If you were one of the 300 folks who came out to the Old Roberds Dairy Farm in Avondale this past Sunday afternoon, you ate good food, drank good drink, and had a grand old time at the 2019 Farm Picnic. The fifth annual of this special event, put on by te Forsyth Farmers’ Market Inc., saw a record attendance.
And most of us who went spent quality time petting baby goats, which made it even better.
Someone ordered up a chamber-of-commerce Savannah spring day that made being out on the farm ideal amid supportive Savannahians who love food and farmers equally. The picnic proceeds will once again directly benefit the diverse FFM mission, including programs that address food access by allowing shoppers to use SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program) and the Food Truck 912 initiative, a mobile market that provides access to locally sourced foods to more than a dozen Savannah neighborhoods every week.
Folks enjoyed a Service brew, a glass of wine or a sangria provided by Green Truck Neighborhood Pub, or a hibiscus tea courtesy of Perc Coffee. Service Brewing’s Kevin Ryan and Meredith Sutton were pouring an R&D spicy peanut butter banana ale, inspired by The Grey’s coriander peanuts.
Ryan turned and looked at the copse on the other side of the white rail fence and told me that the owners of the land let Service Brewing pick the mulberries for a seasonal hefeweizen: from farm-to-glass in about five miles.
The long buffet line was a veritable restaurant potluck: El Coyote served up delicious carnitas as the main course, followed by a slice of pork paté accompanied with pickled veg from Husk, a mushroom paté from Atlantic, and tamari-orange-baked tofu from Green Truck. Sides included Irish fried rice made by veteran Savannah chef and restaurateur Stephen ‘Mac’ McInerney, cole slaw and mac-n-cheese from Cha Bella, tossed salad with green goddess from Kayak Kafé, and three breads courtesy of the magical baking hands of Pacci Executive Chef Lauren Teague.
Desserts included homemade cupcakes and a wide variety of quenching Savannah Square Pops served from his push cart by owner Judd Wiggins.
Even better than the food and the weather was the atmosphere of the picnic, family friendly and dog friendly and full of flat-out friendly people, personified and pervaded by the FFM board members and team members. Spending just a few minutes talking to market Executive Director Jeb Bush was its own treat, and he was deservedly delighted, beaming over the community’s response to his organization’s efforts.
“It’s been a great day visiting with old friends and making some new ones,” Bush said to the crowd before he thanked all of the picnic’s purveyors and participants, including volunteers from Metropolitan Savannah Rotary and Phi Beta Sigma, who served up the great grub with smiles.
Truly, one of only worries was whether or not the food would hold out, considering the sell-out of 262 presale tickets and about 50 more inside the Old Dairy Farm’s fence that afternoon. Families sat on blankets they had brought. Friends sat side-by-side on hay bales or at picnic tables under tents, everyone enjoying food and drink, conversation and live music.
As folks meandered around the picnic grounds, stopping to catch up with familiar faces, several placed bids on the almost 50 silent auction items that included gift cards to Black Rabbit, Hunter Cattle, Latin Chicks, The Sentient Bean, Tequila’s Town, Victory Gardens, White Whale Craft Ale, and more.
Perhaps the most thematically apropos auction item was an original Panhandle Slim painting: a smiling George Washington Carver saying, “A good garden is one of the best family physicians.”
The Cowart Family of Bootleg Farm in Springfield brought a miniature petting zoo — numbering a half-dozen month-old goats, two chickens, a goose, and their Anatolian Shepherd — and some samples of their outstanding goat cheese.
As one of the darling goats gently nursed on my pinkie, Richard Cowart told me that his family has enjoyed developing relationships with Savannah-area local-focused restaurants and was incredibly appreciative of the great following of repeat weekly customers Bootleg has at the Saturday farmers market.
A few days before the picnic, I sat down with Josh Yates, owner of line-perpetually-out-the-door Green Truck and FFM’s Vendor Committee chair, to talk about this year’s picnic and Savannah’s locally sourced spirit.
“Whether or not it’s ‘hip’ or ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’,” Yates said about the farm-to-table concept, “I still think it’s important, and the farmers who are trying to make a living still need people to care.
“This is just a day to celebrate the Farmers’ Market and all the people who are involved in it, the farmers and supporters, featuring the local foods as best we can.”
Native Savannahian and 40-year nonprofit-sector veteran Tom Kohler took over as FFM’s Board chair about a year ago, and Yates and others on the board credit Kohler for pushing all of its members to spread the good word about the unique mission.
In turn, Kohler lauded Kristin Russell, founder-owner of The Sentient Bean and driving force behind the creation of the FFM 10 years ago, and cited their friendship and frequent community collaboration as his motivation in this current role.
These were the common threads in my conversations with all of the FFM folks and the vendors: no one took credit, and everyone quickly thanked others. The Humble Farmers.
As the sun began to set, Kohler, who had greeted almost everyone at the white rail fence three hours earlier, looked out over the picnic grounds with a warm smile at the happy folks and families and said, “What could be better?”
For me, the Farm Picnic was a tiny trip back in time. Until I was 10, I happily accepted a fable that I was related to everyone in Bliss, New York, a purely agricultural hamlet of a couple hundred farming families an hour south of Rochester. A few times a year, we drove down to spend the day at Uncle George’s place or to attend the annual Marsh family picnic at Stanley’s, and I walked through the barns and talked to cows. Our menfolk relatives all greeted my father with firm farmer handshakes, and my mother’s aunts all hugged her warmly, silent surrogates to stand in for her mother who had passed away in 1970, the year before I was born.
Even in my teens, I stuck close to my mom when we first arrived at George and Doris’s so that she could remind me who was who and exactly how I was related to each Marsh cousin. This was her side of the family, all farmers. I always loved those trips to Bliss. Everything about being ‘on the farm’ felt good: the home-cooked feasts, the patchwork fields, catching crayfish in the creek, Uncle George’s tender toughness.
Even for a few hours, a thousand miles away from where I first fell in love with a farm 40-odd years ago, this was the idyllic place to spend a late April Sunday afternoon, all of us enjoying dinner together and doing a little to show this generation of local farmers that we care. Make plans now to come to next year’s FFM Farm Picnic because I bet you — and I hope — that tickets will sell out again.
And if a baby goat is in the silent auction, I’m winning it. If it’s a little boy, I’ll name him George.
Someday, Neil and his wife will be living in a tiny town in the south of France, eating, doing crosswords, and playing Scrabble. For now, when he is not grading papers, baking bread, or watching EPL soccer, he builds furniture and writes.