David Bohlen squats down in a muddy field and inspects red and green leaves of chicory poking through the soft earth.
“We eat a lot of dirt here,” he jokes, searching for a semi-clean sample. He finally picks a small leaf and dusts it off one last time before taking a bite. Nearby are some old plastic domed skylights Bohlen found in a building he was cleaning out; he's been experimenting with using them as mini-greenhouses. They’re currently covering two plants in the field at Bohlen Family Farms in Perryville, Missouri.
“A lot of people are scared of chicory, because it’s bitter, but if you grow it in the cold – we’ll see how bitter this one is,” he says, tasting the “greenhouse” chicory (also called radicchio). He then takes a bite of chicory that’s growing out in the open field. “It’s less bitter, but neither of them are overly bitter,” he decides.
It’s late March, and one of the first mornings in days that isn’t drenched in spring rain; although the sky is still gray, birds are cheerfully chirping. Bohlen and his three-man crew – which includes his youngest brother, Mark – are taking advantage of the break in the weather to remove stakes for tomato plants a few fields over and prepare the beds for sweet potatoes.
In this field, part of what Bohlen refers to as “The Orchard,” because it contains a few young peach trees, he’s got some feral garlic, rare French gray shallots, three rows of treviso chicory, a row of castelfranco chicory, then more treviso, grumolo rossa chicory, Korean onions, wild pennycress – and that’s not even the half of it.
“I try my best not to think about it,” Bohlen laughs, straining to come up with an estimate of just how many varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs are in production at any given time on the farm. “Because if I do, I’ll lose my mind. It’s early spring, and we’re just trying to make sure we have as many different products as we can going into market season and as restaurants start to build their spring menus.”
Bohlen concedes that his farming style is a bit scattered, but that tends to complement the changing nature of the many variables he has to consider: What does he have enough time to plant? Is the soil ready? What seeds does he have on hand? What seeds hasn’t he planted before? What do people need a lot of? What plots are available at the different properties?
“There’s pros and cons to it, but it definitely allows me to grow a bit more variety than most folks are willing to grow,” he says.
It’s been six years since Bohlen and his middle brother, Thomas, and their neighbor, Louis Arman, first planted vegetables in a lot across the street from their home in Ferguson, Missouri. The brothers grew up eating fresh produce; Bohlen says he didn’t even realize what an amazing cook his mother was until he ate at a friend’s house in sixth grade, where a frozen chicken was roasted in the oven with no seasoning.
“I thought everybody was at home eating good,” he says, shaking his head. “When I moved out of my parents’ house, I wanted to be able to cook for myself. I realized that it was expensive. I didn’t even have the money to cook [healthy food] every day; I had the money to cook ramen noodles every day. So I started growing stuff.”
The brothers began vending at the Ferguson Farmers’ Market in 2013, and one Saturday, about a year and half into the project, their mother introduced them to an old friend who needed help at her farm. That family friend, in turn, introduced the brothers to Clyde Bruckerhoff, who also required assistance on his land in Perryville. Bohlen began something of an apprenticeship with Bruckerhoff. Their partnership grew until, earlier this year, Bohlen moved down to Perryville full time to work the land owned by his mentor. This has only improved operations, he says; when it’s dry, the four-man team is out in the fields after dark with headlamps, and then they can sleep for four hours, get up, eat breakfast and head back out to work immediately.
“Clyde is a legendary farmer,” Bohlen says. “The only way I was able to reach the level of experience I have [is] because I was learning from somebody [who] had been doing it their whole life, and had gone through a larger bulk of the trial and error that is farming. It’s a blessing: He’s taught me more than I would have ever been able to research on my own or even go to school to learn.”
Bohlen Family Farms uses very little machinery: Tractors are used to work the soil and plant corn, and that’s about it. It’s actually more efficient in the long run, Bohlen says, since they plant a lot of heirloom varieties. “Like corn – a lot of people will harvest their corn with a combine,” he says. “We grow heirloom corn, and it’s not bred to produce plants that are harvestable by a machine.”
Hand-harvesting also allows Bohlen to pick at different times during the season; he can harvest petite vegetables early, and leave room for other plants to grow larger.
“It’s a timely process, but you get a lot less failed plantings when you do it by hand, because you can assure that everything you did by hand was done properly,” he says. “Sometimes, when a machine comes through and does it, you have to come back and fix what the machine did wrong. I just feel like I might as well do it by hand in the first place.”
Of course, Bohlen readily admits that this approach is far more time-consuming, labor-intensive and not always much fun – but well worth it in the end. “Hand-picking sounds great – [saying] ‘We hand-picked this!’ – but when you grow so much and look out [at the fields, you’re] like, ‘Oh my god, we have to hand-pick all of this!’” he says.
Luckily, the local farming community is supportive. Last season, Bohlen got help from farmer Crystal Stevens at EarthDance Farms in Ferguson; Kasey Peters and Trevis Carmichael at Winslow’s Farm in Augusta, Missouri; and Daniel Burnett from The Screwed Arts Collective to harvest two heirloom corn varieties: Thompson’s Prolific (great for making cornmeal, grits and polenta, he says) and Painted Mountain (better suited for milling into flour). This year, Bohlen is also growing Hickory Cane, which works particularly well for making whiskey.
“We wouldn’t have gotten it done in a timely manner without them, because it was a task,” Bohlen says. “The plants were like, 12 feet tall, so you’re picking corn up [high], and walking through the field, and blades of corn [leaves] are cutting your eyes. It’s something I'd never experienced before, because we'd never grown heirloom corn. Now I understand, so we won’t run into that issue again!”
That’s sort of the ethos at Bohlen Family Farms, though: Try it and see how it goes. Bohlen does a substantial amount of research, but he also takes suggestions from chefs. Over breakfast one morning, Rex Hale, then executive chef at Boundary in St. Louis, told Bohlen that gai lan, or Chinese broccoli, was at the top of his list. Nobody was growing it, but everyone wanted some. Hale was right; Bohlen was overwhelmed by the response last season, so he’s growing more this year.
“That’s what I really enjoy about David – he’s listens, and he’s a smart guy,” Hale says. The chef has fried the gai lan, braised, charred and grilled it, and often pairs it with housemade andouille or garlic sausage. Hale says he'll definitely be using Bohlen's produce at his upcoming farm-to-table restaurant, Bakers & Hale, in Godfrey, Illinois.
“There’s so much application for [gai lan]," Hale says. "The neat thing about it is it’s like broccoli rabe, but there’s more broccoli flavor. And it’s like kale in some ways, in that it has that brassica-type flavor. You can [also] get them while they’re flowering, and they have these beautiful yellow or white flowers – those actually can be intact when you serve it, so you have these little buds of broccoli with all the flowers. It’s just beautiful stuff to work with.”
As word about his produce spread in the St. Louis area, Bohlen fielded more specialty produce requests. He planted Peruvian peppers – aji Amarillo and aji limo – for the first time this season at the request of chef Sergio Nakayoshi of Mango Peruvian Cuisine, heirloom corn for Nixta to use in tortillas and tamales and chicory for Vicia in St. Louis, as well as Sardella and Peno Soul Food, both in Clayton, Missouri.
Bohlen sort of stumbled upon one of his rarest products: huitlacoche. Last year, among the crop of heirloom corn, the team found gray fungus growing on the cobs. Bohlen did a little digging and learned that the mushrooms are a Mexican delicacy; they’re also called Mexican truffles. Only one other farmer sells huitlacoche in the U.S. commercially – in Florida – and it's frozen to allow for shipping. “He just took off and ran with it,” Hale says. “That, to me, is really exciting.”
Bohlen followed the trials and errors of the Florida farmer online, and contacted a farmer in Canada to get his advice.
The first huitlacoche harvest was given to James Beard award-winning chef Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Cafe, who immediately found use for it on his tasting menu. A day or two later, Nashan included Bohlen on a group text with John Shields, chef-owner of Smyth in Chicago.
“That was the first time I realized how popular [huitlacoche] was, because [Nashan] had to have driven or flown there with it the very next day and given [Shields] some of the product,” Bohlen says. Shields texted Bohlen: “Next time you harvest some [huitlacoche], bring it all!”
As soon as Bohlen amassed more, he made plans to drive up to Chicago and unload the very delicate mushrooms to Shields and the team at Smyth. He told Rex Hale about his trip, and as Bohlen recalls, Hale had a suggestion.
“You gotta stop by Rick Bayless’ restaurant,” Hale said.
“Who’s Rick Bayless?” Bohlen replied innocently, although he laughs about it now.
“What are you talking about?” Hale retorted. “You gotta go there with some of the huitlacoche. They’ll love it; they’ll buy more than anyone else.”
Bayless, who specializes in Mexican cuisine, opened Frontera Grill in Chicago in 1987; it won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant in 1994. Bayless also owns the Michelin-starred Topolobampo and XOCO, among several others, in the Windy City.
“When I went to take the [huitlacoche] to John [Shields], I was supposed to save a piece for Rick Bayless,” Bohlen says, shaking his head. “I got so caught up in the insanity of the five-hour drive and the handover – this delicate process, with people I’ve never dealt with before – I forgot to save him a piece. I had finished over at Smyth, and I sat down in the car and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we were supposed to save some for Rick! I guess I’m just gonna have to go there barehanded.’”
Luckily, Bayless’ crew was so interested in the huitlacoche, they didn’t mind waiting a little longer.
“They didn’t even need to have a piece,” Bohlen continues. “They were like, ‘Of course, bring some as soon as you harvest more.’ [That] happens more often now than in the past; as our network grows, word is traveling.”
Not everything Bohlen grows is by request: He prides himself on being a curious farmer. His feral garlic came from a landscaping job he worked on a few years back to earn extra cash.
“I smelled garlic everywhere – not like garlic chives – garlic,” he says. “I looked in the common ground behind the yard, and there was like an acre of hard-necked garlic growing,” he says. "The landscaping crew said they just mowed it down every year. I started digging it up, and it was beautiful purple garlic like you would buy at the store.”
Bohlen saved some of the garlic bulbs and planted them in The Orchard. It’s a cultivated variety, of course – not technically wild – but rather what garlic farmers refer to as feral. The advantage, Bohlen says, is that it’s been acclimated to Missouri weather conditions, leading to a particularly hardy plant. In the field, even what he calls “trash garlic” from last season is sprouting on top of the soil.
“These had been sitting on the surface all winter, freezing and defrosting, and it’s still alive,” he says. “These could be planted at any time.” Sure enough, there are cloves of garlic with long green shoots strewn across the soft dirt in The Orchard. “You don’t see that with varieties of garlic that you get from [a] seed company. And that was the trash garlic! I could not believe it.”
Hale says that one of the reasons Bohlen is such a good farmer is that he’s so intuitive. The chef cites peach buds as a perfect example: Bohlen was pruning peach trees at The Orchard one day and noticed how fragrant the flower buds were as they fell to the ground.
“So he started selling them,” Hale recalls. “They have such a beautiful, flavor – you can make a sorbet, a simple syrup, ice cream, panna cotta. So when I say he’s intuitive – he realizes the value in all of [his] products.”
Last year, Bohlen Family Farms germinated seeds in four hoop houses before transferring them to the fields, with plans to build two more. Then a tornado hit.
“That’s what happens in Perryville,” Bohlen shrugs. “The guy who builds [the hoop houses], his name is Plum Bob, and he was in tears when he came over after the tornado. I thought I was hurt, because we had plants in there, but he had tears streaming down his face – ‘Man, I’m not trying to rebuild those hoop houses [again]!’”
Bohlen is currently researching a cost-effective solution to replace the hoop houses, but in the meantime, his one remaining structure is home to dozens of trays of young plants, from seeds that haven’t yet sprouted and Romanesco temporarily getting a break from the rain to Korean heirloom cabbage and artichokes grown in collaboration with Eat Here St. Louis, a farm-to-restaurant food purveyor.
The hoop house is where some of Bohlen’s experimentation takes place, too. He’s planted yacan, a Peruvian tuber crop that looks like a sweet potato but is more closely related to sunchokes. Then there are the artichokes, which aren't usually grown in the Midwest, as they need a cold-weather period – just not one as harsh as a Missouri winter. Bohlen was able to get his hands on an artichoke variety developed in the past decade that requires less time in the cold, so they should be successful when harvested this summer.
“Every year we grow a lot of stuff that we’ve never grown; we always are trying to expand on what we have,” Bohlen says. “I’ve been blessed to have this space to mess around with things that people don’t often grow for many reasons, whether it be the risk, or they don’t want to waste the space because they’ve never grown it before.”
Bohlen Family Farms hasn’t really had any failed crops, per se, but some plants just aren’t worth the trouble – maybe there wasn’t much demand, enough of a profit margin or they were too difficult to grow without much reward. Bohlen might grow four varieties of cauliflower one season, for example, choose the two he likes best and try two new ones the next year.
Hale stresses that it’s not just Bohlen’s hard work that makes him easy to collaborate with.
“That’s what intrigues me about him – [farming] is a lot to do, and he’s always got a positive attitude,” Hale says. “It’s just awesome to see, especially for someone like me, who’s been doing this a long time and dealt with a lot of farmers – some farmers are cranky! He really is one of my very favorite people, because the energy he exudes about what he’s doing, the excitement he has about what he’s doing, is just amazing.”
That passion and energy are partially because Bohlen grows what he likes to eat; after all, the desire to feed his family fresh food is what led him down this path five years ago.
“The reason I like farming is because I like eating food; I like experiencing new foods,” Bohlen says. “I can’t say every farmer has that same mindset going into it; farmers are not always food-lovers. Sometimes it’s just their profession. That’s why we’re always growing different things that I hear folks love, whether it be across the world or here in Missouri. I hear folks speaking about things that I haven’t had access to myself, so I know it’s not readily available. So we grow for our own interests first – and that’s why it allows me to passionately tell people about it.”
Bohlen Family Farms, Perryville, Missouri, facebook.com/bohlenfarms