Posts Tagged ‘Tim Rowan’

Fruit of the dragon

Just the name alone conjures up something rare and mysterious — dragon fruit! The fruit itself looks like a large magenta egg with fins. It has a bright, thick, leathery skin that belies the interior. I’ve seen kids reach for it at market, pick it up and look quizzical. Just what is inside? And how does it taste?

The first time I opened up a dragon fruit or pitaya, I thought, “Alien autopsy, here goes!” and sliced. The inside is a solid grayish-white mass flecked with a million tiny black seeds that remind one of kiwi fruit. (There is also a red variety but it is not as common.) The texture is not as slippery or sweet as kiwi, but firm like watermelon, and only mildly sweet. (Some people compare it to eating styrofoam — but since I’m not into chemical cuisine, I wouldn’t know what that tastes like.) I like to eat it plain scooped out with a spoon, but you could peel it, cut it into slices or chunks and add it to a salad. Pitaya sorbet would be refreshing on a hot day. I’ve heard that you can dry the flesh and it tastes like chocolate, but it doesn’t last long enough at my house to test that out.

The fruit grows on what could be a very abstract, elongated dragon. The plant is a long green ribbon-like cactus that loves to climb and climb. If you’re going to grow it, don’t let it climb too far. I’ve seen it race up to the top of a towering royal palm. Good luck harvesting fruit from there without a cherry picker! Commercial growers build pedestal-type trellises for the cactus, and its ribbons wind and drape around themselves, going up so high and no higher. The point of keeping cactus close is to make it easy to pick its fruit. Buds form at the end of its shoots, and those buds open up into the biggest, most outrageous, huge white flowers that bloom for only one night, but smell sweet and attract a frenzy of nocturnal pollinators. Bees go berserk in early morning, just before the blossoms close, loading up on pollen and nectar. Pitaya has been in season all summer long, but is winding down for the winter.

Farmer Tim Rowan grows several dragon fruit plants, and has a bunch of cool pictures of them in all their stages on his blog here.

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Prolific pineapples

Tim Rowan tending to his newest pineapple patch.

Since my last visit, farmer Tim Rowan has added another raised bed of pineapple tops and hapas (pups). Dozens more were potted up and waiting to get planted. His goal is to have over 100 plants in the ground, and maybe, just maybe start selling fruit next year. Right now he’s giving fruit away to family, friends and co-workers. (Sly man, that’s how he gets people hooked!)

Tim gave me some pineapple to try. These were a different variety, smaller and more square-shaped than the 9 pound monster from before. They looked more like what one would find at a grocery, but that’s where the comparison ends. Tim’s pineapples are allowed to ripen naturally and are aromatic, sweet, juicy and bursting with flavor. Nothing like home grown!

Recently Tim’s pineapple plantation was featured in a one-page article in the latest issue of Edible South Florida. You can find the magazine for free at Whole Foods, among other places. Or download a pdf of the article here pineapple (file size 668 kb).

The aroma coming from this box was mouthwatering.

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One year old plants which started from hapas.

Recently, farmer Margie and I were invited over to The Lettuce Farm to pick some pineapples. Really! Farmer Tim Rowan has all kinds of fruit growing during the summer, when it’s too hot for lettuce and cabbage.

Whenever you visit a farm for the first time, the farmer will take you on a tour of all the significant plants and features of his or her place. Tim pointed out Tommy Atkins mango trees loaded with blushing round-shouldered fruit, ribbon-like dragon fruit cactus vines ready to bloom and complete with an abandoned bird’s nest, passion fruit vines thick on a trellis, and quite possibly the area’s largest compost pile running the length of his property. The field where he grows lettuces and cabbages in winter was covered densely with elephant grass as tall as our heads, and home to twittering birds.

Farmer Margie learns the fine art of picking pineapple.

But what drew our attention and curiosity were the large raised beds, loaded with pineapple plants, which ring his modest house. In the west bed, all the plants were two years old, fully grown from green tops cut off pineapples, and they were loaded with fruit. Each plant produces only one fruit, which grows on a stalk at the center of the plant. The fruit were very large, and the ripest ones were peeking out golden through long leaves. In the east bed were plants bearing slightly smaller pineapples, which looked like they would be ready in about a month or so. Those plants were a year old, originally hapas (or slips) that sprouted from the bases of the older plants. Last summer Tim had snapped off hapas and planted them in their own patch. Each mature plant sprouted one or two hapas. Plants grown from hapas bear fruit in one year, but plants grown from tops bear in two.

More hapas potted up. These will be transplanted to a raised bed.

Tim let us pick our own fruit. He pointed out the ripest ones, and told us what to do. Picking a pineapple is fairly simple. Grasp it firmly with both hands, give the fruit a snap to one side and a small twist, and it easily breaks off the stalk. I was once again surprised by how heavy and substantial it was. After picking, Tim aimed a hose at the base of the fruit and washed off a bunch of ants. They are attracted to sugar in the fruit, which start to ripen from the bottom.

Hosing off the ants.

The pineapples we picked were amazingly heavy. Out came the scale to check weight. One was eight and a half pounds and the other was nine. (I haven’t weighed the ones you can get at the store, but they’re about half the size and weight.) Must be the special soil mix and organic fertilizer that Tim feeds his plants! The ripest fruit was ready to eat, and its sweet aroma tantalized us on light breeze, as we chatted on the back patio. Tim’s feisty Chihuahua jumped from his lap onto the table and sniffed at the fruit, which easily dwarfed her. It can truly be said that on that small farm located at the edge of the Everglades, pineapples grow as big as a dog.

Tim’s chihuahua is dwarfed by a giant pineapple.

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Tim’s pineapple patch. Lettuce and cabbage planting area is in the background, now overgrown with weeds.

Tim Rowan is a hard working farmer. In the winter he grows certified organic lettuces and cabbages. And in the summer, when it’s so hot that some farmers take a break, Tim is still growing things. His latest hobby, as he calls it, is raising pineapples. He has a test patch with over 70 pineapple plants in various stages of maturity. (Most started from tops salvaged from his kitchen where he is a chef at Deering Bay Yacht and County Club. He also grew several pineapples at his vegetable garden there.) Some plants on his farm are already bearing fruit. I asked Tim to save me a pineapple, and recently he let me know mine was ready, come and get it.

Tim Rowan photographs the pineapple before it gets picked.

And there it was, in all its glory — a very large pineapple perched on a short stalk sprouting from the center of of a spray of long, narrow, sharp toothed leaves. (If you’ve never seen a pineapple plant, it looks like a bromeliad.) The fruit was fully mature and golden yellow in color. It had a distinctive top — not one leafy crown, but at least six or eight all in a row. It looked like the pineapple was sporting a mohawk. Both Tim and I took pictures from various angles while it was still on the plant. If a pineapple could have charisma, this one did. Check out Tim’s blog post about his adventures growing pineapples.

Pineapple sporting a mohawk top.

Tim had left the fruit growing on the plant so I could pick it myself. “Hold it with both hands, give it a little twist and snap it off,” he said. I did, and it came off easily in my hands. I was impressed by how heavy and substantial it was. Turns out it weighed five pounds.

Several large suckers or shoots were growing from the base of the plant. They looked like overgrown pineapple tops. Tim broke one off carefully, and at its base were strands of white roots, ready to plant. This sucker would grow into a new plant which would bear fruit in one year. Tim removed other suckers and planted them too. “From one plant you can get as many as eight new plants,” he said as he set them into the ground. You can also plant pineapple tops, but it takes two years to flower and another six months for the fruit to mature.

Picking pineapples, location not specified. Florida Photographic Collection.

Pineapples are not unusual for South Florida. Settlers started growing pines, as they were called, in 1860 at Plantation Key. From the late 1880s to the early 1900s, pineapple was a popular crop, and almost everybody had a patch. Plantations stretched from Plantation Key to the south, to Elliott’s Key (as it was spelled then), north to Lemon City settlement, up the coast to Yamato (west of Boca Raton) which was farmed by Japanese, and as far north as Indian River. The fruit was shipped by schooner and then rail to northern cities. Competition from Cuba and Hawaii, diseases, bugs, and freezes eventually wiped out the industry by the time of WWI.

Boxing pineapples for shipping. Florida Photographic Collection.

In more recent times, “A guy tried producing specialty pineapple in the mid-late 1990’s on the S.W. corner of Naranja Road and Quail Roost,” county agriculture manager Charles LaPradd told me in an email. “They were the small super sweet golden ones that sell for a fairly high price, so he thought he could compete against the imported ones. He couldn’t and went out of business.” These days, almost all the pineapple in stores is grown offshore. Costa Rica is the top supplier for pineapples for the United States.

Shipping pineapples by boat. Florida Photographic Collection.

Pineapple may not be grown on a large scale in Redland anymore, but many people grow a few plants in their own gardens. They are easy to grow, like full sun, and because the plant has a shallow root system, doesn’t mind growing in a container.

Besides planting the top, save the peel of a homegrown or organic pineapple and use it to make a pineapple flavored vinegar. Here’s the recipe from Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. Use it to make salad dressing, put it on avocado, stir into salsa, or wherever you need a sweet-sour tang.

Mexican Pineapple Vinegar

1/4 cup sugar
peel of 1 pineapple (organic or home grown)
1 quart (4 cups) water
cheesecloth (or coffee filter)
glass jar

1. In a jar or bowl, dissolve the sugar in 1 quart of water. Coarsely chop and add the pineapple peel. Cover with cheesecloth (or coffee filter) to keep flies out, and leave to ferment at room temperature.

2. When you notice the liquid darkening, after about 1 week, strain out the pineapple peels and discard.

3. Ferment the liquid 2 to 3 weeks more, stirring or agitating periodically, and your pineapple vinegar is ready. Keep in refrigerator.

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Lettuce Farmer Tim Rowan at the Pinecrest Gardens Green Market.

While most of us are still asleep, farmer Tim Rowan gets up on market days in the middle of the night, turns on the floodlight in his 3/4 acre field, and starts harvesting lettuce and cabbage by 4:30 a.m. The greens are only a few hours old by the time market opens. “That to me is creative,” Tim said. “Growing lettuce is creative. Getting it to customers within hours is creative. Anybody can load it in a box and ship it in. What I have growing that day is what I have at market.”

By 8 a.m. on a recent Sunday morning, Tim was set up underneath a large banyan tree at the Pinecrest Gardens Green Market. A poster size copy of his organic certification hung from the tree, and a big green and white Local & Organic sign was at the front of the table. It was heaped with cabbages and lettuces grown at The Lettuce Farm, Tim’s small certified organic farm located deep in Redland.

Last Sunday, a steady stream of customers and friends appeared at Tim’s table, and he greeted each person, remembering quite a few regulars by name. (He has been selling at this particular market since it started in 1996 in front of Gardner’s Market.) He chatted with them about their kids and families as he briskly bagged up their purchases of salad mix, butterhead lettuce, tatsoi, formosa cabbage and bok choy. A man came up asking for arugula. “All sold out,” Tim told him. “Come early for selection, come late for bargains.” The arugula was gone by 10 am, and almost everything else was gone an hour before the market closed.

Farmer Tim getting ready to weed his lettuce field.

Before farming, Tim was a chef at Mark’s Place. “Inspiration struck” when he saw all kinds of tropical fruit that came in to the kitchen from Ellenby Groves. His first taste of acidity of a Green Zebra heirloom tomato from Teena’s Pride made him realize that “this is real, fresh food. Growing heirloom tomatoes is something real,” he said. So he planted a backyard garden in 1990, expanded to growing heirloom tomatoes on a Kendall farm in 1992, and hasn’t stopped farming. “I saw the restaurant business as a dead end, and thought this was a way out,” he said.

But Tim is still a chef, working 50 to 55 hours a week at Deering Bay Yacht and Country Club. And he is still farming on a small scale. He bought his current place about seven years ago, and switched to growing several varieties of lettuces and cabbages that don’t require as much work to spray and fertilize. He plants late to avoid bugs. “Caterpillars are the biggest problem,” he explained. The greens are fairly sturdy and didn’t seem to be harmed too much by the recent cold. “Everything had a white coating of frost. I still don’t understand how this stuff can freeze for 12 hours and survive,” Tim said with amazement.

Farmer Tim and a very large cabbage.

His farm finally got certified by QCS (the Florida organic certifier) in 2003, a fact which Tim is proud of. “I got tired of explaining that I don’t spray. Having the certification makes a big difference,” he said. As an organic grower, Tim doesn’t use fertilizer, and instead relies on lots of compost to build up the marl soil of his farm.

Tim got into farming 15 years ago thinking he would stop being a chef, but he still has one foot in the kitchen. Instead, farming is what gives his life balance, feeds his soul and keeps him strong. “The farming part turns work more into a virtue,” he said at the end of a long day. “I go out in the morning and enjoy every part of it. It makes you feel great. There’s no drug that can give you the buzz like that. Clean living is good for your body, and mentally too. The older I get the easier it is to work. You realize how grateful you are to work and reap the benefits.”

Find The Lettuce Farm at these farmers markets: Pinecrest Gardens on Sunday, Key Biscayne on Saturday and Jackson Memorial on Thursday. His lettuces are also available at Norman Brothers Market in Kendall.

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