June 12, 2012 -
Q + A with Spice Farm Manager, Andrea Heim
Andrea Heim recently returned from Jamaica after spending the last two years working in the Peace Corps educating the island farmers about organic agriculture. Her new gig as Spice Farm Manager marks her return to farming in the States. Andrea’s planting extends far beyond the Spice Acres Suburbia, the 10,000 sq. ft. plot behind Chef Ben Bebenroth’s home. She’s looking after the 100+ containers on the restaurant roof. She’s building raised beds behind the parking lot. She’s watering lettuces in the hoop houses. Look for her buzzing around the edible landscaping on the patio next time you’re in.
All this farming fanatic really needs is some seeds, a little dirt, water and sunlight and she could feed a village…or at least few thousand guests at Spice Kitchen + Bar and Spice of Life Catering Co. this summer.
Let’s see what she’s up to.
Q. You have quite an interesting background in farming. How has working in the Peace Corps led you to becoming Spice’s Farm Manager?
A. I went into the Peace Corps wanting to use my Ecology Major and Wildlife Minor to educate people about wildlife, but that wasn’t something that was on the government’s radar – so I had to make a choice of whether I wanted to focus on literacy or agriculture. Before the PC I had worked at Hale Farm, which I really enjoyed, so I chose agriculture. I knew a lot more than I thought I did. And I just tried and really fell in love with farming. When I was talking to my family back home in Ohio they were telling me all about the food movement going on in Cleveland. I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of.
Q. Was there anything in particular about the experience that has shaped your growing methodologies?
A. I was working on an island with poor rural farmers. You can’t do large-scale agriculture in that kind of environment because you just don’t have the space. And the people don’t have the money or the capacity. They use a ton of chemicals. A lot of these farmers don’t know how to read, so they would apply the chemicals and people in the community would unknowingly be consuming the poison from the insecticide.
In Jamaica they do small-scale farming, but surprisingly not organic farming. Yet organic agriculture is so much safer and so much more cost effective. The import costs are much higher there. They’re just spending tons of money. On an island, it’s so important to be self-sufficient. Organic agriculture is essentially self-sufficiency. It’s working with the land as opposed to working against it. I believed in this before, but being in the PC and seeing people who can’t really afford to do it any other way – but they don’t know any other way – really drove it home for me.
Q. What grows in a chef’s garden? How do you and Ben decide what will work best with the menu?
A. The back patio is mostly herbs. We’ve got lavender, mint, sage, etc. There’s also the rooftop, Ben’s land, the raised beds behind the restaurant and the hoop house. My focus is to meet the catering demands as much as possible. How much of one thing needs to be produced. Whatever is left over, or if my crop doesn’t come in on time, ends up being used in the restaurant.
Q. Have you had better luck with some veggies than others?
A. Tomatoes are doing really well this year. Eggplants are tricky. The bugs just love them. It’s hard to say because it’s so soon.
Q. Do you ever try out new things in the garden?
A. Pretty much everything is new to me. Ben will say “Hey, let’s plant some romanesco!” And I have no clue what it is, but okay let’s do it! And then I find out it’s like a broccoli-cauliflower mix. It’s exciting waiting to see what happens. So to answer your question, we’re always trying new things. You have to.
Q. What is your favorite thing to grow and why?
A. My favorite thing to grow would be weeds because I don’t have to plant them and I don’t have to take care of them. They just grow and it’s job security because there are always weeds to pull!
Q. What are some of the best dishes that have come out of Spice Acres?
A. I keep finding these little treasures everywhere. Behind the restaurant, we have two mulberry trees, one of which was completely hidden underneath some wild grape vines. Chef Brandon used them to make garnishes. I was literally eating them as I picking them. They used the rest to make mulberry lemonade. I didn’t get to try it though. I’ll have to pick some more!
Q. How can we transform our own gardens at home into edible landscapes?
A. Just take any kind of plastic container you have out of the trash, poke some holes in the bottom of it, put some dirt in it and plant something in it. Just try it! That’s all I can say. You just have to try. Just put seeds in dirt in a container, and water it. If it doesn’t grow, you wasted five minutes of your life. If it does grow, you get to taste something awesome that you grew by yourself. Throw seeds all over the yard and if nothing comes up, it’s not the end of the world. If all the seeds in a zucchini seed packet grew, you would be stuffing zucchini into your neighbors’ mailboxes when they weren’t looking.