Fresh Off the Farm
“Who are you?” A perfectly reasonable question to ask of two strangers with a camera and tape recorder standing in the kitchen of the farmhouse at the JenEhr Family Farm. So we told her we were writing a piece on Jeana Ruland, the person cooking her lunch. And then we asked a perfectly reasonable question of her. “And who are you?”
She was one of ten farm hands—six full-time, four part-time interns—hired for the summer by wife Kay Jensen and husband Paul Ehrhardt (the “Jen” and “Ehr” of the farm’s namesake). Kay and Paul have grown organic fruits and vegetables and pastured chemical-free poultry at their Dane County farm for thirteen years. Their approach to employment mirrors their approach to farming: thoughtful, careful and ultimately deeply personal.
The farm hand interview process is thorough and includes a trial day on the job to make sure it’s a good fit for everyone. But the commitment and philosophy don’t stop with planting, growing, harvesting, preparing and marketing fresh, sustainably grown food.
“We really want them to be local eaters, too,” says Kay, to appreciate the taste and the enjoyment of the food they are growing.
You’d think that’d be easy on a farm. But a while back, Kay saw a farm hand eating raw kohlrabi for lunch and thought, “This can’t work.” They’d heard of farms on the east coast employing chefs and decided to give it a try.
Ruland is the current chef, the latest in an impressive list that includes Osteria Papavero owner and chef Francesco Mangano who held the job for three years.
“Every time we get somebody different,” says Paul. “Their background is so different. They use the same ingredients but it has a total different slant to it.”
Ruland is professionally trained, a student of widely respected chef and cookbook author Madeleine Kamman. This job is a wonderful fit to both her skills and personal beliefs. Use what is fresh and available. Use everything. Waste as little as possible. Know where your food came from and what it tastes like.
Like the popular Food Channel show, where chefs are given a surprise box of ingredients from which they must prepare a meal, no two of Ruland’s days are the same.
“I come here and I really don’t know what I’m going to cook,” she says.
The day we visited she said Kay had given her a chicken the night before. “So I had a head start,” she says. She smoked it in her small smoker at home and brought it with her to work.
Ruland works in a kitchen with a expansive view of the farm.
“Look what I get to see as I work,” she says.
But leisurely it is not. The crew arrives in the kitchen at noon sharp. And they will be hungry. Ruland uses what’s been picked as well as foods Kay and Paul have received in trade for their chickens. Today her theme is picnic food: sliced, smoked chicken and ham, slaw made with two kinds of kohlrabi and broccoli stems, pickled vegetables, and potato salad with Sugar River yogurt.
The crew arrives and each takes a chair as Ruland describes what she’s prepared. They work hard. They eat hearty. They’re participating in something rich and meaningful.
As we leave, Ruland serves dessert: pound cake with cardamom, lemon peel, freshly picked strawberries and local whipped cream. It feels like the farm; respect, skill, hard work and everything and everybody well cared for.
Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.