The Chef's Farmer
What the Judges Say
From The Good Earth, The Chef’s Farmer pulls the reader in immediately. It is intriguing to learn how Jamie Swofford approaches farming from the creative perspective of a chef. The piece presents a wonderful sense of time and place.
Great piece about the evolution of a true "foodie" -- someone who learned to appreciate food by cooking and also developed the "affection for the land" that Wendell Berry believes brings us all to the table for better food.
Jamie Swofford keeps a yellow legal pad attached to a clipboard with his daily list of farm tasks carefully written and categorized into "inside" and "outside" duties. The list, which he usually writes the day before, is further broken down to the specific areas of the property on which he farms. Years of getting crushed by volume in the harried restaurant kitchens of Charlotte taught him a thing or two about organization and preparedness.
"I run my farm like I run a restaurant," he says.
Swofford's unspoken list of priorities, the one written on his heart, might read: family, land, chefs.
The talented chef turned farmer has spent the last two seasons working his family's land in Cleveland County, of which there are 80 acres in total, about an hour outside of Charlotte. He calls it FEBA Farm for his father, Floyd Eric, and his mother, Barbara Anne. Cows linger on a bucolic stretch of pasture; the only real noise is the occasional crow of a rooster. Bearded and ball-capped, Swofford is waiting for me with his farm assistant, a delighted pup named Kooba.
We enter into a small greenhouse where he shows me a well-organized crop of seedlings and fresh compost, courtesy of the cows out back. He reaches into a bucket of his soil mixture, cups a handful of dirt with both hands and leans in for a whiff. Nasturtium is approaching full bloom on a few shelves outside, along with various herbs. An "experimental plot" next to the greenhouse bears tiny beginnings of his boutique products–neatly planted rows of pac choi, chervil, wasabi arugula, red vein sorrel, watercress, and sugar snap peas.
We hop in his jeep for a ride around the property. On the way to his next plot, he points to a few bee boxes that he keeps for a friend. Though much of his work is a one-man operation, he helps his friends sell their products and subscribes to a sense of old-school community, where neighbors help neighbors.
Driving with the windows down, the inevitable scent of cow dung wafts through the air.
"Smells organic," says Swofford with a cheeky smile.
Once upon a time, there was nothing he wanted more than to escape this place.
At eighteen years old, a rebellious Swofford ditched life in the country for the Queen City and soon after began working in kitchens. He found his way into esteemed restaurants–Mimosa Grill, Upstream and Zink, to name a few–working his way up the culinary ladder. He took every opportunity to cook and hone his skills, traveling to places like the James Beard House and Blackberry Farm.
Other chefs will tell you that he had "it." That, had he stayed in the kitchen, his name would be as easily recognizable in this town as Jacksina, Lynch, or Moffett.
After nearly two decades in the restaurant hustle, his roots began to show themselves: Food was coming through the back doors, but where from?
Swofford remembers his grandmother's skill at preserving and "putting up." He recalls how she would lay her best tomatoes out to dry in the sun and how she would string pole beans together to dehydrate them into a country staple called "leather britches."
With culinary know-how, agricultural curiosity, and a fondness for acronyms, Swofford returned to Cleveland County and set up plots scattered across his family's property for his own operation, which he calls LARD, or Local Agricultural Rural Development.
He brings out a Ziploc® bag packed tightly with what appears to be green onions. They are neatly trimmed and cleaned with culinary precision, orderly. He hands me one and I bite into the crisp white base. It is sweet and refreshing. These are his daylily "leeks," which he suggests using in a mirepoix or in a simple butter braise. He knows because he tested applications in his own kitchen. That's the chef in him.
Packaged in a clamshell container are the tubers from the the daylilies, crunchy knobs resembling peanuts that taste like a water chestnut. Swofford calls them "ground peanuts" and was inspired after a local chef inquired about a peanut source. Finding an answer wasn't interesting enough; instead, his curiosity drove him to find a substitution. "There's no power in growing the same stuff as everybody else," he says.
Swofford delivers to a handful of kitchens in Charlotte. In them are some of Charlotte's best chefs. His deal is quality, not quantity, and he goes to great lengths to tailor his products into customized programs.
The Asbury's Executive Chef Chris Coleman remembers when he first connected with Swofford while working at the McNinch House.
"He was growing the tiniest baby kale and chard mix." says Coleman. "He would text me almost every day with pictures, asking me exactly when I wanted him to cut it. He's a boutique farmer. You feel pampered when you work with Jamie."
"There is a level of reverence for the ingredients," says Chef Marc Jacksina. When Swofford arrived with some prized chanterelles, they were perfectly cleaned and kitchen-ready.
I ride around with him on a Friday to make deliveries. Today, Swofford is light on product save a few flats of eggs and a couple bags of herbs. Mostly, he brings with him a list of products for the spring season, a foretaste of what's to come. He is laying the groundwork for his future harvest.
He hands each chef a list of products, and to some he shows his newest product, the daylily "leek." At Halcyon, Executive Chef Jim Stouffer bites into its crisp base.
"They could go right into a salad, they're so sweet," he says.
Swofford rattles off a few details. "A half pound yields about 80 to 100 count." Stouffer nods in understanding. He speaks their language.
"He understands the flow of the restaurant and timing issues," says Stouffer. "For a chef, that's everything."
We meet Chef Chris Coleman at The Asbury for a little more of the same. Swofford tells Coleman what's in the ground and when he can expect to see product coming through the doors. Coleman is twirling a daylily "leek" in his hands, taking small bites, presumably pondering its uses for his kitchen.
We finish the day dropping off a couple containers of edible flowers to Bob Peters at Pisces Sushi. He will be using them to garnish his craft cocktails. Later, I see a picture with a tiny violet floating in the center of one of Bob's cocktails. Farm to Instagram.
Back on the farm, Swofford bends down and plucks a yellow sunburst from the ground and pulls off its green base to release a flurry of tiny petals into delicate, glimmering yellow sprinkles. Dandelion confetti, he calls it, packed with vitamins A and C. I think about how pretty those petals would look garnishing a verdant spring pea soup, though before that moment, I would not have given the dandelion a second thought.
This story was originally published in the Late Spring 2014 issue of Edible Charlotte.