At 8:30 a.m. the thermometer reads 35 degrees, but with a gusty wind blowing, there's a nasty bite to the cold. The sun is just rising over the tops of the surrounding woods. Oak, hickory, beech, sweet gum have all shed their leaves long ago, and a wind-torn plume of smoke from a wood stove says winter has arrived.
But as Brett Grohsgal stands on his back porch and looks out over his 104 acres outside Lexington Park in farthest southern Maryland, there's nothing dormant about what he sees: fields painted in brilliant shades of green, row upon row of vibrant, leafy vegetables luxuriating in the cold.
Local farmer Brett Grohsgal surveys the current crop at his Even' Star Organic Farm near Lexington Park.
(Photo Above Bill O'leary / Greens Photos By Julia Ewan -- The W)
For the 44-year-old farmer, this is a kind of "yippee" moment. He is a man smitten -- some might even say possessed -- by winter greens: the kales, the collards and arugulas, the tat sois, the mustards and turnips, formally known as brassicas. For a dozen years or more, he has been breeding such plants, which can stand up to cold seasons slightly more temperate than Washington's winters. Brassicas thrive when the mercury plummets, producing their own kind of natural antifreeze, which results in the peppery, spicy, muscular flavors for which hearty greens are prized.
Grohsgal takes it all in and sighs. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" But there's no time to stand around admiring the crops. Each week, he drives dozens of cases of his organically grown greens into Washington for delivery to several restaurants, to the commissaries at American University and to about 90 families who have subscribed for the season. And he'll do so until the weather turns again, sometime in April, as his brassicas continue to grow through ice and snow.
It might be freezing, but Grohsgal is itching to work, dressed against the chill in an outfit that makes him look like an oddly colorized cosmonaut: quilted, tan Carhartt coveralls buttoned tight, a red Lands' End fleece cap and a double layer of bright blue synthetic gloves. He is among a small number of vegetable farmers in the Washington area who are driven to do it.
"We don't even begin harvesting our collards until they've been hit with three hard frosts," he explains. "They're good down to 5 degrees."
While chickens peck the ground nearby, Grohsgal with a few well-practiced motions scoops up several five-gallon plastic buckets outside the barn, washes them in a bleach solution and scans a clipboard to remind himself of pending orders from restaurants. He checks tall stacks of milk crates full of greens that were picked and washed the day before, doing some quick math in his head about where his inventory stands and how much remains to be harvested. Then he hustles out to the fields with a bucket to do some picking.
First stop, mizuna.
Grohsgal has agreed to let me experience firsthand what the harvest entails. I quickly learn what he and field workers everywhere already know well: This is backbreaking work. We are on our hands and knees, looking at a daunting, six-foot-wide row of mizuna, a variety of mustard plant. The plants grow in tight clusters, each with a hundred or more slender white stems rising into wispy, saw-toothed leaves about six inches long. Most will go into mesclun, a tender salad mix.
He shows me how to grab a clump of stems near the base, then cut it off with a pair of kitchen scissors. Anyone else might just dump the leaves into the bucket and move on. But we not only separate the small, tender leaves from the bigger, tougher ones, we also remove stray bits of grass and weed, as well as any individual leaves that might be even slightly bruised or damaged. It's tedious and time-consuming labor, especially when one's knees feel like they are digging postholes in the cold dirt. The greens have to be immaculate, he says.
All the while, Grohsgal is urging me to taste the greens, which somehow feels awkward, picking them right out of the ground and putting them into my mouth. "Eat! Eat!" he says, handing me a sprig of field cress, a "volunteer" he has found growing wild among his mizunas. "I don't really like it myself," he says. "It has a strong flavor." I chew some and find it tastes like corn tassel.
In case I have any doubts about the superior flavor of his cold-tolerant greens, Grohsgal has me taste samples from his two greenhouses. The greenhouse plantings include lettuces and rapini that he can send to his wholesale clients if there's a shortage in the field. But he regards enclosure-grown greens with some disdain; he finds their flavor "insipid." When I try the arugula, I see what he means. It reminds me of what I buy at the supermarket, a faint echo of what I have tasted in the field.
As a former chef with a master's degree in soil science, Grohsgal has a raging passion for plants, and not just the kind you see in the Burpee's catalogue. To further his studies, he researched the tolerance of rice and cowpeas for toxic soil aluminum in the Amazon. Before moving to St. Mary's County, he was breeding winter-hardy arugula in a large garden in Arlington. Not just breeding it, of course, but studying it and nursing it and immersing himself in it in an intensely focused, driven, scientific way. His aim is to produce the most flavorful arugula.
"You really have to know what it feels like to be arugula," he says with complete sincerity.