Is there a simpler summer pleasure than a piping hot ear of corn rubbed with butter and salt?
Pull into the gravel parking lot off PA Rt. 100 and you will find a gang of folks digging through a wooden wagon brimming with ears of freshly picked sweet corn, anticipating that evening’s dinner delight.
Like the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon, Haskell’s SIW comes to life each year from mid- June through late October. A hand-painted white "Open" sign out front ushers folks into the beloved farm stand. Its wooden check-out shack is parked near railroad tracks just across the road from the sprawling 60-acre farm. Throughout the season forty kinds of sustainable veggies and fruits are toted by the pickers from those fields to those farm wagons several times a day.
The bounty includes 60 varieties of heirloom tomatoes that shine in their crimson, green and yellow hues. Rich in character, heirlooms arrive in mid-July and range from modestly tart to immodestly sweet. Pin me down, my vote goes to: the Green Zebra's sweet and zesty flavor that is as appetizing as its appearance is spectacular; the funky-shaped yellowish orange Hawaiian Pineapple that is terrific for juicy tomato sandwiches; and the pink-tinged Peruvian that looks almost hand-painted.
“A friend traveled to Peru several years ago and brought me back seeds,” says proprietor H. G. Haskell. “They taste almost like strawberries and are one of our customers’ favorites.”
A refrigerator contains homemade salsa and fresh cheese. Shoppers can pair tomatoes with fresh basil, DiBruno’s finest mozzarella and a drizzle of Claudio's fabulous balsamic vinegar to create the classic caprese salad. They also find a dozen types of cherry tomatoes in a rainbow of shades, squash, peppers, green beans, Doc Martin lima beans, okra, heirloom melons and berries. Shelves are stocked with jars of local honey, fruit butters, local breads and fresh baked pies. Buckets of sunflowers look like they just popped out of a Van Gogh painting.
“It’s all about what’s local which translates into better flavor and taste,” says Gary Trevisani, the chef and owner of Orchard in Kennett Square. “H. G. grows green beans an inch and a half long especially for me. I barely cook them. They’re so fresh and sweet, they look pretty neat on the plate.”
“Quality-wise, you can’t beat it,” marvels Ellen Muenter, of West Chester. “The produce is beautifully displayed in the farm wagons. The staff is extremely friendly and helpful. Haskell’s has a feel of yesteryear, so quaint and so inviting.”
Over the years the Haskell family has placed conservation easements on 95 percent of the farm protecting deciduous forests, emergent wetlands and critical habitats for wildlife. It’s the same farm where Philadelphia director M. Night Shyamalan filmed his 2004 movie “The Village.”
“We grow it, we pick it, we sell it and it doesn't get any better than that,” says Haskell who sports a red T-shirt that reads “My Crops Are Bigger Than Your Crops.”
“We wait until each of the vegetables is at the peak of ripeness. That leads to tastier crops and higher nutritional value.”
Coaxing tasty food from the unforgiving earth seems like a daunting task given drought, flood, disease, pests and human error. The parched summer of 2012 reminds me just how talented farmers are-- the folks who put an array of foods on our tables.
Haskell talks about plant diseases, battling weeds and natural pest control. He is doing a lot more no-till planting which reduces soil erosion. But the real secret to his home grown veggies and fruits is that the crops are 100% drip irrigated. And, he says he has done it since day one. The crops are nurtured by thirty miles of lines of this trickle system.
“The irrigation saves water and man hours,” Haskell explains. “ Water is applied where needed, at the plant's roots, and soaks into the soil before it can evaporate or run off.”
On a steamy summer day I am riding with Haskell in a vintage golf cart touring his bountiful fields. We whiz along side by side long rows of lima beans in flower with tiny pods. Okra flourishes on long green-stemmed plants. Watermelons and cantelopes are coming to size.
We pull up to a field of tassled corn stretching skyward. Haskell rips off a couple of ears and we start to snack. It’s heavenly sweet. When dug straight out of the ground, the potato skins are so thin and soft you can wipe them off with your fingers. The starches haven’t yet developed so they are chock-full of sweetness.
A gang of bee hives is perched on a hillside. The sun that scorched us all summer long also has ripened the fruit— luscious raspberries, blueberries and black berries. Further away clusters of sculptured fig trees are ready to yield the classic "Celeste,” “Brunswick,” and “Brown Turkey” varieties.
The tomato harvest is in full swing. They brought in 150 bushels yesterday-- a record for a single pick. There are also a dozen types of delectable yellow and red grape tomatoes. Navigating a sloping path, multi-hued zinnias and yellow sunflowers ripple in the wind.
H. G. III is the son of a former mayor of Wilmington and Delaware Congressman. He lived in the city until age 15 when the family moved to the former Pyle farm that his grandfather bought around 1910. He renamed it Hill Girt Farm and turned it into a working dairy farm. Sections of the massive barn date back to the 1600’s and the main house to 1816.
After college Haskell and his wife Kim spent a year touring Australia and Asia before returning to the Brandywine Valley in 1986. Under the shade of a large sycamore tree on a picnic table the produce stand opened for business on July 6th.
“I borrowed a tractor, some farming equipment and planted my first crops on six acres,” Haskell recalls. “Sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, raspberries and asparagus were picked the first year. It was self-service with an honor box to collect payment. On the first day we pulled in $11 in sales.”
Twenty-seven years later, Haskell’s is arguably the best local produce stand in the Brandywine Valley. The plants are propagated from seeds and seedlings inside the barn and at a modest greenhouse starting up in early April. Among a dozen eateries where their veggies and fruits turn up are Savona Bistro, Talula’s Table, Harry’s Seafood and Greenville and Wilmington Country Clubs.
Haskell started his Community Supported Agriculture program in 2001. You pay to join and receive shares of the farm’s seasonal produce. An arty chalkboard lists a dozen intriguing items for pick-up by CSA members each week.
Last July Haskell hosted their first annual “CSA Dinner.” Staged in the rustic barn with soft lighting and a vintage chandelier, fifty guests reveled in a spectacular meal prepared by Harry's Savoy chefs David Leo Banks and Dwayne Kalup.
“It was a magical evening, my husband and I met some very interesting people in different stages of life all with a strong appreciation of what the CSA stands for,” says Joan Snyder of Centerville. “The dishes were incredible, so fresh and delicious and presented with a real gourmet touch. And then there was the desert table, oh my. It gave the evening a very comfortable feel from the start. I can’t wait until they do it again next summer.”