandmothers’ gardens, as farms across the state experiment with unusual varieties of vegetables and fruits or with exotic plants that originally came from places like Jamaica or Korea. That shouldn’t be a surprise, according to Leigh Hallett, the executive director of the Maine Federation of Farmer’s Markets.

“That’s what I find to be the norm,” she said of these crops. “Maine is known for small, diversified farms, and small, diversified farms are always trying new things and exploring more diverse vegetables. They don’t have to meet an order for 10,000 pounds of something, so you can often expect to find things that are out of the ordinary at farmer’s markets.”

Still, not every odd crop grown here is a home run, farmers said. In fact, some of the vegetables McCabe and Tompkins have grown on their farm have struck out. That was the case with papalo, a Mexican herb with a strong cilantro flavor, and with callaloo, a leaf vegetable in the amaranth family, neither of which is being grown at Fine Line anymore.

“We cultivate amazing relationships with the chefs we work with,” McCabe said. “We’ll ask them, do you want this or do you want that? They’ll tell us, ‘Please, never grow that again.’”

But that’s no reason to stop experimenting, they and other farmers who strive to grow out-of-the-ordinary crops said. Penny Chase of Chase’s Daily in Belfast said the family farmers keep growing unusual vegetables at their farm in Freedom to sell at their store, bakery and restaurant, even when their customers don’t seem to be all that interested in them. This fall, savvy Chase’s shoppers may spot something new: puntarelle, an Italian green that is a variant of chicory.

Back at Fine Line Farm, where McCabe and Tompkins offer up samples of the nutty-tasting sunbuds, or sunflower buds, spicy heirloom radish, sweet and tender sunflower shoots and more, the farmers said that enough people have been willing to try their produce and that their out-of-the-box farm strategy is paying off.

“We’ve spent a whole lot of time doing research and doing trials. We’ve spent years trying to get certain things to work, with a lot of failure along the way,” she said, adding that the work is paying off. “We’re not killing it, but we get by. This is how we make our living.”

Publication date: 9/26/2017


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