As we drive past orchards and fields speckled with dancing pin-pricks of golden flowers, my mind drifts to summers past. The lusciousness of a sun ripened peach, taut hard and crisp, but with fragrant sweet juice that dribbled off the tip of my chin with every bite. The cool clear water of a lake, used to wipe juice from chin and meaning from time. Sun, and sand dunes, and dense green forests. Hikes past abandoned farmsteads and graveyards to beaches so empty they seem like a secret only I am privy to. The exuberance with which each new petoskey stone is found.
Summertime in Northern Michigan, the Leelanau Peninsula to be exact. Possibly my favorite place on this planet. To me, above all else (and it is a lot of else to be above), summers in Leelanau mean farm stands. There is nothing so glorious as the taste of a peach right off the tree (see above) or the simple pleasure of a local strawberry dipped in cream, and the climate in this idyllic peninsula seems perfectly suited to grow edible treasures.
The area is known for its tart cherry orchards and vineyards, both of which produce outstanding products which I proudly take part in. (Free wine tasting anyone? Because they abound in this area.) But its fresh produce wins out for me everyday, even over delicious cherry pies and crisp, dry Rieslings.
Wherever you drive, bike, or walk on Leelanau you will find a farm stand. Hand-painted signs tell tales of the edible wares offered at these quaint wooden structures. Sweet cherries, peaches, greens, free range eggs, chard, and strawberries picked this morning, announce the signs; making even those with bellies freshly stuffed, salivate over the options the stand provides for their next meal.
We pull the car over as we approach my favorite farm stand, located on M-22 between S Sugar Loaf Mountain Road and E Traverse Lake Road in Cedar MI. The stand, on the old Sonny Swanson Farm, is run by 29 year old farmer Ben Brown. Brown, a Chicago native and graduate of the Ecological Agriculture program at the University of Vermont, leases the Sonny Swanson Farm property from the Leelanau Conservancy, (who purchased the land and surrounding conservancy property in 2011).
The stand and farm are in such a picturesque location that it adds to the experience. The rustic yellow stand with chalk drawn signs is always piled full of freshly picked vegetables. The stand carries nearly everything that is in season (diversity is their middle name) and if you are lucky there will be eggs available from the farm’s heritage chickens (but they sell out quickly!) The stand runs on trust, something you do not see very often these days, with a cash-only system that allows you to take what you need and deposit the correct change in a box with a slit in it. If you are particularly happy with your take, you may even slip in a little extra for farmer Brown.
I love this farm stand not only for the abundance and diversity of crops available, but also for the principles Brown uses in his farming practices; ones that completely line up with mine. Here is a snippet from Sonny’s Farm’s website:
“We want our farming practices to be in harmony with all the fields, forests, wetlands, and wildlife that surround the farm. All of the management decisions are made with this goal in mind. We do not use inorganic fertilizers or pesticides (synthetic or organic). While third party certification is valuable to some consumers, we rely instead on transparency and communication as tools to keep people aware of how their food is grown. Direct marketing allows people to visit the farm and engage in a conversation about our practices. We feel strongly about avoiding the use of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms).”
Brown also raises chickens and turkeys that you can order on their website. My family Thanksgiving bird last year came from his farm. It was juicy and filled with dark meat. I recently read that the amount the muscles are exercised determines the color of the meat. You could tell the amount of “flight” time these turkeys had gotten in because their breasts had a section that was as dark as the drumsticks. Understanding where our dinner came from, and the way it was raised, gave me even more to be thankful for last Thanksgiving.
Right now I am simply thankful that it is summer and I get to enjoy all the bounty that the Leelanau Peninsula provides, including mounds of produce sustianably grown on the old Sonny Swanson Farm. We walk away from the stand with arms filled with beets and greens. My mind wanders to the meal we will soon be eating, one of Ben Brown’s chickens and a huge farm fresh salad with herbs from the kitchen garden. While I wonder what brilliant vegetables our next visit to the stand will provide, we drive away, my mouth salivating and my mind drifting like the sand dunes that surround us.