Wouldn’t it be a lot more fun to eat your vegetables if they were speckled pigeon peas, purple sweet potatoes and tiny Hungarian rice beans?
For Alex Wenger of the The Field’s Edge Research Farm in Lititz, growing heirloom and exotic vegetables is an art and a science.
Wenger supplies Lancaster restaurants such as Ma(i)son, John J. Jeffries, Bistro Barbaret and Horse Inn – as well as Philadelphia and New York City locations – with organic vegetables ranging from wild broccoli rabe and silvetta arugula to melon cucumbers and Formia corn.
These aren’t your run-of-the-mill vegetables. Some date back hundreds of years to the time of Native Americans and early European settlers. Others come from Africa, Asia and Europe.
“Restaurants are always looking for something new and different to put on the menu,” explains Wenger.
Sometimes Wenger suggests vegetables that might improve a farm-to-table menu. Other times, he’ll research a type of vegetable that a chef has mentioned and figure out how to grow it. He’s also skilled at offering tips on how certain vegetables should be prepared. “One of our most fun and rewarding recent collaborations has been with the ríjuice family of Lancaster,” says Wenger.
“They came looking for new ingredients and to learn more about farming, and they’ve become close friends and supporters of all that we do.” The business’ employees volunteer on a regular basis to help with research projects and farm work, he said.
Wenger, 24, was home-schooled just north of Lititz by his parents, Neill and Jane Wenger. He said they encouraged him to follow his passion for science and creativity.
“My grandparents had greenhouses and raised cut flowers until the ’70s,” says Wenger. “While the greenhouses were sold by the time I was born, I grew up hearing stories about life on my grandparents’ farms. And we always had large gardens.”
He went on to Goddard College, where he studied sustainable agriculture with an emphasis on ethnobotany and plant breeding. His studies included the use of wild plants among place-based cultures around the world and molecular genetics with a focus on traditional plant breeding.
“I never intended to be a farmer,” Wenger says. “Growing vegetables be- came a way for me to apply my studies. It’s one thing to read about the edible or medicinal values of a plant, but to learn how to grow it, touch and taste it leads to a different type of understanding.”
Many of the vegetables he grows are heirloom vegetables, which refers to seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation. He also works with open-pollinated vegetable and grain varieties.
The first year they grew the Spin Rosso della Valsugana corn, for example, most of the plants fell over. They saved seeds from only those with sturdy stalks and now have strong, weather- and pest-resistant plants that produce a reliable crop each year.
“We grow a wide assortment that ranges from bitter melons and purslane to Giramon du Martinique squash as a seed crop for the Roughwood Seed Collection. Each has a story to tell,” says Wenger. The farm also grows some specialty fruits such as Alpine strawberries, Malus sieversii apples, ground cherries and golden berries.
To address its mission, The Field’s Edge operation works on projects to breed new plants requiring fewer sprays, for example. The business also explores new plants that feature added nutrition or work to build up soil health.
“We re-examine food traditions and techniques for caring for the land that have been lost in recent history,” says Wenger. But Wenger doesn’t just grow vegetables. He said he enjoys searing and ash- roasting meaty vegetables as well as using flavors such as cilantro, spruce, tumeric, sweet potato and marigold in his dishes.
“I love to cook and we’re always experimenting with new preparations for all that we grow, ranging from infusions to fermentations,” says Wenger.