May 16, 2011

Rick Bishop on the challenges of growing the perfect strawberry

Rick Bishop, left, and one of his many fans, chef Dan Kluger, whose ABC Kitchen just took home the best new restaurant James Beard Foundation award
Although the term “farm to table” has become a cliché, what it stands for has not. Sophisticated, big-city dining has put the small organic farmer at the center of its universe. In the competition for the first, best and most rarified crops of the season, a good relationship with growers is crucial to chefs.

One of my favorite recent interviews was with Rick Bishop, the extremely talented farmer behind Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in Roscoe, NY. As I detail in this Edible Manhattan story, Rick is beloved by Manhattan's best chefs because he's passionate, engaging, and highly knowledgeable about farming. Most importantly, he can deliver the goods.

Among Rick's most prized crops are his Tri-Star strawberries, a small, delicate and extremely flavorful hybrid that was first introduced by Federal agriculture department breeders in 1981. It doesn't require long sunlight hours like most strawberries, so it can grow over three seasons, from May through October. The Tri-Star thrives in cool climates, perfect for the Catskills, where Rick's farm is located.

To hear Rick talk about what it takes to grow a crop like this is to get a tiny glimpse into the challenges of the small farmer that we hear about, but don't understand on a gut level.

One of the biggest challenges of this berry, for example, is its small fruit size, which means pickers have to pick 45 to 52 berries per pint, compared to only 12 to 15 of the California behemoths were used to buying in grocery stores. More berries, more work.

Second, the Tri-Star has no real forage capacity. Instead of sending roots out far and wide to gather nutrients, as a wild berry would, plants have to be placed in raised beds lined with black plastic and watered with overhead irrigation. Because the Tri-Star is a very dense berry, though, with high soluble solids and sugar content, they also mold easily. (These, by the way are exactly the qualities that allow the berry to pickle up so well, which is what the chefs at Momofuku and Corton like to do with them.) To prevent mold, Rick has to be fanatic about cleaning out all dead or rotting berries, pruning off all runners, and laying down straw between rows to make sure no dirt splashes back onto the fruit. His field has to be meticulously maintained, in other words. 

"If disease breaks out in week two," he notes, you're done. "To get this berry to come in, when done correctly, it's a treasure." The Tri-Stars are also, he says, "a roller coaster. They can come in and do very well, but they can also take away. Two years ago, the strawberry season was soup, it rained all through."

How did he get through? "I have a day job," he says succinctly (his "more-than full-time" day job is as marketing director of Hudson Valley Foie Gras). "If I just did beans and potatoes, it wouldn't be so bad, but strawberries are like this," he says, his hand describing the up-and-down movement of a roller coaster. "It's ski vacation in Colorado, beans and rice, ski vacation, beans and rice."

When well-heeled customers at fancy chef dinners say to Rick, "Well, if you were smart....." and give him business advice, his answer is, "Being smart isn't always going to help you if this is the weather. If all of a sudden your quarterly reports were 700 percent under last year, what would you do? You'd fold! But not a farmer. It's like Vegas, it's crazy! And you learn to just go with it."