Issue 28

Honey Creek Farms

Honey Creek Farms

Beth and Roger Matson began selling as Honey Creek farms some 14 years ago. Well, not selling really. In the beginning they gave their wares away. But when the couple left the San Jaochin Valley for the Midwest, Beth left more than the sunshine behind.

The natural food movement has taken a lot of turns since the beginning of the Alice Waters’ watershed restaurant Chez Panisse. Luminaries like Nora Pouillon at Nora in Washington DC, Jesse Cool from Flea Street Café, and countless others began weaving together the many influences that is now modern dining. Organics, domestic wine production, Slow Food, vegetarianism, environmentalism, new urbanism, European gourmandized celebrity chefs, nose-to-tail, farm-to-table are the culmination of a 30 year American gastro love affair that Beth and Roger left in their rear view mirror.

I met Beth at the Boiler Room in February. We had been open barely a month and were in dire need of producers for the restaurant. The seedling community of growers can be rather repetitive and few dare challenge the winter months. She arrived with a stack of seed catalogues, and we sat for hours combing through every conceivable heirloom variety. To a gardener, seed catalogues must be an elixir, coaxing an intoxicating promise of colorful bounty. To a chef it is torture. Nothing would be out of the ground for another three months at the soonest.

But the experience solidified the lynchpin of our operation. The Boiler Room relies solely upon local producers and buying for a restaurant is quite different from buying for a family. Though Honey Creek Farms understands that now, their approach was more conventional in the beginning.

Beth explains that the first “customers” were in fact elderly donees that helped rid Beth and Roger of their excess produce. Though organic farming had begun to catch on, few people shared Beth’s conviction for Asian greens and full calendar growing. And the techniques that she and Roger were familiar with weren’t always suited to the harsher climate. Those seniors paid for their weekly baskets sharing valuable information to help these novice farmers. They had unwittingly established a barter based CSA!

Things did not come easily in this part of the country for them. Once they had outgrown the donations they made as most natural growers they began by selling at farmers markets. But feeling that others did not share their same devotion to the highest standards, Honey Creek began looking elsewhere. By going door to door at Old Market restaurants they found a consistent buyer in Upstream

The farm, now situated in Hancock, Iowa, still maintains a tight relationship with the pension farmers so important to its beginning. The things she learned sound more like a manifesto from a cutting edge farm to table restaurant like Blue Hill in New York, rather than the banalities of prairie living two generations ago. Beth forages for choke cherries, wild raspberries, rosehips and elderflowers.   She and Roger till, burn and under-till twice a year for three years before planting, and they will forgo harvesting from soil errantly sprayed by neighboring farmers. From the beginning Beth was committed to growing as close to year round as possible. Now, as Michael Braunstein from the Reader says, she is famous for it.

We speak with Beth three times a week to get updates on the ever changing catalogue of available produce. She is tireless and headstrong. As each of the many things we spoke about in February came to our table, she demonstrated her commitment to quality as well. As a restaurant with the flexibility of amending the menu every day, these very talks become inspiration. And the ability to explain to a farmer exactly how large you prefer your onion, potatoes, and carrots is priceless.

When the Boiler Room opened in January last year, the only local product on our menu was prairie honey. Nancy O’Connor makes some of the most peppery complex honey around, and it was an ideal compliment to our cheese board. But starting a ‘locavore’ restaurant in the middle of a Great Plains winter limits most of our options.

Many other producers have come forward in the mean time, and we are proud to say that we surpassed our wildest expectations with the quality and abundance of local foods. As the incipient farm to table restaurant in the Omaha area, our challenge was to find the diversity of product that could keep our daily changing menu interesting. It also requires a kind grower not satisfied with the status quo.

With most of the growing season winding down into the torpor of winter, Honey Creek marches forward. Beth says that her next mission is to teach others how to grow and they have a lot to teach. She and Roger have also only added to their hothouse production, even dedicating one for our restaurant. Her determination is invigorating and a welcome ally in a difficult task.

Paul Kulick

Paul Kulick

Beginning at 19, Paul worked through a number of restaurants in Omaha, Washington DC, Berlin Chicago and Paris before opening The Boiler Room Restaurant in the Old Market. He is firm believer that a strict commitment to quality and learning makes the job enjoyable. He has contributed food columns at the Reader and Omaha Weekly and has been a chef instructor at Omaha’s MCC Culinary Arts Institute. Paul is also a partner in Dundee’s Amsterdam Falafel and Kabob. Updates for Paul’s daily changing menu can be found at www.theboilerroomrestaurant.com.


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