It’s not summer, and there’s frost on the ground. But earlier this month kids picked green tomatoes and learned to marinate and grill them for a fresh take on caprese toast, farm-to-table style.
How was that even possible this far into fall?
“I wish I’d done a class like this when I was young, instead of making microwave chocolate cake in Home Economics,” said Ian McGregor, president of the board of Slow Food in the Tetons.
It’s a message he and Slow Food in the Tetons want to be heard. Yes, we can grow food in Wyoming. And we can do it year-round.
Children gathered around farmer Alex Feher as he explained the best way to plant tomato seeds. The air outside was brisk, but the greenhouse was warm. Cheeks were flushed.
A combination of natural sunlight and space heaters, along with two layers of plastic insulation, keeps the greenhouse toasty, especially earlier in the year on sunny summer days.
“Can I have the biggest one?” Marebelle Armstrong, 10, asked eagerly, pointing to the tomatoes still on the vine.
The kids were part of the Colter Discovery Club’s Jackson Hole foodshed class. Along with a farm-to-table cooking class it is part of Slow Food in the Teton’s Youth Culinary Project. The project emphasizes how food moves through the community before it’s eaten and aims to teach children about locally and regionally produced food, empower them with basic healthy cooking skills and teach them about producing food by letting them see it done.
“It’s a cool way to connect kids with nature,” said Scott Steen, director of operations for Slow Food.
He and McGregor tag-team the teaching. And the kids are learning.
“They’re seeing that you can still grow greens here,” said Jayme Gunnell, a session supervisor for Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation. “Now they know that food doesn’t grow in a grocery store.”
The after-school program is out at Huidekoper Ranch, right outside Wilson. The greenhouse the children visited to learn farming tips from Feher is relatively new to the valley. Brent Tyc always loved farming, but until recently it was just a hobby. His wife and brother-in-law inherited Huidekoper Ranch, and he decided to give the greenhouse a try.
“I’ve always been into food — eating it, cooking it, growing it, you name it,” Tyc said. “It’s super cool to make a business out of it. There’s a lot of meaning in providing food for other people.”
Tyc explained in detail how the greenhouse is kept habitable for plants to grow even with temperatures dipping below freezing.
“Inside it’s 10 to 15 degrees warmer at night,” Tyc said. “If the sun comes out it could get 30 to 50 degrees warmer than outside. It was 90 degrees in here during the day sometimes.”
Tyc sells fresh produce wholesale to Aspens Market and Pearl Street Market, as well as to Snake River Grill and other restaurants. The produce is chemical-free, and Tyc follows organic techniques.
Beet and chard greens are the most popular, but the greenhouse also contained spinach, arugula, a mesclun mix, mustard greens and tomatoes left from the summer. Tyc has also experimented with raspberries, strawberries and an apple orchard.
“On the Fourth of July we had bowls and bowls of berries every day,” he said. “There used to be tomatoes up to the ceiling. It proves to the community that you can grow here. We’re nowhere near capacity.”
With a greenhouse, Tyc said, the growing season in the valley could be six months — March 1 to Halloween.
“It’s challenging to grow squash, for example,” Tyc said. “But salad greens and kale are hardy. It’s doable. Kale loves the cold, and it even tastes better after being cold.”
Tyc, Feher and Steen believe children need to know where food comes from.
“This program is giving kids an idea of the back end of a farm, a grocery store, a restaurant and a ranch,” Steen said. “Those are really valuable behind the scenes experiences.”
Previous field trips for the Colter Discovery Club students included spending time at the Lockhart Ranch to learn about cattle, smashing apples for cold-press cider and even getting a look at how Whole Grocer makes its sausages. The kids had a field day seeing how meat is wrapped with intestines.
Once the tomatoes were picked at Huidekoper Ranch the kids meandered up to the farmhouse porch to learn some cooking techniques.
McGregor taught the key ingredients for making a good marinade for the tomatoes: olive oil, balsamic vinegar and lots of spices. The students lined up eagerly to watch as Feher expertly grilled the green tomatoes.
You’d never know that, thanks to a traumatic accident, Feher couldn’t smell — or taste — the tomato dish he was whipping up. He said that he’s just taking everything one day at a time and that the accident has put life, and what’s important, into perspective.
Opportunities like this — working with his hands, working in the dirt, working with kids — keep him going.
“I liked picking tomatoes,” said Grainger Harris, 10. “I like to try everything.”
Harris pointed at a particular tomato on the grill.
“I know which one I cut off the vine,” he said.
McGregor sees teaching the presentation of food as an important part.
“They say you eat with your eyes,” he said, showing the kids how to drizzle the marinade on their crispy bread, then layer the mozzarella, green tomato and finally some microgreens on top.
Skylar Sproule, 9, wasn’t sure she’d like the green veggies. Maybe it was the presentation, or maybe how fresh the produce was, but she changed her mind.
“I want seconds!” she exclaimed.
McGregor thinks the hands-on nature helps children learn while they eat.
“They really seem to like ripping out the veggies,” he said. “They also really enjoyed smashing apples with a two-by-four.
“Overall, I think kids like to see what’s going on to get them caring early,” he said. “It’s a seed project for us, and most people approve that we aren’t sugarcoating it. This is how sausage is made, this is where tomatoes come from. It’s dirty.”