Down at Dave's: Drink the water, eat the eggs

When I first opened a carton of Best of What's Around eggs, sold at stores like Foods of All Nations and Rebecca's, I smiled. There perched a dozen of the freshest, funniest looking eggs I'd ever seen in a package, each a different color (white, speckled brown, pink), size, and shape from the next.

Finally. Eggs that actually look (not to mention taste) like they came straight from the proverbial chicken, with shells so thick they take a hard tap or two to crack, and yolks as deep orange as a carrot.

My farm-fresh smile intensified when I spotted (and smelled) the baskets of tomatoes at the recently opened Maple Hill Farm Shop.

 Here's a little history. When, back in 2001, Dave Matthews and his wife Ashley Harper heard that 1,260 acres of fertile UVA-owned farmland in Scottsville were about to be divided and sold for non-agricultural use, they saved the day by purchasing the entire lot– land, barns, farmhouse, silos, cattle feeder terminals, and all.

In addition to protecting the land, the Matthews' principal goal was converting land previously farmed conventionally (cattle, corn, chemicals) into an organic, multi-use farm. Not a small task, given the vastness of the property and the fact that it takes three years before any conventionally farmed can earn the coveted organic certification.

When April and Kevin Fletcher boldly agreed to take on the job of farm managers (April also happens to be the Matthews family attorney, and both are on the Slow Food Virginia board), the project was launched.

First to win organic designation were eggs and hens (the freest-ranging you'll ever seeĀ­ their coop actually follows them around the green pastures!). This past spring, the farm began selling fruits and vegetables grown on both certified organic and "transitional" land (i.e. farmed organically now, but still shaking off its conventional past) to members of its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

CSA members "invest" in the farm at seed-time and, in exchange, receive a weekly basket of fresh veggies and herbs throughout the growing season.

In late July, the Farm Shop, located in a big barn across from the growing fields, made all this bounty available to the general fresh-produce-loving public. Located just 2.5 miles north of Scottsville on Route 20, it is open six days a week.

On a recent visit, 30 or so baskets and coolers filled with a variety of seasonal produce awaited delivery to individuals, restaurants (including four bags of basil for Christian's Pizza) and markets already participating in this single, shared vision of organic, sustainable, community-friendly agriculture.

Organic crops, assisted by the green thumb of head gardener Eliza Evans, will eventually fill 60 acres, with blueberries and hard-cider-producing apples on the near horizon. A greenhouse may make fresh herbs, cherry tomatoes, and other goodies available as early as this coming winter.

Tomato varieties like zebra (green, striped), tangerine (plump orange), and lemon (yellow, actually lemon-shaped!) were available in August, together with overflowing baskets of sweet and hot peppers and buckets of fresh basil.

There will be turkeys in time for Thanksgiving, and 2005 will inaugurate Maple Hill's goat cheese production operation under the direction of Gail Hobbs Page, well known as the chef at the recently retired Mark Addy Inn. Hobbs Page is also dreaming up ways to preserve some of the natural wonders of the farm for year-round enjoyment– jams, preserves, sauces.

So it looks like we can all expect more of the "best of what's around'" in the months and years ahead.

Head gardener Eliza Evans (center) at the Maple Hill Farm Shop offers Dave's delectables under the "Best of What's Around" label.