Moveable Feast Takes a Wild Turn

One would be remiss (and that one would be I) if this blog about farm and food systems did not address the food we ate, and at times prepared, in our travels. The Summer Study Tour group has literally eaten its way around Vermont.

In the last two weeks, our group has enjoyed meals in cafes, restaurants, dining halls, and community kitchens. We have purchased produce and value-added products from farm stands, farmers markets, and supermarkets, and consumed them in farm picnic areas, dorm rooms, and conference rooms. We ate local, regional, organic, and were at times surprised, after reading labels, that we had inadvertently consumed GMO ingredients as well. Mostly we repasted healthfully.

To name a few of the establishments sourcing locally and organically where our hunger was assuaged: American Flatbread (Burlington), The Skinny Pancake (Montpelier), Chef’s Market (Randolph), Parker Pie (West Glover), Worthy Burger (South Royalton) and Cedar Circle Farm (East Thetford). [Thanks to student Kasey Wien for keeping track on Google Maps.] There were others.

Foraging for wild edibles with Nova Kim of Wild Gourmet Food.

On June 13, however, we had our most atypical meal of the trip at Green Mountain College professor Philip Ackerman-Leist’s home in Pawlet.

To back up a bit, the day started with an invite to attend a business meeting of the Merck Forest and Farmland Center (named for founder George Merck, rather than the pharmaceutical company) in the Taconic Mountains of Vermont. Sited on a high cluster of hills near Rupert, the nonprofit manages 3,162 acres of forest with 30 miles of recreational trails, and features a certified organic maple sugaring operation and a 60-acre working farm. The Merck Center is in final stages of establishing a conservation easement for the entire property

Philip, who is also the curricular coordinator for the Summer Study Tour, gave a talk about the need to pursue not merely conservative practices but a “practice of conservation.” He described the difference: “One is dynamic, the other static; one is active and evolving, the other is simply prescriptive.” Riparian buffers, conservation easements, apple tree releases, and regulated fertilizer and manure applications are important, he said, but farmland conservationists can get stuck in their thinking and even get things wrong – and he gave several examples, including the over-application of subsidized phosphorus in the Mettawee Valley in the 1940s.

Boiling a tea of milkweed tips.

The practice of conservation, Philip said, requires “recognizing that it is indeed practice—observing, theorizing, formulating responses, trying new (or even old) ideas, ultimately adopting or adapting conservation practices based on experience.” He urged the Merck Center to consider working with similar groups in Vermont and elsewhere to form conservation consortiums, in the way colleges and universities offering food systems study united to form the Vermont Higher Education Food Systems Consortium, which ultimately led to Summer Study Tour 2015.

From Merck Center, we headed for Philip’s farm in Pawlet. Almost to the end of the 1/2 mile-long lane, we met up with Nova Kim and Leslie Hook, owners of Wild Gourmet Food based in Randolph. Here’s where our most atypical eating adventure began.

Nova and Les helped us identify and collect oxeye daisy buds, violet greens, milkweed tips, Virginia waterleaf greens, ramp bulbs, and several mushrooms from the surrounding woods. We gathered them in bunches of 13 (Baker’s Dozen) as they do for the chefs they service in New York City and other large urban centers. Nova taught us also how to pick by hand the tops of stinging nettle, mostly bug-chewed at this stage, without the usual consequence. Les pointed out partridge berry and wintergreen as well, but those had already been wild-crafted by other creatures of the forest.

We tramped farther up the lane to Philip’s and his wife Erin’s homestead, where Philip cooked up these collected wild fillings, as well as traditional beans, salad greens, salsa, and ground meat from a recently-slaughtered Devon heritage-breed bovine from the Ackerman-Leist farm. Needless to say, everyone “pronounced it,” as author Euell Gibbons often liked to say in his Stalking the Wild Asparagus, “good.”