Lawson Calhoun's son, Clay Calhoun, had left home for college just at the time the cattle and so much of the land had been sold. He spent time in his early twenties working on an organic farm in California that, among other things, supplied produce to Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Alice Waters, chef/founder of Chez Panisse, was passionate about finding and using only the freshest, most carefully grown and handled local produce, and her focus on farm fresh food was receiving national attention. It seemed to Clay that providing top quality produce for Atlanta restaurants might provide a viable future for Ashland Farm.
In 1984 he moved back to the farm. At that time in Atlanta, restaurants were not used to the idea of buying directly from local farmers. Not unlike his father, he had to figure everything out from scratch. The climate, the growing conditions, the still traditional Atlanta restaurant market and the lack of support systems all presented new challenges.
He experimented widely with many varieties of tomatoes, potatoes, lettuces, melons, peppers, squashes, corn, berries, wild foods, etc., looking for what grew well in this area, which varieties had the best flavors, and what the chefs wanted.
(All crops are weather dependent, but melons can break your heart. To get the full, subtle, sweetness and flavor of a melon it has to ripen on the vine. If it's dry in the last stages of ripening a melon can become superb, but rain can cause it to swell and split. Rain at just the wrong time can ruin almost an entire field of melons.)
In 1985 Guenter Seeger, Atlanta's first Michelin rated chef, came to the Ritz Carlton looking for sources of food with the kind of quality and freshness Clay wanted to offer. When one of his purveyors brought Guenter to the farm the excitement was mutual. At the time we were selling through a wholesaler, but Guenter wanted what we had the day we harvested it. At his request in 1987 we bought a small refrigerated truck and began delivering directly to Atlanta restaurants.
|Rows of staked tomatoes||Moving irrigation pipe||Harvesting "teardrops"|
Originally, the crop our first chef customer, Guenter Seeger, was most interested in was lettuce. Over the years lettuce became our main crop.
|Mixed lettuces boxed and ready||The Lettuce Field|
Then, in the late 1990's, again at a chef's request, we began experimenting with "microgreens" in our greenhouse. Our green house manager at the time, Sandy Copeland, took on the job of researching what the Chef's wanted, and how to grow them.
Microgreens were dramatically different from field grown produce in almost every imaginable way, but they were intriguing, immediately popular, and they spent their entire short life inside the greenhouse. It was a relief to have something we grew protected from instant death by weather. Within five years, to our complete amazement, these microgreens became our most successful product.
PLANNING for the FUTURE: By 2001 we had been growing for Atlanta restaurants for more than fifteen years. Our name was on the menues of some of the best restaurants in Atlanta and, as a business, Ashland Farm was established and successful. But Clay had not come back from California to create a business; he had come back to take care of the farm and to preserve it for the future. Realistically, we knew a ten acre field and a greenhouse could not be expected to support and protect the entire four hundred and thirty acres of Ashland Farm in perpetuity. We knew we would need to involve both more of the farm and more people in the farm in order to preserve the farm.
-See "A Place for Horses"