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Farmer Jose: Chef Garces On Year Two at Luna Farms

Iron Chef Jose Garces dropped a bombshell a few years back when he announced he purchased a farm in Ottsville, Bucks County, and would be using his bounty in the kitchens of his restaurant empire.

As Garces enters year two of the project, he has learned a hell of a lot in short time period, including the fact that farming is quite difficult, and very expensive. Eater sat down with Garces to talk about the challenges and successes he's experienced at Luna Farms, and what the future holds for Farmer Jose.

How are things going at Luna Farms?
Well, this is the second year for the farm. We spent this first year just getting the soil ready and planting a cover crop to nourish the soil. This year we've done a full planting. We put down a bunch of different vegetables, have some microgreens going on, oh, and just put a new greenhouse in. We also inoculated a few logs and are producing mushrooms, shiitake and oyster mushrooms to be exact.

Are there any animals on the farm?
We have some chickens laying farm fresh eggs already, which are providing eggs for some of our restaurants. And, we've got bees, we've got two apiaries working, producing about 60 gallons so far, and hitting around 100 gallons. We're looking at raising goats, too. Right now, we have a few different goat candidates for the farm. We'll use them for meat, of course, but also for goat's milk, and goat cheese. We would love to sell the goats to different restaurants. Goat is still on the fringe, and not a mainstream protein, but we're getting there. Pigs would be awesome, and that's a possibility, but it's a huge undertaking.

Are you delivering to your restaurants on a regular basis?
Yeah, we do about two deliveries a week to the Philadelphia restaurants, and to Atlantic City, as well. It's really picking up now. Faster than we thought it would.

Besides the restaurants in Philly, will there be a line of Garces products people can purchase at retail?
We're looking into it, absolutely. But, the first thing we're doing is getting involved with CSAs, and stuff like that. Right now, we're at the Ottsville Farmer's Market, since the farm is located there. But, we will be in Headhouse Square, too, and we're thinking about providing product for Reading Terminal, as well.

What challenges have you faced at the farm so far?
The number one problem we learned is that farming is quite expensive. It also requires a lot of planning, and it's a huge undertaking. Also, figuring out what to grow in our environment is a trial and error situation. And, lastly, figuring out what items on our menu can be done on our farms is a cross-planning situation, and a timing issue.

What are some of the unexpected positives you've had happen over the last couple years?
Well, of course, having access to really fresh product, and knowing when they'll be available is pretty amazing. It sounds like nothing, but we had picked lettuce fresh that I used at home for something, and it was still really crisp and fresh three days later in the fridge. Normally a day or two is lost in transit when you're buying from Mexico and California, but just seeing that level of freshness is fantastic.

You have the new project coming up at The Kimmel Center, where you'll be doing small, exclusive dinners. Will a lot of that menu be based around what's happening at the farm?
Absolutely. Most everything we do at the farm will be going right there. It's going to be an exclusive menu, a limited number of seats, so the farm can drive what we're doing there. Our farmer, Alex McCracken, is very talented, and can grow anything. So, we're planning on growing very specific heirloom varieties that you'll only see at that location.

How did you get involved with Alex McCracken?
When word got out we were doing a farm, we got a huge stack of resumes. Alex came with such high recommendations from other farmers, and farm owners. He is talented, and works with all kinds of techniques, including hydroponics. He's amazing.

That area is known for growing grapes and winemaking. Most of your restaurants focus on wine, as well. Any chance you'll be doing a line of wines?
No, that's a whole other skill set, and requires another group of people. We're sticking with the animals and the produce.

You had talked before about using the farm as a teaching tool. How is that going to work?
We are starting a program for kids to check out the farm, and take classes up here about agriculture and nutrition. It's mainly for inner-city kids, I'm pretty excited about it. And, we just got approval for the Garces Family Foundation which is focused on improving the health, and the education of immigrant families in the area that don't have healthcare. There's a group in Philly called Puentes de Salud, some doctors from UPenn that do clinical hours for immigrants, and they're building a community center. We're going to support that through our foundation.

[Photo: Nina Cazille - Nina Lea Photography]

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