Cape Abilities: Farming for Flavor and Opportunities

Recently I had the good fortune to visit with a small group of individuals who help run the Non Profit organization called Cape Abilities Farm. It was a pleasure learning about the Farm from people who are so inspirational and committed to its growth and success including Amy Lawler who runs the Farm Stand, Andrew Todoroff who handles business development for the Farm and all its business enterprises, and James Barnes, the Agricultural Farm Manager. These individuals took me on a tour to meet other staff members and to see, taste and smell the beauty they have created with the help of the Cape Cod community. The Executive Director and President of Cape Abilities is Larry Thayer.

Cape Abilities was started by John and Kathy Milligan and five other families over 46 years ago. Today the organization operates a farm with greenhouses and a farm stand where they primarily sell high quality, locally grown produce. They also operate other farming locations in Hyannis and Marston Mills on the Cape and other products sold at their Consignment Shop. Cape Abilities Farm sets a high bar for other farms throughout the Northeast and as a model that can be profitable as well. Further, their cost benefit analysis includes a focus not merely on generating revenue, but on the goal of training and providing paid employment for people with disabilities who work in every aspect of farm management.

Cape Ability’s specialty is hydroponic growth of vegetables or what James Barnes, the Farm Manager, calls a soil-less growing process. I was drawn to their Farm by the quality of their produce and the flavor Mr. Barnes has been able to capture. In fact, their tomatoes are award winning because they are a throwback to earlier days when tomatoes were not devoid of acid or flavor. Today’s beauties are so delicious that I was reminded of my youth in Iowa when corn and tomatoes and sun-made Iced Tea were meals we looked forward to eating.

Currently Cape Abilities grows the following vegetables hydroponically: tomatoes; English cucumbers; Bibb lettuce; Basil; and Sun Gold Cherry Tomatoes. Other vegetables being prepared for hydroponic growing include Arugula, Bell Peppers and herbs. The Farm also produces soil-grown vegetables like potatoes and squash and flowers. These too are especially fresh and delicious. Today among the best restaurants on the Cape who buy produce from Cape Abilities include the Brewster Fish House, Fin, Chatham Bars Inn, the Naked Oyster, Pain D’Avignon and the Red Pheasant.

Flavor is a guiding daily goal for Mr. Barnes that he acquired from his experience at Disney World’s Land Exhibit in Florida which features hydroponic growing systems. He explained that Cape Abilities is able to enhance the flavor of their tomatoes’ growth by controlling the pH measurement of a plant; within a certain range, the lower the pH, the greater the flavor. Soil or field controlled plants are less able to control the pH factor. Further, the more you can control the water, heat, nutrition, humidity and light of the tomatoes, the better the flavor of the plant. Hydroponic growth is ideal when the pH measurement ranges between 5.5 to 5.8 as opposed to 6.5 to 7.0 for field-grown tomatoes. Cape Abilities staff takes daily measurements of the nutrition level which gives them a means to better control the flavor level of the tomatoes. Such fastidious attention to measurement is rare in farming soil-grown crops. And although tedious and time consuming, this step in the hydroponic growing process seems to make a big difference in outcome, especially with the tomatoes.

As we continued talking, It became obvious that Mr. Barnes and his team of farm-trained disabled adults love what they are doing. They are growing food that is not only nutritious but high yielding. Currently Cape Abilities is able to grow twenty pounds of tomatoes per plant. In contrast, field-based plants yield only 5 pounds per plant. The Farm’s goal for their new expansion is to increase the productivity of the plants by 30 % overall. The Farm currently employs 110 disabled adults. An additional 146 disabled individuals are employed in other aspects of the Farm’s entrepreneurial programs.

In closing, it’s worthwhile knowing that this enterprise called Cape Abilities began earning a $20,000 income in 2008. Yet only five years later, their earnings are approximately $400,000 with significant job and product growth being planned. At present they are breaking even, which is a significant accomplishment for a job training program offering paid employment. The challenges facing these efforts are easy to imagine. In addition, the Farm deals with the challenges presented by agriculture.. Because they grow primarily hydroponically, most of the growing challenges are controlled to some extent. The joy of creating opportunities for people who want to contribute to the world they live in and maintain their self- respect is enhanced. As the Farm states on its website: “Farm work has proven satisfying, instructive and therapeutic to Cape Abilities participants who enjoy being productive and making things grow.They are living proof that Cape Abilities Farm grows much more than beautiful annuals, perennials, herbs and vegetables—Cape Abilities Farm grows futures.”

Eating the flavorful food they grow is no less impressive than harvesting. Two recipes that are particularly appealing this time of year are Tomato Salsa and Cranberry Salsa. These dishes are delicious for Thanksgiving and can be eaten at virtually any other time of year as well.
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Recipe #1 Cranberry Salsa

Ingredients
2 bags raw cranberries 2 cups of water 1 ½ - ¾ cup granulated sugar juice of 2 lemons 1 bunch cilantro, finely diced 1 Jalapeno Chile ( remove seeds and pulp first) finely dice 1 medium red onion, finely diced

Directions
Boil 2 bags of cranberries with 1/2 -3/4 cups of sugar 2 cups water, follow directions on the bag. Cool cranberries. After cooling, add diced red onion, jalapeno and cilantro. Add lemon juice. Stir.
Cover and Refrigerate
Yum.
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Recipe #2 Tomato Salsa

Ingredients & Directions
2 15-ounce cans of plum tomatoes, pulse 2-3 times leaving a bit chunky. 1/2 cup diced Vidalia onion 1 diced jalapeño (removing seeds and pith first) 1 bunch cilantro, finely diced juice of 1 lime 2 tablespoons traditional rice wine vinegar (briefly pulse in the blender, leaving chunky) sea salt to taste fresh black pepper to taste 1/2 teaspoon cayenne to taste Mix all ingredients together. Cover and refrigerate. Have plenty of taco chips on hand. Homemade salsa is hard to resist.
 

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