The Local Food Movement is growing in Birdtown.
Three years after transforming a vacant Lark Street parcel into an urban market garden, the husband-and-wife team of Eric Stoffer and Annabel Khouri are expanding to another area of the neighborhood.
The Bay Branch Farm owners last week acquired the land at 2107 Robin Street from the city for $3,000. The property was stripped of its house in 2010 when the city razed it not long after buying it for $24,000 from Fannie Mae following a foreclosure.
Director of Planning and Development Dru Siley told the City Council several months ago that the 4,600 square foot lot was too small to interest any real estate developers and might be a good fit for a garden.
Quality of soil at Robin St. plot ‘horrible’
Before buying the plot, Stoffer and Khouri sent letters to nearby residences announcing their intentions. They’ve already met with one new neighbor who lives adjacent on Plover Street, and provided a tour of their Lark Street operation.
In order to get their newly acquired land ready by next spring, Stoffer and Khouri have a lot of dirty work ahead of them.
“We did the soil test on it already and it’s pretty much devoid of any ability to grow anything that would live,” Stoffer said. “It’s horrible.”
In addition to being nutrient poor, the soil has lead contamination — a common situation in a 100-year-old city. It presents a challenge because lead easily mixes with dust and can become attached to plant life.
To neutralize it, they’re going to completely cover it with uncontaminated nutrient rich dirt and construct eight-inch raised beds.
“I would rather be safe on the side,” Stoffer said. “I don’t want to take any chances with that and I think that’s a safe course of action.”
Solid demand for locally-grown food made expansion logical
Bay Branch Farm focuses mainly on growing leafy greens like arugula and lettuce mixes, and also root crops such as carrots and radishes. These items can be planted intensively, grown quickly and harvested — and they don’t take up too much space.
“We’re committed to the beet this year,” Stoffer noted, although he’s still working toward a goal of being the area’s go-to expert on greens.
Bay Branch Farm’s primary sales outlet is the Lakewood Farmers Market, where it has developed a strong following and sells out almost every week.
Stoffer and Khouri sell about two-thirds of their product there and the other one-third through a buying club where members pay a modest upfront fee for the right to receive fresh vegetables throughout the growing season.
“I think there’s a real demand for what we’re doing,” Stoffer said. “I would like to keep our stuff in Lakewood as much as possible.” Bay Branch Farm also sells to the Root Cafe, and hopes to include Jammy Buggars in the future, and maybe Barroco Grill as well.
“I really had this dream to somehow supply Melt with like one thing,” Stoffer said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think they’re in a different league [now].”
Motto: ‘Farm smarter not harder’
Stoffer and Khouri were profiled in Entrepreneur Magazine last year. The Belle Avenue residents both have full-time jobs and are only part-time farmers. They’re not in the urban farm business for the money.
“I don’t think I could make a living doing this,” Stoffer said. “I mean, we’d need more land, substantially more land. But I think we can make a supplemental income and do some other things.”
The couple maintains a good count of their expenses and revenues, but doesn’t focus as much on the cost of labor. “We still don’t keep track of our hours because I just don’t want to know,” Stoffer said. “We probably make $4 or $5 an hour or something.”
Urban farming isn’t for everyone. Stoffer admitted he was “ready to be done with it” earlier this spring. The farmers market had, in the past, been “somewhat burdensome.”
“I didn’t want to get up on Saturday morning. I didn’t want to stand there for four hours,” he said. “I just didn’t want to mess with all that.”
Stoffer’s got his “second wind,” though, after connecting with a number of returning customers who were appreciative and enthusiastic.
The farming end of things has gradually gotten easier. Bay Branch Farm has refined its techniques, allowing for an increase in production without the need for a lot of additional work. “Our motto is to try and farm smarter, not harder,” Stoffer said.
Birdtown neighbors offer ‘huge support’
Birdtown is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Lakewood and has its share of troublemakers.
Fortunately, the biggest nuisance Stoffer and Khouri have encountered is the manure left behind by inconsiderate dog walkers.
“We haven’t had a problem with vandalism or stealing or anything like that,” Stoffer said. “It’s been really good.”
Several of the people who live closest to their Lark Street plot are long-term Birdtown residents of 30 years or more. Stoffer observed: “We’ve only found huge support from all the neighbors.”
Much of the harmony is attributable to Stoffer and Khouri’s successful efforts in educating the immediate community about their mission and the gentle establishment of boundaries.
In addition, they put some thought into the design of the garden, and avoided planting any tempting fruits within easy grasp. “I don’t think too many [people] would want to steal chard and beets,” Stoffer said. “I think what we grow would slow that down a little bit.”
The proof of the pudding is in the eating
The taste of locally grown vegetables is hard to beat. Here’s a recipe to try out and a reason to visit the Bay Branch Farm stand during your next trip to the Lakewood Farmers Market.
Chicken and Radishes
* 4 skinless boneless chicken breast halves
* Coarse kosher salt
* 2 tablespoons olive oil
* 2 tablespoons minced shallot
* 1/4 cup dry white wine
* 1 cup low-salt chicken broth
* 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
* 2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon
* 2 bunches radishes sliced
Add olive oil to large skillet over medium-high heat. Add shallot to skillet; stir 1 minute. Add chicken to skillet and cook until browned on each side. Add wine, broth and radishes to skillet; Whisk in mustard and chopped tarragon; boil until sauce thickens enough to coat spoon lightly and chicken is cooked through.
Zucchini and Chickpeas
Toss zucchini and chickpeas with olive oil to coat. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Roast in oven at 400 degrees until zucchini is tender.