Fertile Imagination

In the era of modern agribusiness, organic farmer Paul Krautmann faces a tough row to hoe, but his innovative natural solutions yield delicious results

The food's as fresh as it comes, picked ripe at the peak of flavor. Some of the eggplant varieties are wildly colored, and some of the tomato shapes might seem odd to eyes accustomed to the predictable geometry of conventional hybrids. But Krautmann plants for taste, nutrition and uniqueness -- not the ability to endure a cross-country trip. "Most of my chefs could give a rip about it being organic," he comments. "They're interested in how it tastes, how fresh it is."

Bellews Creek Farm gets credits on the menus at such gourmet restaurants as Harvest, Riddle's and Cardwell's on the Plaza -- places Krautmann can't afford to take his wife and three kids. "I haven't been able to set the world on fire with the income, that's for sure," he admits. "Nancy's an editor at MasterCard -- that feeds us. But the farm's not even at a break-even point yet, and I've still got a new barn to build."

It's a slow, expensive proposition. But every year when he walks into the field and finds that first bell pepper, the world falls into place. "Peppers drive me," he admits solemnly. "At harvest time, we even snack on them in the fields." But first he must pick late July's rosemary, Swiss chard and corno di toro -- a long red Italian sweet pepper, thin-walled and succulent. Then, early August brings the cosmic convergence: tomatoes, garlic and basil. "It seems we have no choice but to chop them all up (tomatoes kind of chunky, garlic and basil kind of fine) put them all in a large bowl and add chunks of feta cheese, drizzle with some good olive oil and stir gently," he wrote in last August's Bellews Creek Farm newsletter.

Linda Williams uses a tiller in the potato field. "It’s hard work," Paul Krautmann says. "You're up early taking care of the animals, and then you're bending and stooping in the hot sun all day."
Jennifer Silverberg
Linda Williams uses a tiller in the potato field. "It’s hard work," Paul Krautmann says. "You're up early taking care of the animals, and then you're bending and stooping in the hot sun all day."

The convergence subsides into prosody: potatoes, soybeans, green beans and colossal red, yellow and orange sweet bell peppers. "At the supermarket they look like plastic, and they're rubbery," he notes. "These are spicy, sweet, crisp to the point of being brittle." Next comes delicata squash, followed by pinky-purple, brilliant white-and-purple-striped eggplant, followed by leeks. "We've got a horse named Patches over on the hill, so we get Patches over here to fix the leeks," he says and, over the kids' groans, describes the German heirloom tomatoes, yellow with red streaks, and the Anna Russian tomatoes, enormous meaty ox hearts, pointed at one end. "Picked just right, they have this full pregnant flavor, sweet and layered, with a hint of acid."

By the end of September, Krautmann is pulling up lettuce, arugula, butternut squash and red jalapenos, absolutely sweet. "There is good reason to go gaga over red peppers," he announces seriously. "The difference between green and red is the ripeness, the mature sugars." Midfall, he harvests root vegetables and mei quing choi, "not the whackin' big white gringo choi but a little green exquisite spoon-shaped choi, great to dip, very crisp and delicate." Then, at season's end, he hands everybody about 30 pounds of butternut squash and sweet potatoes, because both keep really well. "Sweet potatoes should not be kept below 55 degrees," he warns. "Make a nice arrangement on your coffee table, Martha."

When January snowstorms swirl, Riddle's Penultimate Wine Bar & Cafe is roasting chunks of Bellews Creek Farm butternut squash with cinnamon and maple syrup and drenching Bellews Creek Farm sweet potatoes with bourbon sauce. "The big industrial farmers grow varieties that can be packed tight, take a lot of vibration and be sold 11 days from now in New Jersey," explains proprietor Andy Ayers. "I even buy organic cabbage for my coleslaw, because the freshness makes a difference. I got some beautiful spinach from Bellews Creek this spring -- it had none of the bitterness that's so typical; it tasted like candy, with a lovely deep spinach flavor. I pay more for this stuff -- but my customers notice the difference."

Even the Queen of England has gone organic, ordering special grain for the shaggy highland cattle at her Balmoral country retreat. Her son, meanwhile, is dwelling on triumph's dangers: "There is a real risk that the kind of success demonstrated here today will attract people with the wrong motives and the wrong values to take up organic farming," Prince Charles told recipients of the 1998 Organic Food Awards. "The organic sector has no room for the 'get rich quick' mentality."

Tell H.J. Heinz, which recently bought 19 percent of the "organic and natural" Hain Food Group. Tell the 175-store grocery chain on the East Coast whose executives flew to California last year to make deals with organic farmers. Tell General Mills, which bought Cascadian Farm, one of the biggest organic-food companies in the country and owner of Muir-Glen, the nation's largest producer of organic tomatoes.

Merger fever is flushing the organic sector. "It's similar to what's happening in conventional farming -- we're seeing consolidation, more big growers coming in and pushing out smaller growers," California ag specialist Karen Klonsky told reporters last year.

What if organic agriculture loses its soul in all the buyouts and its taste, nutrition, sustainability and freshness start to deteriorate? "People will decide the organic label doesn't mean anything and they will quit buying," says Krautmann with a shrug. "Corporations are not drooling fang-mouthed bloody monsters. Corporations do what corporations do: They make money." He accepts the profit motive as calmly as he accepts the aphids' thirst -- but he's just as quick to describe the damage. "I plant about nine rows of carrots, interspersed among cabbage and radicchio and everything else I grow. The industrial model says, 'Hell, we're making money with carrots -- let's plant more. Soon you've got a monocrop, raised year after year, and they've decided it'd be nice to own the carrot seed, too. Once they get it all set up, all they have to do is hire some pumpkin-headed farmer to push the buttons." No intensive management, no nurturing of the soil, no biodiversity, no balance.

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