Ted Dobson of Equinox Farms: Growing for Flavor

We’ve been buying mesclun greens from Ted Dobson since 1995.

Ted’s approach to farming all starts with soil.  In the same way that a stock becomes the foundation upon which the rest of a sauce is built, Ted knows that without good soil, there’s no way you can grow great-tasting greens.  The way commercial farms tend to treat soil is akin to asking the human body to subsist only on vitamins: sure, it’s formulated to have the nutrients we need.  But is there any way it can thrive?  Check out Ted and Specialty Food Boston’s Jim Wilker in this video, where the two old hands talk about what it takes to grow and deliver a great product, vs what we get with commercial products.  This would be a great little video to show your front of house staff if you find yourself trying to explain why you go to the extra trouble to source great stuff–and why they should care.

We had a more in-depth, off-camera interview with Ted about farming.  Check out the rest of our conversation below.

SFB:  Ted, how did you come to grow mesclun mix?

Ted:  In the late 80’s, the term “mesclun” was not widely known, there were no “mesclun mixes” in the supermarket, and it was associated with high prices. It was more of a rarified product, the idea of which was brought over from Provence. I introduced chefs in New York to my mesclun mix back in the late 80’s.  I was selling 1# bags of true mesclun mix for like $24/#.  It had over 20 different varieties of greens, flowers, whatever–I was putting in things like rouge d’hiver, lola rossa, perilla, plus leaves from some of my asian greens like tatsoi and mizuna.  In order to create the living edible mulch that these plants would grow in, I would plant things like clover, burnett and dandelion–much of which ended up in the mesclun mix.

My other business was baby head lettuces, which required sowing and transplanting.  I had a year where I fell behind and missed the sowing cycle.  I knew if we dug up the heads we had growing in the ground, I’d have nothing to replace them, because I had fallen behind–so I instructed my crew to just cut the leaves, and cut them small–so that we could preserve the head and they’d grow back.  We took this mix of leaves, washed and dried it, and called our regular baby head lettuce customers to give them a heads up that they’d be getting a different product.

They loved it–went crazy for it–here was an already washed salad mix, made of beautiful, small baby leaves, with a whole mix of flavors and textures–a more affordable, straightforward version of mesclun, if you will–and that changed the course of things forever.  The demand grew, but we didn’t see commercial “spring mix” really until ‘93 or ‘94.  Then you start to see it go downhill–farmers figuring out how to do massive amounts, cheaply, containing far fewer varieties, sacrificing balance of flavors, packing it tighter, shipping it farther–to say nothing of how commercial farming approaches soil, the living medium in which these things grow.

It’s not that we don’t know how to be sustainable, it’s that we’ve forgotten.

SFB: What’s the significance of soil in the farming that you do?

Ted:  To say soil is the most important ingredient in growing vegetables would not be an overstatement.  Any farmer considers the nutrient content of the soil, that’s a basic given in order to grow food.  But what commercial farming often doesn’t look at are the trillions of other microorganisms that are in healthy soil.  It’s like the difference between eating food and being hooked up to an IV.  And we wonder why we’re sick in this country.

SFB:  What changes do you hope to see for the future?

Ted: What blows my mind is that until the 1860’s, New England was 100% self-sufficient when it came to farming.   Then, when we started feeding cities, we started to see a shift towards single-crop farming.  It used to be that every farm farmed multiple things.  Now our food system, it’s been ripped apart.  Now we grow maybe 5% of what we use here in New England.  It’s not that we don’t know how to be sustainable, it’s that we’ve forgotten.

My hope for the future is that we move away from petrochemically-based farming practices and big-tool agriculture, which violently chops up huge amounts of soil, releasing enormous carbon reserves from the soil.  We want to keep those carbon reserves in the soil, which is why I believe in low-till farming.  You just turn the soil gently, as much as is needed, and always make sure that something is growing in it that’s replenishing the soil.  Consider this–on my twelve acres, a quarter of an acre at a time, over a ton of greens a week.  This end up being, over the course of six months, roughly half a million salads.  From a twelve-acre farm!  New England could be self-sufficient, grow healthy and nutritious food, have cause to revive agriculture education in schools, creating jobs locally, and grow enough food to feed everyone.

SFB:  What do you think of the farm-to-table movement?

Ted:  Honestly, I’d like to think I had something to do with coining that term.  No, really–back then, you didn’t want to say “organic.”  Organic isn’t what it is now–back then, people heard the term “organic” and automatically thought of a limp, dirty carrot, trucked in from Vermont a week ago, languishing on a shelf in a dusty co-op that cost twice as much as a “regular” carrot.  The term was associated with Primitivism in people’s minds.  For that reasons (and this was long before there was a legal definition of “organic”), I never choose to use those words to describe my product.  I described it as “farm fresh” and told people that it was going right from my farm to your table.  I’d like to think I helped coin that term!


By Diego Maldonado