Two black-and-white-checked rabbits bounding over three heads of lettuce adorn the bags Haight Farm uses to package its hydroponic produce: fragrant bunches of basil, colorful Bright-Lights chard, crunchy dark-green Tatsoi, tender mesclun mix. The farm’s dazzling, leafy greens and perfectly ripe tomatoes are literally works of art. This past week, when my culinary curiosity got the best of me, I invited myself down to visit the Blue Hill Falls farm.
“We’d love to have you,” said Courtenay Haight, a former Wall Street banker who, with his wife, Woody, operates Haight Farm. “Just be sure it’s early in the morning. That’s when the lettuce looks the best.” And that’s just what I wanted to see, the agricultural hows and whys of picture-perfect lettuce at its best.
The morning was cold and rainy when my eldest daughter and I set out for our tour. The warm, cuddly angora rabbit stationed on the front porch greeted us. “She’s a visiting bunny,” Woody said as she met us at the door. On the walk to meet Courtenay in the greenhouse, Woody said that her love of rabbits steered the Haights from Wall Street and their home in Connecticut to raising hydroponic produce in Maine.
Courtenay was already busy in the larger of two greenhouses, testing the nutrient level of the water used to grow the plants. Hydroponics, Haight Farm’s method of agriculture, is a system in which the roots of the plant grow freely in flowing water. By testing the water daily, the Haights can administer each nutrient at the exact level the crop requires.
“We start the seeds in individual peat pods in the basement under lights,” Courtenay said. “Then the seedlings are moved to these greenhouse beds.” The “beds” are nothing more than a shallow tank where every little seedling has its own watering hole.
Woody, the designated troubleshooter, watches and worries over the plants. In addition to being fed just exactly what they need to grow perfectly, the plants’ leaf samples are tested frequently for health and well-being. The Haights use no herbicides or pesticides, relying instead upon natural means such as ladybugs to combat pests like aphids.
Haight Farm harvests seven to eight varieties of greens, depending upon the amount of light and the growing season. The farm operates about 10 months during the year, shutting down right before Christmas and starting up again the first of February.
In addition to a variety of lettuces, the Haights cultivate herbs like basil, chervil, parsley and dill, and five varieties of tomatoes. My mouth waters whenever I think of eating their tomatoes, so sweet, better than any candy.
“We can vary the nutrients to influence the sweetness in the tomatoes,” Woody said.
Behind the tomato plants, Courtenay showed me the mature heads of lettuce. Every leaf was perfectly formed, a unique and beautiful work of art. It was then that I understood why their mesclun mix is so gorgeous.
“Mesclun is the French term for mix,” Woody said. “Traditionally mesclun mix was harvested wild, a mixture of the shoots and leaves of the tender edible plants that started poking up on the hillsides after the rains in early spring.”
Our tour of the larger greenhouse complete, the Haights graciously invited us to stay longer and visit with their goats, sheep and rabbits.
“In the late 1980s, business got nasty on Wall Street,” Courtenay said as we walked to the other greenhouse. “I was unhappy in that atmosphere and wanted to make a career change. We were traveling to rabbit shows across the country, and we role-played, trying to imagine what business we’d like to run.”
Their market research indicated that there would be a demand for fresh vegetables in certain areas of Maine and that the season could be extended by growing vegetables in a greenhouse.
“Blue Hill just felt right,” Woody said. So in 1990 they moved 65 American checkered giant and angora rabbits to Maine and in 1991 began the construction of their first greenhouse.
“Rabbits have been a large part of my life, even though now I no longer breed them,” Woody said. “I was so happy with the artwork for our logo. It was done by our children’s eighth-grade art teacher.”
This will be Woody and Courtenay’s seventh season operating Haight Farm. While production is geared primarily to the wholsale side of the business, Courtenay enjoys the farmers markets.
With their luscious tomato plants already with fruit, I can hardly wait to go to the European Farmers Market on Buck Street in Bangor on Saturday mornings in anticipation of the treasures they’ll have there. Indeed, there is no substitute for the immediacy you feel when produce has been harvested and practically brought right to your kitchen without languishing for days in storage.
The Haights recognize that the finest food is produced and grown in ways that are ecologically sound. They are continually educating themselves and keeping track of greenhouse research. Their level of commitment has raised their farming to an art.
Handling living food is so energizing that it always makes me want to cook. I find the complex layers of flavors from the greens in Woody’s mesclun mix to be utterly fresh and perfectly satisfying. Gazing upon a Haight Farm salad is like admiring a work of art. Fortunately for us, because of the wonderful talents of Woody and Courtenay Haight, it is an edible work of art.
Haight Farm Stir-fry Greens
1 head Tatsoi or 2 bunches Bright Lights Chard 1 garlic clove, finely minced Olive oil Salt and pepper to taste
Remove the root ball from the Tatsoi, rinse well and spin dry. In a medium saute pan over medium heat on top of the stove, swirl the olive oil and add the minced garlic. Briefly saute, stirring constantly. Add the greens and quickly stir-fry until just wilted. Remove pan from heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately. Serves 2.
Sesame Braised Greens make a quick and elegant addition to a supper of grilled steak and oven-roasted fries.
Sesame Braised Greens
1 head Tatsoi or 2 bunches Bright Lights Chard 1 tablespoon sesame seeds 1 tablespoon olive mixed with sesame oil
Rinse the greens and spin dry. In a medium saute pan on medium heat, quickly saute the sesame seeds in the oil. Add the dry green and stir-fry until just wilted. Remove pan from heat and serve immediately. Serves 2.
In addition to sweet basil, Woody recommends trying a combination of the many varieties like Thai basil, lemon basil, purple ruffle basil or spicy bush basil when preparing Basil-Flavored Olive Oil.
Basil-Flavored Olive Oil
One 2-ounce package basil 1 cup general purpose light-bodied virgin olive oil
Wash the basil, drain in a colander and thoroughly spin dry in a salad spinner. Puree the leaves in a blender with the olive oil. Flavored oils taste better if used right away. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week. Do not store any longer, however, as dangerous anaerobic bacteria may survive and multiply in unprocessed infused oils.
Haight Farm Mesclun Mix and Fresh Fruit Salad
One 4-ounce bag mesclun mix 1 cup cut up fresh fruit (any combination of fresh, ripe fruit will work, such as strawberries, raspberries, apple or pear slices dipped in lemon juice, kiwi slices, starfruit, grapes sliced in half) 4 tablespoons (or more to taste) Turner Berry Garlic Dressing (available from Haight Farm)
Pour the Turner Berry Garlic Dressing out from the bottle into a small bowl. Place the greens and fresh fruit in a salad bowl. Stir the Berry Garlic Dressing and spoon 4 tablespoons over the salad. Toss gently to coat and serve immediately. Serves 3-4.
When she has fresh mint available from her collection of kitchen garden herbs, Woody likes to add it to the mesclun mix for this salad.