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Flavor 4: Claytonia

May 19, 2014

Claytonia at Goldfinch Gardens "I don't know if I can make you eat this while you're interviewing," Cedar Johnson says, handing me a couple of heart-shaped leaves flanking a white-flowered stem. She is already crunching on her leafy cluster, which she uses in salad mix and sells to restaurants, and I follow suit.

The plant is claytonia (Claytonia perfoliata). Used by California Gold Rush miners to avoid scurvy, this vitamin-rich green is also known as miner's lettuce or winter purslane. It's the most cold-hardy green that Cedar and her husband Ben McCann grow.

Cedar and Ben run Goldfinch Gardens from their home in the Celo Community near Burnsville, NC. Cedar grew up in this community, just half a mile down the road, and wanted to return here to raise a family. She and Ben have more than 30 different vegetables, herbs, and flowers for sale in a seasonal rotation.

"Choosing a favorite [plant] is like choosing a favorite child," Cedar says. "You just can't do it." She has a special fondness for claytonia, however, because it is unusual and is weed-like in its robustness and hardiness -- qualities that allow Cedar and Ben to eat and sell salad greens longer into the winter season.

"How did you hear about this plant?" I ask, enjoying the claytonia's light and nutty taste and satisfying crunch. "It was through Elliot Coleman," she says, a farmer in Maine who has been a mentor to many small organic farmers.

shed at Goldfinch Gardens Coleman does a lot of work with season extension and came up with the idea of a hoop house on wheels. A hoop house is an economical greenhouse popular with small farmers, Cedar explains. Goldfinch Gardens has three -- the claytonia was started in one, which was then shifted over and used to protect early plantings of tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos.

When I arrived at the farm, Cedar and an intern, Hannah, were seeding Asian greens, arugula, and lettuce and starting to plant pea shoots. Cedar and Ben are firm believers in the tradition of internships. "There's not really another good way to learn about farming," Cedar explains. She and her husband were both interns themselves for two years before starting their farm, and they are still hungry for new information.

Cedar recommends a publication called Growing for Market, and says she and Ben have gotten great ideas by connecting with other farmers through an organization called CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training). Experimentation is key to their learning -- "It's one of the fun parts of being a farmer," Cedar says, showing me the biochar she has applied to the soil around half of her ginger sprouts.

hoop houses and crops Like all of the crops here, claytonia has no doubt benefitted from the care that the Goldfinch Gardens farmers give to their soil. Goldfinch Gardens claytonia has been served by area restaurants like Knife and Fork in Spruce Pine and Cucina 24 in Asheville. Cedar says they are thankful for their restaurant clients. "We are very small-scale," Cedar says, "and it can be challenging as a farmer to make money in any case, but it's particularly challenging when you're small acreage." So being able to sell unique items like claytonia and in-demand baby vegetables like baby beets, squash, and turnips to restaurants is a big help.

Goldfinch Gardens' claytonia and other produce is not certified organic, but is grown using organic practices. Why not certified organic? Cedar says she sees the organic label mostly as a tool for wholesalers. She and Ben have talked about pursuing a more grassroots alternative certification called naturally grown, about which they feel more positive. Naturally grown certification is no less strict than certified organic, but is meant primarily for small farmers distributing through local channels and has fewer paperwork requirements and less cost.

The lack of pressure from Goldfinch Gardens' customer base for produce that is certified organic may have something to do with geographic proximity -- almost all of Cedar and Ben's customers live within a five mile radius of the farm. Mostly gardeners themselves, Cedar and Ben's customers especially appreciate the farm's extended growing season and the expertise that enables Goldfinch Gardens to excel with crops like eggplant that are more difficult for the home gardener. "It feels so much more rewarding to sell to our neighbors," Cedar says, "who drive by and see what we're doing and are really invested in who we are and what we're doing in a way that people in Asheville just naturally wouldn't be."

In the past, Ben and Cedar would sell their produce at farmer's markets in Asheville an hour's drive away. But they soon tired of bringing home produce that they had harvested, washed, and bagged, but not sold. This waste of food and effort prompted Ben to come up with a new marketing system using Local Food Marketplace software from a company in Oregon.

Unlike the typical CSA model, Goldfinch Gardens sells via an online farmstand. Their customer members go online each week, see what is available, and order what they want. "It's like shopping at Amazon," Cedar says -- an ironic-seeming comparison since everything about her farm's practices and values points to the small, local and sustainable. Even Goldfinch Gardens' customer base is now hyperlocal, with almost all patrons living within a five mile radius of the farm.

Cedar Johnson with crimson clover and rye grass cover crop Cedar and Ben's investment in their soil is serious, I realize, looking at their current cover crop of crimson clover and rye grass. "We've developed a rotation that at least two out of four plots get really good cover crops each year," Cedar explains. Cover crops not only keep the soil from eroding during the winter, but also feed its biological community, improving soil quality and fertility and enhancing the biodiversity on the farm.

"So you're not thinking about just what you're growing for one season then," I say. "Right, we're thinking of systems," Cedar explains. "Ideally we would like to be building up the farm...and building up the soil....We hope to be here till we're old and can't do it anymore."

Cedar needs to get back to her seeding, so I take a few pictures and sample another clump of claytonia before heading off. While the farm is not currently accepting new customers, feel free to check back in coming seasons. Meanwhile, you can enjoy Goldfinch Gardens produce at Knife and Fork in Spruce Pine, and in Asheville at Red Stag Grille, Table, Cucina 24, Zambra, and The Market Place.