There is a lot of talk these days about farm-to-fork eating. In our area many people take it seriously and generally do a good job of eating thoughtfully; using fresh, local ingredients. Isaiah Allen personifies this way of living. He is currently Chef de Cuisine at Il Palio (my last column told the romantic story of how he’d come to make the wonderful Tagliatelle al Tartufo there) and will soon be Executive Chef of the Eddy Pub in Saxapahaw. And, of course, he also owns Rocky Run Farm with his wife Whitney, and the line between all of those jobs blurs in wonderful and interesting ways.
About three or four years ago Isaiah and Whitney decided they wanted to try growing their own food, even though they had no previous experience. They were trying to eat better and had been watching documentaries like Food, Inc. while learning about pollution and commodity farming. They became more and more captivated with the ideas they were hearing and wanted to do something to make a difference. They started by setting up a small garden in their front yard, growing tomatoes and basil. After cooking with their produce food, they realized that they had an itch for farming and wanted to do more of it. Through talking to people, they found out that Whitney’s uncle had some family land. Eventually they expanded onto area and made a garden, enlarging it with a small tractor. They successfully pushed the garden to a quarter acre and grew beets, carrots and a few other things.
Inspired by how well things were going, Isaiah and Whitney wanted to do more. They found a Sustainable Agriculture program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro and took the class. This gave him the tools to do all the things that he was thinking of doing, and he now had a certified one-year degree for sustainable farming.
After school each week he’d take what he had learned and, along with Whitney, would use it on their farm. He learned about biological pest management and enjoyed watching the soil full-cycle. A simple but very important thing he learned was how to keep the soil healthy. Conventional farming teaches that soil is a sponge – dump stuff into it and the soil is lifeless. The sustainable farming that Isaiah learned showed him that the soil needs to be healthy; and healthy soil feeds the plants. He does some really interesting things to keep his soil in good condition. He takes leftover salmon bones and heads from his restaurant and uses that for compost. He gets leftover whey from a local cheesemaker, composts it and tosses that over the soil. The whey helps get rid of bad bacteria and the worms digest it, consume it and then make it plant viable. One day he went to a BBQ place for a sandwich and asked what they did with their ashes. Now he picks those ashes up once a week and uses them in his soil. With one good rain it soaks in, raising the pH level of the soil. He’s using things that would otherwise be thrown away to make his soil healthier.
They now have land in Mebane and plan to expand their farm. The plan is for there to be one acre for the house, one acre for an orchard, two acres of cover crop, two acres of fruits and vegetables and two acres of pasture for mixed livestock (they’re thinking rabbits, chickens, sheep and a few pigs). They will rotate these the way the Amish do to keep the soil healthy. The animals will be fertilizing the soil, the cover crop will hold nutrients in place until the next round. This builds the topsoil and is called “nutrient cycling” and continually improves the soil, making it better and better with each year. They intend to have a long driveway to the house lined with chestnut trees. Once these trees start to give off nuts they will harvest as many as they can, and then they’ll release the pigs they hope to have and let them clean up the rest. Then, the pigs can be marketed as chestnut-finished pork, much like Iberico pork is sold as acorn-finished.
Right now they’re doing cooking demonstrations at farmers’ markets. They give out recipes that work with what they are selling, and will be at Southern Village’s market on Thursdays, and the Hillsborough’s smaller market at the Home Depot on Saturdays.
The Allens want to make this work as a business, hoping to build a reputation with their quality products. Whitney has a degree in business and bookkeeping and is now doing an ag-business course to help out on the business side of the farm. Her accounting knowledge helps a lot. This is a team effort and a dream for both of them. As their lifes’ work, they constantly think up new possibilities. They are living their lives the way they want to, and doing what they believe in and love. Il Palio buys some of their produce and working there gives him a way to promote the farm. The man cooking the food is the man growing the food. And the food waste from that same restaurant is put into their compost. It is a brilliant circle and truly farm-to-fork.
You can follow Kari on Twitter @NoshSpiceNC.