Jul 22, 2015 | Learn 'Bout Our Food, News

Summer Harvest Dinner Featuring Cornman Farms

An Interview with Amanda, Cornman Farms newest farmer

You know when you start working with someone and you can just tell that it is a great fit? That this person was destined to be a part of the team and destined for big things? Well, that is how we all felt when we met Amanda. Her story with Zingerman’s began just last November when she applied to work in the Roadshow as a barista. It was a no-brainer to hire her and she quickly became a favorite of staff and guests – she has such a calm and sweet demeanor, it comes out in every interaction, she truly does make you feel like you have been the best part of her day.

After a few months of working in the Roadshow, Amanda started sharing her passion of farming and love of flowers with Chef Alex. It became clear that it was a natural fit for her to move to the agricultural department of Cornman Farms. She joined long-time farm manager Mark Baerwolf in early Spring, and together the two of them are leading the agricultural department.

Roadhouse: Describe your journey that led you to working at Cornman Farms.

Amanda: I discovered farming while in grad school for environmental education in southwest New Hampshire. I had gotten an internship at a local CSA farm for the summer and was blown away by it. After that summer, my focus quickly changed to agricultural education. So, I come at farming with the mindset of an educator, I love teaching about organic and sustainable agriculture. What I love about coming out to Cornman Farms is how dedicated Chef Alex is to teaching and sharing his passion for farming. It is easy to hop on the bandwagon with him around. Mark too, he lights up when someone asks a question. His energy around farming is incredible to be a part of.

After finishing grad school I worked for a local non-profit organization that taught kids how to farm and manage a farmers market stand. Then, I worked as a garden manager at a working farm/non-profit educational center. I turned it into a year-round CSA and farmers’ market farm, and helped create the year round market in our little town of Keene, NH. After that, it was time to return to Michigan. I grew up in Ann Arbor, my parents are still here and my husband, daughter and I moved back to be closer to family. So here we are, and I am so grateful to have found the farm. This is the perfect fit for me.

Soil is one of the most important aspects of farming. What is the soil like here at Cornman Farms?

The soil here is variable, actually. Being in Michigan, the soil is pretty clay-like and wet, so it requires lots of careful tillage and timely workings. When you work clay soil that is too wet, it compacts and develops a crust, which makes it hard for the plants to get what they need to grow. Mark has developed a really amazing compost system, and over the years he has been adding tons of compost to lighten it up a quite a bit. The compost helps give the soil better water filtration, nutrient availability, and nutrient storage. It is pretty amazing to compare the fields that have received years of compost, and fields that have been opened recently, he and Chef Alex have put a lot of work into the soil fertility of the farm and it shows!

Companion planting is a term familiar to most professional farmers, but for the folks who garden or farm for more of a hobby, it isn’t as well known. What is companion planting and what is the importance of it? How does Cornman put it to use?

Successful companion planting means seeing the bigger picture, knowing the likes and dislikes of each of your crops, and having a wide diversity of crops. It can be done with a very specific plan, for example, we alternate beds of cabbage with beds of leeks. Why? Well, as you are aware, the veggies in the onion family (garlic, shallots, leeks, and…onions) have a very strong smell. Cabbage, on the other hand, is very attractive to a lot of pests, like the cabbage moth worm. By interspersing cabbage with onions, the onions act like a natural insecticide and help deter many of the cabbage pests. The big win is that we won’t have to use any chemicals to help control the pests, and therefore we keep the bees, butterflies, dragonflies, toads, and snakes happy. Companion planting can also be a more casual practice, like planting corn next to the flowers because the flowers need a windbreak, and the corn gets very tall and is very sturdy and can help block the wind. By seeing the bigger picture, and planting a diversity of crops, you can create a cropping system that works for you, and benefits the wildlife of the farm. We are encouraging insects, toads, birds, bugs, and wildlife to be a part of the ecosystem of the farm to create an environment where all things benefit from each other. These things wouldn’t be around, and we would not be benefiting from them, if we were a conventional farm using chemicals.

This is the first season Cornman Farms has been growing flowers and selling them. Amanda’s flower bouquets are available at the Roadhouse or you can contact her for custom arrangements, or bulk flowers.

Tell us about the flowers around the farm. Do you have a favorite?

That’s like naming a favorite child! I’ve been thinking about it, though. I have a few favorites, zinnias, which are a total classic summer favorite, sunflowers are AMAZING, and black-eyed susans. They are a simple flower but so beautiful in that way. Sometimes the simple ones are the most beautiful.

How many different varieties of flowers did you plant this year?

We’ve planted lots of perennials around the property that will keep coming back year after year, and on top of that we planted about 30 different kinds of annual flowers. But, within those 30 there are many different varieties (colors) of each. Snap dragons, zinnias, statice, cosmos, sunflowers. So many sizes, colors, and textures, the farm is really beautiful right now.

The first harvest dinner of the season is on August 18th, we’ll be highlighting the best of the fields at Cornman Farms. What are you most excited about on the menu?

Oh, what am I not excited about?! The potatoes and cucumbers are coming in beautifully this year, and the first tomatoes are starting to come in, and they are delicious! The Roadhouse’s fried green tomatoes are simply one of my favorites. And I saw on the menu the porchetta carving station, that sounds fantastic.