Miller Farms definitely puts the "ag" in agritourism.
For a nominal admission fee, I got to spend a day at a working farm, hitched a ride on a huge trailer filled with hay bales, learned that root vegetables don't always want to be unearthed, and took home seven large grocery bags bursting with fresh produce -- inspiring a new recipe using local, fresh veggies that I self-harvested.
Miller Farms has been operating since 1949, when Roy and Dorothy Miller started a modest dairy and also grew alfalfa, corn, beans and sugar beets, adding vegetables in the 1950s with a roadside stand run on the honor system -- customers would take the produce they wanted and leave money in a tin can. In the 1960s they built a market and added greenhouses, but then the gas shortages of the 1970s and skyrocketing transportation costs caused a market lull.
The 1980s brought the introduction of local farmers' markets, and the 1990s brought new operators: Miller sons Joe and Chris. But the soaking wet conditions in 1995 put the hurt on crops, so they decided to diversify by opening up the farm to agritourism -- or agtourism.
Agritourism as a means to keep farms economically viable is a relatively new idea, but one that seems to be working out beautifully for Miller Farms. They began with a "Potato Dig" in 1996, creating a festival-like atmosphere for visitors with hay rides and a petting zoo. This eventually led to the establishment of their "Fall Harvest Festival," which attracted 15,000 visitors last year.
I put on my hillbilly cowboy hat, packed a tank of water and a sturdy cutting knife, and I was there at 9 a.m. to spend my day harvesting carrots, onions, beets, potatoes, Indian corn, peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, and even a few stray kohlrabi.
The farm was crowded with visitors from the moment it opened, and $15 (group discounts are available) gets you a day-pass bracelet to pick, dig and haul away as much fresh produce as you can. The lines were a bit long, but the entire operation ran with Swiss watch-like precision, with tractor-driven transports departing and arriving about every thirty minutes to take people on a winding path over the acres of crops.
Our first stop was at the onion patch, where pickings were bountiful. The onions were huge, easy to pull, and lugging the bag back to the transport was the hardest part. The experienced farmers took it easy on us with the potatoes -- they were dug mechanically, so all we had to do was follow the tractor and grab as many as we wanted. But bags of potatoes are still heavy, whether you pull them yourself or not.
On the way to the next stop near the cornfields, my transport companions noticed a discarded bra by the roadside. Apparently produce got someone hot and bothered.
Golden beets have a tendency to be pricey in grocery stores, so getting dropped off near the cache of gigantic, ripe beets was well-worth the price of admission. The beets were not as wielding as the onions, and I spent a good 45 minutes locating the best ones, digging around them, then utilizing my awesome Herculean strength to rip them from the ground, one by one.
The Indian corn was lovely -- too pretty to eat, really, but fall displays add a festive bit for door hangings and table centerpieces if you are the Martha Stewart-y type.
I was struggling with the carrots. They just did not want to be dug, and I have grown soft and lazy since my childhood on a farm. A kind employee of Miller Farms saw us all fruitlessly scraping at the dirt, and used his spade shovel to extract a few rows for us. My lack of grip strength was shameful, but soon forgotten as I wiped the earth away from a treasure trove of plump, fragrant carrots.
Thank goodness that the kohlrabi bulbs and heads of cabbage were easy to maneuver. I felt fetchingly medieval as I popped off a few choice cabbage tops, and envisioned the many days of delicious casseroles, stir-fry and meat-stuffed rolls I was planning to construct.
The squash yield was not abundant this year, so we were restricted to one per person. I chose a decent-sized acorn squash, but the bevy of eggplants, peppers and tomatoes made up for the loss. I liberated a small sack of greens for frying and several large bags of ripe red tomatoes, and the abundance of chiles, bell peppers and jalapenos was enough to keep me busy making fresh garden salsa for the rest of the week.
I was tired and dirty but pleased as I caught the transport back to the festival area to unload. I'd scored seven bags of fresh produce, weighing in at just over a hundred pounds, and I was glad I'd thought ahead to bring my urban-tastic wheeled cart, because the march back to the dirt parking lot seemed pretty long and cumbersome. The farm provided a fleet of vintage kid's play wagons to haul the goods, and it took mine, two of theirs and my stuffed backpack to get everything to the car.
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After a wash and a nap, I decided to go rogue and make up a recipe on the fly, using as many vegetables as I could from the haul. I sautéed diced golden beets, onions, Yukon gold potatoes, kohlrabi, shaved carrots and ground turkey with olive oil, sea salt and cracked pink peppercorns, added a cup of pumpkin puree and came up with the tastiest meal I've prepared in a long time.
I named it "The Golden Miller Skillet." The sweetness of the beets, the spiciness of the kohlrabi and the starch of the potatoes were a healthy triumvirate, the turkey gave it a taste of meat, and the pumpkin bound the mixture together while adding an earthy flavor.
There is a certain emotional satisfaction involved with farm-to-table, and Miller Farms has found a successful way to give urbanites the opportunity to channel their inner farmer, with golden results.