Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Willie Green's Organic Farm and Food Lust

Excerpted from The Northwest Vegetarian Cookbook (Timber Press) by Debra Daniels-Zeller

Willie Greens Organic Farm and Food Lust (word count: 739)

Food Lust is coming. The annual white tablecloth spring dinner and auction looks like another winner this season. This event is held at Willie Greens Organic Farm, a farm I profiled in The Northwest Vegetarian Cookbook (2010, Timber Press).

Recently I shared this excerpt from my book on another blog. It seems only fitting to also share this farm profile here.

Willie Green’s Organic Farm

At Willie Green’s Organic Farm, farmer-owner Jeff Miller didn’t start out with farming roots.Miller’s winding road to organic farming started in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where as a young boy he dreamed about becoming a chef, not a farmer. Miller said that his father “always had a well-trimmed lawn but had no interest in growing food,” so Jeff never thought about a farming career. But he was always cultivating something. “I grew vegetables in the basement when I was young,” he told me. “Wherever I lived, I had a garden.”

After high school, Miller attended the New York Culinary Institute of America and then returned to Pittsburgh as a chef. Eventually he moved to San Francisco and cooked for several four-star restaurants, including the famous Stars. While he was there, he was impressed by the quality and quantity of organic produce moving through the kitchen doors. In the early 1980s, one of Miller’s friends returned from a trip to Seattle and mentioned that there weren’t any farmers selling specialty greens to restaurants there.

Tired of the administrative aspects of a chef’s work, Miller daydreamed about having his own organic farm. As he formulated his plan, he spent time observing an urban farm in Berkeley that grew salad greens.

In the late 1980s, Miller cashed in a life insurance policy, packed some specialty lettuce seeds, hopped on his motorcycle, and headed north to Washington to become a farmer. He leased land near Woodinville and called his farm Willie Green’s Organic Farm—Willie for his grandfather and Green’s for the specialty greens he began growing. When his lettuce crop came up, he headed to Seattle and got eight different accounts right away. “I was a chef, so I knew how and when to talk to chefs,” he explained.

In 1996, Miller bought a 24-acre farm 35 miles northeast of Seattle. Outside Monroe, the farm is just across the Skykomish River in the Tualco Valley. Miller grew unique lettuce varieties and eventually added vegetables like Brussels sprouts, carrots, turnips, and sugar snap peas. Over the years, he bought and leased more farmland and now cultivates diverse row crops and a variety of berries, including golden raspberries and mulberries. In addition to selling to restaurants and other wholesale accounts, Willie Green’s sells produce at nine Seattle farmers’ markets and through their CSA program.

Nowadays, Miller oversees transplanting, growing, and harvesting as he fields phone calls for orders and discusses crop plans with his farm manager. At the farm, workers pluck, pull, and cut vegetables in the fields, then transport them to a greenhouse, where they’re washed and prepped for market. Produce is packed, stacked, and trucked to Seattle. When they don’t have to pack and load trucks for markets the next day, the workers weed, fertilize, and plant new seeds for crops. They build trellises for peas and beans, and transplant starts to the fields. Moving from restaurant to fields to restaurant brings the farm’s focus back to Miller’s other passion—cooking.

“You’ve got to love the farm lifestyle,” Miller said, his eyes brimming with culinary possibilities.

His enthusiasm is contagious, but being new to farming can be a challenge. One of Miller’s biggest risk factors has been the weather, like the black clouds that rolled in so quickly in 2006 that the crew had little time to react before marble-sized hail suddenly pummeled his fields for 15 minutes. The crop of peas, destined to be a bumper crop, was a mass of severed vines. Miller’s market tables were almost bare for weeks, but eventually they recovered, along with Miller’s chef-like confidence.

When I visited his farm before my book was published, Miller told me about his plans for a restaurant on the farm. “It will be first class, all the way,” he’d said.

However, due to unbelievably expensive building permits, land requirements and fees, the actual restaurant wasn’t a feasible possibility yet. Undaunted, Miller invested in a beautiful Raj tent and hosts the fabulous annual Food Lust dinner and silent auction and rents out his picturesque farm fields for weddings and gatherings.

This is first class in action—a simple farm dinner where word is spread about sustainable farms and local food.

Check out Willie Green's Organic farm produce at Seattle farmers' markets. They offer a great variety of produce and pantry staples.

Jeff Miller at Willie Green's Organic Farm in Monroe.

I hope you liked this sweet farm diversion from the usual food blog recipes. We'll be dishing up more recipes soon.

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