The History of the Gardens
Shortly after the Roadhouse opened in 2003, Chef Alex began, as he says, “playing in the garden” as a way to relieve the stress of running a busy restaurant. It began as 75 square feet in his backyard, with fourteen double dug rows filled with leeks, carrots, squash and tomatoes. He began harvesting the rows, bringing the vegetables into the restaurant and preparing specials. Showing a few regular customers sitting at the lunch counter at the Roadhouse what he had made, watching them taste the dishes and hearing their admiration and appreciation, made it even more appealing to keep growing, and to keep learning.
In the years following, Chef Alex continued to spend his time off in the garden, continuously learning, checking out books from the library, visiting bookstores, and practicing what he was reading. He read about how to farm organically, the importance of composting, micro-nutrients, and phosphorus application, just to name a few subjects. He landed on Ed Smith’s book, ‘The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible,’ where he learned about the WORD system – “wide rows, organic methods, raised beds, deep soil” – and that system, which focuses on the health of the plants, helped shape what the gardens are today. And like anyone with a passion, Chef Alex has continued to study, practice and learn ever since.
The garden gradually doubled in size, taking on its first full-time employee in 2008, Mark Baerwolf, as manager. Together, Chef Alex and Mark grew the farm to even more acreage and more crops, purchasing adjoining land (which actually belonged to the family of Chef Alex’s wife, Kelly, back in the 1830s). Focusing on vegetables from the Slow Food Ark of Taste, the farm grew from 4 different vegetables to over 50. Even as the gardens continue to expand, Alex and Mark manage everything from planting to caretaking to harvesting, hand delivering the vegetables daily to Zingerman’s Roadhouse and other Zingerman’s businesses.
Where the Farm is Today
Cornman Farms now sits on 47 acres of land, interwoven with gardens, pastures, wetlands, a carefully restored 1838 barn and an 1834 pre-civil war home. The production gardens are 10 acres of the property, farmed year-round, and home to over 50 different varieties of crops including heirloom tomatoes, peppers, squash, grains, corn, rutabaga, kale, celeriac, flowers, and herbs. Cornman Farms has taken farm-to-table to the next level and is truly farm-to-farm, with many of the vegetables never even leaving the property, traveling right from the garden to the farmhouse or barn to be served (and back again as scraps to our compost piles!!!)
Growing for Taste
Cornman Farms focuses on growing vegetables for their taste, not for yield. Many varieties are grown from the Slow Food Ark of Taste. Organic practices further promote soil health and the best possible flavor. This includes harvest timing, which is done when the produce is at its peak ripeness. Mark then delivers the vegetables directly to the Roadhouse and other kitchens around the area, where the produce is used in special menu items. It is one of the many benefits of having a farm that is owned by a chef – the farmers can plant and grow for the restaurant, growing for optimal taste, not yield, and in turn, the farmers can depend on that market outlet. The difference in the care and attention given to the vegetables is evident-you really can taste the difference.
The Importance of Compost
The soil is a crucial part of the quality and nutrient content of the vegetables harvested. Being in Michigan, the soil is very clay-like and wet, requiring lots of careful tillage and timely working. When working with clay soil that is too wet, it compacts and develops a crust, which makes it hard for plants to get what they need to grow. Cornman Farms has developed a compost system to help give the soil better water infiltration, nutrient availability and nutrient storage. When comparing fields that have been receiving compost for years to fields that are more recently opened, the soil fertility is drastically different, and the hard work clearly shows. The compost used at Cornman Farms comes from kitchen scraps from Zingerman’s Roadhouse. And since the majority of produce at the Roadhouse comes from Cornman Farms, the produce returns to where it was grown, completing the cycle.
When walking the gardens, the crops are not segregated, but planted amongst one another, following a practice of companion planting. Companion planting looks at the big picture, and encourages decisions based upon the specific characteristics of each crop. It can be done intentionally, for example having beds of cabbage alternating with beds of leeks. The leeks have a naturally strong smell, while comparatively cabbage does not but is very attractive to a lot of pests. By interspersing the cabbage and the leeks, the latter can act as a natural insecticide and help deter many of the cabbage pests. This gives the big win of not having to use chemicals to control the pests, but using the crops to work together. Companion planting can be a more casual practice as well, like planting corn next to flowers. The flowers need a windbreak, and the corn can grow quite tall and sturdy, thus blocking the wind. Creating a beneficial microclimate, companion planting encourages an ecosystem where all things benefit from one another.
Cornman Farms has preserved 47 acres of farmland and has deeply influenced the cooking at the Roadhouse. It has provided the Roadhouse kitchen with building blocks of flavor, has influenced Chef Alex’s style by making it simpler, shows more respect to the food by making it less complicated, and has allowed enjoyment of the full-flavored characteristics inherent in well cared for produce. While many chefs spend their careers learning how to make bad food taste good, Cornman Farms provides our chefs with the amazing, great-tasting ingredients the Roadhouse highlights and shares with our customers. What began as “playing in the garden” has changed the lives of the farmers, the staff of the Roadhouse and the guests who reap the benefits of what the farmers sow.