Wouldn’t it be a lot more fun to eat your vegetables if they were speckled pigeon peas, purple sweet potatoes and tiny Hungarian rice beans?
For Alex Wenger of the The Field’s Edge Research Farm in Lititz, growing heirloom and exotic vegetables is an art and a science.
Wenger supplies Lancaster restaurants like Ma(i)son, JJ Jeffries, Bistro Barbaret and Horse Inn, as well as Philadelphia and New York City restaurants with fresh organic vegetables like wild broccoli rabe, silvetta arugula, melon cucumbers and Formia corn. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill vegetables. Some date back hundreds of years to Native Americans and early settlers to the region. Others come from Africa, Asia and Europe.
Step three: apply dried pollen to the pistils (a pencil eraser works best for us), cover the branch with a mesh bag to keep the bees from making unwanted crosses, then hope for good fruit set! The seeds of the cross will have half the genetics of the male parent, and half the genetics of the female parent. Full time chef and part time plant-breeder Rafaed Pozzi demonstrates @agueybana1982 #plantbreeding
The vegetables that The Field’s Edge Research Farm grows are rich, flavorful and packed with vitamins and minerals. They’re also a lot more interesting than regular peas and carrots.
“Restaurants are always looking for something new and different to put on the menu,” says Wenger.
That’s where Field’s Edge comes in. Sometimes Wenger can suggest vegetables he is growing that might spruce up a farm-to-table menu. Other times, he’ll research a type of vegetable that a chef has heard of, and figure out how to grow it. He’s also skilled at offering tips on how certain vegetables should be prepared.
“One of our most fun and rewarding recent collaborations has been with the rijuice family of Lancaster. They came looking for new ingredients and to learn more about farming, and they’ve become close friends and supporters of all that we do,” says Wenger, adding that they volunteer on a regular basis to help with research projects and help with farm work.
Ever since he was a kid, and Wenger is just 24 now, he has always been partial to fresh, tasty vegetables. He was home-schooled just north of Lititz by his parents, Neill and Jane Wenger, who raised him to follow his passion for science and creativity.
“My grandparents had greenhouses and raised cut flowers until the ’70s,” says Wenger. “While they greenhouses were sold by the time I was born, I grew up hearing stories about life on my grandparents’ farms, and we always had large gardens.”
He went on to Goddard College, where he studied sustainable agriculture with an emphasis on ethnobotany and plant breeding. His studies included the use of wild plants among place-based cultures around the world, and molecular plant genetics to understand how traditional plant breeding can be used to develop more disease and pest-resistant crops that are adapted to organic farming systems.
“I never intended to be a farmer,” Wenger says. “Growing vegetables became a way for me to apply my studies. It’s one thing to read about the edible or medicinal values of a plant, but to learn how to grow it, touch and taste it leads to a different type of understanding.”
Naturally curious, Wenger has been inspired by all sorts of plant varieties, such as the eastern North American groundnut, a plant in the pea and bean family that looks like a potato and has a nutty flavor.
Many of the vegetables he grows are heirloom vegetables, which refers to seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation. He also works with open-pollinated vegetable and grain varieties, as well as landraces, a variety of crop where each of the individuals is genetically different.
“Sometimes this difference is extreme, where each corn stalk may produce a different colored ear. Other times it’s subtle, with some peppers that bloom earlier than the others,” he says.
The first year they grew the Spin Rosso della Valsugana corn, most of the plants fell over. They saved seeds from only those with sturdy stalks, and several years later, they now have strong, weather and pest-resistant plants that produce a reliable, nutritious grain crop for Field’s Edge every year.
“We grow a wide assortment that ranges from bitter melons and purslane to Giramon du Martinique squash as a seed crop for the Roughwood Seed Collection. Each has a story to tell,”says Wenger, adding that they also grow some specialty fruits, such as alpine strawberries, Malus sieversii apples, ground cherries and golden berries.
A few unique plants including the toothache plant are fun, which has a has a numbing effect like novocaine. He also grows a variety of basils, with flavors that range from mint to oregano notes.
The goal for The Field’s Edge operation is to focus on research projects that span sustainable seed systems, alternative cropping practices and explore ethnobotanical traditions to consider “new” applications for the plants they grow, or to rediscover old ones that have been forgotten.
A photo posted by Alex Wenger (@thefieldsedge) on
To address their mission, they work on projects to breed new plants that require fewer sprays, or explore alternative crops that are seldom grown in our climate. They explore foods that are more nutritious and develope ways of growing plants that build soil health.
“We re-examine food traditions and techniques for caring for the land that have been lost in recent history,” says Wenger.
Wenger doesn’t just grow vegetables.
“I love to cook and we’re always experimenting with new preparations for all that we grow, ranging from infusions to fermentations,” says Wenger, who enjoys searing and flash-roasting meaty vegetables, and using favors like cilantro, spruce, tumeric, sweet potato and marigold.
Looking to the future, The Field’s Edge Research Farm is focused on offering fresh new and old flavors, with an emphasis on sustainability research.