Photos and text by Alex Wenger.
How many meals do you eat where you know the source of your ingredients, or how many miles they’ve traveled to your plate? Recently Chef Taylor and Sous Chef Sarah added a house-made summer squash gnocchi to the menu at Ma(i)son. The summer squash gnocchi are made with four different types of summer squash, like the Italian ‘tromboncino’ variety, as well as squash blossoms. All of the vegetables used in this dish came from our gardens and they grew within several hundred feet of each-other. The major ingredient used in the gnocchi that we were not able to supply was the pasta flour, until now. Thanks to one of our newest and most exciting food/farm initiatives, soon this entire meal could be created from foods grown on our land.
Parisienne-style Summer Squash Gnocchi, with four types of summer squash. Photo courtesy Taylor Mason.
From the time that I was 10-years-old I have dreamed of growing grains. Grains are key to self-sufficiency because of their productivity and the important role that they play in our diet. There’s also a lost world of flavors and heirloom varieties that nourished people around the world for thousands of years which are now missing from our modern pallet.
As I sowed increasingly larger grain plantings, I quickly learned that if I wanted to grow grains in any quantity, most of my summer would be spent harvesting and threshing grains by hand. I realized that I may be able to supplement my family’s grain needs, but, with all of my growing and plant-breeding projects, it would be almost impossible to harvest and thresh enough grain to supply my local community.
With the decline of small family farms in the United States, farm machinery has become increasingly larger, more expensive, and scaled to plantings that are measured in size by acres, or even miles. Fortunately there are still relics from a nearly forgotten era of farming that can remind us that things were once different. This year I found one of these machines, one which has made my dream of producing small-scale, specialty grains, a reality.
The Allis-Chalmers All-Crop combine was once considered to be one of the best combines on the market. Built in the 1950s this “miniature” combine was designed for use on small, diversified, farms. It harvests a six-foot swath of grain in one pass through the field, and this makes it easy to grow small plantings of grains, as well as many different varieties. The All-Crop was also designed to harvest seeds that are a variety of sizes, from millet to spelt, which makes it perfect for my grain project.
Last fall I found an Allis-Chalmers All-Crop that was tucked away in a local barn. Ecstatic, I quickly purchased the machine and this summer I put the All-Crop to the test and harvested my first acre of grain comprised of two different varieties of spelt and an experimental planting of Ethiopian purple barley.
The All-Crop at work!
Aside from a few jams and the minor mechanical problems that I’ve learned are “the norm” with farm machinery, the All-Crop ran beautifully. In July I harvested several hundred pounds of spelt that is ready to be de-hulled and find its way onto the menu at Ma(i)son as pasta flour, spelt berries, and for many more creative uses this fall. Later in the season I will harvest buckwheat and Italian dry beans for the restaurant, and in the coming year our partnership will allow us to expand into many different types of grains and seeds, from amaranth to wheat.
Cannellini beans forming pods (left), and young buckwheat plants sprouting (right). We will harvest both this fall using the All-Crop.
Snapshot of our bean field.
Local, diversified, grain production is not only a perfect way to preserve heirloom seeds and the flavors of the past, but it also acts as a sustainable alternative to our modern industrialized food system that emphasizes quantity over quality. Instead of outsourcing the production of staple foods to distant lands, we are bringing them back home, creating a cycle that is better for our health and the health of the environment. By doing so we are collaborating with Ma(i)son to create something that rarely happens anymore: a meal that makes a full cycle, from planting to plate, in the region where it is eaten. We are very proud to revive this full cycle in Lancaster County.