The New Frontier of Local Eating Starts at the Farm
The delectable, slightly tart and yeasty smell of baking bread wafts through the open door of Heinz Thomet and Gabrielle Lajoie’s farmhouse in rural Charles County. The aroma is fitting: The grains in the family’s bread are their farm’s staff of life.
The couple’s 86-acre Next Step Produce farm is one of only two organic farms in Maryland growing grains specifically for bread and food production (the other is Land’s End in Chestertown).
For in Chesapeake Country, growing wheat goes against the grain. It goes against our climate.
“There are people who say you can not grow quality bread grain, a semi-arid crop, on the East Coast,” Thomet says. “But I had to prove it to myself.
“So I planted as many different varieties as I could get my hands on. Heritage varieties. Modern varieties. Then we streamlined down after a few years. It’s all about finding out what’s shining.”
Next Step wheat, and the many other grains Thomet is continually trialing, shone so brightly that they caught the attention of Baltimore’s award-winning restaurant, Woodberry Kitchen. The bread baked daily there begins at Thomet’s farm.
“Heinz started us down the path of being able to use local grain,” says Russell Trimmer, Woodberry Kitchen’s head baker.
“Talk about varieties,” says Woodberry Kitchen owner Spike Gjerde. “Every restaurant kitchen I saw before Woodberry had two varieties: two big bags of Gold Medal flour.”
In Harmony with Nature
Thomet, who is Swiss, and Lajoie, who is Canadian, farm against the grain of convention.
He calls industrial agriculture, with its pesticides and herbicides, monoculture and long-distance transport, “an outright war against nature.”
Next Step’s mission is harmony with nature. You read it on their labels, designed in-house: Committed to Growing Nourishing Food in Harmony with Nature.
What that means is elaborated in the mission statement of the family farm: “It is within our responsibility as recipients of Earth’s life-force to do what we do in stewardship, reflecting our place as a link in a chain, co-existing with our environment.”
Next Step’s mission begins with the soil. To help the earth recover before it is put back in production, Thomet and Lajoie rotate their growing fields. Cover crops fix nutrients and help with soil retention; leaves and compost naturally restore the soil’s fertility.
For the sake of the food, their mission and the Bay, they avoid chemicals. Situated as they are less than three miles inland from the Potomac River just up from where it meets Chesapeake Bay, they say reducing chemical runoff is a moral duty.
Their mission comes to life throughout the farm, where wheat is just one part of a harmonic equation.
“When you want to do a sustainable farm, you don’t grow a single crop,” Thomet says. “Instead, you plant for tremendous diversity.”
Profusely blooming fragrant crops buzz with pollinators and other insect life. Fields are full of unusual grains, like an heirloom Turkey Red wheat; Alice, a hard white winter wheat; Abruzzi and Polish ryes; plus barley, buckwheat, even rice, his most ambitious experiment.
Kale, spinach, lettuce, onions, garlic and other early crops thrive in the farm’s enriched sandy soils. Some of these greens are destined for the Dabney in Washington, D.C., another high-end eatery committed to locally grown foods.
First high-tunnel growing houses, then the open fields teem with unusual varieties of peppers, tomatoes, celery, eggplant and a wide assortment of other vegetables, many grown to order for Woodberry Kitchen.
“He’s been the farmer that we have gone to when there’s something cool or super crucial for us,” says Woodberry’s Trimmer.
All that he grows, Thomet promises, “will nourish, not just fill the belly.”
Local customers can join in sharing Thomet’s nourishing bounty. Fill out order sheets on the farm’s website and pick up produce on the farm once a week (www.Nextstepproduce.com).
Buying direct from local farmers puts the profits directly into producers’ pockets, creating local jobs, Thomet explains.
“It’s in everybody’s hands what kind of consumerism you want to exercise and what kind of world you want to live toward,” he says. “Every time you buy, you vote.”
If You Do It Right …
Winter wheat has now been harvested.
The next step is preparing it for market. The farm’s large barn is outfitted with sophisticated machinery and a German stone mill that variously cleans, dehulls, rolls, chips or grinds wheat, rye, oats, barley and sorghum. The grains — some packaged for retail sale through the farm’s website and a few other locations, including Chesapeake Bounty in Calvert County — are stored in a large refrigerated room, then dehumidified so they can be processed year-round. The whole grains will be custom-milled in weekly batches to preserve their nutritional value.
“Can we grow good food in harmony in Maryland?” Thomet asks, rhetorically, for he knows the answer. “If you do it right, I think the finances will be there.”
Baker Trimmer agrees. “Whether you’re looking for the healthiest grain or a healthy economy,” he says, “this grain is the answer.”
It’s the answer for taste, too.
“In freshly milled flour grown in harmony with nature, the flavor comes through in a way you can never get with white flour alone,” Trimmer says.
I know what he means, savoring a still warm, crusty and densely delicious slice of Lajoie’s freshly baked whole-grain bread.