Chesapeake Harvest: Reviving our Diverse Agrarian Roots

On a recent cloudy day, I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with Tracy Ward and Deena Kilmon from Chesapeake Harvest. As soon as we began to discuss the mission and activities of Chesapeake Harvest, I just knew clouds were parting outside the office and their words ushered in a ray of sunshine and a hint of blue sky.

You see, my family is from the Eastern Shore. We’ve lived here for hundreds of years. Growing up, I was always captivated by the stories my mother and grandmother would tell me about life and lore on the Eastern Shore. These stories centered primarily around family, food and cultural rituals that have disappointingly faded over time. One ritual that has remained a steadfast staple in our family is our yearly canning of the figs. Around the second or third week in August, when the figs are perfectly ripe, the world stops and we make my great grandmother Ida May Stevenson’s fig preserves.

In the past, figs in town were also picked, laid carefully on special screened boxes and placed on rooftops to dry. In the Eastern Shore town where this took place, neighbors had their own rituals; some were seasonal and some were daily, like collecting eggs. Since not everyone can do everything, bartering was an acceptable means for acquiring all that you might need when gasoline was scarce or the frozen river severed you from the outside world. This community thrived and prided itself on sustainability. A savvy gardener would trade a portion of their tomato crop for a future share of a waterman friend’s oysters when fall rolled around.

During World War II, my mother’s friend was sent from Philadelphia to this town to live with her grandparents because food rations were “tight” and they knew she would be fed well. By fed well, I mean local fish like perch and croaker, crabs, fresh chicken, fresh eggs, fresh vegetables like corn, tomatoes, spinach, squash and green beans, fruits like wild berries and cultivated ones too, melons, peaches and figs. This was a model of community sustainability not seen anymore. Food production and distribution left no carbon footprint; the community fed itself.

What if the Delmarva Peninsula had to rely only on the Delmarva Peninsula to feed itself? Could we do it? As World War II ended, our canning factories closed down, our victory gardens became scarce, and our rivers were depleted from over-harvesting. Trains had no reason to come to the Eastern Shore and our food distribution infrastructure that once supported the Delmarva Peninsula and the war effort became fragmented and outdated. Enter big agriculture, where now Delmarva grows an abundance of corn, soy beans and wheat. Do you see fields of tomatoes or spinach anymore? Rarely. Vegetables and fruits are now considered “specialty crops.”

This is where Chesapeake Harvest is shining a light through the clouds. Where infrastructure, distribution and community connectivity between our farmers, businesses and our inhabitants has become splintered and disconnected, Chesapeake Harvest is trying to repair these gaps in more ways than one.

Many small farms have lost access to markets, so they are connecting with farmers directly and coupling them with wholesale distributors. They also provide technical assistance, GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification and “Bay Friendly” certification.

One way to highlight our local farms is to purchase a weekly “Sampler Box” from Chesapeake Harvest. It should be noted that a recent $30 box of goodies was single sourced – all produce came from a single farm- thus promoting traceability, transparency, authenticity and produce diversity all in one box. This carnival of colorful produce is picked on Wednesday for Thursday delivery in Easton. You just can’t get any fresher than that – unless you eat directly from your own garden. The fresh vegetables and fruits smells emanating from this box captivated my senses.

For more information about purchasing a “Sampler Box” from Chesapeake Harvest, visit chesapeakharvest.com. Or, contact Deena Kilmon at 410-829-4052 or sales@chesapeakeharvest.com.

This freshness is not possible at any grocery store, because big agriculture can’t do this. The beautiful thing about local sourcing is, with the right distribution chain in place, it can shorten the time from field to consumption increasing nutrient value and product shelf life. If you sample something from the box that you really love, like apples, larger amounts can be purchased – a bushel or more. Mind you, although many locals are utilizing these sampler boxes to feed their families, the scope of the box can be taken much further. Restaurants, universities, schools, hospitals and grocers can buy in bulk from Chesapeake Harvest.

The work of Chesapeake Harvest has been made possible by the EEDC (Easton Economic Development Corporation). Through grant funding, this project has continued to move forward by repairing severed connections and re-laying the tracks for a sustainable locally driven food distribution network. One of their first initiatives was defining “local.” The word local has been used so liberally that providing clarity was essential. With the Delmarva Peninsula as the center of their focus, as the harvest grows, local becomes defined by within 200 concentric miles to include our great watershed and would serve 40 million people.

Positive and enlightening statistics include:

  • Delmarva contains the largest contiguous block of farmland in the Eastern United States – some 1.5 million acres.
  • More than 50% of the Delmarva Peninsula’s farmland acres are small and mid-sized farms that could support high value vegetable, fruit and livestock production.
  • If 5% of food dollars from Southern Maryland households were spent on local food, local farmers would be selling almost 177,000,000 in product – over 110,000,000 more than they sell now (“Managing Maryland’s Growth: Planning for the Food System,” Maryland Department of Planning, September 2012).

Decreasing the number of miles food has to travel to be consumed makes environmental sense (less carbon), nutritional sense (fresher more nutritional food) and economic sense (a robust local economy).

Conversely, this can only be accomplished by increasing community awareness of the advantages to buying locally produced food and energizing the public to embrace this movement though action. Many people will say they would like to buy local, but it often involves a conscious effort and additional time to visit a local farm stand. It’s easier to buy everything you want at the grocery store – one cart and done. In a fast paced world – our belief and actions can often be contradictory due to time and money constraints. This same concept applies to our schools, hospitals and restaurants. It is simply easier to make one phone call to order your food for the week and have it all arrive on one truck. However, the extra effort put forth to obtain some local specialty crops may pay dividends when you advertise its source to your patrons.

In the rich agricultural lands of the Delmarva Peninsula our food needs are unmet, therefore we import much of what we eat. Does this make sense, especially in an area that at one time fed itself? With so much potential it only makes sense that we look inward and embrace our heritage. By regaining and reviving our diverse agrarian roots we rise above big agriculture and in doing so recapture our Eastern Shore culture.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering and Rootin’ Tootin’ No Gluten Foods. They have four children, of which all four are Gluten Intolerant. The family also lives with multiple food allergies including tree nut, peanut, fish and shellfish. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

Recommended Video: “Red Tomato: Changing the Game” (You Tube).

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