How a Former Rockstar Fell Hard for Organic Farming
SPONSOR: EDWARD JONES
Welcome to Out of the Kitchen, our ongoing exploration of the relationships that build and sustain the food industry. This year, we’re traveling the country to look at how sustainability has become a rapidly growing movement within the food world. Chefs at the forefront of this trend are introducing their patrons to local farms, fresh ingredients, and innovative dishes while farmers are educating chefs and consumers about where their food comes from and what it takes to grow the food served. Their practices and personal customer approaches provide a bigger impact to the community at large, hoping to create a better and more sustainable future for all.
Lawrence McDonald merrily leads his guests from field to field of Quindocqua Farms like Willy Wonka on ten cups of coffee. He scrambles down a lane flanked by mounds blanketed in green ground cover and grabs the first bunch of lacinato kale by its stalk.
“Eat this!” he commands, ripping his harvest from the dirt and presenting it to his visitors like a tribute. It’s lacinato kale, enough to fill two families’ salad bowls, raggedy at the edges but firm and bushy, a matte evergreen in the vein-filled leaves thinning out to slender, white-green stems. The leaves have the rustling heft of light leather. Each guest rips off a bit of leaf and sticks it in his mouth.
It’s a revelation. Crispy and toothsome, the bittersweet tones hit like a hand grenade and leave you in a taste cloud of rich Maryland farming soil. McDonald’s guests are floored—but he’s already hopping off to his next prize row. After all, there’s still the red kale, and arugula, and Swiss chard, and lettuce, and radishes, and taiso, and green mizuna, and purple mizuna, and broccoli rabe, and pachoy, and more.
It’s that kind of enthusiasm for sustainable farming that patrons of various restaurants in Maryland and Delaware can taste with each bite of produce sourced from Quindocqua, one of the first certified-organic farms in the region. Long known as the Old Maddox Farm, which grew strawberries over 200 acres of lowland on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, it sits in the ghost town of Marion Station, and is named after a local tribe that was legendarily blown away by a hurricane. Then, in 1997, McDonald moved there and turned it into a farmstead that uses age-old methods to please the palates of tourists and locals alike at local shore towns.
Naturally, a farm with a history that storied requires a farmer just as colorful. McDonald’s original claim to fame is as the frontman of the band Bells of, perhaps best described as an eclectic proto-emo band formed in 1985 amid the ashes of Washington, D.C.’s hardcore punk scene that still enjoys a cult following. But in 1997, in self-imposed exile from the city where he’d performed for over a decade, skate-punk kid McDonald was aimless and spiritually lost in an overgrown village that the rest of the Mid-Atlantic seemed to have forgotten. “I was walking down the street in a weird funk, thinking, ‘What am I going to do out here?’”
His walk led him to his new neighbors, retired Rutgers professors who ran an organic farm. They taught him the ropes, and McDonald started to work for them, then started up his own farm with their blessing. When the couple moved to Costa Rica to start farming pineapples, the area’s organic mantle passed onto him. “Herbicides and pesticides aren’t necessary if you use these techniques,” McDonald says. “Everybody loves the way the supermarket packaged stuff looks, but it’s been sitting there for weeks or months. We’ll harvest the stuff the same day, and get it down to the restaurant in an hour, and it’ll practically bleed on your plate—it’ll be alive. You could replant this stuff right there in your front yard.”
Now McDonald shepherds the Marion Station organic-farming scene along with a handful of workers and his adopted strays Truman and Momdog, parlaying a presence at Maryland farmers markets into becoming the direct supplier to restaurants in Rehoboth, Bethany, and Ocean City that make a point of showcasing locally sourced, organically grown produce. “I’m always looking for a relationship with a chef/owner,” he says. “You go down there with the stuff, and they know what to do with it, and the rest is history. You not only get a great friendship blossoming, but have the restaurant really reap the benefits of that nexus between a farmer and a chef/owner.”
Quindocqua’s sustainable practices mean McDonald can meet restaurants’ specific demands even in the middle of winter. Soil erosion is a major problem in the low-lying area prone to flooding, so he keeps his rows in shape by using ground cover like clover when they aren’t being used. He keeps meticulous track of what he plants where, being sure to rotate the appropriate crops to keep the right nutrients in the soil. McDonald’s dedication to biodiversity means he can introduce chefs to new vegetables and plants they haven’t tried yet, and work them into their menus. “I’ll say, ‘Try this, and they’ll work it out and come up with something that’s completely original. It’s almost like an original musical approach to things–you’re not writing a song, but you’re coming up with these great dishes for your menu. I had given Travis [Wright of The Shark at the Harbor, in Ocean City] this crazy plant shungiku, in the same family of the chrysanthemum, and they were using the heck out of it in salads. It’s like how you want to be able to use every single note on the fretboard on a song.”
He picks up a guitar and starts strumming a tune, elaborating on the theme: “My idea about farming is not really that different from music. You’re trying to write original songs, except that this is the kale, and this is the Swiss chard, and I’m letting you know about these tomatoes or collard greens, these esoteric varieties nobody else grows.”
But like any musician, he admits that sometimes the greatest pleasure comes from the groupies—those customers who become fans of the food he’s worked so hard to grow without chemicals and the least impact on the soil.
“When I go down to a restaurant I supply, like The Shark, I like to go in there and be anonymous at the bar,” he says. “But I can see how they’re in the middle of eating their salad, and ask the waitress what that amazing green is they’re tasting. It gives you a great deal of satisfaction to know what you’ve taken so much time to grow is appreciated.”