Shining a light on Florida Agriculture

Field to Feast – Recipes celebrating Florida farmers, chefs and artisans —

Heather McPherson has been writing about food, from production to presentation, in Florida for 24 years. Not long ago, she and two friends, Pam Brandon and Pam’s daughter Katie Farmand, experienced an “ah-ha moment.”  They decided to collaborate on a book that showcased Florida agriculture and its connections to restaurants, their chefs, farmers markets, and community supported agriculture. The result is “Field to Feast.”

Brandon and Farmand also have impressive resumes in the food industry. Brandon has written several cookbooks, is managing editor of “Edible Orlando” magazine and writes food columns for OrlandoSentinel.com and the Palm Beach Post. Farmand is editor of Edible Orlando, develops recipes, and is a freelance food writer and food stylist.

The three get together to share their experiences as often as they can. “We always said we should do a project together,” McPherson said. “One day we realized – wow – let’s write about what we talk about … meeting farmers, sharing the latest on restaurants and recipes. That’s how the book came to be.”

McPherson wrote a proposal to the University Press at the University of Florida and, to the authors’ surprise, it was accepted immediately. It was time to get to work. Because McPherson is based in Central Florida, she signed on to cover that part of the state. Brandon took South Florida and Farmand traveled north.

The three women talked to chefs to find out who they sourced from locally. They talked to associations such as FFVA and the Florida Dairy Farmers about farmers in Florida. And they scoured the state’s farmers markets to find suppliers who were hidden gems.

“Field to Feast” emphasizes the contrast between production areas in different parts of the state. “Florida has three distinctive weather zones and soil zones,” said McPherson. “From Homestead up to the Panhandle, everything changes.”

"Field to Feast" authors from left, Heather McPherson, Kate Farmand and Pam Brandon.

After their adventures, the authors met to decide who they would feature in the book, which was not an easy task. “It was one of our biggest challenges. We wanted to feature people who were unique in their approach to farming,” said McPherson.  They talked to people who run large operations, niche farms, small farms and self-sustaining farms, she said. “They all work well together and are important to Florida’s economy and environment.  Some of them feed the world, some the neighborhood. They all serve a purpose.”

After hearing the stories told by farmers, chefs and artisans, Brandon, McPherson and Farmand collected recipes from those featured. In some cases they created recipes based on ingredients produced by a farm – with the farmer’s approval. “Some of those were traditional family recipes and we didn’t change a thing,” said McPherson. “For example, we have Helen McGuinness’ Honey Bunutty Dessert from Blossom Honey Company in Volusia County.  We couldn’t change anything because we wanted it to stay true to what her son and daughter remember eating as children. They started selling honey in the 1940s and ’50s and have been at the Fancy Food Show in New York for 60 years. At one time, they were the only honey company at the show.”

Several FFVA members are featured in “Field to Feast.”  Beginning in the southern part of the state, one of those is Teena’s Pride.  FFVA board member Teena Borek is a former Florida Agriculture Woman of the Year. She and her husband were married, started a family and managed a growing farm in the 1970s until her husband was killed in a tractor accident at a young age. Borek pressed on and has, as the book points out, become somewhat of a legend in South Florida agriculture. Today, her son Michael manages the fields and greenhouses. “Field to Feast” praises Teena’s Pride’s 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and its heritage vegetables that are sold to top restaurants and through a CSA.

Wish Farms, the operation of FFVA board member Gary Wishnatzki, also is spotlighted. “Field to Fork” relates how Russian immigrant Harris Wishnatzki, a New York produce pushcart peddler in the 1920s, came to Central Florida to set up a produce shipping operation. The shipping operation grew, through the hard work of family and employees, eventually growing strawberries and vegetables. The company has become one of Florida’s largest strawberry shippers and is sponsor of the Florida Strawberry Festival’s concert stage.

“Field to Feast” explores cattle ranches, hog farms, poultry operations and uncovers some surprises, McPherson said. “When Katie came back and told us about Green Gate Olive Grove, we said, ‘Seriously?’ People usually associate U.S.-grown olives with California. We were thrilled,” she said. “The Muellers sell their olives in brine, press them into a peppery olive oil and they run a U-Pick operation. We love Don Mueller’s olive oil cake. If you bake with this kind of light olive oil, it imparts a wonderful fruity aroma to the cake.” Naturally, Don’s recipe is included in the book.

Peaches were another surprise. McPherson visited FFVA member Wes Borders and family at Neat and Sweet Farms in Lakeland. Borders, a veteran grower of strawberries and other produce, worked with the University of Florida on developing Florida peach varieties. They planted a few experimental acres in 2000 and today have more than 40 acres. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” Wes Borders modestly told McPherson.

The restaurants and chefs in “Field to Feast” described their increasingly important relationships with local producers. Chef Bran Siebenschuh of Jacksonville’s Restaurant Orsay said, “The idea of the chef who goes to the market every morning is, at least in Florida, a myth. Instead, we work with the farms in our area to source fresh, responsibly raised ingredients.”

Chef Brandon McGlamery of Luma on Park in Winter Park agrees that working with local farmers is key to his success. “It’s all about the ingredients. It’s the core of everything we do. Knowing my food sources elevates my passion as a chef. That core connection goes from the purveyor to the chef and to the customer.”

Roadside markets and CSAs are another way for consumers to connect with the farm. Brandon visited the popular market Robert is Here, just off U.S. Highway 1 in Florida City, in the Homestead area.  Robert Moehling started selling his father’s cucumbers by the side of the road in 1959 as a 6-year-old. He was not successful. His dad mentioned that maybe passers-by hadn’t seen him. The next day, Robert’s dad placed handwritten signs on each side of his son’s card table announcing that “Robert is Here.” Robert sold all his cucumbers by noon. Other area farmers soon began adding their produce to Robert’s offerings, and a young man’s future was established.  Today, crowds go out of their way to sample Robert’s milkshakes and fill the car with baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The CSA, which stands for community supported agriculture, allows consumers to buy seasonal produce directly from farmers. Some offer the opportunity to share risks by helping with the costs to grow the food. If it’s a good year, everyone benefits. If not, maybe next year. Most CSAs these days serve as a subscription program where consumers sign on to buy a certain amount of food per month, which is delivered in a bag or box. “Field to Feast” says it’s a great way for city or suburban residents to expand their knowledge of fresh produce and learn how to prepare new and different ingredients.

McPherson says the book has been very well-received. “We did a book signing in Coral Gables and the bookstore sold out,” she said. “We went to the Tampa Bay Times book festival and our publishers sold out.  And not long ago, I participated in a panel discussion on food with Chef Norman Akin at the Winter Park Library. It sold out there.

“People want to connect with the person who grows their food. For many who can never get out to a farm, this is helpful for them.  Our goal was to shine a light on Florida agriculture and what it can be. This book could have been four times as big. We’re hoping to do a second edition,” she said.

“Field to Feast” is available through the publisher here or by calling (800) 226-3822, online via Amazon.com, and  through many booksellers.

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