SEARSMONT, Maine — When Hubert McCabe and Sarah Tompkins moved to Searsmont to start Fine Line Farm a few years ago, they quickly realized the local market for vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and peas was already cornered by established farmers.
So they searched out of the box — sometimes way out of the box — for inspiration. These days, Fine Line Farm is busy growing its reputation as a go-to place in the midcoast for unusual crops like fresh ginger root, squash blossoms, sunbuds, fava greens, Japanese turnips, tatsoi, edible flowers and more, and that’s just fine with the Fine Line farmers. They sell their produce at the Rockland Farmer’s Market, at the Deer Isle Night Market and directly to a lot of local restaurants, including Ondine in Belfast.
“We’re weirdos growing weird vegetables,” McCabe joked. “We do grow a lot of strange vegetables or different vegetables or obscure vegetables. And we also do a lot of normal vegetables, but we grow them differently.”
And they’re not alone. It turns out that some Mainers are hungry for vegetables that likely would never have been grown in their grandmothers’ gardens, as farms across the state experiment with unusual varieties of vegetables and fruits or with exotic plants that originally came from places like Jamaica or Korea. That shouldn’t be a surprise, according to Leigh Hallett, the executive director of the Maine Federation of Farmer’s Markets.
“That’s what I find to be the norm,” she said of these crops. “Maine is known for small, diversified farms, and small, diversified farms are always trying new things and exploring more diverse vegetables. They don’t have to meet an order for 10,000 pounds of something, so you can often expect to find things that are out of the ordinary at farmer’s markets.”
In fact, she doesn’t really care for the adjective “unusual” to describe those vegetables, the ones that probably would not be found at a supermarket.
“I’m a little uncomfortable with that word,” Hallett said. “The world is a rich and varied place. Supermarkets are great for convenience, but they’re not known for being sensory palaces.”
Still, not every odd crop grown here is a home run, farmers said. In fact, some of the vegetables McCabe and Tompkins have grown on their farm have struck out. That was the case with papalo, a Mexican herb with a strong cilantro flavor, and with callaloo, a leaf vegetable in the amaranth family, neither of which is being grown at Fine Line anymore.
“We cultivate amazing relationships with the chefs we work with,” McCabe said. “We’ll ask them, do you want this or do you want that? They’ll tell us, ‘Please, never grow that again.’”
But that’s no reason to stop experimenting, they and other farmers who strive to grow out-of-the-ordinary crops said. Penny Chase of Chase’s Daily in Belfast said the family farmers keep growing unusual vegetables at their farm in Freedom to sell at their store, bakery and restaurant, even when their customers don’t seem to be all that interested in them. This fall, savvy Chase’s shoppers may spot something new: puntarelle, an Italian green that is a variant of chicory.
“We used to see it in the markets in Italy,” Chase said. “It is a bitter green, and it’s very delicious.”
She and other family members are hoping their customers will like it, too. That’s not always the case.
“We have many varieties of radicchio that are just gorgeous and beautiful, but people don’t buy it,” she said, adding that the same has been true of fava beans, tongue of fire shell beans and the store’s big bunches of mixed greens. “They’re not such an easy sell, either. But we’re kind of stubborn. We just want to get people interested in eating these beautiful, delicious things.”
Many farmers in Maine believe that sparking interest in out of the ordinary vegetables is part of their job.
“One of my missions is to educate people about good food,” Anne Devin of Chase Stream Farm in Monroe said. “To expand people’s horizons and palates.”
The farm she and her husband, Tim Devin, both veterans, own is new, and they are figuring things out as they go along. One of the things they are learning is that what they call the vegetables they grow and sell is very important. That’s been true with Yukina savoy, a green they are calling “Asian spinach,” and with the D’Avignon radish, which they call by its better known name, the French breakfast radish.
“With a lot of things up here, you’ve kind of got to call it what everybody might recognize it as,” she said. “A lot of people can get thrown off by the name. With a weird name, fewer people were willing to give it a try.”
Back at Fine Line Farm, where McCabe and Tompkins offer up samples of the nutty-tasting sunbuds, or sunflower buds, spicy heirloom radish, sweet and tender sunflower shoots and more, the farmers said that enough people have been willing to try their produce and that their out-of-the-box farm strategy is paying off.
“We’re selling everything we pick,” McCabe said.
Tompkins said business has been good, but it hasn’t necessarily been an easy road to get there.
“We’ve spent a whole lot of time doing research and doing trials. We’ve spent years trying to get certain things to work, with a lot of failure along the way,” she said, adding that the work is paying off. “We’re not killing it, but we get by. This is how we make our living.”