Nestled in a quiet corner of Weston, Connecticut sits Dirt Road Farm.
Amidst the beauty of the landscape and the quintessential New England architecture, Phoebe-Cole Smith, grows, creates, cooks, and shares her love of locally grown food.
How did you get into farming?
I grew up in suburban Illinois until my mother and stepfather bought a farm in the country when I was 13. I had a horse, we grew organic vegetables, swam in our spring-fed pond, planted an orchard, and raised beef cattle. Then, I attended the The Putney School in Vermont — a progressive “alternative” high school that was also a working farm. I adored it there, and by then I was totally hooked on farming, even though it was a circuitous route that eventually led me to Connecticut and back to farm life.
When we moved to Weston, CT in 1992, one of the first things we did was plant a vegetable garden, expanding and refining it through the years. Since then, my husband Mike and I have added herb and berry gardens, a flower cutting garden, a small orchard.
What allowed us to officially become a farm in 2011 was our maple syrup production. We bought the lot of mostly sugar maples next to us, built a sugar house and have increased production to 400 taps.
What products do you grow and sell?
Mostly what we sell is maple syrup. Over the past few years i have also been selling pickles and preserves that I make throughout the season at an annual holiday “pop-up farm stand” that we hold here in early December.
I invite other farmers and makers to sell their goods and it is a wonderful community event.
What led you to get started in producing maple syrup?
When our children were small, our dear old friend Paulie Tumel, a frugal yankee and a surrogate grandfather to our kids, visited and decided we should tap a couple of the old maple trees on our property. He whittled spiles from saplings with the kids, hung plastic milk jugs from them, and we boiled the sap on an old wood stove that was in one of our outbuildings.
That experience led me, many years later, to present my husband Mike with a maple syrup “kit” that included three buckets and three taps. He took to it, to say the least. the rest, as they say, is history.
How did your culinary training influence the way you choose ingredients?
My internship for culinary school was at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. They are the gold standard of farm-to-table cuisine.
I have always sought out the highest quality locally-grown, sustainably-raised and artisanally-crafted products and have not veered from that, ever. What I can grow I do, but I rely heavily on a coterie of farmers and makers in this area for all of my barn suppers and events, sourced directly or from the Westport Farmers’ Market, which I attend most every week.
How has being a chef influenced your farming?
I grow food that might be hard to find in the market for cooking, such as fava beans, cardoons, celery, certain herbs. I’m obsessed with edible flowers and I also plant to attract pollinators.
We keep bees and I want to keep them happy and producing honey for us – and for them – and it is extremely beneficial for other pollinators such as wild bees and butterflies and hummingbirds to play a part in our little ecosystem.
As a chef, you can’t beat harvesting produce from your own property, gathering the very best eggs from your own coop, sharing honey with honeybees from your own hives. It gives a lot more meaning to the food you create when there is a direct connection to the ingredients you use.
Can you tell us about your catering and event venue, Picnic?
Picnic, the name of my catering, private cooking business and culinary events space here at DIRT ROAD FARM, has always been farm-to-table.
I’ve just completed a full season (May thru November) of barn suppers and collaborative workshops here, feeding people at our communal farm table in our barn, decorated with flowers and herbs from our gardens, with menus that highlight the bounty available to us in this area, all of it from nearby.
It’s wonderful that people are learning about what we are doing here. People are coming from all over New England as well as – from DC, Minneapolis and LA for the experience.
The servers who work at Picnic are farmers, too, and are able to speak about the food from the perspective of having grown it or raised it, a definite plus! My sous-chef worked with me all spring and summer in the gardens — planting seeds, making compost, weeding, harvesting — as well as in the kitchen.
So, my mission with PICNIC is to feed people the highest-quality seasonal local food available, and to teach them that eating this way, at least some of the time, is fresher, more delicious and healthier for them, their community, their local economy, and their planet.
What’s makes your business enjoyable for you?
I love the simplicity of feeding people from the land that surrounds them, it is not something to be taken for granted and people really do appreciate it when they are made aware of the source of their meal when it is presented to them.
For people who are interested in starting their own backyard garden, what types of vegetables are the best for beginners to grow?
Go for variety and do not aim for perfection. Learn which vegetables thrive under what conditions and rather than creating/forcing those conditions, work with what you have (in terms of temperature, light and soil type).
Plant vegetables in early spring that like cold weather, such as peas, fava beans, lettuces, that will be up and out before your warmer weather vegetables need to be planted (tomato and pepper transplants, summer squash).
Keep planting until late summer (tuck beets, lettuces, carrots in where they’ll have room to develop) for fall crops. You do not need a lot of space if you plan ahead.
A good reference is gardener Lee Reich for info on interplanting vegetables.
What do you feel are the most significant contributions of Dirt Road Farm and Picnic?
By supporting Picnic and Dirt Road Farm, customers/guests are supporting a community of makers, farmers and craftspeople which in turn enriches our local food hub and keeps our local economy thriving.
In doing this work, we are doing our part to confront climate change, preserve our soil, and teach our children the importance of the food we eat and where it comes from.
Learn more about Dirt Road Farm by visiting their website below:
Kitchen & Garden
We have some great ideas sprouting up so watch this space for more delicious finds.