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Utah farmers confront cougars, lightning and worms to bring produce to market

Published September 11, 2013 3:54 pm

Farming • A look at Smith Orchards peaches and Mabey Farms corn reveals the road to a farmers market is paved with dedication and love.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Scott Smith was tempted to pick the fruit.

As he walked through his Provo orchard, a cherry-picking bucket slung over his shoulders, he skipped plenty of juicy-looking, burnt-orange-colored Suncrest peaches.

A lifetime of experience told the sixth-generation farmer that the peaches needed one, maybe two more days to ripen.

He risks losing some of the fruit to gravity — and many already litter the ground. Waiting also means more work for the Smith Orchards owner and, usually, sole employee. It would be easier to harvest the fruit like some commercial farmers: stripping the entire tree of fruit when he is ready.

But Smith's customers at the Downtown Farmers Market in Salt Lake City have come to expect fruit bursting with flavor — like a recently picked peach he called a "ball of juice; it will just gush" — because he lets them ripen on the tree.

Smith Orchards, one of the 80 produce vendors at the state's largest farmers market, has its devoted fans who line up on Saturdays to fill their bags and bellies.

For these farmers, the effort to grow mouth-watering fruits and vegetables can span generations.

With summer produce at its peak and fall foods beginning to arrive, The Salt Lake Tribune followed farmers from Smith Orchards and Mabey Farms to see what it takes to bring produce from harvest to market.

Not for sale • A couple of days before a recent market, two housing developers were at Smith's door, asking if he wanted to sell his 49 acres — 10 set aside for growing peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, apples, cherries, pluots and apriums. He could make millions.

What the "property pimps" didn't know was that the 57-year-old lives to get up at 5 a.m., sometimes 4, to take his share of water from mountain springs, to pick before the temperature hits 80 degrees, to ride his ATV with a trailer laden with fruit over land his ancestors have farmed since 1870 while a red-tailed hawk flies overhead.

"I'm going to die up here with my boots on," he said, walking on a ridge with a 360-degree view of the Oquirrhs, Mt. Timpanogos and Squaw Peak. "This is all I ever wanted to do as a kid."

During the harvest, Smith is in the orchard, which sits about 5,300 feet above sea level, nearly every day. His English springer, Miss Balou, rides on his lap on the ATV and sits in the shade as Smith fills his bucket. He'll load up 200 boxes on his own, wearing white gloves and giving the fruit a twist of the wrist, listening to the suction sound the fruit and tree make when he breaks the connection. The fruit is stored for just a couple of days in citrus bins in a cooler set at 41 degrees, slowing the ripening before he gets to the Salt Lake City market or one at Brigham Young University.

The real work happened months before, in the grafting, pruning, cultivating and insect prevention. He likens his trees to a horse that wants to perform when it's well cared for.

"They just respond. When I'm up here pruning these trees, I talk to 'em," he said. "I'll be committed for saying that."

Then: "That one's an O'Henry; he's kind of a prima donna," he said, pointing to a tree. "They move at their own pace. You really have to give them special attention. This one," a Lemon Elberta, "it wants to put blossoms on."

Smith was struck by lightning once, while waiting out a thunderstorm under a tin-roofed shed on the orchard. He picked 30 more boxes of fruit before seeking medical help.

With an orchard bordered by Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land, he's been stared down by a cougar, and three bears have been close enough for Miss Balou to take notice. But he doesn't mind the coyotes, who kill the mice and rabbits that would eat his fruit. He built nesting boxes for kestrel falcons, which prey on birds that would peck his crop. And he hangs pheromone-scented baits to keep insects at bay. It's part of how he reduces the need to spray his orchard with chemicals.

Eric DeBonis, owner of The Paris Bistro and Sea Salt in Salt Lake City, calls Smith a "zealot" in search of the perfect peach.

"He's doing all the right things and you taste it in the peach," said DeBonis, who is currently serving the fruit in a tarte tatin with a cornmeal crust (see recipe).

Smith's peaches marked the beginning and end of a recent outdoor pop-up dinner set under white tents and lit by chandeliers on a downtown street. The 100 or so guests of the by-invitation-only event sipped bellinis made from his puréed white peaches, and they were treated to a dessert of half a peach topped with torched sugar.

Market customers, who lined up a dozen deep at times on a recent Saturday, planned to eat them over ice cream, in pies or cobblers or other special desserts. Or simply "leaning over the sink," says customer Rand Hirshi.

"This line is always busy," said Corrie Westra, who was happy to wait. "They're excellent. Every year the same. You know you'll get fresh."

Had Smith picked more, he likely would have sold them at about $1.25/pound. An hour after the market opened, one third of the day's produce was gone.

But Smith knew he was right to wait.

"You'll shave your quality. You'll shave your name and your standards. That is not who we are. They want tree-ripe. That's what our sign says."

Family affair • The Mabey family are in their South Jordan corn fields by 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays during the corn harvest, which will end this week. Steve Mabey and five of his adult children, along with spouses and some grandchildren, each take a row in a section of the 45-acre farm. With the sliver of the moon still shining and ribbons of clouds over Mt. Olympus starting to glow, they feel the cobs to make sure they haven't been eaten by worms and then twist the ears off and place them in large plastic garbage cans. About 5,000 ears will be picked and dumped in the back of a pickup truck, which serves as the Mabey stand at the Pioneer and Murray Park markets, as well as a farmstand at their home.

Most of the family have slept over the night before, coming from as far away as Genola, to help.

Wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle T-shirt, son-in-law Ben Farmer said Saturday mornings started out as an obligation when he married Anna Mabey, but has turned into something he looks forward to. "It's just been a big part of our marriage," he said while in the field, adding that he got married on a Thursday because the family couldn't stay up late to celebrate on a Friday night. "I like the togetherness that it brings."

There is easy banter about the newlyweds in the group arriving late to the field. Sarah and Nathan Pitcher steal a hug and kiss during the harvest. "We dated through corn season last year," she said, "so he knew what we do. This is just tradition."

Surrounded by his family and sweating in his green John Deere cap as he picks with both hands, Steve Mabey couldn't be happier.

"I absolutely love it. It's my relief, so to speak. Some people go water skiing for their hobby. Farming is pretty much mine," he said.

Steve Mabey has a day job to pay the bills. But he's never considered letting the state-designated "century farm" — which was bought by his great-grandfather in the 1880s — go fallow. He grew up on the farm and started doing small jobs at age 8 when his father grew alfalfa, sugar beets, barley and oats. When Steve Mabey married, he and his wife, Janet, decided to grow corn to make extra money.

Brad Mabey, 29 — who started selling at the farmers market when he was 8 — wanted to get to Pioneer Park before 8 a.m., when their regular customers will be waiting. Most of the ears are sold — at $5 for a dozen — in the first couple of hours. "After that, it's the looky-loos," he said.

Customers will pay more at the market than for corn at the store, but they are loyal.

Emily Gassman, owner of Em's Restaurant, stopped by about as soon as the Mabey truck was parked. She's been a customer for 14 years, using the corn to make corn-zucchini crustless quiche and corn pancakes (see accompanying recipe). And when Mabey's is out of corn, her diners are out of luck. "They're the only corn I'll serve because it's the best corn. It's just sweet," she said after requesting eight dozen.

In planting his fields, Steve Mabey found one of the sweetest varieties he could, called Marai. "This corn is to die for," agreed customer Diana Belka. "It's like candy."

Back at the field, granddaughter Madison Mabey shares a secret that longtime customers know well: It's so good it can be eaten raw.

The grandchildren like to pick because they get paid, and their parents and grandparents hope they're learning the value of hard work and how to interact with customers.

They do have a choice. They could sleep in, Madison said.

"Except we can't sleep in. We don't know how," added her 9-year-old sister, McKaylee.

hmay@sltrib.com

Utah peach tarte tatin

11 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 3/4 cups sugar, divided

5 medium ripe peaches, skins on, pitted and cut into 1 1/2-inch wedges

1 cup coarse yellow cornmeal or polenta

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons chopped fresh lavender or fennel seed

1 tablespoon course sea salt

3 large eggs

1/4 vanilla bean pod (scraped and chopped)

1/2 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat, using a pastry brush to coat sides with butter as it melts. Sprinkle 1 cup sugar evenly over bottom of skillet, and cook until sugar starts to bubble and turn golden brown, about 3 minutes. Arrange peaches in a circle at edge of skillet, on top of sugar. Arrange the remaining wedges in the center to fill. Reduce heat to low, and cook until juices are bubbling and peaches begin to soften, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat.

Whisk cornmeal, flour, baking powder, lavender (or fennel seed) and salt in a medium bowl. Beat remaining stick of butter and 3/4 cup sugar with a mixer on high speed, until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down sides of bowl. Mix in vanilla and cream. Reduce speed to low, and beat in cornmeal mixture in 2 additions.

Drop large spoonfuls of batter over peaches, and spread evenly using an offset spatula. Bake until golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 20 to 22 minutes. Transfer skillet to a wire rack, and let stand for 10 minutes. Run a knife or spatula around edge of cake. Quickly invert cake onto a cutting board. Tap bottom of skillet to release peaches, and carefully remove skillet. Reposition peach slices on top of cake. Let cool slightly before serving. Serve with a scoop of honey or vanilla gelato.

Servings • 8

Source: Eric DeBonis, owner/chef at The Paris Bistro and Sea Salt —

Em's corn pancake

3 large ears of Mabey corn

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 1/4 cups water

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup finely chopped scallions

1/4 cup canola oil, plus more as needed

2 oz. Brie

Freshly ground black pepper

In a large saucepan of boiling water, cook corn until crisp and tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to plate and let cool completely, then cut kernels off the cobs.

In a large bowl, beat the egg with water. Sift flour, salt and baking powder over the eggs. Whisk until a batter forms. Stir in corn kernels and scallions.

In large nonstick skillet, heat oil until shimmering. For each pancake, spoon a quarter cup of batter into skillet. Cook over moderate heat until brown on the bottom, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip and top with piece of cheese. Cook until cheese just starts to melt, about 2 more minutes.

Transfer to serving dish and season with pepper. Serve warm.

Servings • 4-6 cakes

Source: Em's Restaurant

How to freeze corn

Here is how Mabey Farm prepares its corn for the winter:

Husk corn and make sure all the silk is off.

Bring water in a large saucepan to boil.

Place corn into the boiling water and bring it back to a boil. Boil for 1-2 minutes.

Immediately remove corn from boiling water and place in ice cold water. The Mabeys use the kitchen sink and a block of ice.

Let corn cool, but not for too long.

Cut kernels off the cob and store in freezer bags.