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Dinner in the Barn

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    When he went off to college, Gary Romano vowed he would never work on a farm again. As a child he had spent summers on his grandparents’ cattle ranch in Sierra Valley, feeding the pigs, milking the cows and collecting grain. He also worked on his other grandparents’ flower farm in the Bay Area, where he helped grow flowers and cut and bunch them to sell in the San Francisco Flower Market. So when he got a job as the superintendent of Tahoe City Parks and Recreation in 1988, Romano thought he was done with the back-breaking work of farming.

    Romano thought wrong.

    Today, Romano, 50, is the owner of Sierra Valley Farms, which sits on some of his family’s original land in Beckwourth. The farm grows native plants and organic vegetables, and even has its own line of organic cocktail mixers and horseradish condiments. But Romano doesn’t just farm to grow food, he also has a mission – he wants people to know where their food comes from.

    That mission jibes perfectly with the philosophy of Mark Estee, co-owner and executive chef of Moody’s Bistro & Lounge. Estee is committed to cooking seasonally with locally grown food, a philosophy he describes as a 'sustainable-organic-local farmer connection.' Estee and Romano have formed a unique partnership that works to bring local food to diners’ plates and help a small family farm stay alive.

    The Birth of Sierra Valley Farms
    Romano had sworn off farming until he got a call from his uncle in 1990. There were only 65 acres left of his family’s 3,600-acre ranch, which was founded by his grandparents in 1936. Due to a decline in livestock prices and lack of manpower, the ranch had already been out of production for 20 years. All the equipment and the rest of the land had been sold or auctioned off. But Romano couldn’t let his family’s presence in Sierra Valley, where his Italian grandparents had settled in 1908, disappear.

    'There was no way he could let the legacy leave the area,' said Romano’s wife Kim. 'It was all that’s left.'

    So Romano bought the farm and moved in. At first, the farm was simply his new home. He continued to work at Tahoe City Parks & Rec, commuting from Sierra Valley to the North Shore. Through his day job he noticed that there was a big need for native plants. He invested $80,000 in a greenhouse to start a nursery, and Sierra Valley Farms was born.
Romano suddenly found himself, albeit reluctantly, back in the farming business, but only part-time at first. Romano had changed jobs and was working at Tahoe Donner Parks & Recreation, lessening his commute. But it wasn’t until 1997, when organic produce started to become popular, that Romano dedicated himself full-time to farming. He quit his job and started growing vegetables, learning what could grow, and what couldn’t, in the soil made fertile by 50 years of animal manure mixing with the earth.

    Romano and Kim also made a concerted effort to save and refurbish all the old buildings left on the ranch. They preserved the bunkhouse where the milkers used to stay, an outhouse complete with a double seater (now the well house) and the former chicken coup. The couple and their 9-year old son Joey live in the original house, a white clapboard home with green-trimmed windows surrounded by a porch and lilac bushes.

    The Romanos also converted a few of the buildings for use in their Farmers Market, which is held every Friday in the summer from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The old granary, a false-front wooden building decorated with rusty tools, is stocked with a red cooler and now functions as the produce stand. According to Romano, his market is the only on-farm Farmers Market in all of California. There are 14 vendors, some from as far away as Bodega Bay, who sell organic pork, lamb, fish, fruit and honey. Guest chefs from area restaurants, including Moody’s, Dragonfly and Cottonwood, put on free cooking demonstrations from 12 to 1 p.m. The produce stand is open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

    The farm’s 1930s-era buildings are set against a bucolic backdrop of tidy rows of vegetables, the wide, open expanse of the 220-square mile Sierra Valley and its freshwater marshes, sagebrush and grazing cows, all surrounded by mountains.

    Farming
    Romano, Kim and Joey, helped out by two part-time interns and volunteers, run the entire farm operation, which was certified organic in 1997. They rotate six acres of produce every 10 days from May to mid-October, using only green manure for fertilizer. In the summer, the farm grows salad micro-mixes, garlic, baby spinach, arugula, carrots, beets, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, Swiss chard and, starting this year, alpine strawberries and asparagus. Fall vegetables include wasabi, horseradish and herbs. The one part of the farm that is not organic is the two acres of native plants, including an aspen orchard.

    'We have to use some fertilizer because of the short growing season,' Romano said.

    Most of the micro-greens are grown in the greenhouse, which is powered by solar panels and a geo-exchange system that circulates hot water under the beds of micro-greens. By heating only the beds instead of the entire greenhouse, Romano saves 40 percent in energy costs.

    Romano encourages people to visit the farm and participate in operations such as planting, harvesting and nursery plantings. He also brings schools to the farm so children can see firsthand where their food originates from, which contrary to common belief is not the grocery store or McDonald’s.

    'We are trying to educate kids about field to fork awareness,' he said.

    Partnership with Moody’s
    It’s not hard to see why Estee found a brother-in-arms in Romano. The Moody’s chef is so dedicated to cooking with seasonal, local food that he says he now spends the majority of his time working to establish connections with local farmers.

    'It takes a lot of my day, but that’s what I do,' Estee said. 'It’s the most important thing I do, and I’m committed to it.'
Moody’s menu changes daily, a flexibility that is necessary in order to adapt to what the farmer brings in on a given day.
'We are the only restaurant that takes whatever Gary has,' Estee said. 'You can’t have a set menu if you are not living the true sustainable, organic, local living.'

    That means if Romano has an over-supply of radishes one day, Estee has to come up with a radish dish. On the flip side, however, Romano works to raise vegetables that he knows Estee likes to serve but can’t get all the time, such as baby celery, baby spinach and specialty mustards.

    Estee believes so firmly in Romano’s farm and his vision that he is helping him raise money. This summer, Moody’s and Sierra Valley Farms are holding a 'Dinner in the Barn' series at the farm. The dinners are catered by Moody’s and use whatever fresh vegetables are available that day from the farm as part of the menu. Diners are seated in a rustic former hay and calving barn built in 1936. Prior to the dinner, guests can take a tour of the farm led by Romano.

    After Moody’s recoups costs, all proceeds from the dinners go to Romano.

    'We are gifting the money to Gary,' Estee said.

    Estee is not just doing it out of the kindness of his heart. He is hoping to get something in return – vegetables year-round. The money will help Romano build hoop houses, or affordable greenhouses, that can extend the growing season by a couple of months. The money also goes to general improvements around the farm and offsets fuel prices. That way, Romano doesn’t have to raise the price of his produce.

    To both men, their relationship and the dinners are a win-win situation.

    'It does so many things for so many people,' said Estee about the dinners. 'It’s a conversation piece, it raises money for Gary so he can make improvements to the farm, it brings exposure to Moody’s, and it reminds people of the farm-to-fork and how beautiful Sierra Valley is.'

    The remaining Dinners in the Barn are on July 13 and Sept. 21, but Estee will add more if they sell out. Contact Moody’s for more information at 530-587-8688. The cost is $70 per person, plus tax and tip. For more information about Sierra Valley Farms, go to sierravalleyfarms.com.

 
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February 14, 2019