Building Bridges from Growers to Community
Mar 15, 2016 05:57PM
● By Erica Shames
The belief that business owners are uniquely positioned to impart wisdom to their customers encouraged farmers Jeff and Mandi Horn to start a restaurant that incorporates and teaches the principles of regenerative agriculture.
Horn O Plenty farm-to-table restaurant started as a 300-acre farm serving up Community Supported Agriculture, a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. The desire to do more, and educate their customers and community about the importance of sustainable food growing practices, led them to open Horn O Plenty in 2012.
“We believe in sustainability, environmental stewardship, and fresh, healthy, and delicious food,” says Mandi Horn, who owns and operates the farm and restaurant with her husband Jeff. “Our dream is to nurture a close relationship between the people who grow the food and those who eat it.”
The restaurant uses locally sourced and organically grown meat, dairy and produce—much of it from their own farm. This “freshtaurant,” as they refer to it, serves lunch and dinner and Sunday brunch.
The restaurant is housed in Bedford’s second-oldest house, built in the 18th century by William Todd, the great uncle of Abe Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd. Original wood sourced from the house was converted into tables and chairs, and the original flooring is still intact. Visually—and philosophically—the wood-fired oven is at the heart of the restaurant.
The menu reflects the seasons and local harvests, and illustrates the innovative results that can be achieved from knowledgeable and creative chefs. Items include Maple (house-smoked) Trout Taco; Steak & Artisan Cheese Quesadilla (made from their own grass-fed beef); Quinoa Black Bean Veggie Burger (served on homemade bread made from Frankferd Farms’ organic flour and baked in their own hand-built wood-fired oven); Wood-fired 5 Artisan Cheese Pizza (featuring Hidden Hills Dairy and Clover Creek Cheese Cellar products; and more. Their dessert menu reads like a 5-star urban eatery: Warm Bread Pudding Drizzled with (house-made) Real Cream Caramel; Carrot Cake/Maple Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Icing; Apple Crisp Cake; and Chocolate & Pumpkin Layer Cake.
All the right moves
Crops are cultivated using a companion cropping method, which helps control pests without chemicals and pesticides and keeps the soil healthy without fertilizers. This is similar to the Native American model of planting three sisters—corn, squash and beans—in close proximity because they thrive together and promote soil fertility.
In the Horn’s companion cropping model, herbs and vegetable crops are planted adjacent to achieve symbiosis. For example dill, a great pollinator, is planted with cucumbers to enhance the flavor of the cucumber. Also, pest repellents like onions and edible flowers like nasturtiums are planted with crops to keeps the bugs away. Planting non-GMO soybeans, a legume, with the crop enriches the depleted soil. Unlike most plants that only take nitrogen from the soil, legumes can convert nitrogen from the air into nitrogen in the soil. The process is called “nitrogen fixation.”
Utilizing cover crops like clover and alfalfa is another sustainable method incorporated on the farm. Tilling, which leads to soil erosion, is not used and in its absence green manure—rich plant residue—is generated. Once the crop’s growth cycle is done, plant remnants revert back into the soil building up nutrients, promoting water permeability and promoting soil biology. “We don’t have to use plastic [to prevent weed growth]; planting cover crops is a natural way to prevent weeds from growing,” Jeff said.
Cattle, lamb and chicken are raised on the farm using a sustainable grass-fed approach that integrates an intensive rotational grazing system: pasture is fenced in sections called paddocks, and the livestock is rotated to a new paddock once one has been grazed over. This allows the soil to regenerate and the grass to recover fully before being munched on again. This practice, too, helps prevent soil damage from over-grazing, and helps keep the soil aerated, allowing manure to penetrate rather than run off the soil.
Attention to detail
The Horns use the same amount of care and effort to connect with their customers. Restaurant staff, from servers to cooks, must toil on the farm before working in the restaurant. This allows the staff to speak to guests in an informed way about the food, and how it was grown and prepared. Conversations abound about the transparency of the food served, and customers are assured of the absence of hidden ingredients, pesticides and chemicals, and have the peace of mind that comes from knowing sustainable farming practices were used to grow the food.
Running a true farm-to table restaurant can be unpredictable. An ingredient may run out. Or a local farmer might show up with extra produce, like kohlrabi, to sell. Mandi welcomes whatever comes her way and dreams up unique menu items on the spur of the moment.
To broaden the possibilities, Mandi collaborates with other local farms like Hidden Hills Dairy for cheeses, Clover Creek for milk, Smith’s Organic for veggies, and Laurel Hill Trout Farm for fish. The challenge of finding locally grown organic apples led Jeff to barter with neighbors; he tends their apple trees and orchards when they don’t have the time and energy and any extra harvest is bequeathed to the Horns.
The mission to connect Bedford and surrounding communities to the farming community is underscored by bringing back natural food-growing, food-preparation and food-serving principles that harken back to an earlier, simpler time. The end result of all the hard work—both on the farm and in the restaurant—brings meaning and virtue and, the couple says, is worth the effort.
“We like to think we are making traditions by going back to traditions,” stresses Mandi. “By making connections among the soil, the harvest, the community and the food we grow and serve, our community of customers and residents benefits from our knowledge, and hopefully uses it and passes it on.”
By Debbie Yahnke and Erica Shames
Debbie Yahnke, who has been in the restaurant business for over 20 years, is a marathon runner on a quest for clean, nutritious food to achieve better performance.