There are no straight rows at Prairie Birthday Farm. These natives, these wild things, know nothing of rank and file. Anywhere else but here, many of these savage edibles are overlooked, cast off, eradicated.
Linda Hezel asks the untamed to be nothing but what they are. Useful, unruly and unique.
She’s spent 20 years purging a third of her land of green fescue and rebuilding rural Clay County’s once thriving tallgrass prairie. Now, roots of native grasses entangle deep into the subsoil, and dandelions unashamedly bloom to the bees’ delight.
Birth of a Farm
Early on Tuesday and Friday mornings, Hezel harvests. “I try to get out there before the dew dries,” she says. She forages her land, guided by the shadows of the trees. It’s the perfect time: moist, fresh and cool.
Hezel says the dew holds the fragrances of her blooming fruit trees and herbs as she collects 20 to 30 different varieties of greens – wild arugula, bedstraw, wild bee balm, chickweed, wild chicory, clover, bronze fennel, daylily, deadnettle, hyssop, lovage and wild violets, just to name a few. She harvests and delivers on the same two days of the week to some of the most acclaimed chefs in Kansas City.
When she and her husband bought the property in 1993, her mission did not include a business plan. It was simply a way to feed her young family home-grown food and to have a place for her horses to live. Her oldest son, then 3, helped as she planted the first orchard trees while her second-oldest son watched from his stroller.
Hezel grew up on a small farm outside St. Louis. “My parents were great growers,” she says. “We had great food.” And that’s where it began. But her passion for ecological farming was bolstered by her career in nursing. She was a 10-year tenured professor in the nursing school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a masters in community health and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction when she decided to commit herself full-time to food and family. In the 1970s she was teaching and studying health and ecology, including the connection between environmental contaminants and illness. That knowledge, combined with her farm heritage, created her dedication to the sustainable, natural farming method at Prairie Birthday Farm.
The One Rule
The only rule for the farm’s agricultural inhabitants is simple and steadfast. “If they can’t live here without poison, they can’t live here,” Hezel says alluding to the chemicals used in industrial agriculture and farming.
It’s a win some, lose some perspective that allows nature to do its thing. “I totally get using poisons,” Hezel says. “It would be so much easier.”
Instead, she arms herself with knowledge, vigilance and keen observation. “I’m steward over this small spot while I’m here; I’m definitely not in charge,” she says. “I’m a student of the ecosystem. You really have to pay attention to it.”
Hezel experiments and introduces an endless variety of native plants. She allows them to be communal, to meander about the 5 acres she devotes to food, to find where they thrive. She seeks out perennials with multiple uses, diverse plants that bear across the season. Hezel enjoys the resilient nature of the wild varieties – she wants survivors.
She also embraces the edibles in her native habitat. Right now, her yard would send most suburbanites screaming from the property, but dandelions are in season.
“People might think it’s a wreck – I think it’s gorgeous,” she says. “I cultivate dandelions because they’re such a great food.”
Dandelion roots, leaves and blooms are edible and the blossoms are bees’ first nectar sources. “We shouldn’t be killing dandelions,” she says.
Her goal is to teach people to eat well, be well and learn how to grow their own food.
“The more I read about wild things – they really are nutrient dense,” she says. “There are micronutrients we probably don’t even know about.”
Hezel often eats poached eggs over stinging nettles. “It’s a great spinach substitute,” she says. “It’s really a super food – a weed.”
This same goal extends to the insects and animals within her habitat. Hezel considers herself a bee hostess. “I don’t keep them,” she says. “I try to find the best possible environment, habitat and food sources for them and then get out of their way. I want the girls so drunk on the nectar here they don’t go anywhere else.”
And when her chickens and ducks aren’t grazing in the prairie grass, they have their own raised organic garden, filtered water and special organic whole grains – and Hezel says the eggs show it. The birds’ garden has clover, oats, wheat, forage kale, chickweed, violets, nettle and whatever wild stuff moves in. “It’s their salad bar,” Hezel says.
Student and Teacher
Her research and discovery of native and wild varieties is ceaseless, and she believes her customers value her knowledge about diverse and unfamiliar foods. She reads agriculture books – many old and out of print. “My bedtime reading is scanning catalogs and botany texts,” Hezel says. In fact, the name Prairie Birthday Farm comes from a 1949 A Sand County Almanac entry titled “Prairie Birthday Essay.” It reads, “Tell me of what plant birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about his vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever and the general level of his ecological education.”
Hezel is a voracious learner. Being highly educated with the practicality and resourcefulness that farmers – and nurses – embrace led her to reach out to her first chef in 2003: Liz Huffman, then at Blue Bird Bistro, now executive chef at The Majestic Restaurant.
Now, her weekly email list sends to a “who’s who” of Kansas City chefs from restaurants including The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, Novel, The American Restaurant, Bluestem, Port Fonda, Ça Va, Happy Gillis Cafe & Hangout and Heirloom Bakery & Hearth.
Attached to each email is a three-page product availability list, but that’s really just a jumping-off point to the multitude of items she might have to offer.
Seasonal availability is limited to weeks rather than months. The time for some plants – like wild violets – is fleeting.
Hezel admits that, at first, pitching her small quantities of distinct and often unusual edibles to high-profile chefs was intimidating. Yet, because her offerings are wild varieties many chefs have never seen or worked with before, Hezel’s background as an educator took over.
She never presents her discoveries and produce simply as products. “My reputation is such now that they know I’m bringing them opportunities,” she says.
Alex Pope, owner of Local Pig, a Kansas City butcher shop dedicated to local farms and humanely raised meats, and its accompanying sandwich stand, Pigwich, as well as Local Pig’s second location in Westport and the newly opened Cleaver & Cork, has worked with Hezel’s produce in the past and enjoys the challenges it presents. “Last year, she gave us buds from the maple tree,” Pope says. “When they’re young, you can eat them.” He pickled them. “We trust that she knows what she’s doing, and she does.”
Pope says everything Hezel sells is good. He looks forward to the edible flowers and the pawpaw fruit, which he uses in jam.
Hezel’s wild persimmons are coveted, as well. The fruit was one of Huffman’s first purchases at Blue Bird Bistro, used to create a sauce for duck. Hezel also recalls Howard Hanna, chef-partner of The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange and Ça Va, once presenting her with a “beautiful” wild persimmon soup.
Hezel’s business thrives on introducing her produce to chefs, and her wild and native offerings inspire them. It takes willing participants. That’s why she loves having chefs out to the farm. “I always give my customers tours,” she says. “I love waitstaff and kitchen staff to taste, see and communicate that to their own customers.”
Before weekend diners fill the cozy, dimly lit booths at Voltaire in Kansas City one April day, chef-owner Wes Gartner and sous chef Ryan Holopter get their first delivery from Hezel. She says deliveries are a time to get to know chefs, what they like – and what they don’t – and to educate them about products.
Ever the teacher, she takes them through the myriad of edible greens in a bag. Next are containers of dandelion blossoms and buds, Egyptian walking onions and wild hop shoots. Gartner is going to make dandelion fritters from the blossoms – something he’s never done before. Hezel suggests using elderberry blossoms for a sweet fritter when those are in bloom.
Questions free flow as the chefs look over the parcels. It’s like present time at a birthday party. Gartner asks about the dandelion buds, “Can you sauté them?”
“I would encourage you to play with them,” Hezel says. She pickles them. “But I eat a lot of weird stuff.”
“This is going to be awesome,” Gartner says. “I’m excited.”
Holopter digs into the containers. “Trying to keep it seasonal is really tough this time of year – this is going to be great,” he says. He touches the tendrils of hop shoots. They have no idea what they’ll do with them.
The native hop shoot is one of Hezel’s “opportunities” she found along a roadside. “They’ve been on the scene for a while, but not here,” she says. She’s lightly sautéed them in butter. “It was delightful,” she says. “It really tasted like a very mild asparagus.”
Gartner takes the onions back to the kitchen. He returns to report the sweetness they impart at first bite, a small awakening that winter has passed. “You come into spring, and it’s really exciting, especially when you have new things – vegetables that you’ve never used before,” Gartner says.
He says having something like hop shoots contributes to the creative process by challenging him. “To be able to utilize what she’s offering – local and extremely unique wild varieties – is getting back to the earth and the local flavors,” he says.
After some thought, Gartner comes to one word: terroir. Food that captures a sense of place – the expression of geography, geology and climate in the singular genetic makeup of its bounty.
And just as Hezel feels a responsibility to the living things on her land, Gartner feels it, too. “It puts a sort of burden – a neat burden – to treat these foods in a really responsible way, to not diminish that terroir,” he says.
“I feel lucky to have met you,” he tells Hezel. He says it’s a great time to be in the Kansas City culinary scene, with so many talented chefs looking to use local, native food – “to keep it real.”
And Hezel’s customers aren’t limited to restaurant chefs. She collaborated with St. Louis-based brewery 4 Hands Brewing Co. on a beer made with her persimmons and wildflower honey last year. Hezel says Kansas City bartenders, including Andrew Olsen of Cleaver & Cork and Ryan Maybee and Brock Schulte of The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, are now taking stock of her seasonal produce.
Bartenders are expressing interest in trying her fruit in a bottle. Hezel says she attaches a bottle to a tree branch, allowing young fruit to mature inside. When it’s ripe, it drops in the bottle and she can deliver it to bartenders who then add liquor. She says it’s tricky, “All the stars have to line up.”
Timing Is Everything
Hezel’s reputation for specialty, ultraseasonal, ultraregional fare is spreading. “They’re calling me now, which is pretty fun,” she says of her customers, both longtime and new. “I’m really grateful to the food scene. Kansas City’s food-awareness emergence has coincided with me learning more and growing more.”
Hezel’s work is not easy, but it’s congruent with her belief in exquisite and healthy food. “It’s shockingly hard work,” she says, but in the same breath asserts it’s absolutely worth it. “It’s more than 60 hours a week, but I’m having fun because it’s learning – it feeds into that.”
To see what people create with her food is also a treat. “There are so many great chefs whom I work with,” Hezel says. “How they approach it or interpret the flavor – the experience that they bring to it… I like teaching the chefs, and I like learning from them. It’s very rewarding to have them interested in what I’m doing.”
For Hezel, building those relationships is everything. “It’s all about relationships – to the land, other species, the customers,” she says. It’s a partnership, a trust that she’s bringing her customers something exceptional. “I can find stuff to bring to them that isn’t necessarily outrageously rare,” she says, “but I’m willing to experiment and teach myself, and they’re willing to give it a try.”
Editor’s Note: Hezel also sells to the general public in the Kansas City area by appointment only.
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